Women’s History Month Local Hero Starla Lewis is a Champion for Love
Women's History Month 2015 Honoree
Children love pretend games and Starla Lewis was no different. She remembers when she was a child living with her grandmother in Springfield, Missouri, playing a game with her cousins that they called “Pretend White.”
“Poof, you're white!” they’d gleefully cry out, as they used an enormous, imaginary powder puff to sprinkle white powder on their brown skin and faces.
Then, they’d sit on the low wall by the front of her grandmother’s house, and pretend they were at the movies, laughing with delight as they imagined being able to see a film on any day of the week, a concept that was then inconceivable to African Americans living in Missouri.
“I was born into segregation,” explains the 2015 Women’s History Month Local Hero. “At that time, we weren't allowed to go to the movies except for one day a week, and we had to sit in the balcony and have a separate intermission for buying our food, which was usually after the movie had already started. So playing this game was like having the freedom to go to the movies on any night. We didn’t want to be white, we just wanted access to the privileges white people had.”
Lewis spent much of her childhood alternating living with her grandmother in Missouri, and with her parents in Pasadena, California, and segregation was part of both worlds, though more so in Springfield.
“Being born in segregation, you had to be taught early what the limitations were, because it was dangerous not to know,” she says. “So, we didn’t venture out very far from our community. If we went to places, we went in the back door. That’s just the way it was.”
Lewis’ childhood experiences never made her feel inferior. Instead, it opened her eyes-- and her heart--and led her on a lifelong path of advocating for love and acceptance. She has devoted her life to bridging, uniting and strengthening diverse communities—whether through the consulting firm she founded, C.E.L.L. (Celebration of Everlasting Love and Life), where she helps people discover their full potential by loving themselves and learning to see themselves in others, or through “Hair-itage,”a workshop she led for women of color, which was a celebration of hair in all its natural forms, and where everyone wore tee-shirts that read "I love me naturally."
“Ever since I was four, I noticed that people were often unkind to one another,” observes Lewis. “They didn’t like themselves or they didn’t see themselves as beautiful and I couldn’t understand why. I never planned to be a teacher, yet I knew I wanted to do something to help people love themselves and see themselves in other people.”
Lewis has been able to achieve this through the many hats she wears—poet, author, transformational speaker, educator, life coach, and mother—and by serving on boards for the San Diego Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the I Am My Sister mentor program, and the California Black Women’s Health Project. As professor of Black Studies at San Diego Mesa College (though now retired, she still teaches three classes each year), she believes her purpose is to learn just as much as it is to teach, and advocates for lifelong learning.
“I try to create a learning environment where we’re all learning from each other. I tell my students, I’m a forever teacher and I’m a forever learner. So I’m not the only teacher in the class and we’re not here to convince each other of anything. We’re here to hear each other’s perspectives, to disagree without being disagreeable, and to be open to possibilities. My role isn’t to lecture them, but to unlock their genius and their own brilliance, and to teach them how to become independent learners, researchers and analytical thinkers, so that they become truth seekers and forever learners.”
Lewis believes in “opening her heart” to her students on the first day of class. She shares stories with them of her grandparents and her Great Aunt Kate, who she calls her first “Black Studies professor.” She says her Great Aunt Kate was living history, having been born on a Missouri plantation in 1880.
“I don’t think we should have to sit and listen to people we don’t know anything about, so I give them a little bit of my journey," Lewis says. "I then tell them that the night before the first day of school for me is like the night before Christmas for a child. I can’t sleep because I’m so excited and when I look at my students, I can see all my gifts. I have a whole semester to open them. ‘I teach because I love you,' I say. 'By the time this semester is over you’ll know it’s true.' And they do.”
Lewis' teaching philosophy is reflected in the many comments from her students.
“She was a very inspiring and overall great teacher,” writes one. “She cares about her students and their education. Everyone should take her class, she will definitely change your perspective on life!!”
“She is a great teacher plain and simple,” says another. “The class was NOT what I expected, but then again, it was not a class I expected to look forward to and I found myself always smiling afterward. She is a fountain of knowledge and love.”
Lewis, who married when she was 24 and divorced ten years later, has three daughters.
“Divorce was a major life experience lesson," she says. "It taught me how to love deeper, how to be forgiving, and how to be more fearless in the world. I call it the blessed lesson, for there are blessings in the lesson, and out of the deal I got three of the most magnificent children I could ever imagine.”
Among her titles, Lewis also is a curator. During Black History Month, an exhibit she curated for the Women’s Museum of California, showcasing San Diego’s leading African American women, was on display in City Hall. She's hoping to take the exhibit into public schools one day. Yet, what really has her excited these days, is working with her daughters.
“I’m excited that my daughters have joined C.E.L.L., and we are going to be doing some amazing work with women of all ages. Our dream is to help elevate the self-esteem of women through knowledge of self. We want women to really know their value and their worth and that’s so hard when you live in a society that teaches you to become something other than who you are. I’m really excited about this, not just for me, my daughters and my granddaughters, but for generations to come."
Lewis, whose smile is genuine and infectious, attributes her happiness to the love that surrounds her.
“I feel so lucky and so blessed because I can’t think of one day in my life when I didn’t know that I was absolutely loved. Once you truly love yourself, you become like a love magnet. I literally know without question that my children love me deeply, that my family loves me deeply, and my students love me deeply. I’m open to love from wherever love is coming from.”