Northeastern opens Nonnie S. Burnes Center for Social Change


Northeastern University is launching the Burnes Center for Social Change to honor and fulfill the vision of the Burnes family and to honor the legacy of the late Nonnie Burnes, the humble and exuberant Massachusetts Superior Court judge who championed the needs of people of all walks of life. .

The center, which was a priority for Nonnie Burnes even as she battled the cancer that claimed her life, seeks to become the preeminent center for developing problem solutions to tackle climate change, racial justice, to urban education reform and other intractable public problems. .

It is funded by a $20 million gift from the Burnes family, including Nonnie, her husband Richard and their three children, who will be the driving forces behind the mission to provide flagship programs in education, research and of advocacy, while pursuing the vision of Nonnie Burnes. to fight for social justice and equity.

“She was a problem solver,” Richard Burnes says of his late wife. Courtesy picture.

“She was a problem solver,” Richard Burnes says of his late wife. “She didn’t like the constraints placed on people and she wanted everyone to have the same opportunity.”

Richard Burnes says the idea for the center grew out of a conversation between Nonnie Burnes and Joseph E. Aounpresident of Northeastern, on how best to effect change.

“Nonnie and Rick Burnes have always been champions of social change, and the Burnes Center is the embodiment of their passion and dedication,” said Aoun. “You have to start with the world for real change to happen. Northeastern and the Burnes family share this philosophy. This donation will reinforce the important work of real-world impact and social change for generations to come.

According to Beth Noveck, founding director of the center, one of the guiding principles of the Burnes Center is that social innovation is a learned skill that can be taught, nurtured and reinforced. Technology and data will be empowered by grassroots community efforts of people from diverse backgrounds and ambitions to identify problems, strategize solutions, and collaborate on meaningful change.

The center is an embodiment of the belief, held by the Burnes family, that “we must invest in helping mission-driven leaders move their projects from idea to implementation,” says Noveck. “What was so impressive about Nonnie was her fierce commitment to social justice and social change, combined with a genuine sense of warmth, calm and peace. On the one hand, she was a lioness and a fighter; and on the other hand, it was so calming to be in his presence, and so inspiring.

The center became a key focus for Burnes after she was diagnosed with kidney cancer last year. He is launched at Northeastern nine months after his death last August at age 79.

“‘She said to me, ‘I have a lot of things I want to do and I don’t know how much time I have, so we better do it quickly,'” says Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for academic advancement at Northeastern. “She said the center was the most important thing she wanted to achieve.”

A portrait of Nonnie Burnes.

A colorful and tireless personality who pursued the adventure without flaunting her success, Burnes left a partnership at a prominent Boston law firm to become an associate judge of the Superior Court of Massachusetts in a pioneering role among women. Presiding over cases where child victims have become devastating to Burnes, her husband says, providing context that underscores the Burnes Center’s commitment to improving urban education.

“People in most big cities don’t realize how bad school systems are,” says Richard Burnes. “Nonnie used to say she could tell kids who were going to get into trouble in her courtroom. She would say that some of the brightest kids didn’t learn to read properly.

Burnes was a director of Northeastern, his alma mater, as well as a senior academic researcher at School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. She supported disenfranchised people while creating scholarships for law students who focused on social change. She was a member of the board of directors and president of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts since 2012. As commissioner of the Massachusetts Division of Insurance, she instituted long-sought reforms that increased competition and lowered costs for drivers.

As Burnes developed plans for her center, she came to see it as a source of stubborn optimism, an antidote to polarization and division that neutralized levers of societal change. The American public remains firmly hopeful in the center’s mission despite the ongoing partisan culture wars: 57% of adults believe that Americans can find ways to solve the country’s problems, according to the Pew Research Center, and 65% of millennials say they expect to make a difference. in the world through their work.

The Burnes Center will provide more than a home for people who aspire to make a difference. Activists will receive resources, mentors and practical strategies to help them sharpen their focus and deepen their resolve.

The center will serve a diverse group of problem solvers, including government professionals who possess a first-hand understanding of bureaucratic problems as well as solutions that can help people; activists who work on behalf of non-profit and for-profit organizations; and students and others who dream of contributing to a community that will take action.

“We are not building an empire; we are building solutions,” President Aoun said.

It was at Northeastern that Burnes found a long-term partner in pursuing broader reform. A law school graduate who graduated after raising her children, Burnes served as a trustee of the North East from 2000 to 2010, helping guide the university in its fundamental transition to becoming a world-class research university. Among his enduring achievements is Northeastern’s Public Interest Law Scholars Programwhich she created to provide financial support to law students with experience in social justice.

The center will identify critical challenges that impact communities, such as issues in the K-12 public education system. It will bring together stakeholders from all sectors, including academia, government and industry to understand all sides of a problem and design impactful solutions.

At the heart of all efforts, the focus will be on listening to communities and adapting to meet needs. Richard Burnes says the centre’s work will be judged by the quality of the people it attracts and, surprisingly, by its failure rate.

“I want to see him fail at certain things,” he says of the center. “If some of his ideas and experiments don’t fail, it’s because they don’t try hard enough. They don’t search enough.

For media inquiriesplease contact Shannon Nargi at [email protected] or 617-373-5718.


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