Work of Artist, Activist, Alumna Inspires Talk of Change

Work of Artist, Activist, Alumna Inspires Talk of Change

“It’s not how you walk; it’s where you stand.” 

These are the words of the late artist Jessie Jane Lewis ’65 whose body of work—encompassing painting, printmaking, illustration, and performance—only grew after her multiple sclerosis diagnosis and the onset of her symptoms. Lewis eventually became a courageous activist for voting rights and ADA accessibility, living out the mission and values of SCH and leading a life characterized by thoughtfulness, integrity, and a quest to effect positive change.

“She ‘lived out loud’ during the most arduous time of her life,” said Melissa Haims P’21, curator of the exhibit, Chronic Creativity, featuring Lewis’ work at the Barbara Crawford Gallery at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, which opened on October 13 and runs through January 26, 2023. 

Suffering from the effects of her illness, Lewis protested with a handful of friends to gain ramp access to the Roxborough library in the mid-1990s. Two weeks later, a ramp was installed. She went on to fight for accessible polling places, continuing for many years to ensure improved access and handicap-accessible voting machines. Lewis, in part thanks to a class-action suit, is the reason that every polling location in the city of Philadelphia is accessible to all people with disabilities and every voting machine can accommodate those in wheelchairs, people who are blind or with low vision, and people who are deaf or hearing impaired.

It was her art, on loan by her daugher, SCH science teacher Anya Rose, her story, and our robust arts curriculum that brought Philadelphia City Commissioners Lisa Deeley, chair, and Omar Sabir, vice chair, to SCH on Tuesday to talk to Upper School AP U.S. Government & Politics students and their teacher Danielle Gross. The pair implored the students to use their vote and, like Lewis, their voices to bring about change. 

If we don’t have free and fair elections, then we don’t have a democracy. That’s what our country was founded on,” said Commissioner Sabir. “We’re calling on younger Americans to stand up for democracy. It’s your civic duty to stand up. Are you going to stand up?”

Vote in every election. Be poll workers. Run for office. These are all messages that the commissioners conveyed to students. And, after hearing Lewis’ story, the students understood more clearly that some of those rights were also their duty.

“For the people, by the people,” said Commissioner Deeley. “We are the people. The people are you. It’s not other people. It’s all of you.” 

In Philadelphia, in part thanks to the work of Jessie Jane Lewis, people with disabilities can access any of the 1,703 divisions in the city, said Deeley, to vote “freely and fairly, like everyone else. It’s a voting system that’s the same for everyone.” 

Thank you, Jessie Jane Lewis, for showing us the way.

We encourage you to view the exhibition at the gallery as election day approaches.

[Top Image: Commissioners Deeley (left) and Sabir (right) talk to Upper School AP U.S. Government & Politics at the Barbara Crawford Gallery. Secondary Image: Curator Melissa Haims P’21, curator of the exhibit​, talks to the class​​​​​​]

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