Alex Lewis: Growth greater than viral videos
On an August night in 2016, Alex Lewis feverishly jotted down ideas in his personal notebook. He had grown increasingly spellbound by his urge to fuse his passions of storytelling, graphic design and poetry. As he brainstormed, a potential project idea emerged, and Alex immediately jumped into action.
“That idea really grabbed a hold of me and I was like, I have to do something with this,” he said. “And I knew if I waited to do something with it then I [wasn’t] going to do it because that’s just my nature.”
That night, Alex bought a website domain, designed a logo, started social media accounts, and created a product for his newly established venture entitled Car Window Poetry (CWP).
In establishing CWP, Alex committed to using words as a tool to spread happiness and hope. He envisioned a project that could “bring light into the lives of unsuspecting people,” by placing poems on their car windshields.
The simple act of putting kind, short poems on cars — written on cards roughly the size of sticky notes — has impacted Alex’s community of Colorado Springs, Colorado and others nationwide have started to take notice, too.
Alex is a 2016 graduate of Elon University. One of his classmates, Matt Lee, is now a news assistant at Nightly News. When Matt pitched the CWP story to his bosses they were intrigued and agreed to feature CWP. NBC sent a web press correspondent, producer and camera crew to Colorado Springs to tell CWP’s story.
[Editor’s note: At the time of the initial interview for this story, Car Window Poetry had yet to appear on Nightly News. The Curatours did a follow up interview for this article following NBC’s filming.]
Behind the Scenes
“It’s still an unreal feeling, just telling [people] about the experience,” Alex said, “or just that NBC [came]. People were as surprised as me.”
The camera crew filmed Alex placing poems on windshields in a local grocery store parking lot. Together, they then staked out, waiting for shoppers to return to their cars and find the poems.
Notes placed on car windshields are usually unwanted advertisements or event flyers, but when shoppers discovered that words of encouragement were placed on their windows instead, they were visibly delighted. “It just catches people off-guard,” Alex said. “I had a few people thank me for what I’m doing, which is always nice.”
In fact, until NBC traveled to Colorado to learn more about CWP, Alex had never seen the reaction of anyone who discovered one of his poems — knowing that the poems could positively impact others was enough satisfaction for him.
But sticking around to observe individuals interact with the poems prompted an important discovery: many people don’t even notice that something is on their windshield before getting in their car. Thus, Alex began lodging poems on driver-side windows, where people were more likely to see them.
Finding Community in Colorado Springs
Alex moved to Colorado Springs immediately following graduation, after accepting a job offer from Young Life. Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Young Life is a Christian outreach ministry that primarily works with middle school to college-age students. Alex serves as a digital marketing specialist for Young Life, charged with overseeing branding on the organization’s social media platforms. By creating social campaigns and traveling to cover large Young Life events, Alex connects Young Life mentors and mentees every day.
Alex was involved with Young Life in Burlington, North Carolina throughout college and completed a summer internship at the company’s headquarters prior to accepting his current, full-time position.
Moving to Colorado Springs was not easy for Alex: his family is on the East Coast and his girlfriend is in her final year at Elon. And because Colorado Springs is not particularly diverse, the move was even more difficult. “I knew I wasn’t just going to be presented with this community of people that looked like me. I knew it was going to be something I had to go out and look for,” he said.
Though he enjoyed his first few months on the job, Alex began to grow somewhat weary because he did not have friends of color in Colorado Springs.
“It was over the summer, around the time that [the] Philando Castile and Alton Sterling shootings happen, I was like, alright, I need a community of black people around me,” Alex recalled. “I actually ended up hopping on Google and searching ‘black church’ and ended up going to this church not too far from where I lived.”
Alex finally felt at home when he attended that church. Following his first service, a group of young people stopped him to ask if he was interested in joining the choir. He said yes. They then asked if he wanted to join them for lunch, and once again he agreed.
“That group of people that I met that day have really become like my family away from home here in Colorado Springs,” he said. “I felt more at home and more willing to reach out to different people in the community and start being invested here once I had that base to work from.”
