NEW BRITAIN – Call it a new institute, but it’s really the start of a new era.
Central Connecticut State University officially launched the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice Thursday, during a virtual kickoff event broadcast over the school’s webpage. The live streaming video featured a compilation of comments from state and city officials as well as school leaders, faculty and students.
One clear message ran through the thread: the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice will follow in the footsteps of its namesake. The late John Lewis, a former Congressman in Georgia who died this past July, was described in a New York Times article a month after his death as “a towering figure in the civil rights era.”
“We have high expectations for the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice,” CCSU President Zulma Toro told her school community at Thursday’s event. “There is much work to be done to help our students and community build a better and more just world.”
Gov. Ned Lamont proudly welcomed the institute to Connecticut’s educational landscape. U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy also spoke the praises of Lewis and wished his new institute well, as did State Rep. John Larson.
“This institute will cultivate the next generation of leaders in the fight for social justice in our state and our country,” New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart commented.
The mayor, a 2009 graduate of CCSU, went on to quote Lewis, who once said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”
Dr. Jane Gates, interim president of CCSU, recalled time spent at public universities in Georgia, while Lewis was representing the state in Congress.
“In that role I came to appreciate Congressman Lewis’ commitment to higher education, his penchant for change, his passion for getting in good trouble,” Gates said.
She also went on to quote Lewis as saying, “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”
“Let his lifetime of words, actions and good trouble inspire us to do our part,” Gates added.
Founding Donor and Chairman of the JLI Advisory Board Scott Pioli recalled his commencement from CCSU back in 1988, a pivotal moment in his life and the life of his classmates.
The commencement speaker that year was Dr. Benjamin Hooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“His words and presence put before us a challenge to do better and be better,” Pioli said. “Today, Central is graduating 40 percent more Black and minority students than it did when I graduated in 1988…The creation of the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice reinforces the decades long commitment by CCSU to do better.”
The goals of the institute are to provide inspiration to students and foster a deeper understanding of inequality, with a mission to develop graduates that go on to work in leadership roles in public service and social justice.
“As our society continues to struggle with the persistence of inequality, many of our students have proactively sought out ways to become more informed and involved in social justice initiatives,” Toro said. “The founding of this Institute is yet another example of how we are creating innovative opportunities to help our students excel by providing them with learning experiences both in and out of the classroom.”
Students and alumni also spoke during the virtual kickoff.
“To be great you have to learn from the great and that is why I have interest in the great John Lewis,” said Olanrewaju Olamuyiwa, a political science major at CCSU.
Fellow student Mia Dorantes commented on why the Institute will prove vital to our society in this current moment.
“I think my generation in particular, we’re fired up right now,” Dorantes said. “But the problem is, we’re fired up and we don’t know where to put that passion and we don’t know how to act on that passion. We see all this injustice; we see what happened with Black Lives Matter this past summer. We want to march, we want to make a change, but we don’t know how. So something like a John Lewis Institute is teaching us the how and teaching us the why.”
Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Dr. Stacey Miller will head up the institute, a place where students will study everything from food insecurity and mass incarceration to under-represented populations and environmental racism. The Institute’s first two-year cohort will be 12 to 15 students beginning next fall.
“Our hope is that this institute will prepare a new group of leaders to fulfill his final request,” Miller said of Lewis. “That this generation becomes the one to help peace triumph over violence.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.