When Forbes chose Scarlett Lewis as one of its inaugural 2021 class of “50 Over 50,” she had by then already accrued more than 20 meaningful awards in a very short period. At least six were awarded in 2019 alone.
When she was named to the list of outstanding female social entrepreneurs, leaders, scientists and creators making their biggest impact after the age of 50, she had garnered several honors many Chautauquans hold in particularly high esteem.
For example, for her work as an architect of change, Lewis earned the Common Ground Award and Hero of Forgiveness honor in 2014; the Character and Courage Award in 2018; the Global Presence Humanitarian, Charles Eliot, and Mindful Family awards in 2019; the Unsung Hero and Peace Hero awards in 2020.
At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum series, Lewis will present a talk titled, “Choose Love Movement: Be Part of the Solution.”
Many people living well beyond the borders of Connecticut can recall where they were on Dec. 14, 2012, when they first heard of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
As can Lewis, each and every day since, because her 6-year-old son, Jesse, along with 19 other first-graders and six educators, were murdered during the deadliest of America’s ongoing epidemic of school shootings.
Jesse had yelled “RUN!” to his classmates when there was a pause in the shooting.
Lewis understood, and rapidly began embodying, the spirit of the words that her little boy had written, phonetically, on their kitchen chalkboard a few days earlier: “Norurting Helinn Love” — Nurturing Healing Love.
It is this message – personifying the saying, “Out of the mouths of babes!” – that she has been spreading throughout the United States and the world for more than a decade.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if my son hadn’t been murdered,” Lewis said. “I’m taking responsibility for my own life, and community and service. It’s so important.”
It is probable that she also wouldn’t be doing this had she not spent over two decades immersing herself in challenging jobs, situations and life experiences.
In 1990, Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in communications at Boston University because she wanted to be a journalist. She said she loved writing, and she started out as the editorial assistant and assignment writer at the Greenwich Times Newspaper in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“Because my dad was always talking to me about needing to support myself,” she left the paper and went to work in the municipal arbitrage department of Greenwich Capital Markets.
“My dad was there, after he worked for Solomon Brothers,” she said. “He created this department, and he said, ‘I’ve done well with this and you’ll be able to support yourself.’ (The work) was fascinating.”
Lewis decided to move from Greenwich to Fayetteville, in northwest Arkansas – where she’d been born and many in her extended family still lived – to join Llama, an investment company founded in 1988 by Alice Walton.
As it happens, her grandfather – Herbert “Buck” Lewis – was the bank president who gave Alice Walton’s father, Walmart founder Sam Walton, his first loan of $50,000.
“While I was there, I opened the municipal arbitration desk and worked on the sales desk,” Lewis said. “I worked on the trading desk buying bonds so the traders could sell them to their clients.”
When she was still a “20-something,” she then began working in Llama’s investment banking department. Tasked with translating concepts to audiences distrustful of an investment firm, she said the concepts were complex for her, but she knew they were meaningful.
First, however, Llama put her through Dale Carnegie’s professional development training.
“My boss would send me out into the smaller communities to community events,” she said. “(Bonds are used) to finance public improvement projects and schools. I held public forums one week before the vote. I would go through the benefits, reasoning and numbers, and answer questions. I made some friendships, but it was way outside my comfort zone.”
Preferring to be closer to her mother and three brothers, who all lived in Connecticut, Lewis moved north to cover the New England territory for OptiMark Technologies, a company developing a super-computer driven, anonymous and confidential – “black box” – trading system.
In 1998, “in the middle of nowhere,” Lewis found a small farm and farmhouse the back way, driving down a dirt road in northern Connecticut.
“An inspector pointed out what needed work,” she said. “My mom said the house has been standing since before the founding of America. … My stepfather was a real estate agent. I just knew it was going to be mine, but … I needed to get the finance in order. Then someone with a trust fund bought it with cash, and I flung myself on my bed.”
A month later, said Lewis, the sale fell through because the trust would not release the cash. There was a bidding war, she paid $1,000 more than the other person, and the little farmhouse in Sandy Hook was hers.
“I just had to have that house,” Lewis said. “Then, after the murder – (I thought) if I hadn’t gotten that house, my son wouldn’t have been murdered. But, I don’t do that; I don’t go there.”
As the sole provider for Jesse and his brother, JT, and the owner of a farm with horses and dogs, she was “always on the move.” While she worked as an executive assistant, she wrote Rosie’s Foal, published in 2009 about a horse with a newborn foal.
