The Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research

About the Elma Lewis Center

Goals of the Elma Lewis Center

  • Develop a culture of civic mindedness and civic action at Emerson;
  • Bring Emerson’s distinct expertise in the arts and communication to bear in serving the public good through school and community partnerships;
  • Measure the effectiveness of Emerson’s civic actions and contribute to the dissemination of knowledge regarding the ways in which creative expression might serve the common good through civic engagement;
  • Provide a platform for civil discourse about issues of social consequence; and
  • Develop the necessary infrastructure to support the growth of civic engagement at Emerson.

Students repair furniture at Annunciation House in El Paso, TX during Alternative Spring Break.


Our values uphold the belief that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to serve their local communities, that community partnerships are most meaningful when they are established with an ethic of care, respect, and collaboration, and that civic and community engagement cannot take place without a commitment to diversity and inclusion and social justice.


Named for Elma Lewis (’43), a renowned civic leader and arts educator in the city of Boston, the Elma Lewis Center seeks to advance the values that were important to Elma Lewis: access to the arts and giving voice to young people, teaching and learning, community engagement, and social justice. Ms. Lewis was committed to the delivery of artistic opportunities for young African-American children in Roxbury and Greater Boston, and to improving the world around her, one person at a time.                             

Long before the establishment of the Elma Lewis Center, community service and civic engagement were a part of Emerson’s mission.  The College was founded as a Conservatory of Oratory and Dramatic Art in 1880. In weekly lectures to faculty and students that were open to the public, founder Charles Wesley Emerson often spoke of his goals in establishing the institution:                    

“You know the central spirit of this institution is the spirit of helpfulness. We believe that oratory should be studied for the purpose of helping others, and for no other purpose. From the beginning I have declared for the spirit of helpfulness; help people to be well; help people to be strong; help people to be true; help people to love truth; help people to speak truth; seek for the truth in your oratory; be of service...”

This spirit of altruism remained after Emerson’s retirement in 1903, leading to the development of one of the first children’s theatre programs in this country in 1919 and one of the first professional training programs in Speech Pathology in 1935. Emerson Children’s Theatre productions, designed to entertain and educate young audiences, were performed initially in the College’s auditorium; subsequently, a road company performed at settlement houses and community centers throughout Boston.

Civic engagement continues to be a central part of the College today. President Pelton aims to establish Emerson as “the world’s hub for arts and communication in higher education,” and to ground this vision of excellence in a strategic plan that identifies civic engagement as one of five goals essential to realizing it. The strategic plan identifies the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research as the dynamic heart of these efforts.

Carnegie Foundation for Elective Community Engagement Classification Seal

Emerson Receives Community Engagement Classification

Emerson College recognized nationally for its high level of commitment to civic and community engagement.

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The President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll Seal

Emerson named to the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll

Emerson College once again recognized for reflecting the values of exemplary community service and achieving meaningful outcomes in its community.

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