Community Blog


The MLK Community Build wants to foster dialogue and expression about equality and social justice topics among the entire Ithaca & Tompkins County community and beyond.  This blog was created to help achieve that goal and will eventually become a rich collection of perspectives, experiences, and creativity which showcases the true character of our community, local and beyond.

Anyone can contribute, no matter who you are or where you live.  

How to Submit Content

  • Please ensure that your blog post is respectful and appropriate for audiences of all ages.
  • Include your name and any other information about yourself (e.g. your bio, contact info., etc.) with your submission.  If you wish to remain anonymous, please give us some contextual info. (e.g. age, gender, racial/ethnic identity, etc.).
  • Please allow us between 1-5 days to review your blog and post it.  We reserve the right to censor sections of content which we find disrespectful and/or inappropriate (e.g. profanity, etc.).   

Personal Reflection of Martin Luther King’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community”

posted Feb 17, 2012, 9:09 PM by MLK Community Build   [ updated Feb 17, 2012, 9:29 PM ]

by Thomas W. Schultz, Cornell undergraduate who wrote this piece for the class, Speaking Truth to Power: The Black Prophetic Voice in America (Prof. Vernon Mitchell)


    Martin Luther King is perhaps one of the most influential and important African Americans of the 21st century. Without question, the words and ideals that Dr. King preached reached millions of people and touched millions of lives. As Martin Luther King once said, “we are all tied in a single garment of destiny”. In his posthumous novel titled “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”, King calls for the realization that one’s actions can have an indirect impact on an entire community or even entire region. King lays out his strategies and dreams for the future while prophetically calling for an end to educational imbalances and global suffering. Thanks to the Martin Luther King Community Build, people such as myself have the opportunity to learn and comprehend the teachings of one of the most important men in American history.

    Throughout the work, Dr. Martin Luther King touches on numerous subjects of vast importance in society today. One example in particular revolves around King’s views on education. King writes, “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential. Social action without education is a weak expression of pure energy” (pg. 164). I completely agree with this statement. Education is extremely important, yet without social action the education will not be manifested in the lives of the children whom are taught.  Similarly, delivering social action without education will not allow children to develop to their full potential or “pure energy”. When King writes “Laws only declare rights; they do not deliver them,” he calls for politicians to not only develop regulations to help the education of young adults but also have a direct and involved impact on the way in which the laws are applied.  In society, it is often the case that politicians act in a way that will improve an image, often forgetting about the constituents who have voted them into office. In a way, Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically calls for an end to the weak and image-driven ways in which leaders call for educational and social action and a start to more direct and driven acts.

    The way in which the novel ended really caught my attention. King calls upon us to “shift from a ‘thing’-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society” and says that “a civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy” (pg. 196-197). King here is arguing that a “socially conscious democracy” is more important than any previous form of capitalism or communism. This is a radical idea not frequently touched upon. He is calling for a change in the way that citizens of a nation are treated in the economic and social context. The people should be of upmost importance and not the “profit motives” for which the American government can be said to attest to. I agree exactly with the message that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is conveying. The people are what make up a nation, and the people should be the ones considered when decisions are being made. King argues that America will either move towards chaos or community and that the decisions rests solely upon whether or not the people of the United States are treated in a “person-oriented” or a “profit-oriented” manner.

    Without question, Dr. Martin Luther King addresses imperative problems in a society that will either move toward chaos or community. In an extremely prophetic manner, King lays out his plans for the future. King specifically challenges the educational system as well as the profit hungry motives of politicians and leaders of the United States. The novel as a whole should serves as an impetus to change in the future. Although King’s life was cut short, it can be said that his visions alone allowed African American’s to push through racial barriers and eventually rise to positions of dominance. The book serves as a foundation for change that should be read by children across the United States. The MLK Community Build will do a great job in fostering King’s knowledge in children at an early age that will only grow as the child progresses throughout his educational journey.

Racism: Isolation's Symptom

posted Jul 26, 2011, 8:24 PM by Ben Ortiz   [ updated Aug 1, 2011, 11:10 PM ]


By Eli Steier


"The inability for people to establish lasting social bonds is a problem that is on par with racism."

