April 17, 2014

Cornell Community Remembers 45th Anniversary of Straight Takeover

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By NOAH RANKIN

On Thursday, students gathered at the Student Assembly claiming that their voices are not heard on various campus issues. Nearly 45 years earlier — when racial tensions were running high and the newly conceived Africana Center begun development with virtually no student participation — a group of students took over Willard Straight Hall for similar reasons.

Various student groups organized the 45th anniversary event of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover — including the ALANA Intercultural Programming Board, Black Students United, the Student Union Board, the Interfraternity Council and the Student Assembly, which will be held in Willard Straight Hall. This year, students hope to take an extra step in commemorating the Takeover by challenging misconceptions and “changing the narrative” of the event, according to Olivia Obodoagha ’15, president of ALANA.

“There [are] a lot of misconceptions about the Takeover, [including] that it’s a day that’s only for black students, that it’s something that was chaotic and violent,” Obodoagha said. “We really wanted to focus on the fact that that wasn’t the complete story. We’re really trying to focus on the narrative as opposed to stereotypes about the day.”

According to Obodoagha, “changing the narrative” refers to bringing the conversation to the several student groups that were implicated in the event — not just the occupiers of the building — and how they have been shaped by the Takeover up to the present day.

“Our approach was to bring in groups that people wouldn’t normally think are associated with the Takeover,” Obodoagha said. “Historically, we’ve done the [commemoration] strictly with BSU and ALANA. So while we wanted BSU to maintain the integrity of their event and the tradition, we wanted to use this as opportunity to find intersections of how this event affected everyone.”

Cameron Pritchett ’15, president of the Interfraternity Council, said the anniversary presents an opportunity for the Greek system to “reflect on the progress” of the last several decades.

“If you think back to 45 years ago and beyond, some people in the Greek system weren’t on the right side on a lot of these issues that have to do with race and integration and supporting different diversity efforts,” Pritchett said. “This [anniversary] is just a reminder that we need to keep working every single day to make sure that any person on this campus can feel comfortable and at home in the Greek system.”

According to Andrew Newman ’14, executive director of the Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board, another archaic key effect of the Takeover is that it served as the catalyst for the current level of student governance at Cornell.

“[People] hear that students took over the building, they kicked parents out over parents’ weekend and eventually they gave back the building,” Newman said. “They don’t talk about the document that was signed, or that the intent of that document was to give a student voice on campus.”

According to Newman, the modern incarnations of the Student Assembly, the Student Union Board and the office of the Ombudsman were all formed in subsequent years as a result of the Takeover, as previous student governmental organizations had been largely powerless in making student voices heard by faculty.

According to Yamini Bhandari ’17, freshman representative for the S.A. and a co-host of the event, the anniversary serves as an opportunity for remembering that the S.A. was created directly from a time when students felt voiceless on campus — an issue especially relevant given recent student action.

“Obviously [the S.A.] is a product of the Takeover, and I think this commemoration is very eye-opening for us because it’s a lot about what our core principles are,” Bhandari said. “Sometimes we get stuck in the nitty-gritty of what we’re doing, so this is really one of those events where we really open ourselves up to our history and evaluate that.”

Nia Hall ’14, a co-chair of Black Students United, remarked that the Takeover is a constant reminder of the agency students of all kinds can have on campus.

“It is the job of students to speak up when they don’t agree with something,” Hall said. “I think a lot of times we turn a blind eye to the Takeover, and kind of overlook the significance it has for all Cornell students, and not just students that identify with a certain racial background.”

Obodoagha agreed, adding that the current “resurgence” in student participation comes at a fitting time for the anniversary of the Takeover.

“One of our problems has been is that we forgot why the Takeover happened, and it was due to apathy,” he said. “I feel like now we’re really staying true to why the event occurred, and I feel like there’s no time better than now to be celebrating.”

The commemoration will begin with a presentation in the Africana Center, after which students will march to Willard Straight Hall for a reception featuring Eric Acree, director of the Africana Library, as keynote speaker. There will also be a photo exhibit related to the event in the Willard Straight Hall browsing library.

it has for all Cornell students, and not just students that identify with a certain racial background.”

Obodoagha agreed, adding that the current “resurgence” in student participation comes at a fitting time for the anniversary of the Takeover.

“One of our problems has been is that we forgot why the Takeover happened, and it was due to apathy,” he said. “I feel like now we’re really staying true to why the event occurred, and I feel like there’s no time better than now to be celebrating.”

The commemoration will begin with a presentation in the Africana Center, after which students will march to Willard Straight Hall for a reception featuring Eric Acree, director of the Africana Library, as keynote speaker. There will also be a photo exhibit related to the event in the Willard Straight Hall browsing library.

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