After being told that Jesse was not one of the children who had survived the mass shooting at the elementary school, Lewis said she sat on her mother’s couch for three days.
“The pain was so great I thought I would die, that I would dissolve,” she said.
Soon after the tragedy, a woman came to talk with Lewis. She wanted to share her experience as a mother whose son had died.
“I literally put my hand up and said, ‘Please stop. It’s good you survived,’ ” she said. “ ‘But your experience isn’t going to be mine.’ ”
Lewis said she felt there was no road map for what lay ahead, not only for herself, but also for how she could guide her 12-year-old surviving son. She knew she needed to take the reins and determine what would happen next, choosing joy.
“I saw a lot of very angry people,” she said. “I didn’t want to model that for my son.”
I had been “sitting on the couch realizing that I had no fear,” Lewis said. “I couldn’t think of things that could be worse. I lived through it. What do you fear as a parent? That your child could be killed.”
She realized she couldn’t go forward in the same way she had before, making decisions out of fear.
“I went into the bond market when I wanted to be a journalist,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’ ”
Upon returning home, Lewis saw the message “Norurting Helinn Love” in Jesse’s first-grade handwriting.
“ ‘Nurturing healing love’ is the solution for nearly all of society’s ills,” she said. “It addresses the root cause of really all of society’s problems. Yes, there are fires that we have to put out, but we’re focusing on the problems.”
Continuing, she said, “I decided to focus on their root cause. Pain is there for a reason. It helps us grow and be stronger. … (Yet) we have to give kids the skills to manage pain and turn it into something good.”
For Lewis, there were 28 victims rather than 26. She includes the 20-year-old shooter, and his mother, who had given him his gun.
“She was a single mom working with a special-needs kid with no help,” Lewis said. “I had a similar situation. I was a single mom with a kid with trauma. She paid for her sins with four shots to her face before (her son) left home. Blaming someone else takes you off the hook, and it makes no progress.”
According to Lewis, the most important thing she did was to take responsibility. Although she was criticized for doing so, she said that the act of taking responsibility enables that person to be part of the solution.
“There are two kinds of people in the world,” Lewis said. “Good people and good people in pain. No one is born a mass murderer.”
The words “monster” and “evil” are often heard after a mass shooting. “But the person isn’t a monster or evil,” Lewis countered. “What they did is monstrous and evil. What these young people are doing is in response to pain.”
She wants others to see that side of humanity because “everyone wants to be safe, seen, and celebrated.”
Having gone out of her way to talk with school shooters, Lewis realized that “they were failed.” One shooter told her, “I would leave a room and wonder if anyone knew that I was there.”
Lewis likened neuroscience research findings about thoughts and words, and Mahatma Gandhi’s famous statement:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
For her, “It all goes back to Jesse’s nurturing, healing message. … All school shootings are preventable. … No kid wants to be so freaking miserable that they want to attack others.”
Within a month of Jesse’s murder, Lewis began founding a nonprofit organization that she named the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. Initially, she shared this message in response to the outpouring of letters she received. It has been spreading by word of mouth ever since.
To mark the 10th year since the Sandy Hook massacre, John Moritz wrote in the Connecticut Insider in December about Lewis’ reaction to an especially memorable letter from a professor who had studied school shootings for more than 20 years.
“I used to carry the letter around with me everywhere I went,” Lewis said. “It said that, after all these years of research, he had summed it up that if an individual or a child received 15 minutes of a caring adult being present with them, really present in the moment and really caring about that child, and that child felt it, (then) that child would be OK. I love that because I think that I’ve come to the same conclusion.”
The intergenerational social and emotional learning and character development programs created through Choose Love Movement are being taught in more than 10,000 U.S. schools and in 120 countries.
Moreover, they are provided for free. Lewis said that the cost per student per year is only about 25 cents, and is being covered by “beautiful people who donate to our program.”
Courses are now also being offered for prisons, police departments and government agencies.
Lewis has written extensively about her research, experiences, and educational concept in: Nurturing Healing Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope & Forgiveness, From Sandy Hook to the World: How the Choose Love Movement Transforms Lives, and Choosing Love: A Pathway to Flourishing.
On Saturday, Lewis will talk about the Choose Love Formula and explain how Chautauquans can become part of the solution to school shootings and many other devastating societal ills. The reason she has received numerous outstanding awards will become readily apparent.