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Students ‘serve in place,’ reflect on community action

In a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much for the worse, Cornell students are still committed to making positive change.

In collaboration with community partners, students spent winter break addressing issues from police reform in Western New York to women’s rights in Africa.

This year, the Office of Engagement Initiatives (OEI) offered grants and support for community-engaged learning projects that followed COVID-19 safety guidelines. Since launching its Serve in Place Fund last summer, OEI has funded 213 students from every undergraduate school and college, Cornell Law School, the Graduate School and Cornell Tech.

Forty percent of summer projects and 22% of winter funding went to students working directly to support Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color.

In one Serve in Place project, Nathan Lamm ’22 worked with Partnership for the Public Good in Buffalo on a research brief examining the history of labor relations and racial disparities in the city’s police department and police union. Through the project, which Lamm began as a High Road Fellow last summer, the ILR School junior realized the importance of looking beyond mainstream media stories and getting input from stakeholders and community leaders.

“A lot of times, especially on the local level, those in power are the ones that control the narratives,” Lamm said. “Finding as many diverse perspectives as possible can bring about far more understanding and lead you further on your path.”

As an intern with the Native American Advocacy Foundation (NAAF), Maria Lee ’24 focused on a different kind of narrative altogether – children’s stories. The communication major supported NAAF’s Minority Literacy Initiative, leading Zoom sessions with elementary school children who had lost access to public libraries, story hours and other opportunities to engage with literature because of the pandemic. Lee read books, led discussions, facilitated arts-and-crafts activities and encouraged the students to bond with one another.

She is continuing to volunteer with NAAF this spring, hosting reading sessions two to four days a week for the five students in her group.

Moreblessing Mushohwe ’24 participated in a project with Tariro, a grassroots nonprofit in Harare, Zimbabwe, dedicated to educating and empowering young women and girls. The engineering student facilitated socially distanced and online workshops, educating girls, young women and other community members on their constitutional rights and strategies for demanding those rights.

“Our hope is through the constitutional literacy workshop and engagement, girls and young women in Harare’s high-density suburbs will be aware of their constitutional rights and be able to demand them,” said Simbarashe Kanyimo, executive director of Tariro. “This has been made possible by support we have received from Cornell University and OEI.”

Back in New York, Juhwan Seo, a doctoral student in sociology, partnered with the Korean American Community Foundation to study how immigrant-owned businesses in New York City have fared during the pandemic. Conversations with community leaders and organizers helped shape the direction of the research project so it could complement work that is already being done in the community.

“There are already many folks involved in ongoing and new efforts, so it makes sense to contribute to these efforts rather than to start one’s own,” Seo said.

In addition to offering the Serve in Place Fund, OEI held two Foundations of Community-Engaged Leadership Intensives over winter break. More than 100 students and staff members participated in the three-week series of workshops, readings and dialogues about the role of identity, ethics and purpose in community-engaged learning.

At the end of the series, participants wrote a statement of purpose to guide them in looking for community-engaged learning opportunities at Cornell and beyond. The Foundations intensive also lets students, faculty and staff connect with a small cohort of peer and colleagues interested in community-engaged learning and social change.

“Hearing from participants gives me hope,” said Krinal Thakkar ’23, an Engaged Ambassador who helped facilitate the sessions. “There are so many problems in the world, and it can be overwhelming. Then I share space with these students and leaders – people like me who are passionate about changing the world – and I know I’m not alone.”

Ashlee McGandy is the content strategist in the Office of Engagement Initiatives.

Media Contact

Abby Butler