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Civil rights trailblazer recognized for decades of service

Photo by Christopher Huang.

The nonpartisan Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus has chosen Northeastern’s Jane Edmonds, a senior fellow in the College of Professional Studies and a civil rights pioneer in Massachusetts, as one of this year’s recipients of its Abigail Adams Award. The award recognizes women who have served as role models and improved social, economic and political parity.

“Jane was an easy choice,” said Priti Rao, the organization’s executive director. “If you look at her career and the work she has done, she is an exceptional role model. She has spent her life breaking barriers, both as a woman and a woman of color.”

Before she even began her career, Edmonds had to fight for her civil rights. When she and her husband wanted to move into Sharon, Mass., in the 1960s, they were unable to purchase their house from the builder, who would only sell to a white family.

“The sad part of that situation was that we had to sue to get our home in Sharon in the late ’60s,” Edmonds said. “We wanted a future for our children that included a quality education and yet this builder was standing in our way. We turned to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and we came into this town only with the support of all these people who helped us.”

Within a few years, Edmonds found herself running for public office, becoming the first woman of color elected to a school committee in Massachusetts — and one of the first minorities ever elected to hold public office anywhere in the Commonwealth.

“I wasn’t running because of that,” Edmonds said. “I was running because I wanted to make a difference to my community. It was only after I was elected, when a reporter from the Boston Globe showed up on my doorstep, that I learned I was breaking barriers.”

Edmonds received her undergraduate degree from Harvard and went on to study law at Boston College. Shortly after her graduation, Gov. Michael Dukakis named her chair of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

“When Jane took over the chairmanship in the mid-1970s, we were in the middle of a lot of troubles, including that terrible school desegregation process, and that certainly did not bring out the best in people,” said Dukakis, now a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern. “As chair, she opened the door for opportunity for thousands in this Commonwealth of ours, and she continues to do that.”

Over the decades, Edmonds’ career also included leadership posts under Gov. Mitt Romney and Boston Mayor Kevin White. She also founded and led JCEA, Inc., a development and diversity leadership firm based in Boston.

Now, Edmonds teaches executive leadership at Northeastern, which she says gives her the opportunity to teach a diverse range of students.

“I think Northeastern is like no other university in regards to providing educational opportunities, particularly to working adults,” Edmonds said. “That means a lot to me because the people I teach now remind me of myself as I was coming along. Northeastern provides that kind of access and gets me really excited.”