2008 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: sociology and political science
Age: 35 | Boston, Massachusetts
Marc Elliot Lewis is passionate about challenging his students to be good citizens and to question the way the world works, without judgment of others.
An openly gay public middle school teacher in the Boston area, Lewis is no stranger to initiating conversations that change peoples lives and challenge their assumptions. As the former president of the Boston chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), he has counseled many educators who have faced the challenges of being out in their classrooms and school communities.
Armed with a masters degree and teaching certificate from Harvard, Lewis leads a class for teachers on multicultural education and has coordinated retreats for GLBT educators to learn the skills and gain the confidence to return to their schools as much-needed role models for their students. He provides training for staff and students in school districts throughout Massachusetts on GLBT and other diversity issues, and is heartened by the progress hes seeing.
During his first year at UW-Madison, Lewis attended a student leadership dinner at the home of then-Chancellor Donna Shalala. She spoke about the vital role of the university and its young leaders in addressing social inequities and she included GLBT equality as part of the struggle. It was the first time that Lewis, who grew up in a conservative community, had heard a leader affirm his identity. He remembers the night as one of the most important in his life.
He drew on this powerful leadership lesson when he was invited to speak at his commencement three years later. "We do not reach our potential as individuals, or as a people, until we have rooted out all vestiges of intolerance, prejudice and hatred," he told his classmates. "It is this education with a conscience that is Wisconsin's gift to the world."
In his own words
During the spring of 1991, my freshman year in college, I had my first opportunity to attend a student leadership dinner at Olin House. Members of the newly selected Homecoming Committee had been invited by Chancellor Donna Shalala to join her for dinner at her home. Before the evening concluded, the Chancellor rose to address her guests. She spoke with passion about the vital role the university should play in addressing societal inequities. She charged us, as campus leaders, to rise to that challenge and work to build a community like the one envisioned by Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and all those committed to the struggle for equality. What remains most memorable about those brief words was that Chancellor Shalala spoke specifically about gays and lesbians and included GLBT equality as part of this struggle. As someone who grew up in a conservative community and came of age during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, this was the first time I heard a person in a position of leadership speak about gays and lesbians in a positive way the first time I heard a community leader speak positively about me and affirm my identity. The night remains one of the most important of my life.
From Chancellor Shalala that evening I learned the importance of moral leadership the vital role that campus leaders had in promoting the values that were most important to us and our university community. As a political science student evaluating and understanding my political identity, her words were formative and remain the foundation of my belief system.
As President of the Class of 94, I had the great honor to address my classmates at graduation. The theme of that address sprang from that evening at Chancellor Shalalas home three years earlier. I spoke about the unlimited potential every one of us possessed and went on to say that, "Some of us will need to work a little bit harder, and yes, some of us will need to speak a little bit louder, but all of us must continue working, and all of us must continue speaking until none of our paths are impeded by ignorance, bigotry, or irrational fear. As we know, we do not reach our potential as individuals, or as a people, until we have rooted out all vestiges of intolerance, prejudice, and hatred. It is this education with a conscience that is Wisconsin's gift to the world."
This gift remains the focus of my life's work. I became a teacher, in part, because I still envision the world I spoke about at Commencement thirteen years ago and believe I can make the best contribution to that effort as a teacher of middle school-aged young people. Knowing that my students are beginning to form lifelong attitudes about race, class, gender, sexual identity, and other aspects of individual identity that have divided our country for too long, I felt compelled to do whatever I could so that a new generation of young people would embrace the values I learned at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
An openly gay public school teacher of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, I have encountered some who do not believe that I should teach their children and have had two parents in the past eight years who removed their children from my classroom. As the former president of the founding chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN Boston), I have had numerous opportunities to work with and counsel others who have had experiences far more painful than mine. For five years I coordinated a retreat for GLBT educators to learn the skills and gain the confidence to return to their schools as much-needed role models for their students.
For the past four years I have had the opportunity to teach fellow educators a class on multicultural education, and I am delighted to see the passion and commitment so many bring to this work. And as I visit school districts around the state providing trainings for staff and students around GLBT and other diversity issues, I am heartened by the progress I am seeing. I am passionate about the work I do, and it is the greatest of professional honors to be engaged in this critical endeavor a passion that was instilled during four glorious years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.