When Joel Lewis and his wife were looking to relocate with their kids from Pennsylvania back to Wisconsin — his wife is from Wausau — they were looking for a place with some diversity. Waunakee wasn’t necessarily their first choice, until they stayed with relatives in the area.
“Believe it or not, I had a good vibe,” Lewis recalls. “People were friendly. I got such a good reception and I felt welcomed.”
So Waunakee is where the family landed.
That was nine years ago. Lewis, 45, now has four children who’ve grown up in the school district and he’s gotten more and more involved in the community.
“I’m active in my community here. My kids are in sports and I have a church that I go to and it’s really a part of our lives,” he says.
And earlier this month, Lewis announced his candidacy for Waunakee School Board.
Lewis is running to unseat board president Joan Ensign, who has been on the board for nine years.
Lewis said part of his motivation to run comes from a need for diversity on the board. He says Waunakee schools have handled a few incidents of racism well, but that the schools could do more to prevent those incidents from happening in the first place.
“Something happened to my son and it just got me involved. If this is going to happen to my son who’s a person of color, how many people has this happened to before or how many people has this affected? It was just my motivation,” he says. “I feel like we need to be proactive. We can’t wait and then be responsive.”
Lewis, who is originally from New York City, worked as a police officer for six years before earning a master’s degree in social work. He’s worked as a mental health provider and, more recently, a social worker in a variety of criminal justice programs.
“I just feel like my niche is criminal justice social work. I love working with marginalized populations. It’s a challenge, but it’s really fulfilling,” Lewis says.
Lewis says he’d bring that experience to bear for the school district.
“I think with my social work background, I have a strong emphasis on mental health,” he says. “I think a lot of times kids dealing with mental health issues and issues stem from so many things. You know, it can come from the home, it could be from other pressures. And obviously it affects so many things. So, you know, and then my police side is more about the safety and security. What are we doing in our schools to make it safe? What processes do we have in place?”
He also thinks his experience as a Black man can bring new perspectives.
“I feel like in terms of like educating our kids, there’s different needs that have to be met. And I feel like sometimes if you’re not aware or in tune, you know, you might make wrong decisions or you’re not giving the kids the best that you can offer. So hopefully I’m just bringing a different perspective,” he says.
In terms of curriculum, Lewis says the Waunakee schools’ academics are “on point,” but could use some updating in racial and ethnic studies.
“I’m not talking about the cyclical, you know, let’s learn about Martin Luther King. A lot of people just do that. Just the basic slavery and (bus) boycotts,” he says. “I guess I feel like we need to enrich our curriculum. And … not just black, but there’s so many other cultures too that I think we have an opportunity to learn, and make our kids more well rounded. We’re on point academically, but I feel like if we want to really enrich our kids and have them go out into society and be better adults, young adults, those are the things to do.”
Lewis says he’s had one meet-and-greet session so far and has two more scheduled, and would likely continue similar activities if elected.
“I’m a hands-on person, so I feel like we need to engage the community,” he says. “I can see myself being one of those people going out and having a meet and greet or a talk session to kind of figure out what matters most to parents and then bringing that back to the board.”
Plus, Lewis says, there’s something to be said for shaking things up with someone new.
“I really feel like change is good,” he says. “I think people get scared of change. But I think change is good.”
If elected, Lewis would represent the town of Westport and areas of Middleton and Madison, though anyone living in the Waunakee School District can vote for every seat. The election is April 7, 2020.