-Michael Umphrey


    I remember sitting down to eat lunch with a colleague who had recently graduated from college.  We began swapping stories, and, as we were reminiscing, a common theme emerged: we both had lost touch with many of our close friends from growing up. Not only that, I realized that I had lost touch with most of the people that I knew from my pre-college years, if only vaguely.  People do grow apart, and this isn't an uncommon occurrence.  However, it is taken almost as a given that a person will not end up living in the same place they grew up in, or near their immediate family, let alone their extended family.  If education is understood as the generational transfer of knowledge on how to survive in the world, then the families that are distances apart might lose out on a lot of valuable knowledge.  Education, in many ways, seems like it prepares its students to leave home, and never return.  Of course, economic necessities do come into play, but there is a cost: You can miss out in sharing your life with those you love the most.  In order to develop lasting social bonds, time must be invested, as well as commitment to a specific place.  The internet has enabled communication from all over the world, and some declare that online communities can replace the interaction of living people.  As fantastic as internet communication is it cannot create the same warmth as a gathering of friends in a cozy living room.

    The colleague I spoke with mentioned that most people do not want to invest the effort that friendship requires.  This rang true, and gave me pause.  What is worth the effort, if not friendship, family, and life shared?  Perhaps, more importantly, what led to this problem and what can be done?  This situation was created by the accessibility of distractions, frayed social bonds, loss of
commitment to being a neighbor, friend, family member, and loss of commitment to organizations that support these things.

    From my interactions with older people in Ithaca, New York City, and Long Island, I have learned about the decline of neighborhoods, the decrease in social activities, and the increase in isolation.  There was a time when bowling alleys were popular, but they have been replaced by the gym.  Though exercise at the gym can be done with others, it is often more autonomous, and lonely.  There has been a decrease in membership in religious organizations as well as fraternal organizations.  It seems that the current zeitgeist is against people joining with others to share their lives.  All relationships include the possibility, almost the absolute certainty, of being hurt, and the distractions before us help us to avoid that necessary risk.  The entertainment and knowledge at our fingertips is highly seductive.  The numerous distractions like Facebook, iTunes, television, video games, blogs, and Twitter can be used to enact change, but often end up dissipating focus.  In isolation we can be like gods, retreating into our imaginations, crafting amazing images of ourselves removed from reality; however, it is only with others that we can become truly human.  I think our generation is lonelier.  With the high rate of divorce, I think many people do not know what it is like to know the stability and protection a committed marriage provides or even how to have a committed relationship, or that one is possible.  One of things I have encountered, I think, is the inability for people to see themselves as part of something larger than themselves.  Since they cannot do that, they do not feel an impetus to work to change things that are unrelated to them.

    Relationships require constant work, commitment, and, since there is no guarantee that things will work out, courage is also needed.  Communities are not abstractions, are not perfect, and are situated in specific places with specific people.  It is each individual's responsibility to create the world they want to live in; so, if we really want to live in a community, we will have to work for it.  I think one of ways to create a community is to build healthy lasting social bonds at every level (lover, family, friend, neighbor).  It is only when people start to really care about the people they live around, the place they live in, that they work to make changes.

    From my experience, it can be difficult to reach out when one is already feeling so isolated.  The act of reaching out can feel overwhelming, like violating a social taboo, going against the grain.  It was hard for me to introduce myself to a neighbor when I was living in Suffolk County, but I did it because I wanted to live in a world where I had a neighbor instead of a stranger.  I was
met with some cold reactions.  One person told me that "you don't knock on doors in Suffolk County."  Not the friendliest of experiences, but I found out that not everyone in Suffolk County was like that.  I eventually did meet some people who were open to the idea of being neighbors.  There are nice people out there, doing things out there, just when I didn't know anyone I didn't
know where to begin, but by trying and failing, I eventually began to inhabit the world I wanted to live in.

    One of the acknowledged causes of racism is ignorance.  The racism problem is directly related to, and exacerbated by, the not knowing your neighbor problem.  If you frequently eat dinner, or play games with someone, you get to know them, and the stereotypes, from whatever background, are replaced with actual experience.  So when it comes to caring about people and
places, there is no limit to the things that an individual can do, and building a community can start with a brave knock on a stranger's door.

