Courtesy of Basic Needs Coalition

Members from the Basic Needs Coalition stood before President Martha Pollack to express students' basic needs issues.

October 18, 2022

Students Advocating for a Basic Needs Center at Cornell Plan to Continue Efforts Despite Inadequate Administrative Support 

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In an Oct. 6 Student Assembly meeting, more than a dozen students from the Cornell community, including members from the Basic Needs Coalition, stood before President Martha Pollack and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi to present on students’ experience with inaccessibility to food, housing and other basic needs and the inadequacy of institutional support in providing those resources. The administrative response, the Coalition said, was cold and dismissive. 

“We got redirected around, it sounded very dismissive and disrespectful to the kind of issues students are facing and the needs students have on campus,” Kieran Adams ’24 said.  

The Basic Needs Coalition has been working since well before the summer to bring a centrally located, physical basic needs one-stop shop model to Cornell, an ask that was echoed — alongside other actions such as increasing Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment staffing and resource-training, free legal aid for students facing housing law violations, expansion of Swipe Out Hunger — in the list of demands the Coalition shared with administration during the Thursday meeting. 

The members shared statistics from their Cornell-wide survey as well as personal testimonies to voice concerns regarding their experience accessing food, housing, healthcare and financial resources. 

Pollack, who mentioned the introduction of recent student-friendly resources at Cornell such as CAMP, SDS testing support pilot program and Mantra telehealth therapy services in the meeting, stated that the administration does not have plans to create a Basic Needs Center, citing her belief that Cornell already provides many of those resources, and the focus should be on awareness and accessibility of these resources. 

Coalition members believe that the issue is more complex than this. 

“A lot of us followed up as SA members saying that students’ who receive full financial aid needs are not met, so how do we tackle this problem institutionally,” said a coalition member who did not wish to be identified due to a fear of administrative retaliation. “19.9% of the 2026 class identifies as first generation, but there is only one director of first generation empowerment.” 

According to Sanvi Bhardwaj ’24, the College of Human Ecology representative in the SA and a Coalition member, the students were constantly referred to Dean of Students Marla Love, with whom they have been holding monthly 45-minute meetings since September. 

However, the progress accomplished through these meetings has been slow and sparing. The coalition members stated that in addition to issues such as housing, dining and health insurance resting beyond Love’s jurisdiction, measures proposed by the Coalition such as installing signs to increase the visibility of the Food Pantry were regarded a “breach of confidentiality.” 

Coalition members said that conversations with the dean revealed the bureaucracy involved in implementing change. In the meetings, members reported being told that it would take $60 million to establish the proposed Basic Needs Center and 9 months to publish an official webpage for basic needs. 

“Anabel’s Grocery took a total of $560,000 to establish and renovate,” the anonymous member said. “I’m sure it can be done in less than $60 million.”

According to the Coalition, the Basic Needs Center is not an “unprecedented” model — it is one that has been implemented by peer universities such as UC Davis and UC Berkeley, and one that is necessary according to a commentary piece by the progressive think tank The Century Foundation.  

Despite the challenges, the Coalition has been successful in implementing a Basic Needs Workshop Series sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Students. 

Communication regarding certain demands has been another issue for the basic needs campaigners. The Coalition said it has not received a response to their two-page section of demands for undocumented and DACA students “on any front, in any way.” These demands include an action plan in the cases of DACA revocation, ICE detention as well as consolidated, accessible undocumented-specific resources.

There has been no staff in the undocumented and DACA support position since December 2021, according to a coalition member who wished to remain anonynous. DACA individuals are currently facing a threat to their work authorizations, presence in the U.S. and travel permits following a federal appeals court ruling that deemed the program unlawful. Although DACA has been allowed to temporarily continue as of Oct. 14, coalition members said that there has not been additional support from Cornell in the face of this ruling. 

Following the SA meeting, the Coalition along with community members conducted a peaceful demonstration outside President Pollack’s State of the University address. 

“We had the silent demonstrations so the trustees would have this on their radar,” Bhardwaj said. “After trustee awareness, we’re hoping to have a more positive response. We’re speaking to members of the University Council and working from there.” 

Coalition members say that since the demonstration, student support has only been increasing. 

“People signing our demands has taken off, social media traction about what happened shows that the message is resonating,” Adams said. 

For the Coalition, the community-building is essential to their twofold mission. 

“It all began when students started these workshops because we saw our community was suffering,” said one coalition member who did not wish to be identified due to a fear of administrative retaliation, who added that conversations with peers lead her to believe that the movement is bringing students together and making them feel heard.

“Institutional change … takes a lot of years and effort, and during this time students are still struggling, so we have to continue community work,” the member said.  

The sense of community despite the institutional hurdles is what keeps the Coalition members continuing their efforts, even if their vision of the Basic Needs Center is, for the moment, out of reach. 

“It started off with an ask for a physical space. But the admin has made clear that this is not possible,” one of the coalition members said. “Our movement has shifted … to how we can tackle the root cause: how do we reform financial aid to reflect the cost of living so students don’t have to go around seeking resources?”