Courtesy of Jacqueline Wong

February 4, 2018

Agents of Change: Untold Stories of the Willard Straight Takeover

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On Saturday evening, Cornell students, alumni, faculty and local Ithaca residents were treated to a screening of the documentary Agents of Change at Kennedy Hall. The event was hosted by Associate Dean of Students Dr. Renée T. Alexander ’74 and co-sponsored by Black Students United, OADI, Omega Psi Phi, Ujamaa Residential College and the Office of the Dean of Students.

The winner of both Jury and Audience awards at the 2016 Pan African Film & Arts Festival, Agents of Change takes us back in time to the 1968 strike at San Francisco State University and the 1969 Willard Straight Hall takeover at Cornell.

Both SFSU and Cornell protests were based on similar demands for an increase in black faculty and students and the development of a black studies program. The directors Abby Ginzberg ’71 and Frank Dawson ’72 cleverly juxtapose the two events. In particular, the contrasting sit-in conditions and the differing responses from university faculty and administration are paired with moving recollections and archival footage.

Perhaps my only disappointment with the documentary would be during the film’s first scene: reminiscent of an educational video shown during history class, a presenter emerges to remind viewers of how these two events heavily influenced the role of higher education in the civil rights movements. But the rest of Agents of Change makes up for its sententious opening, giving a truly humanizing narrative of what drove student protestors to take action.

Dawson and former Afro-American Society president Ed Whitfield ’70, who were both in Willard Straight during days the of the takeover, were present during Saturday’s screening and opened the floor to a question-and-answer session. Discussion topics surrounded how Dawson began embarking on the seven-year film project, Dawson and Whitfield’s personal experiences during their time at Cornell and how the movement shaped their current work. False information in the news following the takeover was what lead Dawson to a career in communication and media studies, while Whitfield dedicates his life to introducing cooperative economics to self-sustain communities.

Specifically, Dawson and Whitfield stressed that the rifles brought in were for protection as a result of violence from an outside group attempting to break into Willard Straight and attack protesters. They also took the time to commend the actions of James Perkins and Dale Corson, then president and provost, respectively, in ensuring the safety of protesters during the takeover and that the students’ demands would be met. Both guests concluded the evening’s discussion on the theme of community. Dawson and Whitfield emphasized that it was not only protesters, supporters and university administrators that made Cornell history that day, but local Ithaca residents as well. While it was not mentioned in the movie, the speakers revealed that there were twice as many activists leaving Willard Straight after the takeover compared to the number that first entered the building — as members of the Ithaca community and students from SUNY Cortland joined in to show solidarity for the Cornell Afro-American Society.

“Community is not just about where you come from, but where you are now,” Dawson said, expressing his desire for students to bring about positive change beyond home and school.


Jacqueline Wong is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].