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Return to the Roots: Lewis Brothers Serve Their Home-Borough At The Bronx Community Foundation

The Bronx is home to one of the largest nonprofit communities in the country—over 3,000 organizations. It is also home to some of the highest rates of food insecurity, digital deserts, and affordable housing stocks

Desmon and Derrick Lewis, BC ’05 and ’06, respectively, grew up in the Bronx and consider themselves products of local philanthropy. After spending their childhood benefitting from nonprofits, the brothers co-founded their own: The Bronx Community Foundation.

“They’re visionaries,” said Carlos Moreno, a board member of the Bronx Community Foundation. “They’re thinking several steps ahead, and not just what’s in front of them, but they’re always thinking about what might be. What’s possible.”

While at BC, Desmon and Derrick were involved in the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, the Options Through Education Transitional Program, and Sexual Chocolate. Though they did a variety of things on campus, the brothers said they were drawn to BC because of the school’s Jesuit affiliation and its emphasis on community service.

But after graduating from BC, the two said they didn’t feel fulfilled by their professional careers. In 2017, they turned their attention back to their roots and began talking to community foundation founders, non-profit leaders, and locals with insight on the systemic challenges that Bronxites face.

After careful consultation and deliberation, the brothers decided to launch the Bronx Community Foundation to bring together existing organizations across their borough.

“A community foundation is driven to build collaboration and solve for a multitude of needs in a community,” Desmon said. “It’s a covener.”

Instead of having one focus within the community, the Bronx Community Foundation aids the community by offering grants, distributing resources, and collaborating with other community members and organizations. 

“What we’re trying to do—which is slightly different from what most community foundations do, and we’re calling it a kind of community foundation 2.00—is we’re trying to also create solutions alongside existing nonprofits,” Desmon said. 

The Lewis brothers said they were prepared to launch the Bronx Community Foundation in 2017 but were forced to quickly adapt when the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

“Some of the main aims of a nonprofit is to solve long term issues, but COVID showed us that we have to also have a very short term emergency relief type of model and strategy for the Foundation,” said Desmon.

While the pandemic was a stressful time to be starting a nonprofit, the brothers said they lived by the Winston Churchill quote, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” 

While the pandemic pushed them to fast-track the programs they had in the works, the efforts were met with support from the community, they said.

“We saw [the pandemic] as an opportunity to push the boundaries of things that we would not have been able to accomplish,” said Desmon. “Things like collaborations—bringing people into the room together who traditionally would have never thought to be in the room or would have never agreed to be in the room together.”

As the pandemic weaned, the Foundation needed to continue adapting to the Bronx’s changing needs by listening to local stakeholders, working with the community, and creating a sustainable plan, the brothers said.

“Although the systemic and institutional challenges persisted, the landscape of the Bronx with regards to the resources that were available started to shift,” said Derrick. “We wanted to take the opportunity to create a more recent strategic plan that will allow us to define what the next three to five years look like.” 

The Foundation is currently in the middle of their strategic planning process—a long-term plan to take into account the needs of the community and the role the Foundation can play going forward.

“The long-term vision is to solve for each and every systemic challenge that the Bronx faces,” said Desmon. “From digital equity to environmental issues, health issues—this is a multi-decade plan.”

When creating the structure of their organization, the Foundation established four focus areas: community, health, economic security, and equity & justice. With this structure, the brothers said they hope to tackle the more deeply ingrained issues of the Bronx and create long-lasting opportunities for the community. 

“Our mission in the short term is to build an organization that can be sustained to solve long term systemic and institutional challenges,” said Desmon. “We want to protect our assets and build community power—owning our community, our assets, our resources, and our future.”

Moreno, a long time friend of the brothers, has been a part of the Foundation from the get-go, they said.

As a Bronxite with a background in the nonprofit sector and as a teacher, Moreno said he immediately saw the need for the Foundation when the brothers proposed the idea to him. 

“They have chosen to be servants of the community that they grew up in,” Moreno said.

Though they said the work can be emotionally and mentally taxing, the brothers also said it is rewarding to see the Foundation make a difference in people’s lives. 

“We meet people, we’re out in the community, and we hear people say ‘thank you for your work,’” Desmon said. “‘Thank you for what you’re doing,’ ‘I wouldn’t have had this if it wasn’t for that, if it wasn’t for this.’ And so, for us, we are just constantly motivated by those things,” said Desmon.

Though the Foundation has made great strides in its community, the brothers said they have even bigger goals going forward.

“Derek and I never use the word proud, because really we’re only going to be proud when we solve some of the systemic issues,” Desmon said. 

February 11, 2024

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