Aired on June 19, 2020
The Black Lives Matter movement is not over, even if the mainstream media does not openly report on it anymore without broadcasting isolated, violent images to boost its ratings. Every brand, every institution, and every person who posted a Black square or posted a diversity and inclusion statement will be challenged to follow through beyond their words with actions for long-term change.
On behalf of Cornell University, President Martha Pollack published statements on May 29th and June 3rd on what her administration can commit to “address [racism] directly.” Unfortunately, there is a significant group of members of the Cornell community who find President Pollack’s plans insufficient.
On June 12th, a collective group of student leaders called for institutional change by launching the campaign, “Do Better Cornell.” “Do Better Cornell” highlights two petitions promoted across social media platforms under its namesake hashtag.
Gaby Kubi '20 and Maame Britwum '20 drafted the first petition, calling for new entities within the University such as an Alternative Justice Board and Anti-Racism Institute. Maame explains:
MAAME: ...Two main demands, firstly being the Alternative Justice Board, which would be a new way to discipline students so that the people who are harmed (i.e. other students) can have a substantive role in the way that those students are punished. And then, secondly is the Anti-Racism Institute, which our idea for that is that it will be this all-encompassing being where students, faculty… can kind of go into this space and work on research to bring out to the university and/or the rest of the world… A place where people like university leaders and student leaders are trained on diversity and race and how to not be racist — anti-racist.
Amber Haywood '21 drafted the second petition, calling for other demands to be met as soon as the Fall semester.
AMBER: ...Two that I particularly want to highlight. One is abolishing the Student Contribution [Fee]. I think that this is particularly time-sensitive due to Coronavirus. It’s unreasonable for low-income and minority students to pay $3,500 to a university that has a $7B endowment. Another demand that I wanted to highlight was to empower service workers. I think they’re often forgotten about in conversations about demands and university reforms.
To draw further support for “Do Better Cornell,” students and alumni coordinated posts across social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, inviting both members of the Cornell and non-Cornell community to sign their petitions. Furthermore, official Cornell University social media profiles were tagged and commented across these posts to ensure they had the University’s attention. A few days later, Amber and Maame noticed changes in the posts. They were getting untagged and even blocked.
AMBER: As students are trying to show their viewpoint and feature their student causes and backgrounds, the Administration is constantly pushing back.
MAAME: I don’t know if it’s someone high in the administration saying, ‘Take these tags down. Make it go away.’ I can’t say — I don’t know if it’s that, or a rogue social media manager making decisions on their own. But what I can say is that, at the very least, it makes students feel like the University is refusing to listen to them.
WVBR News contacted the University Media Relations Office to ask about this. Through a written reply, a University representative said:
Cornell’s lackluster response ignites organizers from “Do Better Cornell” to continue applying pressure at whatever capacity they can, especially during this COVID-19 era. After all, Gaby and Maame feel that this is what students have done historically:
GABY: One of the issues we think that Cornell has when responding to situations like this is that there’s not a lot of institutional backing, or a lot of official entities within the university itself to back up students, when they propose demands or when they recognize that there’s a problem — there’s something that they want to do about it. At least in Cornell’s history, it’s very evident that the institution, in and of itself, cannot think of solutions or take actions to better itself unless it’s prompted to do so.
MAAME: Cornell has a really rich history of its students, particularly Black students, mobilizing some sort of campaign, calling for change, you know in 1968 and ‘69 with the Willard Straight Takeover and some of the changes that came about that. I think that the University has really not moved quickly or moved to make substantive changes since about 50 years ago. I think that what we’re seeing now with “Do Better Cornell” is that Cornell students recognize that.
While these women have received mixed feedback regarding the petitions, the overwhelming majority has been positive.
AMBER: There’s been a lot of good. First of all, we’ve had over 2,000 signatures, close to 2,500 at this point of which I’m very proud of and very happy to have. I, personally, have had some constructive feedback on my demands that I helped to create which I found to be really useful. I’ve also had some non-constructive feedback.
MAAME: Like Amber said, it’s kind of been a mixed bag, but I would say that it’s been predominantly good feedback, especially from current students and even alumni. The alumni feedback has been awesome. I think that several alumni have either reached out to us, or we reach out to them, and they’ve been more than willing to help in whatever ways that they can, which I think has been amazing. CBAA [Cornell Black Alumni Association] has been phenomenal with everything that they’ve done, helping to promote this within the Black alumni community.
