Emerson President Lee Pelton honored Dr. J. Keith Motley, an educational and community leader who acts “with the bedrock of moral authority,” with the President’s Award for Civic Leadership Wednesday, September 13.
Motley, former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston and a board member of a number of educational, cultural, and civic organizations in the city, “is the epitome of an engaged, dedicated civic leader who continues to make a difference in the world,” Pelton told Motley’s friends, family, colleagues, and supporters on the Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage.
Emerson established the President’s Award for Civic Leadership two years ago to recognize leaders locally and around the world who have made a positive impact on society. The award is given to those whose “creative courage advances social justice, whose selfless action betters the lives of others, and whose outstanding leadership advances the common good.”
Previous winners have included Gloria White-Hammond and Ray Hammond, pastors of Bethel AME Church in Boston, and New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones.
From 2007 to 2017, Motley served as chancellor of UMass Boston. He is a founder and chair emeritus of the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, founder and education chair of Concerned Black Men of Massachusetts, and founder of the Paul Robeson Institute for Positive Self-Development.
He sits on the boards of Carney Hospital, where he is chair; Freedom House, The Boston Foundation, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. He previously served as chair of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Motley’s service to his community speaks to a belief in the “great American dream,” Pelton said.
“Not the kind of dream that is available only to those privileged by history or family income. Not the kind of dream that is built on narrow self-interest, but rather a compelling vision of what we could be if we were truly open to the best that is known and thought in the world.
“The kind of dream which will swing open wide the doors of opportunity, which sets the table for all to enjoy life’s bounty.”
Motley, limping after recent foot surgery, thanked Pelton and Emerson College for the honor.
He credited his parents for teaching him the value of a broad and comprehensive education, and the importance of community service.
“They shaped me and made sure this little boy from Pittsburgh went out to Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and beyond and learned to serve,” Motley said
He said his entire life, he’s studied the arts, theater, violin, computer science, “all the things my friends used to laugh about,” and in the process he was exposed to a whole world of new ideas.
“For all of us, when you’re exposed to something, you don’t fear it anymore,” Motley said.
He also said he was grateful for the “opportunity to learn from giants here in this great city,” and thanked his wife and daughter.
Motley said the chance to make a difference falls to everyone.
“Don’t you ever believe that titles and opportunities shape who you are or what your opportunities to live, learn, and serve are,” Motley said. “What I am today is more excited than ever about the future and those opportunities. I can’t wait to get started.”