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Elma Lewis Center Invites Community to Share Dreams of America

In his 1935 poem, “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes lists all the ways and all the people America has failed, but maintains hope that one day, the nation will make good on its promise to make everyone free and equal.

On November 2, less than a week before the most divisive election in modern memory, the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement brought together a group of activists, educators, and community members to talk about what they hope “America Will Be.” The event, part of the Center’s #EmersonVotes initiative, was inspired by Hughes’s poem and the work of Elma Lewis ’43, a performer and educator who spent her life bringing art and opportunity to black children in Boston.

“In the spirit of Ms. Lewis, we’re bringing folks together for a conversation about the critical issues of the day,” said Elma Lewis Center Executive Director Judy Pryor-Ramirez, who moderated the panel.

Panelist Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, director of the STEAM Lab at the Boston Arts Academy (BAA), said that as one of few women of color in her field, she has run into opposition and skepticism throughout her career, but she was “born a rebel” and uses that to push forward with her work.

At BAA, an inclusive Boston public school, the STEAM Lab integrates art with STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). When she first came to the school, none of the students had heard of President Obama’s Nation of Makers initiative, which empowers students to “create, innovate, tinker, and make their ideas and solutions into reality” through expanded resources.

Now, “by the time they’re graduating, not only will they have heard of [Nation of Makers], they will be making,” Gaskins said.

Similarly, through Press Pass TV (PPTV), panelist Darius Watford is enabling young people in low-income neighborhoods to express what’s important to them, empowering them to think critically about the media.

“There are things that are going on in the media that don’t necessarily speak the truth,” said Watford, who himself participated in PPTV when he was younger. “We’re building up these local journalists to tell the truth and making them media literate.”

Voices for All

Heather Watkins ’97, a disability advocate who has muscular dystrophy and a writer who created the Slow Walkers See More blog, works to advocate for people with disabilities and to “amplify our voices and raise our profiles.”

“Making people see disability as something to be socially accepted and not this big indictment,” she said. “A lot of the opposition I come up against is making people understand that disability is a lot larger than they ever thought about.”

For example, communities love to encourage people to “shop local,” she said, but local businesses often are inaccessible, forcing people with disabilities to shop online or at big box chains.

Sometimes, people refuse to acknowledge or comprehend that a person even has a disability, she said. But through her writing, Watkins said, she now has exposure to so many other advocates.

“That, for me, has really lifted the cap off my own potential and how I see myself…I am now able to inform public policy because of that,” she said.

Pryor-Ramirez wrapped things up by asking the panelists—and the audience—to fill in the blank: “America will be…”

“Inclusive of all abilities and accessible to all persons,” said Watkins.

“Progressive,” said Watford, explaining that we will need “to acknowledge we do live in a good nation and we’re blessed to have the rights and opportunities that we do in America, but acknowledge that we have faults that are built in systematically and socially that we still have to address.”

“Equitable,” said Gaskins. “Having an equal society means we’re thinking about who’s not in the room. And we’re thinking about who’s represented.”

Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Sylvia Spears, who was in the audience, asked the panel, “How do we hold on to hope in a time when it feels so much is hopeless?”

Watson said it was important to “find power in a community” and reach out to those around you.

But Watkins sees a problem with the way we communicate (or don’t) with each other.

“People are listening to reply, but they’re not listening to understand,” she said.

There was optimism in the audience, however.

Sharon Dunn, professor emerita at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and coordinator of the school’s low-residency MFA program, said she thinks the country is on the verge of a positive transformation, thanks largely to millennials who seem more connected and motivated to change than previous generations. “I tell my art students, ‘This is the generation I’ve been waiting for,’” Dunn said.

Sabrina Saint-Louis, a student at Bunker Hill Community College, said we shouldn’t get discouraged. “We all know there’s a problem, and we all know that we need to do something,” Saint-Louis said. “We’re not sure what we need to do, but we know that we have to initiate it.”

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