Sophomore Mia Dorantes

NEW BRITAIN — Central Connecticut State University amped up its efforts to engage students and the local community around social justice issues with the launch of the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice Thursday. 

“An important component of our mission is to prepare students to be thoughtful, responsible and successful citizens,” CCSU President Dr. Zulma Toro said during the virtual opening ceremony. “As our society continues to struggle with the persistence of inequality, many of our students have proactively sought out ways to become more informed and involved in social justice initiatives.”

The Institute is named after the late Congressman John Lewis, a giant of the civil rights movement whose legacy spans decades of causing “good trouble.” Lewis memorably suffered a fractured skull after troops beat him and other protesters during the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965. He died last summer from pancreatic cancer.

The program will aim to teach students how to hone and use their activism, according to Dr. John Tully, CCSU’s interim vice president for student affairs. Students will participate in projects and work with social justice practitioners “from all walks of life,” Tully said. Its main goals are developing students’ leadership and advocacy skills while helping them to explore public service careers.

Toro said that the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement, fired CCSU students up to want to learn more about social justice. This led Toro to work with partners like the institute’s founding donor, Scott Pioli, and its incoming executive director, Dr. Stacey Miller, to develop such a program.

Connecticut’s U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, who both worked with Lewis on Capitol Hill, applauded CCSU for honoring his legacy. 

For students like sophomore Mia Dorantes, the new program provides an opportunity to follow in Lewis’ footsteps as an advocate for social justice and equality. A political science major, Dorantes transferred to CCSU because of her passion for social justice, and she believes the new program will prepare her and her peers to make a difference.

“John Lewis is exactly what I want to be. Everything that he’s done is a blueprint for how I want my life to turn out,” said Dorantes, whose interests include women’s rights, racial equality and allying with the LGBTQ+ community. “I think the fact that CCSU recognized his work and is naming the social justice institute after him, it’s amazing for me.”

Olanrewaju “Ola” Olamuyiwa, another political science sophomore and the vice president of the CCSU Student Government Association, said that being a part of the institute will help his aspirations of going to law school and “just fighting for humanity.”

“It’s just a blessing that I attend CCSU and my university is providing me with these kinds of resources,” Olamuyiwa said. “In today’s world, humanity is not something that a lot of people practice. People judge people just because of what they look like and what they believe in.”

Sophomore Olanrewaju “Ola” Olamuyiwa

Olamuyiwa also believes that the program will put CCSU on the map globally. He said he’s already had friends from other universities reach out to him about it.

“This is going to set CCSU apart,” he said. “It puts us on a national stage. John Lewis’ name is a national name. It puts CCSU up there to be a global university.”

Lewis’ record of taking action, even when it put him in harm’s way, drew history major Ana Cruz to him. She said she is very passionate about physically getting involved in issues to elicit change — that’s why she’s volunteered throughout her life.

“It’s something that I very much admired about him and wanted to kind of model myself after,” Cruz said.

The Institute is set to select 12 to 15 student scholars for its first run of the program, which will begin this fall. Scholars will learn at the institute for two-year term. Christian Reyes, a research associate at the CCSU Center for Public Policy and Research who graduated from the university in 2020, said it’ll be a great opportunity for undergraduates to become and meet future leaders.

“It’s super important that CCSU opens this institute to provide a place for students and activists to take that energy that’s built up and put it somewhere that’s guided,” said Reyes.