Newman Civic Fellow works for meaningful change

Growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Sherell Farmer ’22, named this month by Campus Compact as Cornell’s 2021-22 Newman Civic Fellow, was well aware of the inequalities so sharply juxtaposed in New York City.

“It was everywhere,” said Farmer, a student in the ILR School whose commitment to working toward equality was first nurtured in her family’s home. Every day, she was expected to read a page from a Black history book on a living room table. “My dad would say, ‘OK, tell me what you learned today,’ and I would sit down and recite it back.”

Sherell Farmer

In school, Farmer saw her classmates – primarily students of color – kicked out of class for days, despite the fact that would worsen problems, but heard from her father about wealthy students in Manhattan traveling the world and receiving private tutoring.

“Something about that is uncool,” she remembers thinking.

“Hearing and witnessing the experiences of my neighbors, I came to Cornell committed to fighting these ills,” Farmer said in her statement for Campus Contact, a national coalition of colleges and universities committed to higher education’s public purpose. “Taking classes on various social issues, I have learned that no issue truly exists in a vacuum. This knowledge has grounded me in my belief that relationship building is the true work of social change.”

That inspired her to get involved in the Ithaca community, she said, including a summer internship two public defense attorneys to help them provide effective counsel for marginalized community members. Farmer is also the undergraduate coordinator of a weekly free legal clinic at Ithaca’s Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen and a co-founder of Cornell Students 4 Black Lives, which raised more than $110,000 in support of national, state, and local anti-racist social justice organizations.

“Sherell is a wonderful example of a student engaging with the community and making a difference,” said Alexander Colvin, Ph.D. ’99, the Kenneth F. Kahn ’69 Dean of the ILR School and the Martin F. Scheinman ’75, M.S. ’76, Professor of Conflict Resolution. “Being named a Newman Civic Fellow is a great honor and we are very proud of her accomplishments.”

The Newman Civic Fellowship, in its 11th year, honors students who engage with others to create long-term social change, take action to address issues of inequality and demonstrate a potential for civic engagement.

As a Campus Compact member institution, Cornell can nominate one student to be a Newman Civic Fellow each year. Units in the Engaged Cornell Hub organized the nomination process, and Farmer was nominated by President Martha E. Pollack.

In her nomination letter, Pollack said Farmer “knows that meaningful change requires more than academic study – it requires direct engagement with communities. Through Cornell’s High Road Fellowship, Sherell worked with the Center for Employment Opportunities in Buffalo, New York, where she analyzed barriers that keep formerly incarcerated individuals from completing job readiness programs and created workshop materials to better serve them.”

Cornell impacting New York State

ILR was a great fit for her to build a future dedicated to equity, she said, and High Road, based in ILR’s Buffalo Co-Lab, brought together the components of effective activism by synthesizing skills for mobilizing and energizing people to make changes in their communities. “High Road sharpened my ability to advocate for others,” said Farmer, who has minors in inequality studies, law and society, and history.

Campus Compact, the only national higher education association dedicated solely to campus-based civic engagement, named 212 community-committed students from 39 states, Washington, D.C., and Mexico to serve as fellows during the 2021-2022 academic year. Fellows have learning opportunities, including a national conference, throughout the year, and exclusive scholarship and post-graduate opportunities.

Mary Catt is the ILR School’s communications director.

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Lindsey Knewstub