From the February 2016 issue of The Rotarian
In 2007, Summer Lewis was eager to return to school. She had graduated summa cum laude from Kansas State University with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, sociology, and women’s studies and spent several years traveling and working with organizations focused on economic development at the grassroots level.
Area of focus: Growing local economies
Location: Oaxaca, Mexico
Peace Center: University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, 2011-12
“The problem was that I had too many areas of interest,” recalls Lewis. “Economic development, fair trade, sustainability, social justice. How was I going to find a graduate school program that allowed me to pursue all that?”
The answer came from a Rotarian who worked at KSU and suggested that Lewis would make an ideal candidate for a Rotary Peace Fellowship. “Another Rotarian, Bill Richter, the District 5710 chair for peace fellowships, was also incredibly supportive,” Lewis says. “He worked with me through two applications.”
She traveled to Brisbane, Australia, to pursue a master’s in international relations, peace and conflict resolution, at the University of Queensland. Almost immediately, she saw the link between her grassroots work in development and the theoretical issues she studied as a peace fellow: “My real interest was in preventing conflicts by addressing the root of the problem, such as when people can’t meet their basic needs and resort to violent measures or to migration.”
By the end of her program, Lewis had realized two things: first, that her destiny lay in precisely this kind of small-scale work; and second, that her connection to Rotarians was going to be essential.
Lewis took a job in Oaxaca, Mexico, as the international program coordinator for Coffee Kids, a nonprofit that worked with coffee-farming communities in Latin America. In January 2015, she co-founded True Roots Consulting to foster social responsibility programs. One of her firm’s first partnerships is with a family gardens project in northern Mexico, a connection that came, naturally enough, through Rotary. The Rotary Club of Torreón Centenario, Mexico, has supported the project for several years and is working with True Roots to expand and more effectively manage it.
As she travels the world, Lewis has found that the peace fellowship serves as a kind of social and professional passport. “I’ve spoken to clubs all over the world,” she says. “I’ve stayed in people’s houses. It feels a lot like a family. I’m incredibly grateful for the chance I was given to get my master’s. But it’s the network, the sense of connection, that’s been the biggest gift. There’s a genuine ethos of idealism and collaboration that you don’t see in other business groups.”
And Lewis sees a direct connection between her work with grassroots projects and the larger mission of Rotary and the work of Rotarians. “People sometimes ask me how one little project in one little community makes a difference. But you can’t think of it like that. You have to consider the thousands, if not millions, of projects all over the world. Then you have to consider all the Rotary Peace Fellows working on projects like this. Then think about all the Rotary clubs carrying out projects in communities. Now you’re talking about changing the world.”