Activist Eva Maria Lewis is Tackling Poverty-Induced Gun Violence Through the Prioritization of Wellness

In 2022, gun violence became the leading cause of death for American youth: more than car accidents, more than overdoses, more than suicides. It’s easy to think this statistic is caused by a rise in school shootings when students returned to classrooms after the height of the pandemic. While the Pew Research Center did find that 60% of gun-related youth deaths, not all of those are the result of school shootings—in fact, some experts are advocating for distinctions between different types of gun violence.

One of these experts is Eva Maria Lewis, founder of the Free Root Operation. Hailing from the South Side of Chicago, Lewis witnessed the communal impact of gun violence firsthand in her neighborhood. Her mother made significant efforts for Lewis to be successful in her education, leading to Lewis’ interest in ending gun violence. As Lewis progressed through her schooling and earned a full ride at the University of Pennsylvania, she started noticing that academic journals, essays and studies did not adequately reflect what she had experienced in her community growing up.

“Because of my experience in well-resourced communities, I saw a connection between investment, divestment and crime rate from lived experience,” Lewis said. “I tried to use my different assignments in school to broaden my sociological imagination and unpack this issue.”

She said that she noticed the way academics talked about her community was fraught and inaccurate and that she could tell the experts who published these studies were not stakeholders in communities like South Side Chicago. As a result, Lewis coined the term “poverty induced gun violence” to differentiate between the gun violence experienced in Black communities and the gun violence most discussed in the news media.

“When I coined ‘poverty induced gun violence,’ I wasn’t setting out to create a framework,” Lewis said. “I just knew in my heart of hearts that what we were experiencing in black communities was different from what they were talking about. It is a separate epidemic with mostly separate root causes that are directly related to the impact of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.”

The same Pew Research Center study found that Black children are approximately five times more likely than white children to die from gunfire. Lewis said it is imperative to reduce the flow of guns in Black communities, but also that she is in the business of eradication, not prevention. 

“If we want to end this epidemic once and for all, we need to talk about poverty,” Lewis said. “We need to talk about what poverty does to a person and what poverty does to communities.” 

Lewis’ organization, the Free Root Operation, aims to eradicate poverty-induced gun violence by providing resources—from therapy to field trips to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to skincare—to Black women in South Side Chicago through a program called The BLOOM Network.

“We’re equipping them so that they then have the tools to be community stakeholders rather than passive members,” Lewis said. “That is the the circumstance a lot of Black people in divested communities exist in. They just live there. But what would it look like for us to thrive in our communities? We start with black women who are mostly caregivers, even if they’re not moms. A lot of us are providing care in some capacity because that’s just the burden that’s been put on us over time.”

Compared to its smaller-scale inaugural program in 2022, the BLOOM Network has grown and flourished tremendously. Lewis wants to keep that growth going.

“The research that we’ve conducted … with the center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins … shows that BLOOM is a methodology that works,” Lewis said. “Take away the stats, take away the numbers, take away the academia of it all. The research shows that BLOOM works and that’s huge. Arguably for the first time, it shows that Black women do matter when it comes to violence prevention.”

Updated: July 8, 2024 — 9:04 pm