WVBR News reached out to University representatives, asking if they were aware of the petitions and planned to act on them anytime soon. A representative failed to confirm or deny their acknowledgement of the petitions, but rather asked us to reference previous statements made by President Pollack. However, Maame knows Administrators know about them:
MAAME: I know that the University knows about the petitions, not that they’ve said it outright to any of us organizers, but from people that I know that are within the administration and/or students that work closely with the administration. The University is aware that this exists. I don’t know what their plans are to address what’s going on, but I think that they can’t ignore us for as long as they are hoping to.
An initiative President Palluck announced in her June 3rd statement was the creation of a Campus Community Book Club, suggesting Cornell community members read, “How to Be an Antiracist,” by National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi, and participate in a series of online discussions. However, Maame is not the only student who feels this solution is drastically flawed:
MAAME: Martha Pollack's response was not enough. You know, NONAME [Chicago rapper] can make a book club, and that will work because NONAME is a Black artist and she’s hoping to educate like-minded individuals who want to learn more. Where as Cornell University’s Book Club does not do that same approach — You’re self-selecting in as to whether or not you want to learn about systemic racism. And if you’re someone that (1) doesn’t believe it exists or (2) decide that you don’t care, which potentially could be a lot of the student body and Administrators as a whole, then you just won’t join the book club. That is not, at least to me, a response that is indicative of substantive change, and that’s why you see so many of these movements — “Cornell [Students] for Black Lives,” “Black @ Cornell,” “Do Better Cornell.” All these initiatives came after that response because it literally wasn’t enough.
For Gaby, “Do Better Cornell” is about enacting radical change. “Radical” is not something to fear but rather identify issues at the root of the problem.
GABY: The word “radical,” when it comes to radical thought or radical activism, or whatever, doesn’t actually mean something crazy or outrageous or whatever. It’s just anything that traces the problems that we’re facing today back to the root of wherever they came from, whether that’s a systemic root or a historical root. I think that the people who have taken it upon themselves to write criticism pieces of the petition, or who have made a mockery of the petitions, and chalked them up to be something that is crazy and something that would completely transform Cornell and the way that we know it… like Yes, we do want to change, but it’s not as unheard of as you think it is that people who are just as deserving of the rights and experiences and privileges that you have advocate for themselves and ask for those basic things. So I feel that the only people who view these things as “crazy and unheard of” are just people who are not in tune with what it is to be a radical thinker, or to take radical action because, yeah, it seems crazy to us, but all we’re doing is looking at the system that exists and analyzing the system, and seeing how we can go back to seeing what the causes of these problems are and fix them.
Before this interview, Gaby, Maame and Amber were unsure to call themselves “student activists.” Yes, they are now completing activism work by definition with “Do Better Cornell,” but like many other Black and marginalized community members, Gaby feels that this is a battle she is constantly fighting at school, whether she chose to or not:
GABY: Something that we don’t always discuss within the education system, whether that’s higher education or public schools, is the fact that students that have one or more minoritized identities often find themselves being unofficial diversity workers at whatever capacity that is, so I think that’s why I heard all three of us to struggle and say, “Hmm, are we activists? Or are we just subjects of discrimination and oppression?” You find yourself in a position of advocacy or activism, or whatever, just by virtue of who you are, so students who have these minoritized identities are always, always, always fighting for these basic rights.
Contrary to what critics believe, these bright Black women and organizers of the campaign are not acting out of hate toward Cornell. There are many things to love about it, but it would be wrong to not hold it accountable for its systemic flaws and fight for basic, fundamental rights. For Amber, this is what student activism is all about:
AMBER: You know, I had an uncle die recently from Coronavirus, and he was a really avid student activist when he was younger, and so, it made me reflect upon generations of Black people who are constantly advocating for minimal rights, truly, and it’s sort of hard to think about. When you contextualize it, in the 1960’s, you had folks advocating for their basic human rights including drinking out of the same water fountain and the right to vote. In the 1980’s, à la different world, they were advocating for international [reform against] Apartheid in South Africa. I think now we have this movement with Black LIves Matter. It really is a generational thing, so that’s what I think student activism means, it’s like generational people advocating constantly for their basic rights.
If you would like to review and consider signing the petitions and supporting students in their fight for institutional change, visit dobettercornell.com.
For WVBR News, I’m Christopher Morales.