Central Connecticut State University is establishing the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice, designed to empower a new generation to follow in the footsteps of the late civil rights leader and member of Congress in building a better and more just world.
The Institute, announced in an online ceremony, seeks to inspire students to not only recognize inequality but to help eliminate injustice by fostering a deeper understanding of its roots, according to university officials. Through its mission, the Institute hopes to develop students who become social justice advocates and leaders inspired to pursue careers in public service.
Lewis helped to found and became a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee a half-century ago. One of the organizers of the March on Washington in 1963, he was its last surviving speaker. He organized, marched, and spoke up against racial and economic injustice at every turn, and was beaten and bloodied often for his efforts.
He will forever be etched in the Civil Rights Movement for all of these efforts, CCSU officials noted, but especially for his role in the voting rights march of March 1965 across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. In what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” a police officer cracked his skull, then hit him again as he tried to rise. President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act a little more than a week later, and it became law that summer. Voting rights remained one of Lewis’s social justice passions for decades afterward. He took office as a U.S. Representative from Georgia in 1986, serving until his death last year at age 80.
“An important component of our mission is to prepare students to be thoughtful, responsible and successful citizens. 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,” said Dr. Zulma Toro, president of CCSU.
“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,” Toro noted.
CCSU undergraduate students in any area of study can become scholars of the Institute for a term of two years. The institute will select 12 to 15 student scholars for its first cohort set to begin in the fall of 2021.
Scott Pioli, a CCSU alum and longtime supporter of social justice initiatives, is the Institute’s founding donor. He will also serve as founding chair to guide the direction, curriculum, experiences and outcomes for the Institute’s student scholars.
In addition to Pioli, the Institute will be led by Dr. Stacey Miller, the University’s recently appointed Vice President for the Office of Equity and Inclusion, who will serve as executive director. Dr. Miller will be responsible for the oversight of the student cohort and all programming. Pioli and Miller will also identify additional advisory panel members.
“Throughout my career I have worked to champion equal rights for underserved and minority populations, so when President Toro approached me with this opportunity, I knew I wanted to be involved,” said Pioli, an NFL Network and CBS Sports analyst and five-time NFL executive of the year. “I am honored to have the opportunity to partner with the University and its student scholars to continue working towards social justice,” Pioli added.
Connecticut First District Congressman John Larson is also a CCSU graduate, and served with Lewis in Congress for two decades. When Lewis died last July, Larson said he was “honored and humbled to have served alongside him,” describing Lewis as an “inspiration,” and the “conscience” of the United States Congress. “We will never be able to thank him for all that he has done to move our country forward.”
Larson, along with Governor Ned Lamont, New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, and U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, participated in the ceremony launching the new Institute. Blumenthal saluted CCSU for establishing the Institute, describing it as a “pivotal institution.”
CCSU officials indicated that through the Institute, plans are for student scholars to explore social justice in deeper context by delving into topics including public service, civil rights, environmental racism, food insecurity, social justice, mass incarceration and under-represented populations. They will also create, lead and participate in social justice initiatives both on campus and in the surrounding communities.
“Throughout his life of service in pursuit of justice, Rep. Lewis encouraged young people to get into ‘good trouble, necessary trouble,’ and this Institute will encourage our students to carry on his legacy and fight for social justice,” said Dr. Miller. “Our hope is that this Institute will prepare a new group of leaders to fulfill his final request—that this generation becomes the one to help peace triumph over violence.”
The event announcing the Institute also include comments from three CCSU students, and other CCSU administrators and faculty. Members of the Institute’s Advisory Board include William Fothergill, Steven Kliger, Claudia Richards-Meade, Reinaldo Rojas, and Jacob Werblow. Information about the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice can be seen at www.ccsu.edu/johnlewisinstitute .