To the editor:
As a Cornellian who holds a leadership position within the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, I was heartened to see The Sun publish a detailed report on evolving challenges facing local human rights enforcement. The situation in question is a deeply serious one that has profound implications for the larger Ithaca community, and Cornellians ought to respond accordingly.
As reported by the Sun, changes made to the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights have left a massive hole in Ithaca-area rights enforcement — one ultimately filled by Workers’ Center staff and volunteers. According to our Office Manager Rob Brown, extra caseloads stemming from OHR’s dilution has cost us an unanticipated sum of roughly $20,000 since April 2018.
While the Workers’ Center has proudly intervened to take on displaced OHR caseloads, we must be public and transparent about our organization’s limitations. As an underfunded, small-scale nonprofit in a rural area, it is decidedly impossible for us to keep up our and OHR’s collective past levels of human rights interventions. Unless something gives, we anticipate heightened vulnerability and fewer protections for our working-class neighbors.
As is often the case with local issues, there’s a $7 billion elephant in the room that goes by the name Cornell. Given the scope of this unraveling local crisis, the Finger Lakes Region’s largest and wealthiest institution should use all resources at its disposal to intervene in a positive and effective manner.
For one, programs such as Engaged Cornell and the Public Service Center should prioritize plugging students into underfunded, understaffed human rights work in the community.
University leadership could also make large voluntary contributions to community agencies such as the TCWC and OHR, with an eye towards making local human rights work fully and properly funded. It’s the least this behemoth of a university could do, especially given its limited monetary contributions to local governments.
While Cornell might resist involvement on its end, the university’s students have a choice between action and inaction. The Workers’ Center’s doors are open, and we welcome folks of all stripes and experience levels to get on board with our critically necessary work. As the precarity of local workers intensifies, we have no choice but to protect each other and have each other’s backs. The only alternative is to sink into political powerlessness and social obsolescence, sitting in silence as fundamental rights are rolled back one-by-one.
Christopher Hanna ’19
Chair, Tompkins County Workers’ Center Leadership Team (Board of Directors)