In a tumultuous, divisive world, sharing love is one selfless act that’s endlessly powerful in its merits: both to you and to the people around you. The negative things around us don’t happen because of love, but because of a distinct lack of it in our atmosphere, and that needs to change. Starla Lewis is a poet, an author, and a life mastery coach. She speaks to Steve Farber about the radicality of allowing yourself to share love, and the change this act brings about. It’s time to create a new world – one that’s rich with love.
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I Be Love With Starla Lewis
I have the honor of bringing you my dear friend, Starla Lewis and her incredibly inspiring message on love and self-validation. I want to tell you a little bit about Starla. This is from her presentation at the Extreme Leadership Experience and she was magical. I often referred to her as my own personal Maya Angelou. To put it simply, a woman on a mission. For more than 40 years, she has committed herself to bridging, unifying and empowering multi-culturally diverse communities. She’s been a professor of Black Studies. She’s a poet. She’s an author. She’s a life mastery consultant. She has inspired change in people from kindergarteners through postsecondary classrooms, in prisons, in juvenile facilities, in boardrooms, in corporate offices, national conferences, cultural and community events, radio and television. Everywhere she goes, she has helped people to cultivate leadership by inspiring themselves to recognize the love and the power that they have and can have towards all people in all situations. Without further ado, here is the magnificent, Starla Lewis.
Starla Lewis is like my personal Maya Angelou. That’s how I think of her. She is a lovely, inspiring and amazing person. We got to know each other working together at an organization called CAYS. She is an amazing educator and thought leader in the truest sense of the word. She is seven times Teacher of the Year and Professor Emeritus. Please welcome, my dear friend, Starla Lewis.
My name is Starla Lewis. I was born on December 20th, 1949 in a colored hospital in Springfield, Missouri. I was born to teenage parents, Rose Carolyn England Lewis and Allen Lee Lewis. I was born one day after Rose’s eighteenth birthday. I like to think of myself as a belated birthday gift. I’m the granddaughter of Rosa Irene Ford England and Guy Littleton England, Alice Lorraine Louis Nichols Bagley and an unknown white man. I’m the great-great niece of Katie Elizabeth White Boyd, who was born in 1880 on a plantation in Missouri. She left the planet in 1980 which means she hung around for 100 years. She was my best friend. I call her my first Black Studies professor because she was living history. I share this with you because I want you to think about what I’ve said to you. I’m going to ask you how many of you can see yourself in me and some aspects of who I am.
I share that with you because that’s how I begin my classes. I help my students see who’s going to be teaching them for the next many months or years that we’re together. I asked them how many can see themselves in me because one of our challenges in living our humanity is to see ourselves in every human being that we meet. How many of you are criminals, periodically? I asked that question because one of the classes that I was teaching, I had a young man from Compton. He’d come to San Diego escaping gangs. He said, “When I walked into your class, I said she got Crips and Bloods all up in here. There is no way we’re going to get through the semester without something popping off.” He said, “Nothing ever did.” I learned to see myself in my brothers.
That’s our challenge. Our conflicts are coming from the fact that we think it’s us and them and it’s just us. When I have the opportunity to go into the juvenile facilities. I want to share one. I went into one and I was going to do this lecture on Black History because it was Black History Month. I was talking to a young attorney and I said, “You attorneys should get together and educate young black men on the laws because sometimes people end up here simply because they didn’t know the law.” He goes, “These people are here because they belong here.”Our conflicts are coming from the fact that we think it's us and them, when really, it's all of us. Click To Tweet
It took me aback. This is who’s going to be representing you in the court? I went out on the stage and I looked at 500 youth and I said, “I’m here to tell you who you are because you don’t know who you are.” How many of you had ever been booed by 500 people? Has anybody ever had that experience? It’s resounding and it builds. I had to wait five minutes and the guards got very nervous. Finally, when it calmed down, I said, “You think not? Why are you sitting over here calling yourself black people, you over here calling yourself brown people, you over here calling yourself Asian people and you’re calling yourself white people? How come you don’t know you’re the same people?”
They just look at me. I said, “I’m here to tell you who you are because someone was supposed to tell you when you popped out of your mother’s womb that you are brilliant.” That nobody is born into this world without a brilliant light to shine. Your brilliance is your gifts and your talents. Their message to you is letting you know that your purpose for being here is because you came equipped. Part of the educational system job is to help you develop the gifts and talents that you already have. I also said, “Clearly, you’ve used some of your gifts in the negative, otherwise you wouldn’t be here, but you can take that same genius, use it in the positive to get out and stay out.”
