The music of Callbaxx a cappella resonated throughout Willard Straight Hall as the group performed at the James A. Perkins Prize award ceremony yesterday. The annual award is given to “the program or organization making the most significant contribution to furthering the ideal of University community while respecting the values of racial diversity.”[img_assist|nid=36887|title=Acceptance speech|desc=President David Skorton pays tribute to Olivia Tai, who accepted the Perkins Prize award for MOSAIC.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The 15th annual Perkins Prize was awarded to the student group, MOSAIC — For Queer and Same Gender Loving People of Color, for its promotion of interracial harmony and understanding across campus. Mosaic, a social support group for “queer and same-gender loving people of color,” is the first LGBT group to win this award.
“To win such a prestigious prize is a really moving achievement for the [LGBT] community of color,” Olivia Tai ’11 said, after emotionally accepting the $5,000 award on behalf of MOSAIC. “It will remain a legacy at Cornell.”
Tai explained that the purpose of MOSAIC was to create campus-wide dialogue for people who “lived at the intersection of identity” as a homosexual and a minority. The group called upon different minority communities across campus to participate in workshops, in which students could be educated about the nature of race and sexuality.
Honorable mention prizes of $500 were given to Cornell Bridges Education Program, an organization dedicated to educating and reforming high to medium-security prisoners, and Cornell Bridges to Community/DSOC, a global service-learning program.
“All of the organizations here today represent today’s frontier on social justice,” Thomas Jones ‘69, creator of the Perkins Prize, said. “The MOSAIC group is fighting for … justice for the minorities in the gay and lesbian community. … Cornell should be proud of continuing that tradition [of social justice].”
President David Skorton further commented that MOSAIC winning the Perkins Prize was very significant since the group “touches the intersection of more than one difficult issue with minorities.” He said he was proud to have presented the award to the group, which enriches the campus.
“This is a hugely important event every year,” Skorton said. “It’s extra significant this year because it’s also the 40th anniversary of the Straight takeover. … With Tom Jones here, it’s even more meaningful to me.”
Jones, a student activist during the controversial Willard Straight Hall takeover in 1969, dedicated this award to James A. Perkins, former Cornell president who strove to enroll more African- American students during the Civil Rights Movement. Jones explained that the tension on campus culminated into the Willard Straight Hall takeover where armed African-American student activists forcefully took over the building and created a “pivotal point in America’s social history.”
Students and faculty members left Cornell after the takeover out of anger and emotional trauma. It eventually led to Perkins’ resignation, and Jones explained that his resignation “gnawed at [him]” because “one of the most signification victims [of the takeover] had been our best friend.”
In order to honor Perkins, Jones created the Perkins Prize to represent “the legacy he tried to create in higher education [for minority students].”
“This is where I am, this is the fight we’ve been dealt with,” Jones said, recalling his thoughts during the takeover. “What happened at Cornell is a big part of the story [for equal rights] … and the University had to lead America out of its past.”