In this post OHMA student Alissa Funderburk (2017-2018) introduces Future Voices Fellow, Lynn Lewis. Alissa recently sat down for a one-on-one interview at Lynn’s home. Below she uses Lynn’s life story and inspirations to understand her work and academic interests.
In celebration of our tenth cohort, OHMA, the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia Center for Oral History Research and INCITE combined forces to offer two $10,000 Future Voices Fellowships to admitted students in the 2017-2018 academic year. These fellowships were awarded to a pair of incoming students who displayed exceptional potential to contribute to the development of the field of oral history, each a promising individual whose proposed work contributes to CCOHR's research mission of documenting the central issues and conflicts of our times.
The students chosen for this fellowship differ from one another in many ways but have in common an inspiring passion for the well-being of others and a particular care for the homeless. As one of the Future Voices Fellows, Lynn Lewis offers a tremendous insight into the struggle of New York City’s homeless community. As the founding Executive Director and former civil rights organizer of Picture the Homeless, she dedicated 17 years to helping develop Picture the Homeless’ organizing methodology. Through that process, she has contributed greatly to the success of one of the only grassroots organizations led by the homeless in the United States. She has played a role in shifting the dialogues within social movements to end police brutality and for housing rights. Lynn recognizes homelessness as a racial and economic justice issue and a product of social inequality that is just “one end of the spectrum of the housing crisis.”
Her passion for these types of injustices has been a common theme throughout her life, leading her to work in the social justice movement for 35 years in organizations and initiatives led by poor people in New York City and Jacksonville, Florida, as well as revolutionary Nicaragua and Venezuela. As a child during the civil rights movement, Lynn witnessed the integration of her elementary school, busing and racial and class discrimination faced by young students, and the subsequent “white flight” from Baltimore. Raised in her grandparents’ household, Lynn straddled their two differing world views, one preferring not to “rock the boat” and the other a “hillbilly anarchist.” She explained that her grandfather “was very anti-government, he was anti-war, he was anti-racist, and he had only gone to the third grade.” After a day at school Lynn went home where the narrative was “oh don’t worry about these people, they’re crazy,” but then returned to school to deal with those “crazy” people everyday.
Partially for this reason, Lynn’s childhood left her often questioning the assertion that people should “know their place,” especially after moving from her birthplace of Baltimore, Maryland to an island in the Chesapeake Bay. “For me as a little white girl it was a very safe place until as a teenager you begin to question things and then it’s not safe.” She explains that “anybody who didn’t conform to their very narrow track that you’re supposed to be on in a place like that” is quickly ostracized. Lynn felt a “tremendous pressure to conform,” being in such a small community where “you're under a microscope.” Having rebelled against those pressures, Lynn eventually grew up to be deeply involved in social and political issues as a community organizer.
Never one to stick to the “script” she was expected to follow, Lynn has always been the type of person to speak up. Whether that meant leaving behind a philosophy major and full scholarship at Washington College to hitchhike across the country, fighting against poor housing conditions on the Lower East Side, or taking part in agrarian reform in South America, Lynn used her autonomy to make a stand.
Currently, Lynn acts as a founding Steering Committee member of Communities United for Police Reform in New York City. Lynn also serves as a founding board member of the E Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust as well as a board member of the Cooper Square Community Land Trust. Her work has been foundational in catalyzing the growing Community Land Trust movement in New York City as well as pushing for government investment in this model. According to Lynn, it is not only important to dismantle unjust systems but also construct alternative models.
Lynn is hoping that, as an Oral History student, she will learn how to collaboratively document the histories of poor people’s movements. She hopes to record the feelings and ideas of the people throughout New York City who have lost their homes, suffered from police brutality, been abused by society based on the pretext of stigma. Lynn has always seen “homelessness just as an extreme result of this inhumane system” and she believes we all can learn, from the stories of the homeless, ways to better organize and make lasting change.
Alissa Funderburk is a part-time Oral History MA student at Columbia University currently serving as one of OHMA’s communications fellows. A Columbia College graduate (2012) and New Yorker, Alissa has worked at York Preparatory School for the last four years.