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Class of 2023 graduate inspires others through the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King

Class of 2023 graduate inspires others through the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King

A chance encounter with one of America’s most famous civil rights activists led Community College of Rhode Island first-generation Class of 2023 graduate Shane Lee down an unexpected career path.

Now the 36-year-old Providence, RI, native and married father of five is hoping to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and continue teaching the philosophies that have inspired countless others.

Lee will graduate this summer with an associate degree in General Studies, a pivotal moment in a lifelong journey that began more than a decade ago at the University of Rhode Island and continued in 2018 when Lee enrolled at CCRI as a reverse transfer student, unsure where he’d end up, but certain this was the right step.

As he prepares to continue his academic journey in the fall to pursue a bachelor’s degree and a career in the nonprofit sector, Lee is currently working as a Nonviolence Facilitator at the Nonviolence Institute in Providence, which works toward creating a community that uses the principles and practices of nonviolence to prevent, interrupt, and heal violence and to uplift the community.

There, Lee teaches the principles of Kingian Nonviolence, a philosophy of nonviolent conflict reconciliation based on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the organizing strategies he used during the Civil Rights Movement.  

Growing up, Lee always felt drawn to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Era, but wasn’t sure how or where he’d fit in.

“I know I was born to be one of those torch bearers,” he said, “but didn’t know how.”

After graduating Central High School, Lee enrolled at URI and was accepted into the college’s Talent Development Program, where he began Level I Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation training. Shortly thereafter, he met Bernard Lafayette, who was a senior fellow teaching an honors course at URI’s Center for Nonviolence & Peace Studies. Lafayette was an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement and played a key role in organizing the Selma Voting Rights Movement, a series of protests in 1965 by nonviolent activists to demonstrate the desire of Black Americans to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Lee described meeting Lafayette as “a paradigm shift.”

“I could just feel it,” he said. “I’ve always felt this heavy burden to change the circumstances that people like me deal with. When I met Bernard, it filled in a lot of gaps. I understood the work. When I met Bernard, that’s what brought me here.”

Lee would go on to complete his Level II training at URI, but stopped out within a year, citing his battle with depression and other “life circumstances” standing in the way of his education. Lee’s journey, however, has always been about small signs along the way, starting with meeting Lafayette.

A decade later while working for Blue Cross Blue Shield Rhode Island, he met CCRI President Dr. Meghan Hughes, who was the keynote speaker at an annual BCBSRI event. Lee admits he felt like a “lost cause” at the time, but Dr. Hughes explained the reverse transfer process and how CCRI could help him get back on track.

Still, he wasn’t ready. He needed another sign. In 2021, he received an email from Admissions counselor and re-enrollment specialist Lisa Rooney announcing the COVID Recovery Finish Scholarship, which, through federal funding, supported returning adult learners in completing their degree.

Finally, he reenrolled in Spring of 2022 and is now one summer course away from completing his associate degree, a remarkable journey aided by the guidance of CCRI’s support staff, whom he credits with keeping him on the right path.

“Even if you don’t have a smooth reentry – and mine had a few bumps – it takes caring, considerate, involved people to make this possible, like Meghan Hughes and Lisa Rooney,” Lee said.

“Not finishing my degree was tough for me because I placed a lot of my success and identity on going to school. My mother died from lymphoma. My father abandoned our family. I had a really rough childhood growing up in a family plagued with broken relationships, drugs, and alcohol. I would always tell myself I’d be the first in my family to graduate college and break away from the status quo.

“CCRI helped make it possible. Here, it’s a non-threatening, welcoming environment. Even though most of my classes were online, I still saw the commitment and dedication of my professors and staff, like Lisa. That was big.”

Lee’s journey recently came full circle in late February when he visited the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation in Alabama, where he reunited with Lafayette while teaching Level I Kingian Nonviolence. Lee spent a week with Lafayette as Lafayette’s personal assistant. They visited the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a famous civil rights landmark where police officers brutally attacked protestors with tear gas and nightsticks on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2013.

“They say you can feel the spirit of the people who walked across that bridge. I definitely did,” Lee said.
“I had the opportunity to spend so much time with Bernard, ask him questions about his legacy, and, most importantly, make sure I was being true to the purity behind the content I’m teaching. I got that, and so much more.”

As he continues his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in the fall, Lee hopes to one day become the Executive Director of a nonprofit so he can continue inspiring others through the teachings of Dr. King.

“I’ve always been an activist and someone passionate about community organizing,” Lee said. “The opportunities provided by CCRI were life changing. I struggled at first because I had been out of school for such a long time, but the experience of the staff and the care they provided motivated me to finish my degree.”

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