Student Activism Needs Revival During Recession, Speaker Says

October 5, 2009 6:06 am0 comments
Patricio Martinez

Rosa Clemente M.A. ’98, the first ever female Hispanic vice presidential candidate, urged Cornell minority students to organize and revive the University’s tradition of racial activism at a lecture on Friday.

Representing the Green Party, Clemente was already well-known for her involvement with hip-hop political organizations before running for federal office. Born in South Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, she defines her career as an activist by the motto “service through leadership.” She opened her lecture at the Mews Hall lounge by recalling the particularly significant history of racial activism at the University.
“For a long time, Cornell didn’t want us here,” Clemente said, referring to racial minorities. However, things began to change after the 1969 Willard Straight Hall Takeover and the founding of the Africana Studies program the following year, Clemente said.
For Clemente, events such as the Straight Takeover and the founding of the Africana Studies program showcase Cornell’s “lively activist tradition” — one she believes has lost its momentum in the past years. To illustrate her observations, Clemente noted the recent changes in the Ujamaa Residential College, including the unexpected decision to reassign Kenneth Glover, residential housing director of Ujamaa for over 20 years, to a position at High Rise 5 this July.
“Attacks [on] Ujamaa had happened before, but what hadn’t happened was that there was no major student reaction. The University doesn’t want Blacks and Latinos to become organized,” Clemente said.
Clemente said she believes that, since the University assigns funds to all racial organizations, competition arises between the various minority cultural groups on campus. This, according to Clemente, results in disunity among the University’s ethnic minorities, something which will eventually translate into a lack of collective racial activism.
Throughout her talk, Clemente emphasized the necessity of revitalizing campus activism.
Clemente emphasized the necessity of revitalizing campus activism. Clemente urged students to achieve this goal through so-called “scholarship activism.”
“Activism with scholarship,” she said, “is the most powerful [type of activism], given that it provides the capacity of organization through any kind of condition.”
Clemente said that college students, empowered by their education, are “in the best position” to become activists who effectively stand for distinct causes since they enjoy the rich resources of academic institutions.
“As the first step towards successful activism, students need to figure [out] which position they play in their community,” Clemente said. “Community is where you make it.”
After deciphering their role within their educational communities, students’ path to effective activism solely resides upon “fighting for the same thing” or “operational unity,” Clemente said.
As the University goes through a period of financial adjustment — which may spark changes within some of the culturally-themed program houses and ethnicity-focused academic programs like all other areas of operation — Clemente called for “minorities on campus to become unified” and protect the University’s various cultural initiatives.
Clemente’s call to action for students to support these causes seemed to resonate with students who attended her talk.
Karla Vergara ’11 and Alejandro Silva-Díaz ’11, both past residents of the Latino Living Center, expressed their concerns for the modifications that the culturally-themed program houses may face in the future.
Similarily, Sasha López ’10 said, “Students in general [who live in the cultural program houses] feel that we are being threatened by the lack of transparency in the program houses reassessment process.”
Yet, according to Benjamin Meoz, resi-dent hall director of the Latino Living Center, the program houses are not threatened by the University’s reassessment process. Meoz believes processes of this kind are “typical to any university” and he understands the University’s administration is “optimistic” about the continued existence of these program houses. “Cornell is very well known for its cultural houses. Although at times they can become points of contention, they will always be sources of great pride to the institution,” Meoz said.
Meoz admitted that he still had not seen “the entire community coming together for activism like it happened with the takeover of [the Straight].” However, in case the program houses are negatively affected, Meoz is confident that students will voice their opinions, since he understands that there are “various pockets of very strong activism around campus,” citing the fact that students organized Clemente’s lecture as an example.
Clemente closed her lecture by remarking that even during these times of economic downturn, “[going to] college is a right, it shouldn’t be a privilege.”
“We at Cornell are the luckiest of the lucky,” she said.
This event was organized by Sigma Lambda Upsilon/Señoritas Latinas Unidas Sorority, Inc., with the support of the Office of the Provost, the Ujamaa Residential College, Mews Hall and the Government Department.