Emerson College today announces that acclaimed author, playwright, and poet, Professor Jabari Asim, has been named the first recipient of the newly created Elma Lewis Distinguished Fellowship in the institution’s Social Justice Center. The fellowship honors the work of Emerson alumna Elma Lewis ’43, an arts educator and founder of the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and the National Center of Afro-American Artists, who devoted her life to invoking the arts as a powerful mechanism for social change.

The Elma Lewis Distinguished Fellow in the Social Justice Center at Emerson plays an important role in deepening discourse and engagement around social justice on campus and in the broader community. The fellow provides thought leadership and expertise on social justice issues, leadership in the creation of the college’s annual Teach-in on Race, and convenes campus events and programs that bring attention to issues of social consequence.

“This fellowship honors the legacy of Elma Lewis’ groundbreaking work and discourse as a leader in social justice advocacy and simultaneously acknowledges the important intellectual writings and commentary about injustice in our society that Jabari Asim exposes decades later,” said Emerson President M. Lee Pelton.

“The appointment recognizes that Professor Asim is an extraordinary writer, public intellectual, teacher, and mentor—his work has initiated campus-wide conversations on race in America and in higher education, and deepened the Emerson community’s engagement with these most pressing issues of our time,” said Michaele Whelan, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs.

An associate professor of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson, Asim has authored several books for both adults and children. His most recent book, We Can’t Breathe, was recently a named a 2019 PEN America Literary Awards finalist. Prior to his appointment at Emerson, he was an editor for 11 years at the Washington Post, where he also wrote a syndicated column on politics, popular culture, and social issues. Formerly the editor-in-chief of Crisis magazine, the NAACP's flagship journal of politics, culture, and ideas, he was the recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim fellowship in Creative Arts.

“Jabari Asim is an extraordinary talent who provides timely and poignant commentary on some of society’s most pressing social issues.  As a public intellectual, writer, and artist, he brings deep and powerful analysis of race and culture into our collective gaze. I am so pleased to have Jabari Asim as the first recipient of this new fellowship, in recognition of Elma Lewis’ life and legacy,” said Sylvia Spears, Vice President for Equity & Social Justice.

"It is an honor to represent the college from this new platform within Emerson's Social Justice Center. It provides an ideal site for encouraging the campus and outside communities to consider issues of social justice and race more deeply," said Asim.

Asim, who is a Boston Public Library Trustee, will continue as a member of the creative writing faculty at Emerson in addition to his duties as the Elma Lewis Distinguished Fellow, which include serving as a thought leader and public intellectual for external and media outlets.

About Elma Lewis

Born in Boston to parents who emigrated from Barbados, Elma Lewis graduated from Emerson College in 1943, and earned a Master’s in Education from Boston University. Elma Lewis devoted her life to invoking the arts as a powerful mechanism for personal and social change and promoting African American culture through a variety of art forms. In addition to teaching drama, dance, and speech therapy, Lewis also founded several cultural and education organizations to promote the arts and communication to Boston’s African American youth including the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury, Playhouse in the Park in Boston’s Franklin Park, and the National Center of Afro-American Artists. She was one of the first women to receive a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and received the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 1983. Lewis was the recipient of over 400 awards and 28 honorary degrees.

About the College

Based in Boston, Massachusetts, opposite the historic Boston Common and in the heart of the city’s Theatre District, Emerson College educates individuals who will solve problems and change the world through engaged leadership in communication and the arts, a mission informed by liberal learning. The College has 3,780 undergraduates and 670 graduate students from across the United States and 50 countries. Supported by state-of-the-art facilities and a renowned faculty, students participate in more than 90 student organizations and performance groups. Emerson is known for its experiential learning programs in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, the Netherlands, London, China, and the Czech Republic as well as its new Global Portals, with the first opening last fall in Paris. The College has an active network of 51,000 alumni who hold leadership positions in communication and the arts. For more information, visit