Robert Lewis Q&A: A moral obligation to shift paradigms for urban youth nationally

RLJ-headshot-Hi-ResSince opening in January 2013, The BASE has sent 134 graduates to college, many on full academic scholarship. Over these four years, the Roxbury-based facility has grown to serve 850 student-athletes annually; expanded and refurbished its Egleston Square clubhouse; forged partnerships with a wide array of corporate sponsors, donors, employers, and institutions of higher learning; raised $30 million in college scholarships; hosted a pair of Urban Classic Baseball Tournaments; launched a girls’ baseball program and Freshman Year College Program, offering onsite courses for college credit; and drafted a strategic plan that sets ambitious goals for 2020, including doubling the number of young people served. Founder and president Robert Lewis Jr. reflects on how far The BASE has come and where it is headed.

What is the state of the BASE today?

Basically, we have grown from passion to purpose. What began as an idea – could we engage young folks in Boston in baseball and academics? – has evolved into something much bigger. Now it’s, how can we have an impact on young people around the country? Along the way, we’ve come to understand several key elements. One is the importance of our Roxbury space and its accessibility to our student-athletes. Another is the partnerships we’ve already built and how to leverage those resources. A third is team building. Not just our baseball teams, but our teams of staff, partners, and educators, too.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

Be opportunistic, but don’t chase money. Don’t chase success. Do things because they’re right.

What goals drive the new strategic plan?

It’s really a GPS guiding us towards what we want to be, which is a major influencer on shifting paradigms for urban youth nationally. Parents everywhere want their kids to finish high school, go to college, get a good job. We need that same plan of action for our young folks. And we must be able to measure our impact through research data, proof points, and stories. Because by 2020, we have to have moved the needle. That means taking steps like building staff and fundraising capacity and increasing our hours of operation.

What might that paradigm shift look like?

At the end of the day, if our kids have changed and our community hasn’t, we haven’t done anything. If we haven’t created a culture where going to college is the new norm, we haven’t done anything. The BASE is not about having fun. We are about practice, preparation, and performance. We love our kids, but we expect them to work hard to earn their spot.

What made expanding BASE headquarters a priority?

We’re becoming more youth-centric, as opposed to staff-centric. We also need to use technology in more productive ways. But our growth is really being driven by wanting to serve more young women and to build a coaches’ training academy. All that may require even more expansion soon.

More space, more onsite resources, more young people served.

I’d love us to become a kind of settlement house. A one-stop neighborhood shop where young folks come for resource services, education counseling, job training, and other skills. Where they’re surrounded by folks who care about them and push them

What are your hopes for building a national urban baseball network?

I’ve seen places around the country that have the greatest baseball talent in the world, but they don’t have the funding. Yet their kids still play the game with love and passion. So creating a national network is a way of exposing that talent, while letting other programs know about resources like access to equipment, coaches’ training, and college recruitment, all of which we know quite a bit about. Another hope of mine? To become a pipeline for historical black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

What are your criteria for forming new partnerships?

My biggest thing is authenticity. I don’t want your title, actually. I want your soul. I want a relationship that matters to you, and you can say why. It’s easy to write a check. I want people willing to give of themselves, who love our young people like we do. You really have to buy into that to earn your spot here.

The paradigm shift you talk about works both ways, then.

Right. Most of our partners and supporters start off having no clue how much we are going to change them. It’s like our partnership with Franklin Sports. I told them all along, if we both do this right, we’ll be happy with and proud of each other. Which we are. The money matters, true. But in some ways it doesn’t. Because as I’ve also said many times, what we’re doing for young folks is a moral obligation. Not just for us but for our funders, too.

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