Author's Note: Some of these ideas are Michael Umphrey's, and are restated with my own
understanding. I take full responsibility for my words above, and any clarifications should be
directed to me, since Mr. Umphrey did not partake in the creation of this piece.

Eli Steier was born, and raised in Queens where he developed a great fondness for the often
libeled bird the pigeon. He is a fan of teaching, reading, and writing, and is currently learning
Spanish and Hebrew.


MLK thanked by Hip Hop legends

posted Jun 30, 2011, 8:53 PM by Ben Ortiz   [ updated Aug 29, 2011, 9:39 PM ]


by Ben Ortiz
, MLK Community Build Coordinating Group 

    Since I joined the MLK Community Build, I've been on the lookout for references to Martin Luther King, Jr. in pop culture.  Two examples are featured in my previous blog (MLK is mentioned in "Renegades of Funk" by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force and in an episode of "The Boondocks").

    The other day, while sorting through some materials in the Cornell Hip Hip Collection (where I work), I came across the 1982 album "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (watch the video for "The Message" below).  On the back cover are the customary thank-you's from the artists.  Immediately following God, their parents, and Sylvia Robinson (the founder of their record label, Sugar Hill Records), guess who's thanked...



    The title track on "The Message" is widely felt to be one of the most important songs in Hip Hop history because it's generally credited as the first to feature hard-hitting social commentary in its lyrics.  The fact that these Rock 'n Roll Hall of Famers were influenced by MLK surely contributed to their musical disposition, and therefore contributed to the evolution of Hip Hop as a unique, powerful tool for communication, expression, and education.


"The Message" - 
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (1982)

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Here is a sampling of just a few other Hip Hop songs that follow in the footsteps of 
"The Message" as works of social commentary:


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White People Even Make Better Victims, Huh?

posted Jun 13, 2011, 10:19 AM by MLK Community Build   [ updated Jun 13, 2011, 10:53 AM ]

by Josh Bornstein, an educator who blogs at Challenging Normalcy in Education


this blog post is in response to "White People Face the Worst Racism?," from The Root.


    White people even make better victims, huh?  Supremacy in victimhood?   Fairly incredible within a realistic understanding of racism both historically and presently.  Not so hard to believe especially in a media environment for Whites in which Fox's fear sells so well.  In fact, the point at which the white victimization narrative seems to me to go national and public--at which it picks up steam--is the Reagan presidency.  Begun in Philadelphia, MS.  Notable for the race-baiting of "welfare queens."  Tied to a resurgence of putative American pride, against a supposed backdrop of humiliation such as the hostage crisis in Iran.

    And not to sound conspiratorial about it, but it might be useful to note that an important thread ties Reagan and Fox News together, maintaining that narrative.   Roger Ailes recognizes the power in selling that fear both for Reagan's presidency and for Fox.

    King's beloved community remains one of the most powerful counterweights to that narrative.  Compassion will have to remain central to any progress.   Indeed, the fear mongers prey on compassion.   They gain ground by putatively being the only ones who will voice pain, even as they grossly distort it.  And how powerful have any of us felt when we've had the compassion to listen through a loved one's placing false blame, venting illogical victimhood, and then be able to reassure someone that together we can go forward?  At least I've found I'm most trusted when I'm willing to do that, and then later try to shift my beloved to a new perspective.

    And so here is uncommon work for White activists against racism.   We might turn in disgust from such nonsense as White people putatively facing the worst racism, but we could instead summon the intestinal fortitude to engage that crap.  This can be the quiet, soft, but tremendously challenging work of creating a beloved community.  It lacks the immediate gratification of standing together with people we already call "allies," commiserating, protesting, or celebrating.  Instead, it's risky and dangerous on so many levels.  Will the stigma of the racist spread to us?   Will the anger of the racist remain unassuaged, or worse yet be validated by our audience?  But without risking that, it's hard to see that any community of the future will have love at its core.

The Freedom Struggle in St. Augustine, Florida: Recognizing the Foot Soldiers

posted Jun 12, 2011, 6:35 PM by MLK Community Build   [ updated Jun 13, 2011, 10:54 AM ]

By Barbara H. Chasin

    In late April I visited a friend in St. Augustine, Florida.  She and some other activist friends told me about the desegregation fight in that city in the 1960s that involved Martin Luther King and Dorothy Cotton along with many others.  In May of this year, the city dedicated a statue to the “ordinary foot soldiers” of the civil rights movement there.  I thought Ithaca area readers might find the following information about St. Augustine’s struggle of interest.

