News Detail

“I Am Because We Are": Curtis Lee Visits as Year's Last Visiting Innovator

Local community advocate speaks to The Steward School about bridging divides before leaving them with a roadmap for innovation
“Everyone in this room is an innovator,” said Curtis Lee, our final Bryan Innovation Lab Visiting Innovator of the 2018-2019 school year. Shortly after that, he sampled an infectiously catchy clip from Lil Nas X’s radio single “Old Town Road,” a song that inspires him because it blends together two musical genres that appear, on the surface, to be incompatible.

“Look at what Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus did,” Lee advised the audience. “They saw an issue — rap music and country music are segregated and divided — and they came up with a solution.”

Mr. Lee — a Richmond native, former Marine, and current Community Development Coordinator with Challenge Discovery Projects — opened his energetic presentation on April 17 in The Steward School’s Lora M. Robins Theatre by giving Upper and Middle School students “a challenge to change the world.”

He went on to intimate what it was like growing up in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, home to four of the city’s six major public housing communities. Mr. Lee described his community as one “deprived of certain resources needed to survive,” including a lack of access to healthy food and reliable transportation.

“From kindergarten to 12th grade, I was seeing depression, I was seeing starvation, I was seeing sickness. What I was seeing on the outside began to manifest on the inside, and it began to make me sick,” Mr. Lee said.

The importance of community development was the focal point for much of Mr. Lee’s day at Steward. Beginning with his presentation at assembly, and followed by a small group discussion with students at the Bryan Innovation Lab, Mr. Lee shared his experiences working in the very same area in which he grew up after serving in the United States Marine Corps.

“They gave me all the training I needed to save and help families elsewhere,” Mr. Lee said of his military training. “But there was no training for saving and helping within my own community. After my service, I decided to dedicate myself to the community that cultivated me into the man I am today — the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the not-so-beautiful.”

Mr. Lee found his start in community development by volunteering as a mental health counselor in the Richmond school system. However, he began to feel the need to touch a wider audience. He later joined Challenge Discovery Projects, where he continues to work today. Explaining his current role to students, Lee said, “I beat the streets, feet on the ground, going door to door talking to neighbors and sitting at tables to find out the problems and issues they face.”

Many of the issues Lee discovered through his outreach were complex and difficult to address, often the result of decades of inequality and unjust social policies affecting specific Richmond neighborhoods like Church Hill and Fulton Hill. One such problem was access to nutritious food in Richmond’s East End, which is classified as a food desert.

“You’re picking your food items from convenience stores. Fast, processed, unhealthy foods that promote unhealthy lifestyles,” Lee said of food access in Church Hill. “If you wanted healthy food, the nearest market was the Food Lion on Laburnum Avenue, which is a three-hour trip if you use public transportation like many of the people I spoke with.”

Mr. Lee chose to tackle that problem by serving on an advisory board for The Market @ 25th. This new 27,000-square-foot food market will stock healthy food options for residents living near the border of Richmond and Henrico County. It also features a community room for local meetings, an independently-owned pharmacy, a cafe, and freshly prepared “grab-and-go” items for eating on the run.

“Each of you can do the same thing,” Mr. Lee said. “All I did was discover a problem through conversation.”

He then laid out a three-point roadmap for students to guide them in bringing change to their own communities. His first piece of advice? “Be innovative. Find a solution and solve it.”

In Mr. Lee’s view, addressing the world’s problems may appear daunting, but really it begins with those kitchen-table conversations focusing on daily struggles. He told students, “Don’t think of something as a black or white issue, a rich or poor issue. These are people issues. An issue somewhere is an issue everywhere.”

Lee’s second point challenged students to “get out of [their] lane.”

He used the example of driving in one lane for long distances. Over time, that monotony can hypnotize drivers and cause impaired driving. He asked students not to make themselves comfortable staying on only one side of the city, or listening to the same music genre, or spending time only with their own social class.

“Gain exposure,” he said. “When you have those conversations, you build community.”

Lastly, Mr. Lee tasked each of Steward’s students to “be a teacher for future generations and generations of the past.” He pointed out that he was speaking to the most interconnected generation the world has ever seen. In an age where nearly everyone carries a small computer in their pocket, “It’s no longer an excuse to say, ‘I don’t know,’” he said.

Mr. Lee joined these three pieces of advice within the framework of ubuntu, a Zulu term often translated as “I am because we are.” He reinforced the importance of connection as a means to solve problems, and that innovation arises when we choose to see the humanity in every person and take their struggles on as our own. “When we continue to be connected, amazing things happen,” Mr. Lee said.

He ended his talk at assembly by reminding students of “Old Town Road” and the way it successfully brings people together by addressing a real need through collaboration. “Now I want you all to grab your stuff and “Old Town Road” it with all the issues in society,” he said.

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