November 17, 2015

Black Students Gather to Share Stories of Racism, Deliver Demands to President Garrett

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Black students and their stories of racism on Cornell’s campus was the focus of the entire Trillium food court, where nearly 150 students gathered to hear and deliver short speeches Tuesday afternoon. For roughly 15 minutes, students shared anecdotes, from being singled out as the “black girl in the back” of the room during a guest lecture to being told that Ujamaa Residential College is like a “cell block.”

Additionally, students delivered speeches on the history of racism at Cornell and in solidarity with the University of Missouri and other college campuses.

“The founding mission of Cornell University is that any person can find instruction in any study. Yet, while Cornell touts its compositional diversity, the campus environment is not conducive to the overall success of students of color and many other students whose cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds do not fit the mold of the historically wealthy, white university population,” said Noelani Gabriel ’16, delivering a speech written collectively by a group of students.

The speech calls on the University to “work with all deliberate and appropriate speed to grant the demands of its students who are demanding a fair shot in the game.”

“If this institution truly expects to uphold the values of Ezra Cornell’s utopian institution on a hill, it will realize that ‘any student, any study’ should not be an empty quip, but a promise of a full, wholehearted, and steadfast commitment to ensure that every student in every school and college has the resources, the love, and the support to survive and thrive the rigors of our institution and the trials and triumphs of life,” Gabriel said. “It is time for Cornell to be on the right side of history.”

Following the speech and a historical recount of racist events on campus, students, one-by-one, shared brief personal experiences with racism.

“Just last week, in my intro swimming class, a couple friends of mine were talking about where we live. They live on West Campus [and] Collegetown, and I said where I live. I lived in Ujamaa Residential College, and one of those people said, ‘You live in a cell block?” a student said. “No. I don’t live in a cell block. Ujamaa is not a cell block. Ujamaa is not ‘the hood.’ Ujamaa is not a prison. Ujamaa is my home.”

Another student recounted how she applied to be a campus tour guide, thinking it would be an opportunity to help bring students of color onto campus. When speaking with a co-worker, the student was told that she was a “diversity hire.”

“I am not your token every time some inner city bus [comes to campus] and wants to schedule a tour for campus,” the student said.

Students around the dining hall spoke, until other students on the second floor of Trillium launched into speeches expressing solidarity with University of Missouri and other college campuses and calling on students to support their movement.

“We urge you to reflect on your place and power in this university. Though our numbers are small, our impact is and will continue to be immense,” another student said. “Do not let injustice go unheard, because you all have the rightful and deserving place on this campus. Support your black peers at this time and galvanize in solidarity with Black Students United and our efforts.”

The speeches ended with a chant that quotes African-American activist Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to find for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains. And we will lose them.”

By 1:20 p.m., the more than 150 black students and allies funneled out of the building, marching in silence towards Day Hall. Once there, students delivered a seven-page letter with demands addressed to President Elizabeth Garrett, who was not in her office at the time.

In an interview with The Sun later that afternoon, Garrett said that while the University is committed to diversity and inclusion and has made progress through Towards New Destinations initiatives, there remains progress to be made.

“I don’t think any of us are satisfied with where we are with respect to making sure that all of our students feel that voices are being heard, that we’re discussing important issues, that we’re bringing all of their perspectives on those issues,” Garrett said. “You talk about all the tensions on campus — this is a reflection of issues we’re dealing with in larger society.”

A student speaks in Trillium food court during a Black Students United action Tuesday. (Michaela Brew / Sun Sports Photography Editor)

Garrett, who met with students at Ujamaa Residential College on Tuesday evening, said the discussions she has had with students have been productive.

“Every discussion that I’ve had with students has been productive and brought up important issues, indicated a willingness to work together with faculty, staff, administration and students,” Garrett said. “It’s going to take some time for us to continue with these discussions. We have a lot of work to do, but I also think that as an institution, we’ve actually accomplished some things.”