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The Southside Community Center is continuing to provide support for the Ithaca community, despite uncertainties with funding.

October 14, 2020

Southside Community Center Perseveres Despite Backlash and Pandemic Struggles

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Despite financial struggles and backlash over program closures, the Southside Community Center continues to provide support to the Ithaca community.

The SCC is an organization focused on empowering Ithaca’s Black residents, and oversees a variety of community programs, including a food pantry, pet clinic and summer camp. However, last month, pandemic-induced budget strains led the center to lay off at least several employees; Executive Director Tammy Butler resigned, and several other board members left.

In response to public outcry, the center’s board of directors chair, Prof. Nia Nunn, an education professor at Ithaca College, wrote a letter on Sept. 28th clarifying the SCC’s actions. In it she stressed that the center’s operations were “not closing,” but instead “on pause” temporarily.

“First, and most importantly we are undergoing a leadership transition, now is hardly the time to run official programs without strong oversight. Second, the pandemic has radically changed the needs of our organization, and our operating protocols,” Nunn wrote. “We made the decision to pause until we have had the time to assess our needs.”

According to Nunn, the center is now working to reconstruct its team, seeking a new executive director, legal personnel and human resources employees.

In the letter, she also pointed to the lack of attention on the center’s current work, while critiquing a lack of sympathy — something she says has been afforded to white-led organizations throughout the difficulties of COVID-19.

Despite being on “pause,” Nunn emphasized that the SCC has done its best to sustain necessary programs, such as educational ones. This has required cutting programs like Recycle Ithaca’s Bikes — a long-heralded community bicycle shop — triggering heated objections from some residents.

However, Nunn criticized the focus on RIBs, an SCC program that she said primarily is used by white men. She believes this factor has contributed to the degree of harshness within backlash and said that Ithaca’s journalistic narratives around Black-led organizations perpetuate a mindset of entitlement and ownership toward them.

“Being a Black-centered and Black-led space, the response to us, the approach to us, the examination of us, the investigation of us is different. And it is rooted in anti-Black racism,” Nunn said.

Following the closure of RIBs, Nunn received several calls on her personal phone number from angry RIBs patrons, who she said used violent, threatening language against her and the center.

Nunn was unfazed. “This is stuff that, unfortunately, we’re accustomed to. So in it, and despite it, we will thrive,” she said, emphasizing that the center will continue to do its work and adapt to the pandemic.

Nunn outlined the work the SCC has conducted throughout the summer, including new programming and continued regular events in virtual form, such as the celebration of Black leaders in commemoration of Juneteenth, summer camps and community enrichment programs. The SCC food pantry operated on a limited basis over the summer, and it opened for the first and fourth Saturdays of each month beginning on Oct. 3.

Throughout the summer, volunteers helped paint murals, gave out smoothies on MLK State Street and hosted socially distanced movie screenings at the Lehman Alternative Community School Amphitheater. Showings included Black Panther, 13th and Litany for Survival.

Nunn also runs the Community, Unity, Music Education Program, a summer camp that is supported by and works closely with the SCC. It provides performing arts, music and human rights education to children in Ithaca. Due to COVID-19, the program ran a largely online camp with some in-person activities.

According to Nunn, the SCC has continued to operate many longstanding programs, including its food pantry and educational work. It has also continued to host Black Town Halls over Zoom and work with partner programs Black Hands Universal and Black Girl Alchemists.

“We are doing the work and have been doing the work for almost a century,” Nunn said.

In September, the SCC implemented a Zoom tutoring program for local children with a strong emphasis on literacy. Since many students are studying from home, the SCC also allows Ithaca families to borrow Chromebook computers.

“It’s really about honoring what families, what parents, what young people are saying that they need,” she said.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 has expressed his support for the center, with the City of Ithaca’s proposed 2021 budget providing a 32 percent increase in funding.

“The ups and downs of [Southside Community Center] are not sustainable.” Myrick said at a Common Council meeting last week. “We’ve got to find a path forward, and I believe that requires more funding for the city this year.”

Although its building is not currently open, a gymnasium upsizing and renovation project are underway. Nunn hopes to resume pandemic-safe, indoor programming once the gym is finished.

“I remain optimistic,” she said. “I remain in a space of imagining and reimagining and honoring my history, honoring our present.”