    St. Augustine Florida is the oldest city in the United States.  From the city’s founding, people of African descent have played an important role in the city’s history.  In 1738, for example, Fort Mose, a free black town was recognized by the then Spanish rulers of the city.  Slaves from the north of Florida escaped to this city to gain freedom.  Many years later the struggle for freedom continued in St. Augustine and was met by violence including the bombings of several homes.

    Dr. Robert B. Hayling, a local African-American dentist led the fight against segregation, teaching the methods of non-violence to local youth.  He organized wade-ins at segregated swimming pools and sit-ins at segregated eating places.  These actions were illegal and he was arrested many times.  His own office was the first in the city to have non-segregated waiting and examining rooms.  Paying a price for his actions, Dr. Hayling was threatened with death, drive-by shooters barely missed his pregnant wife and killed his dog.  He was kidnapped and severely beaten by the KKK, losing eleven teeth.  The KKK impaired his ability to practice dentistry by maiming his right hand.

Dr. Robert Hayling (right) with Dr. King and Atlanta mayor (1982-1990) Andrew Young.

    In 1964, Martin Luther king, Jr. came to St. Augustine on several occasions and was arrested for “unlawful assembly” after picketing segregated businesses. His fingerprint card has recently been put on display at a local museum part of a civil rights exhibit.

Dr. Martin Luther King in St. Augustine jail

    Ithaca’s own Dorothy Cotton was attacked, along with African-American children she was escorting to a local beach. Of that incident she remembered, "I took some licks to the side of my head, one girl got her nose broken."

    Progressive activists in St. Augustine are aware of the role that recognized leaders of the moment played in the Civil Rights movement and the great risks they took. They are also aware, however, of the many less recognized ordinary people who refused to play the subordinate roles a racist system had assigned to them. St. Augustine resident Barbara Vickers, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, created an organization to honor these people: The Foot Soldiers. Raising $70,000, the project commissioned a sculpture meant to represent the diverse participants in the local struggle. There are unnamed figures of a teenage African-American girl, a white college student, and an older black woman and man. In a pouring rain on May 14
th, 2011 amidst reminiscences from a local Freedom Rider the sculpture was unveiled, an important addition to the history of this historic city.

St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Monument Unveiling




Osama Bin Laden...Geronimo? A despicable use of a great man's name

posted May 6, 2011, 10:47 AM by MLK Community Build   [ updated May 6, 2011, 11:55 AM ]

by Patrice Lockert Anthony, Owner and Principal Consultant - A Writer's Alchemy

"We've ID'd Geronimo." A despicable use of a great man's name. That it came from America is both unsurprising and perhaps, unforgivable. We, in America, have been speaking of peace, love, and a commitment to ending intolerance for some time now. We continue to fail miserably. Whether you are the leader of a country, an organization (large or small), or an individual, if you speak peace, love, community, and/or an end to intolerance of any kind, but then betray that commitment by trashing even the least respected/loved member of your cause; you are either in denial of your personal truth, or you are a liar.
Best to decide now on which side of the line you reside...
 
this blog post is in response to the following:




Us versus Them: The Human Problem

posted May 2, 2011, 4:04 PM by MLK Community Build   [ updated May 2, 2011, 7:15 PM ]

by Eli Steier

We do not get to choose the various groups we are born into. Fortunately, people usually enjoy being part of groups, and most people count themselves as members of a diverse range of groups: chess players, football players, nations, etc. As we grow we gain the freedom, and responsibility, to join the groups we choose.

