June 5, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 72°F


Commentary: Adapting the past for a radical future

Editor’s Note: This is a guest commentary. The opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.

In November 2015, POC at IC released an open letter calling for former President Tom Rochon’s removal after staging a campus-wide walkout and demanding institutional change. 

In December 2019, students in the former Department of Theatre Arts displayed “A Manifesto of Visibility” across the halls of Dillingham Center in response to a racially-charged classroom incident.

In October 2020, the Student Governance Council and the former Students of Color Coalition held a campus-wide “Stand for Justice” webinar to address the racial inequities on campus, including the experiences documented by a letter released by Ithaca College Department of Theatre Arts Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

In March 2023, IC Rise Up released a series of statements online alongside printed accounts of the experiences of students of color on campus, highlighting discriminatory and racist incidents. 

Students are at the crux of the college — the driving force behind the institution’s desire to “educate, engage and empower” the next generation of scholars, professionals and artists. Yet, its student-centered mission and values, similarly to other predominantly white academic institutions, fall short of the realities of campus life, evidenced by the student activist movements that are intrinsically linked to the institution’s memory. 

From POC at IC in 2015 to the ICTA BIPOC letter in 2020, IC Rise Up joins the longstanding historical struggle of students of color to hold their institution accountable for the gaps in academic affairs and student life. However, these movements of the past have fallen victim to the impermanence of the student life cycle, where the fiery momentum of an activist campaign is dimmed by performative listening solutions, “busy-ing” institutional tactics and the polycratic chaos of academic bureaucracy.

In other words, it is vital that student activism uses past efforts by students of color to inform their tactics of the present to ensure a radically different future. When I served as the co-chair for the former Students of Color Coalition, I was told by a former mentor that my efforts in organizing and solidarity work rested on “the shoulders of those that came before.” I was forced to reckon with a stark reality: I may never experience that change I desperately desired throughout my four years at the college. I understood that the only way to organize further was to think about what was demanded by students of color of the past and how the groundwork could be laid for something that I wanted new generations to experience. And while some of my efforts were futile, I did what I could to try and pass on as much knowledge to generations younger than me about the possibilities of demanding more from your education.

In many ways, predominantly white institutions depend on the transient nature of students of color in their transition from student to alum. The institution’s memory is preserved as many students of color have severed connections with their undergraduate programs. In turn, organizing efforts are lost, and the pain, joys and tribulations of their college experience become nothing but a shadow of the past.

I see the recent activist efforts by IC Rise Up as a reawakening of racial consciousness that is following similar paths as other student activist movements of the past. I urge these students of color to be reflexive and look back each time they take a step forward, asking themselves: What can I do for those that come next?

French philosopher and literary critic Michel Foucault once posited, “Where there is power, there is resistance.” The continuous resistance to change by the college rests on the desire to maintain the status quo — a status quo that facilitates generations of harm and trauma against its students of color. It is critical to remember that they only resist because they recognize the power of student movements. 

Broadly, students of color protest movements at the college are part of a more extensive line of historic student activist movements in the United States. From the creation of HBCUs in the 19th century to the development of ethnic and area studies in the 1960s, each of these moments in time has always been rooted in crafting a future that can be cultivated by reconciling with the past, sustaining momentum and radicalizing tactics that address the institution head-on.

Alexander Paredes-Ruiz (he/him/él) ‘21 was a theater arts management and history majors. Contact him at aparedesruiz@ithaca.edu.