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African-American Music Appreciation Month: From Diva to Doorknocker - My Journey from the Opera Sta

From the time I was very young, I knew I wanted to sing on stage.

I never remember a time when I didn’t sing and I was never afraid to sing for a crowd. I was only eight when I sang my first solo on television in my home town of Charlotte, NC. My elementary school chorus was featured on “The Hour of Opportunity”, a local Sunday morning show and I sang “How Lovely Are They Dwellings”. My love for music continued throughout high school where I was the choral soloist and got a full scholarship to Howard University where I majored in voice and music education.

After college, I taught elementary music in the Montgomery County school system in Maryland for a few years but left to pursue my passion of having a career in opera. I sang with the Baltimore Opera and Washington Opera regularly and was a finalist in the Mid Atlantic Region Metropolitan Opera Competition and the Philadelphia Opera Company Luciano Pavarotti competition (I even got to sing for Pavarotti which was a thrill!) I was also a featured soloist with the Baltimore and National Symphony Orchestras, but the highlight of my career was singing the role of Clara in the opera Porgy and Bess at the Spoleto Festival in Melbourne, Australia.

I wanted to share my love of opera with children. I created an original program, SO THIS IS OPERA, and toured in seven states performing for thousands of children for over twenty years. I am a composer of children’s operas that are featured on iTunes, Spotify and CD Baby. My original opera, The Bully Goat’s Gruff, received a Parents Choice Award, a national honor, and made the Grammy entry list.

As you can tell, my life has been on a music-oriented trajectory, and until the year 2000, I was content. Even while engulfed in my love of music, I was always socially conscious and civically engaged. I grew up with college educated parents and grandparents who as civil rights workers had to fight for the right to vote, and I made sure I honored their commitment and voted, but that was the extent of my engagement until the Gore-Bush election happened. I remember that election night and the many days that followed like it was yesterday. I kept thinking that what was right, and fair, would win the day. There was no way the outcome of the election was going to be determined by a “hanging chad”, but sadly, it was. After the final outcome of that election, I decided that I had to do more and from that moment on I did.

Shortly after that election, my husband was transferred to Michigan. We were moving from Maryland just as I was discovering my civic consciousness. Lucky for us we moved to Ann Arbor, a lovely college town, and my new neighbors were engaged and active. We went to meetings, phone banked, wrote letters. You name it, we did it! Just before the 2004 election, we moved back to Maryland and I continued my involvement in the political world. Kweisi Mfume was a friend that was running for Congress and I volunteered on his campaign. When he lost the primary, we all coalesced around our nominee, Senator Ben Cardin, who won. From that point on I was hooked. Civic engagement became a way of life.

Then came Barack Obama. That campaign was more than an awakening for me, it was a realization that we the people can bring about the change we want in this country. I worked tirelessly during the campaign and like everyone else celebrated and cried when we won. After the campaign, some volunteers and I formed a group we called Grow the Hope with the mission to advocate for our new President. We met regularly and developed strategies to help get his message out in Maryland. We formed the first statewide rapid response network. We wrote letters to the editor, posted our meetings on YouTube, called in to talk radio and had a small but active social media program. That work led to Governor Martin O’Malley selecting me to be the Chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and the rest, as they say, is history.

I often jokingly say my life makes no sense, but as I write this, I can see the symmetry of my journey. My singing is a way of expressing and communicating. My civic work is the same. All of it is giving back, sharing and serving, which is really what we should do. I found my joy at the intersection of these two worlds and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Yvette Lewis is a Maryland political leader and former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.

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