As the nation's first UNESCO "City of Literature," the sidewalks of Iowa City feature bronze relief panels with the words of famous writers connected to the area.
A graduate of the renowned Iowa Writers Workshop, Jason T. Lewis is aiming to lay out another role as a writer and musician in his groundbreaking campaign for a seat on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.
Currently the director of University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine's Writing and Humanities Program, Lewis has gained a wide range of support across Johnson County for his candor, inspiring new narratives and issues-based campaign.
Running on a host of issues as a progressive Democrat, Lewis has drawn from his long-time role in the Iowa City community as a school PTO president, a youth and justice advocate, to provide new "narratives" for a series of challenges facing the county, including a "housing bill of rights," responsible rural development, child welfare and mental health, and an expanded role for the arts.
''The constitutive power of words,'' former Czech President and writer Vaclav Havel once called it, examining the unique role of writers in politics and ''the power of words to change history.''
"I want to push back with a counter narrative of inclusion, rehabilitation, and bravery," Lewis recently told me in an interview, invoking his rural roots, his work in various cities, and his experience as a socially engaged writer. He specifically addressed the often contentious issue of development.
"At first glance, it's a discussion about urban sprawl and protecting agricultural neighborhoods, but when you pull back focus, it's also about remaining invested in the inner core of our towns and cities and making our community more resilient and sustainable.
My house was a Parade of Homes* showcase home in 1968. It was the best the builders in our community had to offer in a brand new neighborhood that delivered new homes to middle class families. Nearly 50 years later the neighborhood has grayed. Many of the homes have turned over to rental units the city decided decades ago to concentrate subsidized housing nearby. IN the ensuing years, as I've said before, the upwardly mobile residents have moved elsewhere, but the municipality hasn't put any focus on rejuvenating the existing housing stock. As a Supervisor, I would seek to limit the options for increasing urban sprawl. I hope one of the byproducts of that limitation would be a renewed interest by the municipalities for rehabilitating the housing stock that have gone untouched in favor of newer, shinier houses around the edges."
Jason T. Lewis: Photo courtesy of Lewis for Supervisor
Here's the full interview with Lewis:
Jeff Biggers: What are some of the "stories" in Johnson County that are part of your supervisor's race, especially in terms of housing, justice issues, the economy, food and land issues?
Jason T. Lewis: The stories in Johnson County are in many ways mirror the stories of early 21st century American life. They highlight the irony that's baked into modern American life. In the past 50 years we have told ourselves convenient tales that have the ring of hopeful truths, but they mask our subtextual, subconscious motives. We have institutional segregation and thinly veiled racism in our schools. We have embraced a real estate development model that constantly builds new landing strips for upwardly mobile, mostly white residents, while we have underfunded and ignored the areas those residents have vacated. We fear the other. We fear the new. We fear the unknown.
This narrative reveals itself in this Supervisor's race in the discussion over land use in the unincorporated areas of the county. At first glance, it's a discussion about urban sprawl and protecting agricultural neighborhoods, but when you pull back focus, it's also about remaining invested in the inner core of our towns and cities and making our community more resilient and sustainable.
My house was a Parade of Homes* showcase home in 1968. It was the best the builders in our community had to offer in a brand new neighborhood that delivered new homes to middle class families. Nearly 50 years later the neighborhood has grayed. Many of the homes have turned over to rental units the city decided decades ago to concentrate subsidized housing nearby. IN the ensuing years, as I've said before, the upwardly mobile residents have moved elsewhere, but the municipality hasn't put any focus on rejuvenating the existing housing stock. As a Supervisor, I would seek to limit the options for increasing urban sprawl. I hope one of the byproducts of that limitation would be a renewed interest by the municipalities for rehabilitating the housing stock that have gone untouched in favor of newer, shinier houses around the edges.
*The Parade of Homes is a yearly tour of the newest homes built in the area.
JB: How would you like to see arts expanded in Johnson County?
JTL: We have an amazing arts community in Johnson County. Iowa City is a UNESCO City of Literature. The Iowa Writers' Workshop is world renowned. Having lived in New York City, in many ways I don't feel like I traded much of my cultural life when I relocated to Johnson County. We have a lot to be proud of. But to truly be the community we perceive ourselves to be we have to do more. We have to weave the arts into the fabric of the lives of our entire community.