When you popped out of your mother’s womb, somebody was supposed to tell you that you are powerful, more in that way. Your power is in your free will, your ability to make choices. You exercise your power of every moment of every day. When you’re exercising your power, you’re either going to choose the positive that works for you or you’re going to choose the negative that works against you. The outcomes will let you know which one you chose. I said, “Clearly, you’ve chosen the negative. Choose the positive, get out and stay out.” When you popped out of your mother’s womb, somebody was supposed to tell you that you are limitless, multi-talented and multi-faceted.
We have an educational system that says, “What do you want to major in? Tell me now. We want you out in four years.” You might not discover in four years what you want to major and you might need to be there five. One of my favorite students got her AA degree in seven years. She was so proud when she walked across that stage because in those seven years, she also raised seven children. Sometimes we’ve got these formulas of success that make people unsuccessful, multi-talented. I didn’t know I was going to be a teacher. I didn’t even like school.
When I sat in my first Black Studies class and heard the teacher telling me things that I should have learned in elementary school, I said, “This is the information that I had needed as a child to understand why I wasn’t inferior. This is the information that I had needed as a child to know where I came from. This is the information that my friends needed so they stopped telling me, “Starla, you’re not like other black people.” I’m like, “Yeah, I am.” This is the information that I had needed as a child because I needed to be able to tell my teachers who I am. Teachers can’t teach you what they don’t know. We look at the low test scores. That’s not about the students. That’s not about the parents.
That’s about teachers not knowing how to teach diverse populations and not knowing who these children are that are sitting before them, these gifts, these lights, these brilliant minds so they can’t bring the brilliance out. This is the information that my nation needed. Why? I’m a child of the ‘60s. I remember Woodstock. I’m a child of the ‘60s and I watched people being killed on television in places that we didn’t even know where they were. Americans didn’t know anything about Vietnam. Why are we there? Who are those people?
I said, “This is the information that my nation needs so that it doesn’t self-destruct.” We’re in this self-destruct tipping point right now. Everybody’s all freaked out. The only way we’re going to get past that is to teach the truth. We have the ability to make choices in our best interests. We have the ability to recognize our gifts and our talents. We have the ability to understand that together. Do you know how limitless we are together? How many brilliant minds? We need each other clearly.
I said to them, “When you popped out of your mother’s womb, somebody was supposed to tell you that you are loved. I will be love. You are love. You’re it. You’re the thing that we’re teaching. You’re the thing that you’ve been looking for in the bars and places.” In other words, we are love. We bring the love and now we’re challenged to share the love, to multiply the love. I said this to incarcerated youth. I watched them sit straighter. I watched them get larger. I also watched the prison guards get very uncomfortable. When I finished, they gave me a standing ovation. The same people who were booing me for five minutes stood up for ten because that’s what love does. That’s the power of love.
I’ve taught for over 44 years. My first job was teaching Black Studies at Palomar College in San Diego in a place called San Marcos. I walked into the class. This is the reason I wanted to teach Black Studies. I realized it a couple of years ago. We did a visualization. Your earliest memory for when you become aware of your purpose. It sounds good. I was four. I was sitting on my grandmother’s teacher’s porch. She was 99. Her name was Mrs. Ada Fulbright. She started teaching at fourteen when the Emancipation Proclamation came. She spent her whole life doing that. She’s never married, never had children, but she had many children.
As I was sitting there and sometimes we just talk. Sometimes I just sit and be in her energy. What came to me was it’s important for people to learn how to love themselves because you don’t have to worry about people who love themselves. Columbine didn’t happen because of the children who love themselves. Wars don’t happen because of the nations that are in love with their citizens. Negative things happen when people don’t love themselves. I thought, “I’d like to help people love themselves.” As a little black girl in Missouri at four years old, I thought I’d be a beautician because the ladies kept telling us that if we keep decorating, we’ll love it.Negative things happen when people don't love themselves. Click To Tweet
We were taught that. Decorate it and you’ll feel good, whatever you need to do with it. Fix it and you’ll feel good. I know that you have to feel good when you wake up in the morning, when you get out of bed before you do anything for it to truly be love. I thought, “I want to teach black people to love themselves,” because of the negative messages that I received in my life never came from my parents. In fact, when I think about my family, I can honestly stand here and tell you I cannot remember one day of my whole life where I didn’t absolutely positively know that I was loved.
I know that’s rare, but for me that’s real. Because of that, up until now, I couldn’t think of one day I didn’t wake up thinking, “I’m loved, I’m lovable and I’m cute too.” I say to my students, “Ms. Lewis is cute, isn’t she?” They go, “Yeah, Ms. Lewis, you’re cute.” I’m not six-month-old cute. I’m not eighteen years old cute. I’m not even 21-year-old cute. I am 69 cute. I’m able to say that thanks to great-great Aunt Kate because what she taught me was we are ageless. We have to stop worrying about the number. We are ageless. Take care of the body temple and feel your youth.
