“Listen to young people, what they want, and teach them at a young age that it’s okay to use your voice. I have something to say, please do not mute me.”
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The English Avenue and Vine City communities near downtown Atlanta have a storied and turbulent history. In the late 1800’s English Avenue was a white working-class neighborhood, with Simpson Road acting as a racial barrier. White residents lived north of Simpson, while black residents lived south in what’s now known as Vine City. The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 and resulting housing shortage forced black residents north to English Avenue, while most whites moved out of the area entirely.
20-year old Bashel Lewis has deep roots in English Avenue and Vine City going back four generations. He and his family have witnessed how the area has changed over the years. During their heyday in the 1950s and 60s, the communities were a haven for affluent black Atlantans. “Dr. Martin Luther King literally stayed down the street,” says Lewis.
By the 1970s the neighborhoods descended into drugs, crime, and poverty and were marred by abandoned and boarded-up houses. A section of the area, “The Bluff” is notorious for its high crime rate. Even at a young age, Lewis took notice. “When I got to high school I started to notice the lack of resources and the disadvantage that I was at.”
It was a school pageant that gave Lewis a platform to speak out about inequalities in his community. Lewis, like his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother before him all attended Booker T. Washington High School, the first public high school for African-Americans in Georgia. He decided to run for “Mr. Washington” despite being an unexpected choice for the position. “I’m queer, and I’m black, and I’m not what people are used to.” With his family’s support, he won. It’s not just a title, according to Lewis. Honorees are respected throughout the community and meet dignitaries like Atlanta’s mayor.
It was a turning point in his life. He began attending community and school board meetings as an advocate for students, speaking out about issues like classroom overcrowding and the retention of college preparation programs. “People started to take me seriously because they saw that I wasn’t just getting prompted [by] another adult; I was doing this because I wanted to. I have something to say, please do not mute me. My emotions are valid; my thoughts are valid.”
Lewis is also part of the Westside Atlanta Land Trust (WALT) program. The mission of the nonprofit program is to develop and manage affordable housing and other properties on behalf of the community, which in recent years has been the focus of several improvement plans and claims of gentrification.
“We want to create—permanently –affordable housing for the indigenous residents that were here before all of the newly-developed homes.” As part of that mission, WALT wanted to find a way to track the condition of every property in Vine City and English Avenue. The organization found county data on abandoned and vacant lots incomplete and inaccurate. Working with Georgia Tech researchers, WALT interns ranging in age from 16 to 20 used handheld devices enabled with ArcGIS software to track lots. They walked neighborhoods, talked to residents, and determined if lots were abandoned, vacant, or occupied, in good condition or needed improvements. WALT combined their data with county data and developed a strategy to acquire lots that could be part of a community land trust, controlling rising prices and taxes and preventing gentrification.
“That was one moment where I felt like Georgia Tech helped me as a younger person get the instant gratification of activism because I know that Generation Z and Millennials we’re all about now,” says Lewis. “Georgia Tech really helped bridge that gap, so I’m very appreciative for that.”
Outside of his community activism, Lewis attends college in southern California at Pitzer College with the goal of one day working in brand management. He produces a fashion blog and enjoys traveling. In 2017 he studied abroad in London and visited six different countries. “I was the first person in my family to leave the country.” Atlanta is still home, though. He continues to work toward a thriving community—affordable housing, jobs, education and financial literacy. Lewis’ grandmother also reminds him to remember his roots, telling him, “You need to humble yourself and remember where you came from.”
Georgia Tech Connection