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New office to focus on civic engagement

by Adam Virnelson / Beacon Correspondent • November 15, 2012

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Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Sylvia Spears is heading the development of the Elma Lewis center for Civic Engagement.
Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Sylvia Spears is heading the development of the Elma Lewis center for Civic Engagement.

Emerson will honor the civil rights advocacy of alumna Elma Lewis in a planned facility designed to boost civic engagement on campus. Lewis was a key figure in cultivating black culture in Boston, and founded the National Center for Afro-American Arts (NCAAA) and the Elma Lewis School for the Performing Arts.

The Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement and Learning was one of the five proposals President M. Lee Pelton presented in his inaugural address. The center will consolidate and coordinate student and faculty involvement in the community, according to Sylvia Spears, the vice president for diversity and inclusion at Emerson, who is heading the development of the center.

“The Elma Lewis Center expresses our belief that institutions of higher education have a responsibility not only to educate, but also to act with social responsibility in contributing to the common good,” Spears said in an email interview. 

The center will focus on several initiatives, including school partnerships, service learning, faculty engagement, and public discourse, according to Spears. It will also synchronize its efforts with the Service Learning and Community Action office to expose students to opportunities for civic contributions. 

It will place a special emphasis on raising the profile of existing programs to draw student and faculty interest. The aggregation of resources will hopefully create a convenient hub of communal activity for students to access, said Spears. 

One of the cornerstone projects will be a concerted effort to reach out to high school students to help increase college preparedness. At present, East Boston High School and Cristo Rey High School have expressed interest in working with Emerson Spears said.There will be a summer component that could bring the high school students onto campus to see a fully functional radio or television station. 

The center will also seek to raise awareness on social issues of public consequence, such as the DREAM Act — a bill that would provide a pathway to U.S. citizenship for young undocumented immigrants — and college affordability in America. 

Before her death in 2004, Lewis served as a model of the same sense of responsibility that the center will try to emulate.

“Elma Lewis,” said Spears, “is an alum who manifested the perfect intersection of the arts and communication with civic engagement.”

Elma Ina Lewis was born in Roxbury in 1921. She specialized in voice, piano and dance at the Roxbury Memorial High School for Girls, according to Elma Lewis’ page on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail website. Lewis then earned a Bachelor of Arts at Emerson in 1943, and a Masters in Education from Boston University in 1944.

Lewis, who worked as a theater actress while in college, sought to transmit her love of the fine arts to youth in Boston’s black community. To that end, she established the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury in 1950 to open up the arts to underprivileged teens.

 Lewis went on to found the NCAAA, an institution that collects and displays African-American art in every visual medium, according to the organization’s website. For melodic presentations, Lewis created Playhouse in the Park, a free summer concert series that has showcased prominent black artists like Billy Taylor and Duke Ellington. The program, which takes place in Franklin Park every July, continues to this day.

As for Emerson’s Elma Lewis Center, concrete details are still sparse. No location has been determined yet, no staff size has been established, and no budget has been allocated, according to Spears. The center will most likely hire a director to coordinate Emerson’s civic engagement activities.

While the exact scope of the center’s duties is still somewhat ephemeral, the edict is not.

“It’s called being a good neighbor,” said Spears.