You’re forever young. You’re forever old because I was also a little four-year-old old person. There’s that little child in you that was an old person. There’s an older person in you that’s a child. Don’t give up either and embrace it all. The most important thing is understanding that you are loved, but we don’t define it. What is this love thing? For me, I love everybody in every possible way. What do I mean by that? Love is unconditional and boundless acceptance of self and others. I don’t love you because, I don’t love you if, I don’t love you when, I don’t love you as long as, I just love you.
How many of you believe right now at this very moment, I love you? Some of my students go, “You don’t even know me.” I said, “That’s okay. I know me.” In knowing me, I can see myself in you. I can see me on my good days and I can see me on my bad days. I can see myself in every human being that I meet. My mother used to say to me, “There by the grace of God go I.” I had the most nonjudgmental mother that you could imagine. I never heard her say a negative thing about anybody. That doesn’t mean I didn’t hear her criticize behaviors and actions, but she never called it the person themselves.
One of my favorite students did 25 years to life for murder. How I met him was in the 1990s. His wife was in my class and she waited for this man for 25 years. When he got out of prison, she put him in my class. I go, “Now, you need this.” What made him special is he helps me understand that “Angola” prison and all those other prisons out there aren’t rehabilitating anybody because they believe that prisoners are different from the regular population. When I asked, “How many of you are criminals?” “We didn’t get caught. That’s the only difference between the ones that got locked up and us. Nobody offered us a deal, eighteen months or a possible ten years. You just signed online.”
Most incarcerated people didn’t even have a trial. You know that. In other words, they sign themselves in. They call it, “Let’s make a deal.” They’re us. If we understand that we put love in the revamping of the judicial system that has locked up more citizens than any other country on the planet. Most of them are youth and most of them are young black males. Somebody talked about weight. I am the largest I’ve ever been to. I’ve been struggling with, “What is this about?” I was even gaining weight on a diet. How do you do that? The reality is true. You don’t ask, “What are you eating or why are you eating?” You ask, “What hurts?” I realized I started gaining weight after I’d gotten in a car accident. I can’t blame it on the car accident. I lost weight with the car accident.
At that particular time in our history, television, every day was telling me about another young black male who was shot by the police, another young black male shot by the police in front of his wife, in front of his baby, in front of his child. I was starting to lose it. It was making me wacky. I walked into Trader Joe’s and there was this beautiful young black male who was the checker. I was watching how kind, cordial and respectful he was to every single customer that he had. I was the last one because I like to shop late when nobody’s there.
I walked up to the counter and he was standing there. I said, “May I share with you?” When I said that, I had no idea what I was going to say. I hadn’t thought about it. He looked at me and I looked at him. I said, “You’re beautiful. You’re brilliant. You’re powerful. You’re valuable and your life matters.” This young man looked at me and he touched his heart. He said, “Thank you. I needed to hear that.” I went to my car and I cried for twenty minutes because I said if he needed to hear that with all the love and joy that I saw in him, what about all these young men I’m passing with the pain chip on their shoulder.
I started walking the streets wherever I was, stopping people, saying it. I started with young men. I started with young men and women. I started with the older people. I started saying this to all kinds of people. One day there was this homeless man, he was African-American and he was dusty. If you know me at all, I’m a germophobe. My whole family carries alcohol. Nobody was going up to him. I thought, “Let me just go up and give him lunch money.” I gave him my last $5 in change. I said those words to him, “You’re beautiful. You’re brilliant. You’re powerful. You’re valuable and your life matters.”
I said, “Lunch on me.” I walked away and he said, “Thank you so much.” I said, “You’re welcome.” He says, “No, thank you for the words. Sister, I will make it.” I said, “I know you are.” I went in for my meeting panic because it went over. I rushed back to my car to get changed to put in the meter. I realize I’d given all my change away too. I looked up at the meter and it was blinking green. I looked over at the homeless man. He said, “I got you.” We’re all the same people. We’re generous. We’re loving. We’re caring. Our challenge is to be who we are, be you and do you.See yourself in every human being that you meet. Click To Tweet
We say to the beautiful little kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That’s the wrong question especially if you’re the mom and the daddy. You’ve got to say to your kid, “Who you be? Who are you? What do you like to do? Why did you come here?” Do you realize they will have an answer? There’s something I want to do because I want to make sure you leave with some sense of who you are. I know you already have some sense of who you are but a deeper sense. I’m going to ask my grandson, isn’t he beautiful? Yes, he is. He looks like his mother and his father.