Becoming comfortable in his blackness was critical for Alex to find self-confidence and inspire others to do the same. Alex admits that reaching an understanding of who he is as a black male has been a long struggle.
Conservative Christian Roots
Growing up, Alex’s parents taught him that being black was something to be proud of. His mom made him read books about prominent black leaders and black history, but Alex recalls not necessarily understanding “the fullness of what she was saying.”
But growing up in Columbia, Maryland, Alex was surrounded by a multiracial group of friends in and out of school, so through his interactions, he had begun to appreciate the importance of experiencing different cultures. However, before the start of his seventh grade year, Alex moved to a community in the Charlotte, North Carolina area that he said was far less diverse.
According to Alex, the community he joined was overwhelmingly white and “very Christian”. For high school, he attended a Christian school just outside of Charlotte. With the United States on the verge of electing its first black president, the school’s atmosphere was tense.
“In this community it was like World War III,” he said. “There was a lot of fear with [the election] and a lot of ignorance. There were a lot of racist ideas that I never really had to deal with before,” he said.
A particular experience from his high school years is etched in Alex’s memory: the day that he presented the ten Americans who have had the most profound impact on his life during history class.
“A lot of the kids had founding fathers,” he said, “then I get up to present and I had Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X — all these different black Americans who I’d grown up learning about. And then I got to Barack Obama, [and] the kids looked like I’d just slapped them in the face,” he said.
Alex believes that his peers’ disdain for his inclusion of President Barack Obama was far deeper than his policy agenda: “It was him being a black man,” he said.
“For me, I’m coming into this new school and I’m trying to fit in,” he recalled, “and I already have kids looking at me like the enemy, and feeling [like] my blackness was not something to highlight, but something that should be hidden. You know, over time I lost a sense of pride in that because it wasn’t seen as something that I should’ve taken pride in. There were plenty of times where I had kids say ‘you’re not like other black people. You’re not like them. You’re an oreo. You’re white on the inside.’ At first, it was like, what the hell are you talking about, that sounds stupid. But as the years went on, sadly, I was like yeah, you’re right.”
Alex admits that his lack of confidence in a central part of his identity made him believe that he wasn’t “worthy” of being around groups of black people.
Learning to Express Yourself
Alex has always been passionate about bettering his community, and the catalyst of his maturation as a person and leader has become his understanding that others will listen — and true friends will accept him — if he has the courage to speak his truth.
He is committed to helping kids develop their confidence at an early age through self-expression so that they can avoid feeling alone and isolated. Young Life and CWP give Alex outstanding platforms to engage with and inspire others, particularly kids. “I’ve had this long time dream where kids could be encouraged in their creativity,” he said.
Alex is a WyldLife (Young Life’s middle school ministry) volunteer at a Colorado Springs middle school. As a volunteer in the school district, he has the ability to contact teachers in the area. He emailed local elementary and middle school teachers about the possibility of him leading poetry sessions with their students. A fourth grade teacher quickly responded and Alex visited her class the next week. Her students wrote more than seventy poems for CWP.
Local students are an important source of CWP’s words of encouragement. “Some of them had jokes and the handwriting wasn’t perfect and the spelling definitely wasn’t perfect. But the ideas they had were so profound, and so simple,” Alex said. The Nightly News crew also captured a classroom poetry session.
Aside from classroom visits, Alex also collects short poems by hosting community gatherings. Through the CWP website, Alex offers Car Window Poetry Kits so that poetry can spread hope in communities around the country and world.
Poems are Only the Beginning
Although CWP received widespread praise for its work encouraging people one windshield at a time, Alex is committed to expanding the organization beyond short poems.
In October, CWP hosted Socktober Fest to collect items for homeless individuals in Colorado Springs. In addition to gathering to write poems, CWP supporters donated 354 items to support the homeless: 208 pairs of socks, 101 toiletries, 26 food items, 19 clothing items.
“I never wanted to be tied to one simple method, but I want people to be able to take the project and be free to use it how they want in their communities,” Alex said.
His positivity is infectious, and every day, even through a simple act, he leads by example, encouraging others to be good to one another.