Twenty nine-year-old Kevin Lewis serves as the go-between for the Black community and the White House. Rising from campaign assistant to White House press assistant to the Director of African American Media for the White House, the Brooklyn native and New York University graduate ensures that the Black media outlets have access to the White House and that our issues are effectively communicated and addressed.
In an interview with EBONY.com, Kevin revealed his unlikely road to the White House and what he hopes to achieve as the liaison between the president and the people.
EBONY: You’ve actually been working for President Obama for over 5 years now starting out on his presidential exploratory committee back in early 2007. What was it about then-Senator Obama that inspired you to get involved in his campaign?
KEVIN LEWIS: After graduating from NYU, I was on an academic achievement program listserv and I read an announcement for recent graduates who were interested in politics or campaigning created by then-Senator Obama called “Yes We Can”.
I saw his 2004 convention speech and thought, “This person is different.” I ended up going to his book signing in Union Square and hearing him speak and when I went people were calling him President Obama — that was 2005. I was completely blown away by that. I read his first book and I’d heard his speeches and he hit a tone that resonated with me early on.
But even then, working with him was so far from my mind. But a month later I saw the announcement on the listserv and I ended up applying for it. I almost didn’t think that I had the traditional background for the program. Coming from a side block of a [housing] project in Brooklyn, it’s almost like there’s a time warp. You can’t see beyond what’s in front of you and you can know every inch of your neighborhood, but [the world] doesn’t go beyond that. You can live in New York – which is so full of everything – and still feel so limited. So I had this habit of limiting myself. But I had great mentors and great professors. Applying for the ‘Yes We Can” program seemed like this unattainable thing, but I just came to the decision that there’s nothing stopping me but me. So, I applied for it; I had a phone interview; they accepted me; and a month later, they flew me down to Washington, D.C. for this intensive training program.
EBONY: And as a result of that program, your entire life changed. You’re being trained by the top political operatives and democratic strategists in the country, and then you go on to work for the Democratic National Committee. But then how did the opportunity to work on President Obama’s campaign in 2007 come about?
KL: Working in the compliance and operations department of the DCCC in 2006, I was able to be a part of the Democratic Party winning 30 seats in the House [of Representatives]. And from there, the press secretary for the Obama campaign asked me if I wanted to join the campaign. I knew if you’re serious about working in politics then you work on a presidential campaign. I accepted the job and was on a plane to Chicago within a week. I really believed in then-Senator Obama and what he could do for our country and I wanted to be a part of that journey.
EBONY: And then you’re off seeing the world as a press assistant to the president and now as the Director of African American Media for the White House.
KL: Yes, the campaign let me see so much of the United States, but the White House let me see the whole world. I went to Singapore and to Germany, Mexico City, Saudi Arabia, Beijing, Shanghai —
EBONY: What was your favorite trip?
KL: Definitely going to South Africa with the First Lady. You can’t put into words what that feeling was like, just being there and hearing the people breaking out into songs of joy when they saw the First Lady. Just being in Africa and experiencing the people, history and culture was definitely one of the highlights I’ve had traveling for this job.
EBONY: How do you think the relationship between the White House and the African American community has changed since 2009?
The president has just been so much more accessible to the African American community. You’ve heard him on African American radio and we do several pieces for African American outlets. Both the president and our best spokesman, the First Lady, have done a phenomenal job in being extremely accessible and have done a lot to get the message out there that the Administration is listening. Our legislative affairs team works a lot with the [Congressional Black Caucus] and folks on the Hill to continue to really grow that relationship and to let people know that we’re in this together. The president is very concerned about the African American community and is in touch and is working towards solutions to the very real problems so many are facing; and we’re making real progress.
EBONY: And how do you – and the president – deal with criticism that there is not enough being done specifically for the African American community who has been hit hardest by the decline in the economy?
KL: African Americans have historically been disproportionately impacted by the economy. But from health care reform to education reform to even job creation, African Americans are benefiting from his economic policies. As result of the Affordable Care Act, Over 7 million African Americans will have health care coverage. Over 400,000 young African Americans under the age of 26 are already covered under their parents plan. The American Jobs Act has incentives for employers to hire veterans and to provide training for young people who need jobs, which has worked very well in places like Georgia. The president has also made a huge push to get Congress to stop student loan interest rates from doubling on July 1. One and a half million African Americans will benefit from this. These policies are working and they’re helping African Americans.
But when you’re the president, you have to be prepared for criticism. Everyone’s not going to agree with everything the president does. But they should know, and he’s proven that he’s open to listening to ideas on either side of the aisle. Right now, the president is just really focused on improving the economy and developing the best policies for the country, including those who have been hit the hardest.
EBONY: What do you hope your impact will be on the African American community?
KS: I want to be sure I’m also bringing a lot more folks with me. As the liaison between the African American media and the White House, I would hope that more folks feel they have an ally in the White House.
Also, I’m really disturbed that there are less and less people applying for journalism programs and even less African Americans actually in journalism, but when you’re working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., sometimes, it’s hard to get out and work with students and steer them towards this career. But what I can do and really like doing is bringing journalism students from [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] to the White House press room. It gives them a new perspective to know that someone with my background who had no thoughts that it was even possible to work in the White House is here. Ten to 15 students have come from Howard University and Fayettville State University and they sit in on a press conference and they get to speak to our communications director and the press secretary, Jay Carney, and they speak to a White House correspondent and get to see what it’s like to be on the other side as well. One group even got to cover the president at a briefing in the Rose Garden, which they absolutely loved. So, those are the kinds of things I want to keep on doing and keep on opening doors and opportunities for this next generation of Black journalists.
And we just want to continue making sure the president’s message gets to the African American community in every way possible, beyond word of mouth, including working with as many national organizations as we can and media outlets and working on the ground. And I’d also like to see a lot more African American outlets covering this White House. There are not enough present in the press briefings and they are a necessary presence. The community needs these journalists in here. Press briefings are open to the public, and I hope we have more African American journalists who can take advantage of that.
To keep up with what President Obama is doing in the African American community, visit WhiteHouse.gov/AfricanAmericans.