There is nothing wrong with being a member of a particular group as long as the group is a good one. Good groups promote peace, goodness, knowledge, prosperity, lasting social bonds, and health. Good groups teach their members to see the "Us" in the "Them" without dissolving their distinct "Us"ness. It needs to be stated that though all good groups have similar goals, the differences in approach are significant. The diverse good activities humans pursue enrich the world, and the diverse bad activities humans pursue destroy the world. There are many good groups in the world with many different names, and have different ways of doing things. These differences are real, because reality is affected by them in different, specific ways. These groups add to the rich, diverse tapestry of civilization. Each of these individual groups form a distinct “Us” which operates by its own inner logic. The real work, seems to me, is to learn to build, and maintain the “Us and Them” mentality, instead of an “Us versus Them” mentality. The goal is to work peacefully beside others that are not like you.

The problem arises when one “Us” seeks to impose its view of what “Us” means upon others by coercion. Northrop Frye once wrote that something in each of us wants to join a mob. I don’t think he was against people joining groups, which, indeed, would be impossible. To get through the day I rely on many people, living and dead, known and unknown, who, through various processes, have helped provide me with food, electricity, water, shelter, and other needs. People are social creatures, and need each other to flourish.

I think Mr. Frye was referring to a very specific group: mob. Michael Umphrey once wrote that there seems to be a universal impulse in humans to force their will upon others. This, he writes, is the totalitarian impulse. I would argue that it is a cousin to the mob impulse.

A mob is composed of individuals who cannot stand alone on their own. They are composed of those who take their cues from other humans in the false belief that they do not have the ability to discern truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or fiction from non-fiction.

A group stands in contrast to a mob. A group is composed of autonomous individuals that are pursuing the same goals. The goal can be to run, to build houses, or to assist the poor. The goal is arbitrary, and groups form around specific goals.

There is a movement without a name that, with the best of intentions, seeks to eliminate all groups, all “Us”es whose views differ from their own. In ignorance, this group presumes that all other groups are misinformed. Instead of acknowledging the reality of different groups, this groups calls for the allegiance of all other groups.

A normal person embraces the diversity of human expression, and, in freedom, joins groups that have similar goals. A normal person does not control others.

The group to which I refer is not normal. This group does not recognize the claims of various groups. This group does not want there to be more than one group, more than one “Us”. This group is a mob, and wants only one group. Like Sauron pursuing the one ring, they want to call it Same.

Eli Steier was born, and raised in Queens where he developed a great fondness for the often libeled bird the pigeon. He is a fan of teaching, reading, and writing, and is currently learning Spanish and Hebrew.

Southside Community Center's Annual Meeting a Great Success

posted Apr 29, 2011, 1:06 PM by MLK Community Build   [ updated May 2, 2011, 4:14 PM ]

by Nicole Eversley Bradwell (president of the SSCC board of directors) and Olan Mack (executive director of SSCC)

The Board of Directors and Staff of the Southside Community Center (SSCC) are pleased to announce the election of new members to the Center’s Board of Directors.  The Southside Community Center Board held their annual public board meeting on April 26, 2011, which was followed by the election of new board members.

The annual board meeting is about partnership with the Ithaca community.  The SSCC Board of Directors holds an open annual meeting to introduce the board, Center staff, and the vision we share for the programs and services of the Center.  The theme for this evening was “Showcasing Southside” and several community youth showcased what they have been learning and involved with at the Community Center.  Activities showcased included beat and sound production, karate, dancing, and singing.  The display of talent, dedication, and vibrancy of our youth was truly inspiring and highlights the fact that involvement in community centers such as Southside is an essential part of growing up in Ithaca.

The newly elected board members have accepted two year terms and are as follows: Jemila Sequeira, Ben Ortiz, Josh Dolan, Shyama Kuver, Cassie Pierre Joseph, Ira Revels, and Michelle Rios-Dominguez.  Top priorities for the board continue to be raising funds for valuable community programming serving a diverse and multigenerational audience, increasing membership of the board of directors, sustaining the heritage programs in celebration of Juneteenth and Kwanzaa, and the revitalization of after-school and summer programs for youth and teens.

More info:

  • SSCC Mission:  Since its incorporation in 1934, the Southside Community Center, Inc., continues to affirm, empower, and foster the development of self pride among the African-American citizens of greater Ithaca.  Through forums and activities in education, recreation, political and social awareness, the Southside Community Center is a community resource center.  We serve as a vehicle to develop an appreciation for the contributions and presence of those peoples of African descent in the greater Ithaca community and in the larger world community.

