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Students capture Ithaca civil leaders’ oral histories in new book

Ithaca’s community organizers, activists, Black farmers and more have transformed the community in ways big and small. And they have stories to tell.

A new book, “13 Leaders: Stories of Community Building for Systemic Change,” published by Cornell students, honors the journeys and life’s work of 13 Cornell Civic Leader Fellows – grassroots leaders who have played critical roles in developing resilient communities in and around Ithaca.

Cornell Civil Leader Fellow Phoebe Brown participates in a rally in San Francisco.

The book is the product of five years of work by undergraduate students majoring in development sociology in the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who documented the oral histories of local community leaders as part of their senior capstone course, Agents of Change: Community Organizing for the Public Good.

Eighty-three students interviewed, transcribed and reflected on the stories of 13 Civic Leader Fellows – activists, farmers, educators, organizers, artists and mentors in Tompkins County, most of whom are Black, Indigenous or people of color.

A book launch event will take place May 13 at 4:30 p.m. via Zoom, where the Civic Leader Fellows and students will highlight their experiences.

The Cornell Civic Leaders Fellowship Program was founded in 2001 by the Cornell Public Service Center and funded by John Alexander ’74, MBA ’76, and supported by other offices and departments. The first-of-its-kind program was created to honor and support community leaders involved in economic and community development efforts in Tompkins County and surrounding counties, and to improve university-community collaborations.

The Civic Leader Fellows have played central roles in supporting diverse communities, including farmers of color, immigrant youth, formerly incarcerated individuals and people with drug dependence. The course provided an arena for students to build relationships with local changemakers and absorb the lessons learned during years of work with their communities.

“This is not your typical classroom,” said Maryam Zafar ‘21.

“Communities have been educating one another for a very long time,” said Civic Leader Fellow Phoebe Brown, central New York coordinator of the Alliance of Families for Justice, which supports the reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals. “But this is the first time where we’re really trying to share the stories and the leadership. What we’re trying to do in this book is show the stories of struggle.”

Amy Somchanhmavong, associate director of service-learning and partnership at Cornell Public Service Center, who coordinates the Cornell Civic Leaders Fellowship Program, said the initiative recognizes the fellows as co-educators in public and community engagement.

“We recognize the value of relationships,” she said, “and that community engagement work is relational rather than driven only by outputs and outcomes.”

Civic Leader Fellow Fabina Benites shared her experiences as a community organizer, cultural educator, youth advocate and director of the Multicultural Resource Center. “This book highlights grassroots, collective leadership. It’s important for us to lift up the voices and leadership of people who are most impacted by whatever issue it is that they’re working on,” she said.

The book exhibits the Cornell Civic Leader Fellows’ stories through oral histories, told and written in the first person.

“The oral history process gives people a chance to tell their own story in their own voice, unfiltered in a way that preserves a truer and more complicated sense of people’s experiences,” said Scott Peters, professor of global development and faculty lead of the capstone project. “In doing so, Civic Leader Fellows have the opportunity to reflect on their lives and the value they have brought to the community.”

Josseth Gordon ’21, wrote the book’s afterword, drawing on the reflections of the students who participated in the project., said that the most valuable takeaways have been the value of lived experience, the vulnerability it takes to truly connect with communities and the deep investment it takes to work with grassroots movements.

“The stories of the fellows surreptitiously pose a challenge to us,” Gordon wrote. “Battling xenophobia, racism, classism, gender issues, violence, disease, addiction, the streets, incarceration, and that unrelenting drive to do more, give more, and teach more, each story was an unfiltered testament of turning darkness into light with the fires of your passion.”

The project provided many students with their first experience working closely with Ithaca grassroots organizations. Many said they wished they could have gotten involved sooner, Peters said.

Younger students will soon have the chance to do so. Peters, along with Shorna Allred, associate professor of natural resources and of global development, and Bruce Levitt, professor of performing and media arts, are adapting the capstone course for sophomores, to build longer-term relationships.

The program and book are supported by John Alexander ’74, MBA ’76; the Office of Engagement Initiatives; the Office of University and Community Relations; and members of the Kaplan family.

Kelly Merchan is a communications specialist in the Department of Global Development.

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Abby Butler