The Corridor Conversation: Chris Lewis

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Chris Lewis, Creator of the Village Life Outreach Project

Chris Lewis, MD is vice provost for academic programs at the University of Cincinnati, an associate professor of family and community medicine and a family physician with UC Health. Somewhere in this hectic schedule, Dr. Lewis also found time to create the Village Life Outreach Project in 2004, after a life-changing global health experience in Tanzania during his medical residency.

Under Dr. Lewis’s leadership, this non-profit organization partners with UC and three rural villages in Tanzania, East Africa, to improve conditions of life, health, and education. Village Life also provides transformational experiences to the more than 800 UC students, residents, and faculty members from a variety of disciplines who have volunteered with the organization.

In 2018, Village Life moved into a 1,500 square foot suite in the 1819 Innovation Hub in the Uptown Innovation Corridor. Its goal is to creatively collide with other innovative companies, organizations and people – further proof that innovation doesn’t only mean science and technology.

1. What led you to create Village Life in 2004?

My parents taught me to live my life focused on a question from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'what are you doing for others.’” Trying to answer that question is what led me to become a doctor, and is also the foundation of Village Life. During my residency at UC in Family and Community Medicine, I participated in the global health track, a longitudinal curriculum designed to equip doctors with the skills and knowledge to work effectively in global settings. I never planned on incorporating global health into my career after residency. I was really just seeking experiences that would make me a better doctor here at home. I was fortunate to participate in global health trips to Tanzania and El Salvador, and at the end of the three year residency, I spent a month in Tanzania connecting with and learning from the people. The need for more healthcare was overwhelming, and spurred me to act. With the help of my faculty mentors, friends in Tanzania, and great people from Cincinnati, Village Life was born in 2004. In the past 15 years, we have had a powerful impact in our three partner villages in Tanzania. But I would argue that we ourselves (the Village Life family in Cincinnati) have been impacted even more by the lessons we learn from our African friends. 

2. What advantages do you see for Village Life being located in the 1819 Innovation Hub in the Uptown Innovation Corridor?

Village Life has a history using innovation to transform lives and communities. Forward, creative thinking is at our core, from the ways we mobilize and empower people in our partner communities to our work with UC's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning to introduce innovative design and construction practices to build a health center with ISSB bricks. Being located in the 1819 iHub has transformed Village Life by elevating our profile, strengthening our connection to our amazing university and health system, and allowing us to rub elbows with corporate and social enterprise giants. Every day we collide with great minds focused on making lives better, people who are driven by that same passion for others expressed in the quote from Rev. Dr. King. While we still cling tightly to our grassroots identity, being a player in the Uptown Innovation Corridor adds a level of legitimacy, visibility and sophistication that impacts our reputation with supporters, partners, and volunteers. There is an energy in the iHub and in the Corridor that pushes us to test the limits of our creativity and determination. Particularly when lives are at stake and our organization has the ability to improve daily life in our partner communities for generations, being pushed by this energy and passion is a tremendous blessing.

3. Conversely, how do the Hub and the Corridor benefit from having Village Life located here?

In my opinion, Village Life helps tether the iHub and the Corridor to the future. Many of the students of today and the employees of tomorrow expect that their work will be socially minded. Village Life has a successful model for leveraging corporate and social enterprise resources and combining them with community engagement to yield real results that impact people's lives, and we do our best to share this model with our local community. We demonstrate that innovation is bigger than tech, start-ups and patents. Innovative thinking and action is essential to the betterment of our society. 

4. While Village Life is known for its work in Tanzania, your impact on the Cincinnati community is profound. Can you tell us more about your work locally?

If you asked our executive director Sue Casey-Leininger, our communication and development associate Buthaina Karaman, our board chair Dr. Deb Gerdes, I think you would hear that our ability to leverage the talents of our young people in Cincinnati is our secret sauce. Over the years, we have built relationships with over three dozen local schools, first-grade through college, and we do our best to grow from every single student interaction. Over 500 students from the University of Cincinnati have traveled with us to Tanzania, and hundreds more have been involved in stateside project work. Engaging the minds of future leaders to solve real world problems produces benefits beyond Tanzania. The Avondale Youth Council member who travels with us to teach his Tanzanian peers about youth mobilization also learns life lessons of humanity, cultural humility and teamwork. The engineering student in UC's chapter for Engineers Without Borders who goes to Tanzania to apply her classroom learning to help build a water distribution system in a rural village returns to our Cincinnati community a better student and a better global citizen. The medical resident from UC Health or The Christ Hospital who saves a child from malaria comes home more aware of the importance of patient-centered, humanistic care. To us, that's what it's all about. Pairing Rev. Dr. King's quote of "what are you doing for others" with a second quote, "what are you learning from others." Our friends in Tanzania have incredible knowledge to share with us that can make our lives better--if we have the opportunity to listen. 

5. What’s next for Village Life?

This month we are taking a delegation of 34 people to Tanzania, including health care and engineering professionals from Cincinnati; UC students and faculty from a variety of disciplines including nursing, engineering, allied health, pharmacy, medicine; and a group of architects and engineers from the University of Texas at Arlington. The health team will focus on providing acute and preventative health care in our three partner villages with an emphasis on maternal/child health. Faculty from UC's Nutrition Program will assess our nutrition project that feeds over 2,000 Tanzanian schoolchildren and work with the landscape architects to explore growing additional food sources. The engineering squad (Engineers Without Borders-UC) will assess our three water distribution systems that provide clean water to thousands of people. Our goal on all of our trips is to utilize interdisciplinary teams to further our partnerships with community members in Tanzania to solve real-world problems--and to learn from our friends in the villages lessons that we can bring home to our Cincinnati community.