If you have a conversation with Lorenzo Lewis, ’19, chances are he will ask you for your opinion on a touchy subject. He’s not trying to judge you or make you uncomfortable. He just genuinely wants to know what you think. “In this political climate, people who don’t know me are taken aback. But I like to make space for everyone to open up,” says Lewis, coordinator of the Gallaudet Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute, and the Ambassador of Disagreement for Gallaudet’s Center for Democracy in Deaf America (CDDA).

The unusual role was created for him by Dr. Brendan Stern, ’06, CDDA’s Executive Director, who admires Lewis’ drive to understand a range of viewpoints. “Lorenzo is an exceptional human being because of his humility and curiosity. He is never afraid to ask tough questions and to listen as if he is wrong. I am honored to call him a colleague and a friend.”  

It’s easy to look at someone and think you know who they are and what they stand for, says Lewis, who understands why people frequently use labels as short cuts. “They think, ‘Lorenzo is a Black man, so he must have a certain world view,’” he says. But even if there is some truth to these assumptions, every individual is shaped by countless forces, and Lewis believes there is no way to grasp these nuances without engaging.

This approach came in handy last fall when he was the first deaf participant ever in the Better Arguments Ambassador Program, run by the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship & American Identity Program, Allstate, and Facing History & Ourselves. “I have an initiator mindset,” says Lewis, who seized the opportunity to build a network with 12 leaders from various backgrounds and organizations around the country.

Two men stand next to each other and smile. Behind them is a large blue screen.
Lorenzo Lewis, left, represents CDDA at the Better Arguments Alumni Event last January with Bo Seo, a renowned two-time debating world champion. Above, he is pictured engrossed in conversation at the Academic Affairs holiday party.

He was pleasantly surprised that when the group met weekly to discuss issues such as historical context and emotional intelligence, they welcomed his viewpoints and gave him the chance to explain why disability needs to come into play, too. “My cohort would say we need more people involved with disabilities, and not just focus on political beliefs, gender, and race,” Lewis says. “I helped them open their eyes to why it’s important to include deaf people.”

Ultimately, Lewis hopes to not only involve more deaf people in society’s broader conversations, but also spur more debate within the deaf community itself. When he first arrived at Gallaudet in 2014, he was an outsider, having been in mainstream classes throughout school in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. His hearing family had a strong political bent, particularly his grandmother, who was known as Countess X because of her association with her pen pal, Malcolm X. But he avoided confrontation. “In the past, I was a people pleaser. I agreed with them and them and them.” Lewis says. “And I kept my views and opinions to myself.”

Over time, he realized that never rocking the boat wasn’t healthy — and that there wasn’t enough disagreement on campus in general. “The Gallaudet community has its sacred political and cultural beliefs, and anyone who may disagree is often afraid to say anything,” Lewis says. Taking a class with Stern, who challenges all of his students to consider a variety of perspectives, was an eye-opening experience. One of his classmates was a DeafBlind man, who took a lot of flak for supporting then-President Donald Trump. “I might disagree with him,” Lewis notes, but he appreciated getting the chance to explore his reasoning. 

“Like why the CDDA logo has gray in it, the world is not simple, or in black and white. There are areas in between,” Lewis says. When he first met Stern, who is from a Deaf family, he thought they were complete opposites. “I didn’t think we’d get along,” he says. But once he found out that they had common interests, they began to relate to each other more. From there, they established a close friendship, and now, nothing is off limits.

They even discuss the conflict in Gaza with passion, notwithstanding that his own family is mostly Muslim and some of Stern’s Jewish family members escaped the Holocaust. “I enjoy having conversations about controversial topics that make people sweat. In today’s cancel culture, doesn’t matter if you’re left or right — everyone is walking on eggshells,” says Lewis, who is proud that his work with CDDA has included setting up the world’s first collegiate deaf debate team.

Even as an undergraduate, Lewis was encouraging the Gallaudet community to open up. He facilitated a town hall for the Black Student Union to address what support from Gallaudet looks like for BIPOC students. “Over 200 people showed up, including the president, the provost, and the dean. It was a bit scary for some students to give their opinion and speak up,” he says. Those contributions were critical for letting their views be known, and the result was a new multicultural student program with support services.

Lewis took on a different role in 2019 when Rep. Tom Cole was selected as his class’ commencement speaker. The Republican from Oklahoma is a staunch advocate for early language acquisition for deaf students, but his other positions — including his support for Trump — shocked many of Lewis’ friends. Some of them considered walking out of commencement in protest. “I tried to remind them of where he was from. Could he ignore what his voters wanted? If so, he would have been out of a job. My favorite president of all time was Obama, but I don’t agree with everything he did,” Lewis says. In the end, no one left the Field House during the event. 

These experiences were foundational for Lewis, who strives to create more opportunities for people to confront new and different ideas. With Stern, he is developing a video podcast that will invite deaf people of all kinds to talk about their upbringings and worldviews. “We want to normalize having conversations about politics. Some views are taboo and they shouldn’t be,” Lewis says. He hopes that by helping people learn to disagree, they will also figure out how to move forward.

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