Godfather of Hip Hop, DJ Afrika Bambaataa on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy

posted Apr 27, 2011, 8:53 PM by MLK Community Build

On 4/15/11 the MLKCB's own Ben Ortiz sat down with DJ Afrika Bambaataa (Hip Hop pioneer), Joe Conzo (the man who took Hip Hop's baby pictures), and DrShaka Zulu (Universal Zulu Nation) to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy and impact.



Bam, Joe, and DrShaka were in Ithaca on April 14th & 15th for "Born in the Bronx: Afrika Bambaataa, Hip Hop, & Radical Peace," a symposium about Hip Hop coordinated by Cornell University's American Studies Program and the Cornell Library Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections (the caretaker of the Cornell Hip Hop Archive, which features artifacts donated by Bam & Joe).

More info:

CAUTION: CONTAINS MATURE LANGUAGE


"Human Rights Belong to Everybody": A Conversation With Laura Branca

posted Apr 27, 2011, 8:32 PM by MLK Community Build   [ updated May 2, 2011, 4:17 PM ]

by Lynne Jackier, who blogs at Dreaming the World - Ithaca

Sitting with Laura Branca in Gimme Coffee, we look out the big front window at Martin Luther King, Jr. Street as the drizzle turns into sleet and back into drizzle. Laura's calm demeanor and warm eyes contrast with her energy and spark as she takes up the questions I had sent her by e-mail. She has some notes but laughs about how much there is to say and how hard it is to know where to start.

Her long, careful, descriptions and stories are magically woven and I hope to capture some of that quality in this retelling. Our conversations range over many subjects, but Human Rights connects them all. Right at the beginning Laura makes this clear:

"Human Rights covers just about everything that people need and can be relevant to work in any field. It is the large, encompassing umbrella through which I’m beginning to look at all my work and interests - it is a framework that is about everybody."

Though our conversation starts in the present, I want to begin the article by putting our discussion of projects and interests into a broader context. So I ask, "What people and experiences influenced you?" 

Laura's history and influences go back a long way and cover a lot of ground. She acknowledges some of her more recent mentors but her parents, she says, were her strongest influence. Her father was a Black American and her mother was an Armenian- American.

Her paternal grandfather (father's father) was born into slavery. The generational closeness of this relationship to the present brings home how recently the institution of slavery existed in this country. We pause for a moment and acknowledge that there are worlds of things that could be said about this fact. Then she goes on:

LB:  "My grandmother's father was murdered in Louisiana because he was organizing agricultural workers who continued to work on the plantations after emancipation. They got pennies, but they didn't know they had the right to find out how much they would be paid so they could try to work for those planters who paid the most or ask for higher wages. He was trying to help the workers understand their rights. So the white planters responded by organizing themselves into a posse and went around the community and killed everybody who was part of that movement. They shot my great-grandfather on the front porch of his house This was the violent suppression of the sharing of information. It was that powerful and that dangerous to do. These are some of the roots of The Labor Movement. People needed to understand each others’ conditions so they could move as a group toward something better. You can't do that if you don't talk to each other. If you don't share what's going on in your lives, you don't know that you have common cause."

"My dad became a playwright during the 1930s at a time in this country when the words 'black' and 'playwright' - would have been an oxymoron - you didn't hear those words together in the same sentence. He chose to write about the lives, conditions and struggles of black people and poor people -  through both historical and contemporary dramas.. The political climate in the 30s and 40s was somewhat different from the McCarthy period of the post WW II 50s. Eventually my father was blacklisted.  Many progressive, revolutionary voices were silenced and many (though not my father) were jailed. The suppression of art in this country was related to the suppression of progressive education - and many people lost their jobs."

"My mother was the first child in her family born in this country. Her parents escaped the Turkish massacres of Armenians. They were among the lucky ones who were able to get out, but most of the people in their families were killed. As a young adult during the Depression, my mom gravitated toward the progressive movement. Those were the only people who were speaking out about injustice; people were getting together across race, across class, across educational and economic differences, across ethnicity and supporting each other, speaking up for each other and taking a stand against racism, against Fascism, fighting for jobs and for each other. These were the people who were saying, 'Look, there's something really wrong going on here.' "

“My mom was a person who really lived her beliefs and really helped people in whatever ways she could."

