Historian Earl Lewis Envisions a World of Justice and Grace

Earl Lewis is a scholar, teacher, and humanist concerned with building communities, and a larger world, that operate on robust grace. He previously led a philanthropic organization whose approaches to education, research, and justice aimed to alter the systems that compound human suffering through compassionate care for individuals and communities; promoting research that combines scientific and humanities approaches because to separate advanced research into disconnected silos is an untenable way to make positive, lasting social change; and seeing human beings as assets worthy of investment, forgiveness, and love.

At the recent commencement exercises for Bowdoin College, where I teach, Lewis distilled that call into a baccalaureate address about grace. He told a story about his undergraduate alma mater, in which a student’s nasty, racist screed (which years earlier someone else had recorded and posted to social media) came back to haunt her even after she apologized and repented. Someone else, who was angry at a different person in the video, reposted the document and a newspaper ran the story. No matter what the original student did, she could not escape this terrible stain.

“Is it possible,” Lewis asked, “for a community to gracefully forgive a member who made a mistake, apologized and seemingly has made amends? Is it reasonable to expect humans to err, repent, learn and move on?”

For Lewis, answers lie in taking responsibility, developing multifaceted approaches to problem-solving, exercising patience — especially when people backslide — and caring for others. He told graduates to “leave this place with hope and drive, determination and humility, purpose and playfulness, and a commitment to bringing grace to whatever community you enter next. Remember, building and sustaining a grace-filled world should become your legacy.”

Lewis emphasizes how all people, even those that society deems unworthy, are valuable.

He is a leading scholar of contemporary African American and urban history, and his current research delves into the thorny subject of African Americans’ mental health. After 20 years of administrative leadership in higher education, and as president-emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Lewis returned to the University of Michigan, where he teaches and leads the Center for Social Solutions.

Lewis’ business card lists the Center’s priorities as “diversity,” “slavery,” “water,” and “work.” American issues of poverty, environmental calamity, changes in the nature and dignity of work in the US, and domestic racism animate the incredible breadth Lewis brings to social issues. But Lewis’ vision of just communities built upon grace goes beyond America’s borders. His approach to social justice operates simultaneously at the individual, community, national, and global levels.

He recently explained to The North Star how the Center advances this agenda. “When people see water they say, ‘Oh, you’re going to tackle problems in Flint, Michigan,’” Lewis said. “And I say, yes, and we are going to go broader than that, too.” When explaining the Center’s concentration on water as a pressing human need, Lewis asked, “How do you move water from flood-prone areas to areas afflicted by drought and famine?” Lewis insists answers that isolate scientific solutions from the humanities are untenable. Rather, he wants to change the paradigms we use for education and problem-solving. STEM education, an approach to skill development that places the most emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is dead.

“What we need, given the world we are about to enter, is a revolutionary approach to interdisciplinary thinking and problem solving, one that integrates the humanities, engineering, arts, technology, and sciences, or HEATS,” he said.

The Center for Social Solutions will utilize a HEATS approach because technology will soon displace millions of laborers. “What are they going to do,” Lewis pondered, “not just as workers, but as human beings? We need solutions that go beyond calls for a UBI, or universal basic income. We need solutions that address the psycho-social issues of what humanity does when its labor becomes unnecessary.” A panoramic view of San Francisco’s homeless population in close proximity to tech workers in line for a latte being made and served by a robot snapped this into focus for Lewis. “This human discard is going to multiply around the world on a massive scale,” he said. “This is going to be an actual walking dead, not what we saw in the TV show. How do you deal with it now? How do we plan, now, to deal with it before it comes later?”

Lewis always ponders human predicaments with the past, present, and future in mind. One of the most intractable problems to ever beset humankind is slavery, but slavery is not dead and buried in the past. “How, after centuries of slavery, and its abolition,” Lewis questioned, “do we still have millions of people enslaved in countries around the globe?” Modern-day slavery spans issues of sex trafficking, kidnapping, child brides, and undocumented workers in hotels, restaurants, and resorts. Solutions need to involve the work of historians and economists, marketing professionals, government officials, human rights activists, and corporations. “A major global hotel corporation has taken a stand by opposing human trafficking,” Lewis said, “but it also fights vigorously against the unionization of its workers. What do you do with those types of contradictions?”

Solutions must come from people who value empathy and compassion to build communities of grace. If we are lucky, Earl Lewis will help spread this legacy around the world.

About the Author

Brian Purnell is the Geoffrey Canada associate professor of Africana studies and history, and director of the Africana Studies program at Bowdoin College.