Public Service Innovators -- Charles Lewis MPP 1999: Bringing Music Back to Portland

March 2, 2001
Mary Tamer

Charles Lewis knows that music can make a difference in a child's life. It did in his. He based his Kennedy School policy thesis on this concept. And from there Ethos, Inc. was born, a Portland, Oregon nonprofit that brings music to children who would otherwise go without.
"I saw more and more evidence of the importance of music for children," said Lewis, the 1999 recipient of the School's Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Public Service. "They have better attendance scores, better test scores, they fight less...I heard about the cutbacks in the music program in Portland, and it came down to a question of fairness for me. Rich kids can take private lessons...but kids from lower income families can't afford it so they lose out on that education."
As one of six children raised by a single mother who worked two jobs, Lewis said he would not have learned to play the guitar had it not been for a program offered in his public school. While he partially credits his music education for his academic success, his upbringing also led to his strong desire to give something back.
Lewis spent more than two years in the Peace Corps in the Congo and has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, and he has worked in both state and local government. When he learned that music programs were being all but eliminated from the Portland public schools -- with 21 percent in school budget cuts since 1990, leaving a ratio of two arts teachers for every 1,000 students -- Lewis decided to put his thesis to the test.
With Lewis as executive director, Ethos, Inc. -- taken from Plato's ancient Greek doctrine that music can shape human moods, thoughts and actions -- has received $30,000 worth of instruments, allowing children to take lessons on a sliding scale payment system based on ability to pay. In its multifaceted approach to providing musical education, Ethos is expanding programs and forming partnerships with other nonprofits.
Ethos, founded in 1998, relies completely on local and national grants so Lewis worked the first year at no salary but has no complaints.
"From the Peace Corps I learned how to live simply and endure hardship, and now it's just fun," Lewis says. "Now I'm the executive director of a nonprofit, and, like starting your own business, I'm able to take these leadership opportunities and run with them, and it's rewarding too, to see that we are filling this critical need in the community and filling it fast."
Photo: Charles Lewis tutoring students while at the Kennedy School
Photo by Nicole Schwab

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