The first step in that direction is funding a Johnson County Center for the Arts. We have groups in the community who are already working on such an enterprise, but to this point local governments haven't stepped forward with significant funding. The county government is poised to be a major force for this kind of change. Our county is unique because we have several decent-sized municipalities very close together and that sometimes creates vapor lock when attempting to make wide-ranging changes for the greater community. An overarching entity like the county is the perfect entity to break this cycle. We need to work toward finding the discretionary funds needed to finance an arts organization that will be accessible to the wider community.
When I was young, we had just such an entity in my hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. As an artsy kid interested only in making music and learning the craft, the Monongalia Arts Center quickly became my homebase, along with many of the other young artists in the community. We had the opportunity to put on theater productions, stage large-scale haunted houses, promote all ages rock n roll shows, I directed a children's choir, and was paid for part time staffing of the building. I learned so much there and those lessons formed the foundation of the artistic life I've led ever since.
Young people in Johnson County don't have such a venue and the need is glaring. How can we have a community so woven into the fabric of the American arts, yet have no venue to grow young artists from within. A Johnson County Center for the Arts could be just the hub we need to connect all the smaller opportunities we have now and transform our community into an arts powerhouse that creates artists deserving of recognition instead of importing artists from elsewhere. I was one of those imports and grateful for the oasis that we have here, but we need to recognize where we fall short and strengthen ourselves for ourselves.
JB: How has your role as a writer/songwriter played a part in your work with young people, schools, the medical community and other projects in Iowa City?
JTL: Being a creative person is about resilience. My work as a musician and writer has been the only constant in a life that has been filled with difficulty, challenges and failure. That's not to say I have had a lot of good in my life, but my creativity has pulled me back into the world so many times. I was adopted as a child, my parents split when I was young, both parents struggled with alcohol and I am an alcoholic myself. I grew up in West Virginia, which is by so many measures a very downtrodden place, but the people are proud, stubborn and resilient.
Over the years I came to understand that being a creative person, having no other choice but dedicate my life to that pursuit, taught me a lot that I can pass on as a teacher, advocate and mentor. Creativity requires empathy. Creativity requires resilience. Chris Offutt, my mentor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop once told our class, "If you can do anything else besides being a writer and be happy, do that." I have spent my adult life finding ways to support myself, be the father and husband I need to be, all the while struggling with a creative career that has never reached the goals I set for myself. But now, at 44 years old, I can look at the work I've done with pride. I've done a lot and none of it was given to me and none of it was what I was "supposed" to do.
So when I work with people in the community in any role, I most often encourage them to embrace the subjective over the objective. There's value in a life lived that minimizes the importance of outcomes and embraces passion in the face of impracticality.
JB: While few writers go into politics, there have been some notable exceptions, including novelist Larry Baker, who served on the IC City Council, or on a global level, playwright Vaclav Havel, who became president of the Czech Republic. What special role can writers play in policymaking and government?
JTL: The easiest answer is being able to intuit the different outcomes any given narrative could bring about. Fund this, implement that--it's all part of a greater narrative structure and writers are adept at following narrative threads to their conclusion. The more you write, the more you construct narratives without turning down blind alleys and then turning back. Look at how urban sprawl has decimated American cities over the past half century. Any writer would have had a better sense of how the story of how fear and greed have been allowed to systematically destroy the fabric of our communities. That narrative is so clear to me and I want to push back with a counter narrative of inclusion, rehabilitation, and bravery.
A less obvious impact a writer can have in government is in the instinctive empathy every writer must have. I've found one of my greatest strengths in public life is my ability to understand and appreciate each person's story and work through the best- and worst-case scenarios, and also to speak to people from an honest, open place of genuine love.
Writers bear witness to the world. A politician at his or her best should bear witness to life in service to the community and then find a way to impact that life in accordance with community values. I've been told good politicians listen 80% of the time and talk 20%. Good writers do this, too.
As a member of the creative class and being politically active, I've concentrated on bringing context to issues through my personal story, whether it be my experience growing up between town and country after my parents split, the diversity and cultural acceptance I experienced while living in NYC, or my own personal journey as an adoptee and now as a foster and adoptive parent. I have also tried to bring my frailty and perseverance to the conversation but being honest about who I am and what I have lived through, particularly as a child of alcoholic parents and as an alcoholic myself.
I want to tear down the facades that are so easy to construct in public life. I want to live and serve as a fearless but vulnerable person, with empathy and compassion for all. There aren't many in public political life who can do this, but it's what I feel I have to offer and my life as a writer and musician have helped me in this endeavor. I try to find ways to communicate and bear witness, but it's very hard to bring that kind of nuance and focus into a political race.