Cornell William Brooks wins Prizes for Civil Rights Service and Leadership

March 22, 2021
Headshot image of Cornell Brooks

Cornell William Brooks, the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at Harvard Kennedy School, today was awarded two prestigious Irish prizes recognizing his decades of leadership and service in the cause of civil rights.

At a virtual ceremony held in Dublin, Brooks received the Praeses Elit Award from Trinity College Dublin Law Society as well as the Gold Medal of Honorary Patronage from the University Philosophical Society. The Praeses Elit Award was founded by Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and United Nations high commissioner for refugees. The university’s Philosophical Society was founded in 1683 and is among the oldest student societies in the world.

The jointly bestowed awards recognize Brooks for “his contribution to the American legal and political landscape over the course of his career.”

Before coming to Harvard Kennedy School in 2018, Brooks was president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the largest civil rights organization in the United States. Founded in 1909, the NAACP has more than 2,200 branches across the country with more than two million active supporters.

A lawyer and ordained minister, Brooks grew and energized the NAACP at a time of complex national civil rights challenges in the United States. He brought numerous lawsuits against voter suppression and police brutality. He led marches and demonstrations against rights abuses from Flint, Michigan, to Ferguson, Missouri, where the police killing of Michael Brown sparked widespread outrage.

Previously, Brooks was president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and an attorney in the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He is a graduate of Yale Law School, Boston University School of Theology, and Jackson State University.

At the Kennedy School, Brooks teaches courses in which students learn advocacy by working with mayors, governors, and grassroots organizations on tangible and timely social justice reform. He also launched and leads the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, whose projects include “The Good Trouble Lab,” a teach-in providing training in nonviolent direct action to affect real change. Brooks is also a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School.

The Praeses Elit Award recognizes “those who have advanced discourse in their line of work and who have been a source of inspiration for young people everywhere.” Previous winners include Nobel Prize winner FW de Klerk, human rights activist and musician Bob Geldof, and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. Previous honorary patrons of the Philosophical Society include U.S. President Joe Biden, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and U.S. Senator John McCain.

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