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Gellman, Fernander Winners of Spirit of Emerson Award

President Lee Pelton with 2019 Spirit of Emerson Award winners Lex Fernander, left, and Mneesha Gellman. Photo/Claire Richards ’22

Assistant Professor Mneesha Gellman, founder/director of the Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI), and senior and POWER co-chair Alexis “Lex” Fernander were named this year’s Spirit of Emerson Award winners.

The Spirit of Emerson Award honors those community members who best exemplify “E-spirit,” defined as “electric, innovative energy in thought and creation.” Gellman and Fernander were presented with the award at the March 26 Faculty Assembly meeting.

Winners are selected by a seven-member committee who evaluates nominees based on 10 criteria, of which winners must possess at least three.

According to Spirit of Emerson Committee member Jaqi Holland, Gellman exemplified all 10 criteria, not least of which were “making substantial contributions to advancing social justice, inclusiveness, and diversity; unconditional giving to Emerson; and advancing Emerson’s mission, especially Emerson’s commitment to academic excellence and civic engagement.”

Gellman, who teaches political science courses focused on power, privilege, and systemic inequality in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, started the EPI in 2017, with the aim to bring a quality liberal arts education to students incarcerated at Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI) Concord.

Students at MCI-Concord are taught by Emerson faculty members in courses that mirror as closely as possible those taught on the Boston campus, with the same reading material, assignments, and high standards.

“EPI aims to increase and democratize access to higher education for marginalized groups who might not otherwise have the chance to go to college,” President Lee Pelton said in remarks at the Faculty Assembly. “In this way, it intends to make lasting and transformative change.”

Gellman said she was “humbled” to receive the 2019 Spirit of Emerson Award.

“The Emerson Prison Initiative is part of Emerson’s commitment to expanding access to higher education for historically marginalized populations. EPI fundamentally changes the way that incarcerated students do their time, both philosophically and in terms of the kinds of lives EPI students can prepare for post-release,” Gellman said.

“Being a part of such an intervention reminds me of the capacity for change in the world, and not just on the part of students, but for educators and institutions as well. It is an honor to be a part of that change.”

Lex Fernander, a Political Communication major with a double minor in Hearing and Deafness and Peace and Social Justice, is a Student Government Association member, works as an RA in the Learning Community and as a Student Ambassador, performs with acapella group Noteworthy and comedy troupe Chocolate Cake City, and serves on the executive board of Hidden Lantern, an arts festival that aims to destigmatize mental health.

As an Accessibility Senator, and later as a POWER Commissioner on the SGA, Fernander advocated for additional senators to represent students with disabilities, international students, and those in the Honors Program. She has served on a search team for the Director of Faculty Development and Diversity, and was involved in the planning of EBONI’s 50th anniversary celebration. One nominator said Fernander’s values were reflected in her capstone project, “working on comprehensive plan for public education activist organizations through the Massachusetts Jobs with Justice Coalition.”

“There isn’t an Emerson venue where Lex hasn’t made her mark, whether it’s the stage of the Cabaret, the fields of Rotch as a former lacrosse player, behind the counter at the City Place Starbucks or the cushions of the Cultural Center,” according to Pelton’s remarks. “Lex’s openness to numerous adventures, situations, and challenges inspires those around her to persevere with a smile on their face just like her. She influences others, not only showing them why they should care, but also how they can get involved.”




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