January 20, 2009

Students Join Crowd in Washington to Ring in Obama

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Today is a day for new beginnings. As the Cornell community comes back to life with the start of spring semester, an estimated 2 million people from all around the country and the world descend on our nation’s capital to celebrate another beginning — the inauguration of the 44th president, Barack Obama. Over 100 of this throng will be Cornellians, looking to take part in the making of lifetime memories and of history.
Leon Lawrence, director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusiveness in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, initiated planning in November for a University-sponsored inauguration trip to D.C. Lawrence explained that the historic nature of the inaugural events led the administration to sponsor the trip despite inauguration landing on the second day of classes.
“I thought the Cornell community should have a physical presence as a part of this historical event … and the idea became a reality,” Lawrence said. “We hope the trip will give representatives of our Cornell community an opportunity to collectively be part of, and experience, history in a unique way.”
Through the assistance of the Office of Minority Educational Affairs and the “enthusiastic approval” — as described by Lawrence — of Vice Provost Michele Moody-Adams, the OMEA accepted sponsorship of the bus trip. Each of the seven colleges recruited seven students and two members of faculty or staff, who joined representatives of a wide variety of different constituencies on campus. A total of 111 Cornellians are expected to make the bus trip, arriving in the D.C. area at 4 a.m. this morning.
Nicole Bryant ’10, a member of the Cornell Democrats, expected her teachers to understand why she was missing classes, saying “most of them would go themselves if they could.”
“That’s a price I’m willing to pay for this page of history,” she said.
“This is the busiest time of the semester for me, being in student services,” said Nadine Porter, undergraduate program coordinator in civil and environmental engineering, “but I was compelled to go because I may not see another event of this magnitude and importance.”
Given the mass of people expected to crowd the approximately two-mile long Mall and the significance of the day’s proceedings, security precautions are strict, to the point of closing off bridges, banning umbrellas and stationing snipers on every roof top along Pennsylvania Ave.
[img_assist|nid=34224|title=Say it loud|desc=Dave Kurczewski ’08 addresses a crowd on Ho Plaza last January. Many of the students who campaigned for Obama will be in Washington to see their candidate inaugurated.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]“I am certainly concerned about security risks,” said Bryant. “But I have to consider the four-year commitment Obama is making to being the mouthpiece, face, and ultimately the bulls eye of America. I’m sure D.C. will be taking lots of precautions … Will this be enough? Well, we’ll find out.”
Prof. TJ Hinrichs, history, also a member of the faculty senate attending the trip, emphasized, “It is important not to let fear stop life.”
Graduate and Professional Stu­dent Assembly President Michelle Leinfelder grad claimed she would not have “fathomed” going to D.C. without the opportunity provided by Cornell’s trip.
Reflecting on the past eight years, Leinfelder said, “The position of president of the United States must be one of the most challenging jobs known to man … While I’m not a historian, there are probably few presidents in the history of our country who have had to face so many challenges.”
Notably absent from the University-sponsored trip is a group of students representing President Bush’s party: the Cornell College Republicans.
“[We] applaud Cornell for sponsoring a trip to Washington for the historic inauguration of Mr. Barack Obama,” stated Ray Mensah ’11 chairman of the Cornell College Republicans, expressing that he hopes the exclusion of the Republicans exclusion was “merely an oversight.”
“We only hope that the University works to ensure that such outings become more of a school tradition than partisan affairs,” he said. “As the youth vote was more important than it has been in decades, it is only fitting that the University help students, whether they supported Mr. Obama or Sen. McCain, attend an inauguration that they helped shape so profoundly.”
Leinfelder also expressed what has become a consistent theme of Obama’s campaign: hope.
“Domestic and world politics, the economy, and other governing aspects aside, my hope with this new administration is that barriers will be broken,” she said, “so that any … can envision themselves doing what ever it is they dream to do.”
Among the group attending the University-sponsored trip are representatives from the Black Student Union to faculty from Minority and Ethnic Studies, for whom the inauguration of the nation’s first African American president holds special significance.
Kenneth Clarke, director of Cornell United Religious Work, described generations of heritage that have motivated him to attend. Clarke was born in 1956 “at the advent of the black freedom struggle … that shaped [my] childhood,” his mother was involved in the Congress on Racial Equality, his grandmother was a domestic worker for white persons in early 20th century Baltimore, and his great-grandmother was a slave.
“We have not entered into a post-racial era — the fact that we are highlighting Obama’s inauguration as historic is indicative of that fact,” he said. “Racism and economic justice have not suddenly and unrealistically vanished as of Nov. 4, 2008, at approximately 11:05 p.m., EST, when Obama was elected. This remarkable national moment must be a stepping stone for the continuing struggle for full equality.”
Alan Mittman, associate director of Workforce Diversity, Equity and Life Quality at Cornell, attended the National Mobiliza­tion to End the War rally in Nov. 1969, a rally that drew more than 250,000 people to D.C.
“I view this moment from my experience as a Cornell students which was the last time I attended a really large political rally in the Capitol and my position now. Even though as a Cornell student so many negative events occurred — assassinations of MLK and RFK, Kent State, Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa — we thought we could change the world,” he said. “I’m drawn back to the world-changing me and I love it.”
In response to being asked how this inauguration will differ from ceremonies of the past and what Obama will uniquely bring, Curtis Ferguson, who works as an administrator in the School of Hotel Administration, answered, “To be honest, this is the first inauguration that I have paid any attention to.”
“As an African-American male, I never thought that I would see an African-American male become president in my life time. I think that this is an important part of not only my history but American history, and I want to be there for it,” Ferguson said of his own personal motivation to attend.
Emma Osore ’09, president of the African, Latino, Asian and Native American organization, who lives in D.C., elected to stay at home and not travel with the Cornell group, but rather brave public transportation.
“I want to be able to say that I was there on the day,” Osore said. “I was worried that I would regret it later in life if I told my kids I opted to go to a few classes instead of to the inauguration. I think making the trip into the crowds and madness is worth it.”
For Osore, the inauguration represents both recognition of past injustice and a celebration.
“The injustices of the past are recognized when people show [up] in millions to witness this event. People are acknowledging that this is something unique,” Osore said. “On Inauguration Day, old territory is treaded by someone new who represents groups that have not always had the opportunity to be heard as well as groups who have not always had to listen.”
“It seems like we just celebrated Obama’s win and now we have reason to celebrate again already? It’s great!” she said.
The inauguration holds special meaning for Osore.
“I am excited for dialogue that opens the racial and ethnic boundaries we have wrapped ourselves in because it is something I have had to deal with all of my life as a person who is Kenyan and American, Luhya and Mennonite, American black and African, black and white. Most Americans didn’t really honor this much broader conception of categories and classifications … until now.”
“As an African-American wo­man … [it] gives me such comfort to think this is no longer impossibility, that one day I will be able to tell my children, ‘Yes you can be president of the United States’ and truly mean it,’“ Bryant said.
Prof. N’Dri T. Assié-Lumum­ba, Africana studies, has been organizing a similar trip to the United Nations every fall semester for the past five years. It is both professional and personal interests that have brought her to D.C., though she herself is not an American citizen.
“By training, I am a historian,” she said. “[But] you don’t have to be a historian — we are all a product of history.”
Assié-Lumumba has been involved in the Obama campaign since the primaries, as part of “Ithaca for Obama.” Yet, like a significant portion of the Cornell community, she was not able to vote.
“I’m not American, I don’t even vote, and my participation in the American election since I came here are a graduate student … is to read the newspapers, sit and watch the debate and engage in discussion,” she said. “Even if I cannot cast a ballot, there are things I can do … this is a world event. This is our president.”