Yetta Lewis is driven by the need to uplift the community. In fact, the educational leader refers to it as “taking care of her village.” As the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Gestalt Community Schools, Yetta’s “village” consists of more than 2,400 students and families spread out between the charter organization’s five schools, located in Memphis.
Yetta says she’s inspired by her upbringing in Baltimore, which she points out is remarkably similar to that of many of the students she serves in the Hickory Hill area of Memphis. She’s candid about growing up in a low-income neighborhood and being raised by a single mother while her father was incarcerated. Still, despite growing up in what she refers to as a “challenging neighborhood,” Yetta says she was always filled with hope — mainly because of the support she received from family members and inspiring school leaders. Now, as the chief leader of a growing network of community schools, Yetta seeks to provide a similar type of hope to the families she serves. For this week’s FACE of Memphis, we spoke with Yetta about her love for education, the accomplishments of which she’s most proud, and her favorite things about Memphis — the city she now calls home.
You started your professional career as a teacher in Baltimore. How did you get involved in the co-founding of a charter school organization in Memphis?
What compelled me to co-found Gestalt is that I grew up like many of the students we serve. My dad was incarcerated. I was raised by a single mom in East Baltimore in a very difficult neighborhood; but in spite of all of that, I was always optimistic, and I was surrounded by great educators and a strong family unit. With the founding of Gestalt, I thought that we need that for every child. We need good schools, strong community and an infrastructure that supports students’ pathways to success. At Gestalt, we want to make sure students have hope, optimism and a strong network of adults rallying around them.
We founded our first school in 2008, and in 2011 we formed Gestalt Community Schools to systematically grow the success we had with the first school. We started with 125 students and now serve a little over 2,400 families and students.
Your organization has received numerous accolades, but what accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m proud of a couple of things. One of those is the partnerships we have been able to build. Our schools are really anchored in elevating the community aspect of Hickory Hill. To name a few, we have worked with Habitat for Humanity and other community partners to help get housing for some of our families. We’ve also partnered with Christ Community Health to help our families with medical services.
Overall, I am excited about the work we are doing in Hickory Hill — the marrying of school and the community is important. For us, we are constantly trying to connect families to the resources and opportunities right in their community.
Why is community so critical to the success of Gestalt?
We found out the hard way. We had bold, audacious goals in 2008 when we started. We wanted to create these young entrepreneurs who would drive their future, but what we found out very quickly in the first year was that there are so many things outside of school that impact what happens in the schools.
A kid can’t learn if he or she is hungry. A parent can’t go to a parent-teacher meeting if they feel disenfranchised or disconnected from the school. We had many students who were successful, but there were always a handful who couldn’t push through because the outside obstacles were so insurmountable. We felt a bit helpless the first couple of years. We knew we needed something more than just wrap-around partners or basic school partners. We needed more community resources and infrastructure partners. Now parents know that when you choose one of our schools, you are going to get access to these resources.
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What do you love most about your job as CEO of Gestalt?
I have the true pleasure of walking into a kindergarten classroom and one of the students making me laugh or just keeping it real. I recently walked into a kindergarten classroom, and they were having a Halloween costume day, and I had my glasses on. One of the students said, “Who are you dressed up as? Are you coming as a nerd?” It’s those moments that I love.
I am able to go in these classrooms, and the children immediately liven up my day. Sometimes I think, Do they really pay me to do this?
You’ve mentioned how much you love your job, but also admitted that it can be demanding. As the leader of a growing organization, how do you make time for self-care?
I was diagnosed with diabetes about five years ago. So, I started taking swimming lessons and working on my weight loss. It’s now become an addiction. I go to lessons three times a week, and it really helps me and clears my mind.
The other thing is that I committed to taking my vacation days. I’m building a team where we talk about how to create a balance. My staff and I are very committed to the development of our schools and making sure they are great, but we’ve started instituting mini-sabbaticals. It’s a couple of days each quarter when each staff member can take time, pull away, center themselves and reflect. We are really trying to be deliberate in breaking up the stress that can come along with the job.
Many successful people have a set of guidelines or principles that they live by. What are yours?
One thing that has been a driving factor for me is going back to the way I was raised. I had this strong grandmother who really exhibited a sense of community. She was always focused on taking care of her village. I saw that constantly as a kid. What drives me is treating everyone with dignity and respect and making sure I take care of my village.
And the other thing is that I really enjoy solving problems. And I love doing it in a team atmosphere. There is nothing like putting a lot of brilliant people together to solve a problem.
And also making sure that I have a space for gratitude and joy. I always try to take time to meet with my staff and have moments of gratitude.
You’re originally from Baltimore but now call Memphis home. What do you love most about the city?
I just love the people of Memphis. When I first moved here, everyone was so very welcoming. Memphis is now home to me.
What are some of your favorite places to visit in the city?
One of my favorite places is the National Civil Rights Museum. I always take people there, but I also make sure I do an annual visit. It’s like a jewel in the city.
I’m also a foodie. I’ll find somewhere new to eat almost every weekend. I love going to Downtown and Midtown to try new restaurants. I also love walking along the Mississippi River. To think about all the people who have, throughout history, gone up and down that river is amazing. There is something calming about it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Someone said to me a year ago, “Promise less and deliver more.” As I’ve gotten older, it’s translated to “honor your commitments.” If I say I’m going to do something, I am going to do it extensively.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
I’m an avid reader, so a book or two. I live for a Sunday; I call them my “Fun-days.” I also can’t live without a good manicure and pedicure.
Thank you, Yetta, and thank you to Abbey Bratcher for the great photos!
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