I’m going to explain to you how this book works. This book was created by my daughter, my granddaughter and myself. It’s called I Am: My Own Self-Validation and those are the words that Aunt Kate said to me when she prepared me to desegregate schools in Missouri, but later came in handy when I desegregated schools in Altadena, California. How the book works are all you have to do is you’re going to take it, you’re going to like this. Whenever you feel like stopping, stop it and that’s your message. Did everybody get their message? Read your message. Who are you?
I am a masterpiece.
She’s a masterpiece, a divine reflection of you. Who are you?
I’m more than worthy.
Do you understand everything you get? You’re more than worthy.
Give yourself credit. You are amazing.
I use that book with my students. I’ve used that book with some corporations. Some corporations start their business meetings with this book because what happens is if we remind ourselves on a regular basis who we are in those moments when we all forget, it helps us get right back to self-quick, fast, and in a hurry. I’ve used this book with gang members. I’ve used this book with students. One student wrote to me something. He said, “After using this book, I was able to throw my notebook away.” I said to him, “What was in your notebook?”
He said, “I used to carry a notebook in which I kept a list of ways to kill myself and I don’t need that list anymore.” We need to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We need to be able to replace the negative messages that we’ve all received from somewhere with positive messages. We need to take charge of the words that come into our ears and into our minds so they don’t become part of our hearts. My great-great Aunt Kate said, “Child, when you go to school, there are going to be some white people who’ll hate you simply because of the color of your skin. They’re not going to want to see you do well, but you are not to hate them because hate only destroys the hater.”
She said, “Some of them will do it out of meanness, but most of them will do it out of ignorance because they don’t know who you are. No one can stop you from doing anything you want to do or be anything you want to be but you. You should treat all people the way you would want to be treated.” That was like an armor. I was five and I have worn that armor all my life. It has allowed me to feel confident and safe in the world because I believe that not only am I a little girl from the Midwest, from Springfield, Missouri. Not only am I a California girl plus that’s the Midwest part, but I’m a citizen of the world. I am global. It is all mine. I have a right to be anywhere I want to be. Whether other people have a problem with that or not, that’s not my issue because I have to be my own self-validation. I am brilliant. I am powerful. I am limitless. I am love. Someone said, “Bring it all together, we are the change.”
About Starla Lewis
Starla Lewis is a woman on a mission. For more than 40 years Starla has committed herself to bridging, unifying and empowering multi-culturally diverse communities. As a professor of Black Studies, poet, author, and life mastery consultant, Starla has inspired change from Kindergarten through post secondary classrooms, prisons, juvenile facilities, board rooms, corporate offices, national conferences, cultural and community events, as well as on radio and television.
Starla Lewis has helped people cultivate leadership in their academic, professional and personal lives by teaching them how to be truth seekers and agents of change who mirror love, acceptance, and respect. She has taught at San Diego Mesa College for over twenty years, where she served as Department Chair for eleven years, and is currently a Professor Emeritus. She has also served as an instructor at San Diego City College, Palomar College, San Diego State University, Webster University, Union Institute, San Diego High School and Lincoln High School.
Starla is the C.E.O of C.E.L.L (Celebration of Everlasting Life and Love) a human potential consultancy firm, where she has worked for over thirty years as a life mastery coach. Through C.E.L.L she teaches people how to utilize love and life skills to heal and transform themselves and their communities. Through teaching people how to share compassion, love, mutual respect and understanding, her work has helped bridge families and communities.
As a community leader Starla Lewis has served as a member of San Diego boards and committees, which aim to empower women and diverse communities. She has served as a board member 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, to name a few. She is a seven-time recipient of the Mesa College “Teacher of the Year” award, and was profiled by the San Diego Union Tribune as the Bob Marley Peace Award recipient for leadership in 2002 and 2003.
Starla Lewis has received numerous honors including an induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame from the California Women’s Museum, the “Unsung Hero Award” from KPBS, the “Distinguished Community Leader Award” from the Jenna Druck Foundation’s “Spirit of Leadership” program, the “World of Difference Award” from the San Diego County of Education department’s “Honoring Women in Prevention” committee, and the “Outstanding Alumni Award” at all three of her alma maters, San Diego State University, Pasadena City College and John Muir High School.
Starla has a gift for teaching people how to love and how to heal the stereotypes, biases and prejudices that divide communities. Her commitment to creating a more just, compassionate and humane world is evidenced by her 40+ years of community service. Through her work Starla affirms that all people are: “Brilliant, Powerful, Limitless, Love!”