Elma Lewis Center Names New Director

Erin Clossey

March 15, 2016

Judy Pryor-Ramirez  Photo/Harri Ramkishun

The Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research will soon have a new executive director, along with a new structure to support her as she builds relationships and partnerships with the wider world.

Judy Pryor-Ramirez, director of civic engagement and social justice at the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School in New York City, will take the helm of the Elma Lewis Center in July.

“Judy has a wonderful combination of skills and dispositions,” said Sylvia Spears, Emerson College’s vice president for diversity and inclusion. “Certainly, her work at The New School is very consistent with the work she will do here, so her previous experience very nicely fit our needs. But in addition, she brings some experience teaching, [with] understanding of issues related to faculty and teaching and learning, which we think is important. She also has developed the ability to come into a community she does not know and build relationships and establish trust.”

In addition to leading Eugene Lang’s social justice and civic engagement initiatives, Pryor-Ramirez is a part-time faculty member and directs The New School’s Ethnicity and Race minor. As a faculty member, she has piloted a number of community-based learning courses, including a sociology course that partnered with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office to place students in community centers where they mentored young men of color.

Pryor-Ramirez said she was drawn to the job at Emerson for three main reasons. She said she was eager to continue the type of work she had been doing in another urban context, and the College’s priority of civic engagement as laid out by President Lee Pelton meant that the work would be supported through the strategic plan, she said.

But first, she said, she was inspired by the life of Elma Lewis herself. Lewis ’43 paid for her Emerson education by acting in local theater productions, and dedicated her life to arts education and providing artistic opportunities to black children in Boston’s neighborhoods.

“I was incredibly inspired by her legacy and the history of her work as an educator, as an artist, and as a contributor to the black national arts movement,” Pryor-Ramirez said.

Pryor-Ramirez said she sees academic civic engagement as offering different strengths and opportunities from nonprofits, because of the multifaceted resources a college or university has to offer.  

“What are the intellectual resources, what are the human resources, what are the financial resources that we can bring to bear to meet community needs?” she said.

To that end, Spears said that Pryor-Ramirez, as executive director of the Elma Lewis Center, would be broadening the Center’s reach and mission, working with national organizations around issues of civic engagement and best practices, developing more partnerships with community-based organizations, and identifying external funding opportunities.

Suzanne Hinton will continue as director of the Elma Lewis Center’s Office of Academic Engagement and Community Action, formerly known as the Office of Service Learning and Community Action, where she will focus on helping faculty incorporate service learning into their classrooms.

“The shift really is a recognition that the infusion of civic engagement into the life of the College and, more specifically, the academic enterprise, is not limited to service learning. That’s just one expression of civic engagement,” Spears said.

Pryor-Ramirez said she’ll spend her first semester or two at Emerson learning more about the College, its community partners, and the Boston community.

“Whatever we do will certainly pull on the College’s strengths and what it’s known for, which is arts and communication,” Pryor-Ramirez said. “‘What’s going to make our center distinctive?’ is the question I’m asking myself.”

Prior to The New School, Pryor-Ramirez worked as acting downtown program director and Richmond Families Initiative program manager for the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond.