Jeffrey Lewis

Jeffrey Lewis has worked in schools to create supportive peer group relationships and get children engaged with school in a productive way. 

Jeffrey Lewis, an outreach specialist for under-served communities at the University of Wisconsin Extension, will retire Nov. 3, after being recognized next week as a “distinguished prefix,” a title reserved for a small number of high-level academic staff “whose superlative accomplishments are evidenced by widespread peer recognition.”

One former co-worker described his gentle leadership and vision as Gandhi-like, which embarrassed Lewis, but made him laugh.

Lewis recently incorporated his statewide Natural Circles of Support, a program designed to create a school climate and culture where students who are often marginalized feel engaged and supported. It is currently in 20 Wisconsin schools, including Madison’s Thoreau and Hawthorne elementary schools.

The idea, Lewis said, is to build mutual support among the students, to help draw out of them — “always drawing out of them” — their own aspirations and desires to be successful. This is done by creating supportive peer group relationships around those aspirations and getting students engaged with school in a productive way. The program also aims to get children with behavioral issues better connected to their classroom teachers.

Lewis is continuing Natural Circles of Support as a non-profit after retiring from UW, and is looking for institutional support.

Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, Lewis, 61, grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. He got his undergraduate degree at Drury College in Springfield, Missouri, and did two years of theological studies in Boston and Berkeley. His doctorate came from the University of California-Davis.

He came to Madison in 2000 to work at UW-Madison as an assistant professor of human development and family studies. He joined UW Extension in 2007.

Lewis lives on the North Side, is separated from his wife, and has three adult children.

You’ve seen some really positive results with Natural Circles of Support. Can you give me some examples?

The one that comes to mind is our work at Dr. Jones Elementary School in Racine. They had a situation where a school that had a significant demographic change due to redistricting — they were suddenly getting a lot of African-American students from really the poorest neighborhoods, the most socially and economically disturbed neighborhoods in Racine. They had a predominately white staff that had no background or preparation or experience in doing this. So, it was a school that was in tremendous distress. It had high levels of behavior problems, very, very sort of toxic in terms of people’s low morale and anger and frustration and so forth. We began working with that school and about 18 months later, they were considered a model for turning it around.

I know you’ve also seen success in Madison at Thoreau Elementary.

They had a similar situation with a new demographic and they had a long history of very poor outcomes for African-American students. We began working with them five years ago. And within the second or third year ... they had a dramatic drop in behavior referrals for African-American boys. It went from over seven per boy each year to less than one-half per boy.

And the boys at the school feel a greater sense of belonging.

Something like 92 percent of the African-American boys feel that this is their school, which is by far the highest in the district as far as I know. And for three years running, African-American students as a whole have rated Thoreau as their school at a higher rate than any other school in Madison.

When last we talked, you said the data from the 2013 “Race to Equity” report that shocked Madison progressives was something you’ve been aware of and talking about for a long time.

It’s been reported for a long time here and there. I think it speaks to the degree of social segregation and isolation that exists in this city. That Madison progressives and liberals don’t have meaningful relationships with people in poverty or people of color. If they did, they would know. They would be hearing about it all the time from people who are living it who are so segregated socially, that’s both racially and socio-economically.

Do you have any theories on why some of the disparities are so much greater here?

The biggest disparity has been in incarceration. Dane County was the worst in the nation ... but the rate of drug use is the same. The difference is, when you look at the data, we just don’t prosecute people who are white and affluent for drug offenses. Either we don’t go after them or prosecute them. We treat it in a different way than we treat other people. ... The lack of really addressing the social conditions and the economic conditions of people of color in this city is just appalling to me. In a city with the amount of resources that we have where we can find the tax support to put up condos and apartments that are just outrageously priced, where the low-end apartments, not necessarily in good shape, are out of the reach of regular people. And yet there’s no effort to address the low wages in this city even though the money is here to do it, at least I think anyway.

These are big, vexing problems.

It’s structural. It’s institutional and we’re not talking about how do we change from those structures and institutions to make a difference. And we certainly don’t talk about how do we bring the people who are most impacted by these issues. They’re out there doing the work at the grassroots level, but they don’t get the resources, particularly women. They’re not invited to the table and empowered to help come up with solutions and given the direct resources to use in ways that they know will make a difference. ... It’s a very paternalistic community. And I think it’s one that is largely in denial.

Do you like living in Madison? I know you’ve lived in a lot of other progressive cities.

I’m ambivalent. I like the people I know and I live near in my neighborhood, but all things being equal, it would not be the first place I would be. I would leave, frankly, if there weren’t reasons to be here. Now I have commitments. I can’t just leave my schools and the commitments that I’ve made around the state. But when I go to Racine I can breathe more deeply than I do in Madison because whatever their challenges there, at least there’s a degree of honesty about it. People in Madison are in such denial. I’m tired of people being surprised by the data. People were telling me this when I came in 2000. So it’s not new. This has always been true. I don’t want to speak too broadly. There are good people here trying to do good work, but there’s a culture of self-referential naval gazing that’s infuriating.

You have a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. in your office and a quote by Abraham Lincoln on your office door. Tell me about the people who have influenced you.

One would be King, certainly ... His coming to the need for structural change and the connections between oppression and violence and not isolating them ... I just listen to his stuff from ‘67 and ‘68, the speeches, over and over again because it made so much sense to me. James Baldwin, because of his depth of understanding of the complexity and the psychology of racism in the United States, for black people and for white people. I just love his stuff for that reason. Not reducing things to simple formulas, but entering into that complexity and still being able to name it and describe it. That’s the way you work through it, through the complexity, not by oversimplifying it. ... for the last 20 years, the work of Wendell Berry has been incredibly useful to me. That’s really where I began to understand and think about the life of rural people and prejudice.

Lastly, what is your favorite thing to do when you’re not working?

Right now, the thing that is most nourishing for me is gardening. My working in the yard or in the garden.

— Interview by Samara Kalk Derby


Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.