January 30, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 32°F


Time to take action

Audio Slideshow

Dorothy Cotton, Ithaca resident and civil rights pioneer, filled Ford Hall with song and her story Monday at the MLK Week kickoff celebration. MICHELLE BOULÉ/THE ITHACAN

During the week of Jan. 24, the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs brought in Cotton, the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars, three Brave New Voices poets and a series of events in celebration of King and his dream for future generations. John Rawlins, assistant director of multicultural affairs, said the purpose of the week, which became a part of Ithaca College tradition years ago, was to inspire students to make a
difference in the community.

“It is an opportunity for the campus to look at Dr. King’s life, talk about his legacy and his work,” Rawlins said. “It is still relevant today.”

Cotton, an Ithaca resident who worked with King as education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a non-violent organization committed to social justice, also spoke to students at the kickoff event. Her speech highlighted this close relationship with King and the role educators play in a child’s life.

“I hope that there are teachers that know that the way we work with and touch the lives of students is so important,” she said.

Cotton sporadically broke out in song throughout her speech, asking the audience to sing along to understand the impact of song and the emotion it can carry. Cotton added that the way society interacts with language is equally powerful and has the potential to create or tear down barriers.

“I don’t like referring to people as black and white and brown,” she said. “The way we use language to describe ourselves is problematic. I refuse to say ‘people of color.’ Have you ever seen someone with no color?”

Rawlins said this year’s theme — “Addressing the Fierce Urgency of Now” — was appropriate for the 10-year anniversary of the event because it serves as a reminder of all issues and problems in society that can’t wait to be resolved. He emphasized the importance of taking action with urgency.

“Issues such as immigration, poverty, discrimination in the military and gay marriage are still so prevalent in our society that we need to put our words to actions,” he said. “This theme ties that all together in a fierce call to action.”

The week began Monday with a kickoff event introduced by President Tom Rochon, who spoke about the integrity of the MLK Scholars and the potential they possess.

The scholars delivered a slideshow presentation highlighting a civil rights tour through Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Ala., and Atlanta. The scholars narrated the presentation with choreographed speech and used poetry to express their reactions to the tour. At the end of the presentation, two students sat down on stage with their guitars and softly sang a song written about changes they believe are necessary in the world, which was met with applause.

Freshman Cedrick Simmons, an MLK Scholar, said their presentation focused on their experiences during the civil rights tour to show the audience how King’s struggles and the struggles society currently faces are connected.

“I didn’t truly understand Dr. King’s perspective until I took the trip,” he said. “He started to be a person to me, not just someone I read about in history books. He was now someone I could relate to.”

Simmons said his experience as an MLK Scholar played a major role in his life. He said he came to understand the legacy of Dr. King in a way he had never imagined.

“Everybody likes to think we are living in a post-racial society, but through our civil rights tour, I’ve started to realize that there are still certain things that go on in American society that aren’t that far removed from the Civil Rights Era,” Simmons said.

Cotton said she was impressed by the amount of knowledge the MLK scholars had gathered during their trip.

“The most incredible thing is that there are students here who have actually studied the history of the civil rights movement,” Cotton said. “I have not been anywhere where I felt this depth of knowledge about the civil rights struggle.”

Students attended the social justice and community involvement fair Tuesday to explore different options for community service work and select where they wanted to volunteer Saturday at the MLK Day of Service.  The fair highlighted both student and community-based organizations. New Roots Charter School, the SPCA of Tompkins County, the Salvation Army and Planned Parenthood were among the community organizations that were in attendance. Campus organizations were also at the fair, including Food For Thought, Do Anything Nice and IC Human Rights.

“I want students to understand that we have a responsibility not just to the [college] community up here on South Hill, but to the community downtown — to bring our
resources, our talent and our knowledge to help make the Ithaca community the best it can be,” Rawlins said.

The Faith and Social Justice panel yesterday discussed how religion is connected to social justice and also how it can be conflicting. Campus and local spiritual leaders guided the conversation that focused on King’s message of non-violence and servant leadership,

Today, professor Zillah Eisenstein and the college’s Diversity Peer Educators will give presentations on the second floor of Campus Center. The week’s flagship performance will take place Friday with the Brave New Voices poets Simone Crew, Angel Nafis and Dee Young, who will be performing at 7 p.m. in Emerson Suites. The poets have been featured on HBO and have been involved in slam poetry competitions worldwide.

Sophomore Cassie Wat, who attended the kickoff event, said she believes the week of
celebration brings the college community together and encourages students to make positive changes in the community.

“Every contribution, no matter how small it is, makes a difference,” she said.

Rawlins said he hopes students and staff will be inspired to commit to social change throughout the week and throughout their lives. He said students cannot hesitate to take action.

“The things that are going on in our community can’t necessarily wait until we make it big,” he said. “They can’t wait until we are comfortable. We have to do these things right now.”