April 10, 2003

Hillel-MECA Mosaic Wins Interracial Harmony Prize

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The Cornell Hillel-Muslim Educational and Cultural Association (MECA) Mosaic Project was awarded the ninth annual James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony at a ceremony yesterday in Willard Straight Hall’s Memorial Room. The 2003 Perkins Prize was presented to Julia Stone ’03 and Sara Rosenblum ’03 from Cornell Hillel and Afsha Abid ’04 of MECA.

The Mosaic Project was given $5,000 for winning the prize, while $1,000 each was given to two honorable mentions. Tamika Lewis ’02, Brooke McDowell ’06 and Lori Slater ’05 were present for the Multicultural Initiative for Racial Awareness (MIRA) to accept the first honorable mention. Amesika Bediako ’04 accepted the second honorable mention prize for the Multicultural Greek Letter Council (MGLC).

Cornell Hillel and MECA came together on November 3, 2002 with about 100 participants, mostly Cornell students, to create the mosaic. Mosaics are traditionally found in both mosques and synagogues, and the mosaic created in this project now hangs in the One World room of Anabel Taylor Hall, where both the Muslim and Jewish communities hold prayer services. Above the mosaic hangs the word “peace” in both Arabic and Hebrew.

Stone described her role in the Mosaic Project:

“I developed the vision of the mosaic when I was on a trip to Spain over the summer. I was in a temple, one of the only remaining temples, and there was a verse from the Koran in the temple. I got to thinking that people are unaware of the many similarities between the two religions and the way that those religions have many common values. I thought that by making a mosaic in particular it would be a really powerful symbol of how we each bring our own individuality in creating a greater whole.”

After the ceremony, Rosenblum shared her vision of the project that led to the Perkins Prize.

“I have a general idea that if individual people start talking to each other, that’s the best way to achieve that peace that we’re all looking for in the world,” Rosenblum said.

MIRA is a program started by Bi-/Multiracial Lineages, Ethnicities and Nationalities Discussion (BLEND), which won the Perkins Prize in 2002. MIRA works with local after-school programs to foster racial and cultural awareness in children while improving their reading and interpersonal skills. Some of the elementary school children who have worked with Cornell students attended the ceremony to see the presentation of the honorable mention.

The second honorable mention was given to MGLC, which is the governing board for African American, Latino and Asian American Greek-lettered organizations at Cornell. Its mission is to promote community service and bring students of various backgrounds together to understand the value of each other’s differences.

Before and after the presentation of the Perkins Prize, attendees enjoyed dances by the Caribbean Students Association Dance Ensemble.

In presenting the Perkins Prize, Susan Murphy ’73, vice president of student and academic services, spoke about the importance of diversity in the Cornell community:

“All of you who are part of the University know how important it is for Cornell to be a diverse and inclusive community, one that promotes a civil discourse in learning across difference — in fact, one that celebrates the differences that are among our community.”

Murphy continued by citing examples of initiatives taken by the University to expand the influence of its multicultural alumni and their interaction with current students based on the ideals of the Perkins Prize. She cited these efforts as products of a “private University that has a public mission to expand globally, and even more so build on the founding principles of this award, of interracial harmony and understanding, and extend that to intercultural understanding and harmony. In today’s life there is nothing more important.”

The Perkins Prize was first awarded in 1994 to promote efforts for the advancement of interracial understanding and community on the Cornell campus. The award is given in honor of President Emeritus James A. Perkins, who served from 1963 to 1969. Perkins’ contributions to the growth of the Cornell campus include the development and funding of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, as well as oversight of the construction of eight other buildings on campus.

Perkins also worked to increase the presence of underrepresented minority groups at Cornell. He established the Committee on Special Educational Projects (COSEP), a recruiting effort and ongoing support group for minorities on campus, which remains a very successful venture today. The number of enrolled black students increased from under ten to over 250 during his presidency. In his last year, the Black Studies Program was established, and his vision contributed to the creation of the Africana Studies and Research Center, which was founded later in 1969.

Perkins resigned in 1969 following the controversial takeover of Willard Straight Hall by armed black students.

The spokesperson for the takeover group, Trustee Emeritus Thomas W. Jones M.S. ’72, went on to high executive positions at many leading corporations, leading to his current position as chairman and chief executive officer of Global Investment Management and Citigroup Asset Management for Citigroup, Inc. In 1994, Jones established the President’s Endowment Fund that created the Perkins Prize.

In memory of Perkins, the prize is awarded annually to the program or organization judged to have made the most significant contribution to furthering the ideal of university community while respecting the values of racial diversity. The Perkins Prize is chosen through the Office of the Dean of Students along with a selection committee that includes students, faculty and staff. This year the committee chose from among 12 applicants for the prize.

A leading member of the winning Mosaic project, Abid related her thoughts on the influence of the project:

“The mosaic project is truly special to me in that it truly signifies how Cornell University fosters openness and multiculturalism. Given the present climate, the fact that Hillel and MECA were able to put together this event truly shows that unity is possible.”

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo

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