Fifteen Ithaca College students spent two hours knocking on doors on Ithaca’s Plain Street gathering signatures for a petition to change the name of the street to Nelson Mandela Street on April 11.
Freshmen Sophia Conger, Gabby Malave and Jaylen Young have begun organizing an effort to change the name of Plain Street to honor South Africa’s first president, Nelson Mandela, who died in December, 2013.
During their first effort to change the name of the street, students received 63 Plain Street residents’ signatures April 11.
During the fall semester, local Ithaca activist Gino Bush came into the freshman seminar The Art of Writing an Essay, taught by Nick Kowalczyk, associate professor in the Department of Writing, where he met Malave. Malave said Bush approached her after class and brought up his idea to rename the street. Malave said she then collaborated with Conger and Young to begin the petition efforts.
Bush said after Mandela’s death, he approached the Board of Public Works about renaming the street. He said he knew he was going to have to collect signatures from residents of Plain Street.
Malave said while Bush approached her with this idea, he has largely let the students lead the effort.
“He’s pretty much just motivating us,” Malave said. “He’s our foundation, and he gave us this responsibility.”
Conger said she agreed Bush is the driving force, but the effort is student led.
“We’re the ones doing the planning and physical work behind this, but he’s really the motivation behind it,” she said.
Bush led a similar effort to change the name of State Street, which, after what Bush said was five years of work, led to the street receiving a dual designation of both State Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Street in January, 2009.
Bush said students were a key part of that street name change.
“The major workers on the Martin Luther King Jr. Street effort were students from Ithaca College, and they didn’t stop until we were done,” Bush said.
In a map compiled by Mother Jones, in December, 2013, there were 10 streets in the United States named for Mandela, including Mandela Drive in Rochester, New Hampshire and Mandela Way in Philadelphia.
One resident who denied the students’ request told the students he thought money could be better used in the city than to change the name of street signs.
In 2008, The Ithacan reported it would cost $7,500 to change the street signs on State Street.
Conger said some of the pushback they received from residents demonstrates the project’s importance.
“You know there was some pushback, but that’s expected and just goes to show how important it is to implement this change,” she said.
Conger and Malave plan to return to Plain Street to take the petition to the Titus Towers, two public housing properties for the elderly that include a total of 235 dwelling units.
After the petition receives what the organizers decide is enough signatures, they will take the petition to the Board of Public Works and start attending meetings of the Ithaca Common Council, which would have to vote to change the name of the street.
With the summer approaching, the student-organizers said they will turn to Bush to begin to help navigate the petition through the city’s process to change the street name. Conger said the student-organizers understand the street name change is a large undertaking.
“This is a long process, MLK Street took five years to change,” she said. “We’re just beginning.”