She’s no longer in the classroom, but former social studies teacher Sonia Lewis is still “schooling” folks.
She shows up and lends her voice to causes like “state-sanctioned violence,” police abuse, mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, and racial equity at the systemic, institutional and structural level.
“If we are actually talking about what humanity is about in this country, we have to do some things to change things at the root,” she says.
Ms. Lewis is the founder of ASCRIBE Educational Consulting. She works with organizations and school districts to train staff on how to create antiracist work and learning environments. She is a founding member of the Sacramento Black Lives Matter chapter and the Liberation Collective for Black Sacramento, a member of Black Justice Sacramento, Decarcerate Sacramento and the Sacramento City Unified School District’s African American Achievement Task Force Board.
Many know her from protests that occurred after Stephon Clark was killed locally in 2018 and the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minnesota. Ms. Lewis was at the State Capitol nightly last year, protecting protestors. She also called out law enforcement treatment of demonstrators.
Ms. Lewis has been a “social justice warrior” since childhood, when she refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
“I swear, my 7-year-old self is one of my best teachers,” she said in reflection.
In the 1970s, refusing to stand for the pledge was considered un-American. Opting out wasn’t an option. For her, refusal was about feeling disrespected as an African American.
“When I was 6 or 7 I had a cousin who was killed by the police in the Bay Area. … It was the age-old story – ‘He was in the middle of the street’ – but clearly he was having a mental health issue,” she said of her relative who was “like an adult kid.”
“I just remember when I heard the news that he was shot by the police (thinking), ‘He couldn’t hurt anyone,’” she continued. “I was really angry for a long time about it.”
Then there was the treatment her father received while employed by the Richmond Police Department after returning from the Vietnam conflict.
“He and four other Black men were the first five who were hired on with the police department who were Black. He said that they were all hazed and one by one, they were all eventually fired because there was a group of white officers who were very much against the integration of their police department. They were called the White Knights.”
Her punishment for her second-grade act of defiance was to write on the chalkboard about how the Pledge was to be respected.
“I wrote something like ‘There’s no liberty and justice for all,’” Ms. Lewis shared.
“That’s all that stuck, that last line: ‘Liberty and justice for all.’ And in my mind there wasn’t.”
From that incident, she and her parents started having conversations about how to change systems. In addition to her father being a police department pioneer, her mother often attended Black Panther Party meetings.
“I watched those kinds of things and that’s probably where the seed was planted,” she said.
Today, standing up for others, particularly the marginalized, is important to Ms. Lewis.
“I often tell families who are victims of state-sanctioned violence, ‘These people need to hear your voice.’
Oftentimes, they are not ready. Until they are ready, I’m the voice that’s that conduit to make sure that their voice and experience, and that narrative of the Black-lived experience, is told in a way that edifies our experience rather than that of the White normative,” she said.
Fighting for change, Ms. Lewis has worked with Black lawmakers on legislation like AB 392, which addresses California’s age old police use-of-force policy, and SB 1421, which mandates the release of records that could indicate a pattern of excessive force or racist behavior. While Ms. Lewis says both were “watered down” before passing into law, they brought about watershed moments.
“We sat in those rooms, we had the conversation and we were able to bring in some of those families to give first hand testimony as to why this is important. Doing that work, identifying what are some of the root causes of state-sanctioned violence and then having a conversation, and now being able to track things differently were especially important,” she said.
Being outspoken has put a target on Ms. Lewis’ back.
“Somebody said to me the other day, ‘I’m afraid for you. There are some things I know that have placed you in harm’s way and you seem not to flinch.’
“I said, ‘It didn’t seem like Harriet (Tubman) flinched. She challenged every man who came in her direction. She said, ‘I’m leaving this and I’m going to save whoever I can save. That’s the mentality that I have. Seven-year-old Sonia and 50-year-old Sonia are very similar in that regard. I don’t live in the manifestation of fear.”
Ms. Lewis stays prayed up.
“‘Jesus, be a fence around me every day.’ That’s literally my mantra,” she said. “I’m leaving out of the safety of my home and I have officers who I don’t know, who will say my name in public just to taunt me. They’ll say, ‘Hey, Ms. Sonia’ and I’m like ‘Do I know you?’”
She remains undaunted. Attorneys from across the state have offered to represent her against retribution, she says.
“I don’t want to say I’m untouchable in any regard,” Ms. Lewis said. “I don’t live my life in that way, but I know my rights and if I can help someone else realize what their rights are, maybe we can, as a collective, really put a chokehold on the system that’s choking us out.”
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Sacramento OBSERVER introduces a special series, “Sistahs on the Frontlines,” acknowledging and highlighting the work that Black women are doing as “essential workers” on the frontlines, furthering the causes of the community. READ MORE