Meet the Scholars: Demar Lewis
Demar Lewis is a PhD student in Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University. He is part of the Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2018.
Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are?
My parents are Demar Lewis III and Patricia Lewis, and I’ve got a younger sister named Jess Lewis who is graduating from college this May. I was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Denver, Colorado, and have spent 10 years of my adult life living/moving across the Midwest for school and work. I got my BA degree in international business (with a minor in American Culture and Difference) from the University of St. Thomas-Minneapolis in 2011, and completed my MPP degree at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy in 2016. Professionally, I have over six years of experience spanning the private, nonprofit, and local government sectors in Cincinnati, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan.
Broadly, my research is focused on issues of citizenship and access to justice. I’m interested in analyzing how communities that have experienced historical and contemporary forms of violence—as a consequence of structural racism and/or state-sanctioning—are associated with communities where trauma, crime, and social inequities are most resilient today. Likewise, I’m concerned about how frequent contact with police officers (or their representatives) and incarceration in the United States contributes to the persistence of negative health disparities. To me, these phenomena are co-constitutive, though I want to acknowledge that each phenomenon is substantively different in important ways. Being a doctoral student in Sociology & African American Studies at Yale University has been important for me to do the interdisciplinary, comparative-historical, and contemporary mixed methods research that I am naturally drawn to.
What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?
I believe that people who have been historically marginalized and disenfranchised deserve access to justice. In my lifetime, mass incarceration and police violence are two epidemics that have directly impacted the lives of people that I know and love (both friends and family). I’m committed to a vocation that my late friend and mentor Dr. Devon Tyrone Wade once called “punishing trauma”—punishing the systemic injustices that continue to deny U.S. citizens and residents equal protection under the law. Thus, my work is motivated to honor the lives and experiences of people that I know in addition to countless others whose lives or rights have been unjustly served.
Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about?
Over the past year I’ve been collaborating with a nonacademic partner—Auut Studio—to extend the Monroe Work Today public humanities database, which was launched in 2016 and now captures county-level lynching events spanning more than 1,000 counties in 46 states. This particular dataset in its aggregate form has not been utilized in academic or policy-oriented research, though a few of the individual sources that make up its component parts have been used by scholars. I’m most excited about being able to use this data to build on existing research to explore connections between historical lynching exposure—i.e., U.S. counties where lynching is known to have occurred historically—and U.S. counties where different health inequities are persisting in the 21st Century.
For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?
As Ida B. Wells once famously stated, “America’s national crime is lynching.” Lynching was certainly motivated by racial prejudice and random acts of mob violence, but it was also motivated by “the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people” seeking to accumulate wealth and power as the U.S. expanded its territories into previously-occupied spaces. Lynching in the United States is an issue in which citizenship is a fundamental concern—more specifically, the contestation of citizenship and the “right” of racialized and criminalized groups “to be.” This specific language is not always used to talk about lynching, but I think turning to Ida B. Wells’s origin story “Lynch Law in America” will be particularly useful for audiences who are concerned with eradicating the vestiges of lynching that remain in the 21st Century—in all of their myriad forms—once and for all.
Who is a researcher you admire and why?
One historical researcher that I greatly admire is Monroe N. Work. In the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to do a month of archival research at Tuskegee University, and it was a phenomenal experience. Beyond learning about the history of the Tuskegee Institute and the motivations of their various research agendas, I also learned about Monroe Work as a sociologist and social interventionist. Work, in 1900, was the first Black person to publish in the American Journal of Sociology; among the first Black graduates from the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology in 1903, with an MA degree; a part of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Atlanta Sociological Laboratory before leaving to organize Tuskegee’s Department of Research and Records; the visionary behind the introduction of National Negro Health Week in 1915, which is now called “National Minority Health Month”; the driving force behind Tuskegee Institute’s efforts to document lynching in the U.S.; and a tireless policy advocate for addressing the social determinants of health negatively affecting Black communities globally. He committed his life to his research while working with a fraction of the resources that most researchers today have at their disposal. The legacy that Monroe N. Work has left is inspiring to me as an emerging scholar, and I hope to emulate his commitment to population health in my own work.
How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?
HPRS has been a life source for me in so many ways. Completing the application process for the HPRS program, and meeting two of the inspiring HPRS national advisory committee members during my final interview, gave me a renewed sense of purpose for the work I am doing and striving to do. The substantial financial support of the HPRS program has been instrumental in allowing me to sustain multiple research projects, travel to visit archives and collect data across the U.S., and so much more. The HPRS network is also incredible. Interacting with a large cohort of 40 students based across the U.S. from different disciplinary backgrounds has been an extremely rewarding learning experience. Likewise, the mentorship and support provided by participants in RWJF-funded programs and other scholars/practitioners associated with the Foundation has been extraordinarily generous. Each person in this network models their commitment to health policy and health equity in different ways, which has been encouraging to me as someone that has not historically identified as a “public health scholar.” The in-person interactions that we have had with our cohorts and the RWJF network have been awesome. I’m really looking forward to the Summer Institute and future conferences to continue to build key relationships with members of my cohort.
In the RWJF HPRS program we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?
I would use my research to restrict the ability of police officers to execute stops, arrests, or shootings solely based on presumed or alleged suspicions, and ban the usage of pretrial detention in federal, state, and privately-operated facilities.
Ok, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you?
First item I would need with me if I got stranded is my cell phone with access to data streaming so that I could stay connected to the HPRS Cohort 3 GroupMe group chat (don’t need any of the other functional phone features). We are a tight-knit group and have been in constant communication since we met in St. Louis last October, so I wouldn’t want to be the one to mess that up just because I’m deserted (on vacation) on an island. Second item I would need with me is a pocket knife so I could eat all the fish and seafood on the island that I could find #pescetarianparadise. My fiancé is probably a person that would hopefully be stuck on the island with me if I got stranded, so we would also need our cat Sweet Potato (aka “Sweet P”) with us to keep us safe from other creatures and critters on the island.