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Vanderbilt University is committed to furthering justice, equality and equity through its teaching, research and service. Few Vanderbilt community members embody these commitments better than former Divinity School student and university faculty member Rev. James Lawson, who has influenced our collective conscience for decades through his parish ministry and as a practitioner and teacher of faith-based nonviolent organizing.

With Rev. Lawson’s endorsement, Vanderbilt Divinity School and the College of Arts and Science seek to honor his legacy through the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University. Drawing on our rich local history, the institute will nurture evidence-based research and education rooted in nonviolent strategies; create and deepen partnerships in Nashville; and develop leaders equipped to contribute to a thriving society. A university investment will allow us to heed the abundant wisdom of Rev. Lawson while he is able to participate as the institute takes shape at Vanderbilt. We seek transformative philanthropic partnerships to bring the institute to its full potential.

“As an activist, intellectual, and minister, the life and work of Reverend James Lawson embodies all the values we honor at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Rev. Lawson’s lifelong commitment to nonviolence and social transformation models a life grounded in both faith and scholarship. The James Lawson Institute is invested in equipping and training generations of leaders who follow in Rev. Lawson’s legacy, including those who will carry his work forward by collaborative research and coalition building, based upon nonviolent strategies.”

Yolanda Pierce, PhD

Dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School and Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair of Religion & Literature


The institute will honor the rich civil rights history in Nashville and nurture community partnerships that align with the institute’s mission and values. The role of religion in this work—from Lawson’s influences to the training of today’s pastoral and lay leaders—will serve as a common thread in the pursuit of the institute’s mission.

Through study of nonviolent strategies and leadership development, the institute will carry forward the work of Lawson and his collaborators in pursuit of three goals:

Advance research

Given the unique charge to provide scholarship at the intersection of faith-based inquiry, data-driven research and community building, a research fund for the institute will expand on specialist scholarship while stimulating collaborative research and programming.

Promote conversations

The institute will address a wide variety of ideas with the goal of fostering informed and civically engaged citizens in the 21st century and beyond. Toward this purpose, visiting scholars and thought leaders will advance dialogue and showcase new perspectives.

Train the next generation

The institute will support student scholarships and post-doctoral positions while also providing compelling avenues for undergraduates to participate. Using Rev. Lawson’s teachings as a basis, those working within the institute will build a bridge between theory and practice, better preparing students to channel their passion into effective leadership with impact far beyond Vanderbilt.

Partnership and programming opportunities will be announced at the launch event for the James Lawson Institute in 2022.

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