Fighting for Justice and Equity, the Burnes Center for Social Change Cements a Legacy

As a humble yet ebullient Massachusetts Superior Court judge who championed the needs of people from all backgrounds, the late Nonnie Burnes touched many lives. To honor her legacy and fulfill the mission of the Burnes family, Northeastern University launched the Burnes Center for Social Change.

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

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

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

Richard Burnes says the idea for the center germinated from a conversation between Nonnie Burnes and Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, on how best to effect change.

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

A driving principle of the Burnes Center is that social innovation is a learnable skill that can be taught, nurtured, and empowered, says Beth Noveck, the center’s founding director. Technology and data will be empowered by grassroots community efforts of people drawn together from a diversity of backgrounds and ambitions to identify problems, strategize solutions, and collaborate on meaningful change.

The center is a fulfillment of the belief, driven by the Burnes family, that “we need to invest in helping mission-driven leaders take 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 true sense of warmth, of stillness, of peace. On the one hand, she was a lioness and a fighter; and on the other hand, it was just so calming to be in her presence, and so inspiring.”

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

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

“She was a problem solver. She didn’t like constraints on people, and she wanted everybody to have the same opportunity.”

—Richard Burnes, Nonnie’s husband

This article was originally written by Ian Thomsen
and published by Northeastern Global News.