September 21, 2020

CONTRERAS | An Ode to Our Trailblazers

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Two nights ago, we lost a trailblazing feminist and a hero. In her black cloak, she towered — not in height but in power — and meticulously paved the way for women’s liberation. And just like other revolutionaries before her, Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 died without seeing the world she envisioned come to life. She spent her last moments in a country that is crumbling. In a place where innocent Black and brown individuals are shot in the streets — and they’re falling. In a place where immigrants, escaping violence and poverty, are crammed into cages — and they’re starving. In a place where thousands of Americans are falling sick — and they’re dying. But I ask that we don’t become numb; that we don’t succumb to the anger and disappointment that we’re feeling. I ask that we honor her legacy by uplifting those that are following her footsteps and those that are making up for what she lacked: A fully intersectional view of justice that takes race and gender into consideration.

Justice Ginsburg was the first in her family to go to college. Not only that, she was a student at Cornell in a time when there were only 9 women in a class of 500. Being the only, or one of few, can be intimidating. In the movie RBG, she recalls feeling like she represented her entire sex every time she spoke in class. “The Notorious RBG” was not always so renowned. She’s been called a witch, an evil-doer and even a disgrace by our very own President. When she first started championing for women’s legal rights, she was deemed a “radical” that “had no respect for our constitution.” There seems to be a pattern in American society wherein those that are labeled the most radical end up amongst the most cherished after they have succeeded in their endeavors. But we shouldn’t wait until someone is a supreme court justice or until the legislation they’ve been championing has been passed to give such trailblazers support and validation.

There are trailblazers all around us — microcosmic heroes. From Cornell’s Class of 2024, 15.5 percent of students self-identified as first-generation. Out of those, many are first-generation, low-income and students of color. They are the first in their families, and often their communities, to step foot in an institution like Cornell. They’re often the only black student or latinx student in their class. Many also feel like they represent their identities when they speak up in a class made up of predominantly white, upper-class students. And, especially during these times, they are suffering. Because, on top of the constant microagressions and instances of outright prejudice that they experience at Cornell, they’re watching their black and brown brothers and sisters die for no reason and without repercussions. Because they have to fear the deportation of their parents, their family members and their friends. And, of course, because COVID is disproportionately impacting their communities. 

I’ve talked with several first-generation students and recent graduates at Cornell to see the ways in which they’ve been impacted these last few months. Homelessness, illness, food insecurity, financial insecurity and exposure to violence are only a few of the things that were mentioned in these conversations. Is this how we treat our trailblazers? We displace them from their homes on campus and let them fend for themselves. As Cornell boasts about RBG’s alumni status, they should be working to ensure that our own trail blazers are supported during these difficult times.

On a similar note, it is important to recognize that activists around the world are still being called “radical” today for fighting against other injustices. Take, for instance, the Black Lives Matter movement whose members are being thrown into prison and tear gassed in the streets. Even RBG criticized BLM when in 2016 she reacted to Colin Kapernick’s kneeling for black lives, calling his actions “dumb” and “disrespectful.” We must admit that RBG was not perfect; she supported fast-tracking deportations for asylum seekers, expanding fracking infrastructure and tougher crime legislation. Due to her frequent failure to champion causes that affect women of color and other marginalized groups, many critics have argued that RBG epitomized white feminism.

That doesn’t mean she wasn’t revolutionary; she undoubtedly was. But, just as we idolize a once “radical,” we should be uplifting modern “radicals” and trailblazers that are following in her footsteps and making up for what she lacked. We can’t wait for someone to become Supreme Court justice to care about them and what they have to say. As we mourn her death, let’s focus on empowering our trailblazers and activists who hold the key to a better future.

Let us be the first, not the last. Let us be the only, not alone.

As RBG once said, “we are a nation made of strong people like you.” Strong people need to be uplifted too.

Lucy Contreras is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at lcontreras@cornellsun.com. Her column, Lucy Dreams, runs every other Tuesday this semester.