Former nonprofit director brings diverse background to new center

by Kathryn Bennett / Beacon Staff • September 25, 2013

Kelly Bates, executive director of the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, speaks at a panel discussion last Thursday.
Kelly Bates, executive director of the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, speaks at a panel discussion last Thursday.

A large, framed thank-you letter propped on the table serves as a reminder of a decade of work in leadership and community impact. The thankful message from the Access Strategies Fund wishes Kelly Bates — the fund’s former director — well as she moves to a new position : the founding executive director of Emerson’s new Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research.

In this position, Bates said she will work with faculty, students, and staff to engage the Boston community in service learning projects, community partnerships, social discourse, community forums, and policy.

Raised in New York City’s diverse and low-income neighborhood of Washington Heights, Bates said she lived with her single mother and grandparents, who were passionate civic participants.

On Sept. 11, 2001, in the midst of the chaos after the terrorist attacks, Bates said her grandmother was most upset that she couldn’t cast her vote in the primary elections that were being held that day.

“That was her number one concern. I swear it’s a true story and that is the tradition I come from,” said Bates, chuckling at the memory.

While these family traditions influenced her as she grew up, it was her father’s career in public relations and communications that she said truly inspired her. Bates’ father was one of the first men to work for Planned Parenthood, she said.

Bates said she, as a child, had wanted to pursue a career as an actress and singer, but instead attended college at University at Albany, State University of New York, where she participated in student government.

“Becoming involved really politicized me, and I learned a great deal of leadership and organizing skills,” Bates said.

This is what led her to later attend Boston University School of Law, where she studied civil rights law, nonprofit law, and legislation, she said.

Unlike many of her peers who went on to work for law firms and the government, Bates said she has worked for the last 20 years running community-based organizations all over the Boston area. 

At the age of 26, Bates ran a women’s organization, and then a foundation that raised money for women and children who were victims of domestic violence and in need of health care, she said. For the eight years that followed, she said she became a consultant working with nonprofits, helping organizations become more diverse and deal with the power dynamics surrounding race and gender.

Bates said she hopes to bring the different components of the Elma Lewis Center together in big campaigns that will define what Emerson is known for in the community.

“Something so powerful that would make people go, ‘Wow, Emerson made such a huge impact alongside the community, and it has had a ripple effect for years to come,’” she said.

On Sept. 19, Bates hosted the center’s first panel discussion, which focused on gun violence, in collaboration with ArtsEmerson. She said the Elma Lewis Center would like to increase its role in campus discourse and become more involved with civic issues.

What motivates Bates is the vibrancy of the students and faculty, she said, describing them as an engaged, socially aware, and dynamic group.

“What makes it all worthwhile is seeing people’s minds open up about an issue,” she said. 

President M. Lee Pelton first announced his plans for the Elma Lewis Center in his innagural speech last September. 

Bates said she was appreciative of Pelton’s initiative. Lewis, who graduated from Emerson in 1943, was a nationally recognized arts and black culture activist, and Bates said being able to continue in her legacy is an honor.

Suzanne Hinton, director of the office of service learning and community action, said she feels Bates is a good fit for the center. 

“Kelly Bates brings a wealth of experience in terms of social justice and civic and community engagement to Emerson,” she said. “I can’t imagine anyone better suited for the work that Emerson has begun through our new Elma Lewis Center. Already in her first few weeks here, she is making an impact.”

Junior Judy Jun, a visual and media arts major, said she is looking forward to seeing what changes Bates will bring in the future.

“After meeting her during the hiring process, we students that are a part of the office of Diversity and Inclusion were able to see how friendly she was and how she cared about the work she did,” said Jun.

Vice President for diversity and inclusion Sylvia Spears said that Emerson was very fortunate to have someone of Bates’ caliber heading the Elma Lewis Center and leading its civic engagement initiative. 

“[Bates] brings to her role as executive director strong professional skills and abilities, deep involvement in the city of Boston,” said Spears, “and all of the right values to advance in civic work in meaningful ways.”