Robert “Junior” Lewis, an East Boston High School and UMass Amherst graduate grew up in the Maverick Public Housing Development surrounded by mentors that shaped his life forever.
Growing up Eastie, Lewis had a big support network in Eastie. People like Debbie White, Marty Pino, Thomas Tassinari and Johnny Forbes all taught Lewis that if he would dream big, good things would happen.
Throughout his career, Robert has been an advocate for racial equity and breaking down barriers that prevent communities of color from reaching their full potential and a champion for urban youth.
Last week, Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation honored Lewis, the Founder and President of The BASE, with the 2020 Social Justice Award. Now in its 32nd year, the award recognizes community leaders who have made an outstanding impact in addressing critical social justice issues.
A social justice trailblazer who has overcome harrowing adversity, including his recovery from COVID-19 earlier this year, Lewis is a nationally and internationally recognized thought leader, social innovator and champion for urban youth.
In 2013, Lewis launched The BASE, a nonprofit organization that empowers urban youth to succeed by leveraging sports to open pathways to higher education and meaningful employment in today’s workforce. Recognizing the importance of its work in providing food security, educational focus and other stability in the daily lives of the young people it serves, The BASE decided to remain open during the pandemic.
“Growing up, I was taught to leave a legacy by investing and supporting others, and that when you are a part of a community, you are the community,” said Lewis. “One of the most effective ways I give back is by supporting our urban talent and encouraging others to experience their lived experiences. Eastern Bank is a model for how the business community can drive change and better outcomes for future generations, and I am humbled to be chosen to receive its Social Justice Award.”
In his adult life Lewis became a nationally recognized bridge-builder and catalyst for collaboration between diverse business, civic and public sectors throughout the country. A 2015 Boston Magazine cover story listed Lewis among the city’s 50 Most Powerful Leaders, calling him “a tireless advocate for inner-city kids.”
“All that success can be traced back to my time at the Social Centers, at East Boston Camps, growing up in Eastie,” he said. “Because there were people that saw something in me and made me believe in myself.”
Prior to his work at The BASE, Lewis served as Executive Director of the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, President and Executive Director of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), Senior Vice President of City Year’s national operations and Executive Director of City Year Boston, and Vice President for Program at the Boston Foundation.
He was the chief architect of two important initiatives during his tenure at the Boston Foundation: StreetSafe Boston – the country’s only privately-funded gang program with a mission to dramatically reduce gun violence in the city; and CHAMPS Boston – which promotes positive youth development through sports by training over 5,000 youth sports coaches in Greater Boston.
In 2013, Robert left his high profile position at The Boston Foundation to pursue a lifelong dream to launch The BASE, a program that leverages the power and passion of baseball to help student athletes find pathways to success both on and off the field. Since 2013, the BASE has had 138 student athletes matriculate to college and has provided $25 million in academic scholarships.
The BASE is a model and methodology that changes the paradigm for urban youth by providing student athletes with the opportunity, knowledge, skills and confidence needed to develop a winning game plan for success both on and off the field. The BASE embodies everything Lewis learned as founder of the Boston Astros, a youth baseball team he launched in 1978. Legendary baseball writer Peter Gammons has called The Astros, “Hands-down the best urban baseball program in the country,” and Triple Crown Sports awarded the Astros the 2012 “Team of the Year” award from a field of 40,000.
Lewis is also a highly sought-after public speaker, facilitator and spokesperson on the topic of urban issues and opportunities, addressing attendees at major national conferences and inspiring students and faculty on college campuses across the country.
He has worked collaboratively with government and civic leaders in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and currently consults with a number of foundations and nonprofits.
Lewis also worked with the Minister of Defense in Bermuda to launch StreetStafe Bermuda, and advised Prime Minister David Cameron during the tumultuous riots in the United Kingdom in 2011.
Among his many awards and distinctions are the 2015 Sports Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Boston Baseball Writer’s Annual Dinner, and an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Cambridge (MA) College.
The Eastie native has been profiled in four books: Developing Better Athletes, Better People, A Leader’s Guide To Transforming High School and Youth Sports into a Development Zone, authored by Jim Thompson, Do More Than Give, the Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World, by Leslie Crutchfield, John Kania and Mark Kramer, 10 Who Mentor, by Denise Korn, Men Who Dare, authored by the late Katherine Martin.
In August, life came full circle for Lewis as Governor Charlie Baker appointed him to the Board of Trustees of his alma mater, UMass.
“We each have the collective responsibility to shift the paradigm created by policies that generate racial and gender inequities, and remove the barriers that prevent equity and justice for all,” said President and CEO of the Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation Nancy Huntington Stager. “Robert Lewis, Jr.’s life’s work reminds us we must listen to those closest to the issues, be willing to be uncomfortable, to work to understand, take time, and provide the sustained effort needed to address the systemic structures that perpetuate inequities in our communities. We are proud to honor Robert, for his inspiring and game-changing community leadership, with the 2020 Social Justice Award.”