January 29, 2009

Cornellians Reflect on Changing Face of Black Student Leadership

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When Renee Alexander ’74 first set foot on campus in 1969, she was unaware that she would become part of an unbroken record at Cornell. Alexander’s graduating class had the highest number of black students to date — about 250 people.
“Back then we didn’t realize how significant that was,” said Alexander, who is director of Cornell’s Alumni Minority Programs.
As with many cases in history, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date when black student leadership at Cornell began to take root. Alpha Phi Alpha, which was established at Cornell in 1906, was the first black fraternity in the nation. In more recent memory, the takeover of Willard Straight Hall in 1969 also goes into Cornell’s history books as a defining moment of the University’s black history.
Alexander was a freshman on April 16, 1969 when a group of black students occupied the Straight to protest racial issues on campus. After the 36-hour takeover ended peacefully, the Africana Studies and Research Center was established.
Alexander, along with past and present black student leaders at Cornell recognized the importance of The Straight’s takeover 40 years ago.
“The Willard Straight Hall takeover was when you begin to see black leadership at Cornell take a strong presence. It was an event that galvanized and gave motivation to black students in the future,” said Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward), who until 2007 served as the first black male representative in the Ithaca Common Council.
Although there was a large influx of black students in the early 1970s, prominent figures in the black community used to be mostly athletes, according to Alexander. She also recalled little sign of black student leadership in areas outside of the black community, such as in student government.
“At that time, [Cornell] might have admitted more students, but it had not yet made the cultural adjustment,” said Alexander, who now works as the director of the office of minority alumni programs.
Alexander believes Cornell is now an institution that embraces all minority groups and embodies the notion of diversity in its culture.
“The biggest shift is that we don’t have to frame issues in black and white, but diversity. And this is an important shift,” said Alexander, adding that the campus has yet to see more collaboration among different minority groups.
But according to Prof. James Turner, Africana studies, black students at Cornell have a long history of expressing concern over issues outside of the community. Turner believes that black student leadership played a pivotal role in advocating for more diversity on a wide range of issues, from helping to establish the Latino Living Center, Asian Studies Program and need-blind financial aid to strengthening the student assembly.
Turner believes the most significant change in terms of black student leadership is the change in its structure.
“Today leadership is more institutional. From 1969 to about 1989, black students were building up organizations or institutional support. Now leadership gets focused through these organizations, as opposed to from 1969 to 1979, when black students were trying to establish their presence on campus.”
One of these groups was the Cornell Black Alumni Association, which Alexander founded in 1976 with four fellow Cornellians. The organization was founded to fill the gap in alumni connections.
“We’re the front-runners. We were the first to march, but now we have a body of us,” Alexander said.
Another significant shift over the past few decades is the change in student leadership style. Elisa Johnson has been working in the office of the minority educational affairs since 1987. Comparing black student leaders now with those 20 years ago, she observed that students now tend to gravitate towards problem-solving instead of raw activism whenever an issue arises. She recalled seeing a lot of activism on campus during her first 15 years with Office of Minority Educational Affairs (OMEA) when students would protest, make statements and commemorate the takeover of Willard Straight Hall. Nowadays, however, students seem to put more emphasis on academics and are more reluctant to stand in the forefront to speak their minds.
“It’s a different kind of students now. Their struggle is a little more different … Now students at Cornell don’t have to struggle as much as [those] 20 years ago,” Johnson said.
Although Justin Davis ’07, ex-president of Black Students United agreed with Johnson to a certain extent, he also believes the times have changed, and now students have different things to fight for.
“The African American groups at Cornell fight in different ways. We fight in our own way … To the older generation we may seem less aggressive, but in reality we are still working aggressively to make a difference,” Davis said.
While inequality is now less of an issue than 20 years ago, Johnson also remarked that problems now “are more hidden than they were.” She believes the changing demographics of the student body, with relatively fewer students from the inner-city, could also contribute to how current students prioritize their time at Cornell.
Johnson also observed that throughout the years, black students seem to put an increasing emphasis on academic grades.
Turner agreed. An often neglected fact, she said, was that black student leaders who were strong advocates on campus also achieved much success in their academic and professional lives.
“Today [black students] seem completely concerned about professional success, but they don’t have the same tradition of social consciousness to the same degree. There is always a core group of social consciousness, but not as vibrant as it used to be,” Turner said.
Throughout her two decades of service in OMEA, Johnson has seen a fair share of student organizations falling into obscurity and inactivity.
“The fall-off of organizations usually comes with the transition of power,” Johnson said.
In order to ensure that the torch of leadership is properly passed from one generation of student leader to another, Davis founded a leadership training course during his presidency at Black Students United in 2007. This year, the course will be hosted for the third time in February.
“[The program] will be geared towards providing the tools needed for successful leadership at Cornell, including workshops on funding sources, professional dress, character development, etc. There is no other program like this,” BSU president Ernie Jolly ’09 stated in an email.
Davis explained that he initiated the class to “teach junior students how to figure Cornell out.”
“An overwhelming critique or complaint I heard was that leadership skills are not passed down,” said Davis of his motivation in initiating the course.
After graduation, Davis continued to serve as an alumnus advisor to BSU. He and advisors to other black student groups observed that student leaders often cited time-management and over-programming to be the two most common challenges. But while many multitaskers at Cornell struggle to juggle time, some black student leaders may feel the extra pressure to excel, according to Abena Sackey ’07, who founded the Coalition of Pan-African Scholars as an undergraduate. She recalled the pressure of ensuring the professionalism of her organization.
“In the back of my mind, I know that I have to do it well because [the Coalition] is a reflection on not just me, but on my community,” Sackey said.
“Some black students are overdoing work to prove themselves,” added Sackey, who now works as an advisor in the office of diversity programs in the College of Engineering.
Over-programming is another main issue faced by many black student groups on campus. While the 699 black students currently on campus represent 5 percent of the total undergraduate student body, the webpage of BSU alone lists about 40 black student groups on campus. Group advisors and student leaders alike claimed that organizations often have to compete for participants, funding, venue and other resources.
The label of a “black student leader” has also drawn mixed opinions from past and present student leaders at Cornell.
“One of the biggest challenges is being labeled as a black student leader. [With] any initiative we have, people think it’s only for black people. It’s good and bad, in a way. Yes, we focus on the black community, but without interaction with other communities you will become isolated,” Ufomata said.
Townsend – who served as the first black Cornellian and the youngest elected official in the country when elected into the Ithaca Common Council – also stressed the importance of reaching beyond the black community. He preferred to be seen as a “student leader” instead of a “black student leader.”
“I think you limit yourself if you think of yourself as a black student leader,” Townsend said.
“I don’t mind being labeled a black student leader, but I don’t want the label to suggest that my scope and efforts are limited to the black community. That would be false,” he added.
Davis, whose achievements at Cornell were admired by many advisors and current leaders of black student groups, embraced the title of a “black student leader.”
“I commit myself always as a black student leader,” said Davis, who transformed BSU from a relatively obscure group into an umbrella organization for about 40 black student groups on campus.
“We are advocates of our community to the greater community, but this is only a small component of our leadership. Advocating for our community is not a bad thing at all. At the same time, we are Cornell leaders to begin with,” he added.
But while stressing the importance of the black community’s tradition, Davis also believes that in light of the first black president and the current economic crisis, black student leadership at Cornell is presented with a pivotal moment.
“Black student leadership at Cornell is facing a critical watershed moment. The question now is what direction it [should] go,” Davis said.