At this point Laura goes on to tell a story about her mother's generosity and compassion, even under very difficult circumstances:

"'My mother worked on the defense of the Scottsboro Boys for a long time. She was living in up in Harlem whenRuby Bates, one of the two women who accused the Scottsboro Boys of rape, recanted her testimony and found refuge in the progressive community  in Harlem . One of the attorneys asked my mother to help her. ‘Can you put her up for a while? She needs someone to take her to the dentist, and so forth' and my mom said, 'How can I help this woman who lied and got these guys arrested?’ But they said, 'You have to meet her. She's this poor, skinny woman; her teeth are all messed up -  If you meet her then you'll understand.' And she did meet her and helped her out."

With such a personal connection to the struggle for human rights across generations, it makes sense that Laura makes this work the focus of her own life.

"What I'm trying to work my way into is making justice and human dignity central to what I do."

In this context I circle back to the beginning of our discussion about this primary focus in Laura's life and work. She is involved in many organizations and initiatives in the community and beyond. She is  a partner at TFC (Training For Change) Associates with Kirby Edmonds, a company that provides anti-oppression workshops ,  consulting and training on organizational and leadership development, communication, conflict resolution, cultural competency,  and other skills for public, private and grassroots organizations. . Lately her most visible work has been with the MRC project, Talking Circles on Race and Racism as a circle facilitator and trainer of facilitators.

Her most recent project - and the one that lights her face with enthusiasm - is as a Senior Fellow helping to develop the newly created Dorothy Cotton Institute a project of the Center for Transformative Action.

The project carries forward the legacy of work that Dorothy Cotton did during the Civil Rights Movement as Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Council when she ran the Citizenship Education Program to help people to understand their rights in the face of racist oppression and support each other to take action.

From the Vision Statement on the website: "The Dorothy Cotton Institute envisions the full realization of a just and peaceful beloved community in which all people understand, respect, protect and exercise full human rights."

Laura explained that the work of human rights can be done through any field of endeavor and is really for everyone's benefit. The Dorothy Cotton Institute will work to connect disparate human rights efforts to help support and bring visibility to the popular human rights movement on a global scale.  It will work to develop an understanding here in the U.S. of the political, civil, economic, cultural, social and environmental rights to which all people are entitled under the Universal  Declaration of Human Rights. There will be an education component that will help connect lessons learned from past struggles to present efforts for justice. And there will be a focus on young people, helping them to understand the power and importance of the human rights framework.

We discussed the way different pieces of the struggle for human rights become compartmentalized and can be dismissed as not relevant to the majority.

 LB:  "A lot of what happens in this country is that work on equity, dismantling racism or other anti-oppression work gets categorized as something to do when you've got extra resources and time on your hands. Or it's viewed as just for marginalized people who don't have anything to contribute. It gets devalued as not essential to the health of our society and labeled as ‘identity politics’ or ‘special interests.' There are so many pejorative ways of demeaning the work for social justice - there's so much mythology around what this work is about and who it will benefit, rather than being understood as something that everybody ought to have an interest in. Human Rights is a different frame to put around that work because justice and human dignity belong to everybody."

This is a very hopeful frame that joins people together regardless of what identities they claim or what particular part of the struggle is their primary focus.

LB:  "Once people begin to learn what their rights are and compare that to what their life circumstances are - a light bulb goes off.' I thought human rights were for someone else, people in another country.' But, no. We can see the erosion of people's human rights going on daily in the news. When you look through that lens you see that, 'Oh, it's a human right to form a trade union? It's a human right to assemble and to express your grievances to the government? It's a human right to run for office or to have your vote counted? It's a human right to have health care and access to affordable, healthy food?' These are things that many people in this country don't think of as human rights. When you look through that lens, people are shocked. Our country has told us we're the most blessed nation on the planet, that we have freedoms that everybody else envies, , when, in fact in other places in the world people know a whole lot more about human rights than people here in the United States do."

"There is an international conversation going on about what a human being is entitled to, that we are responsible to each other to protect our rights and our countries are accountable to each other to help fulfill those rights. When people hear about that - when they understand it, they get excited about it."

"One of the things I'm noticing as people go through the human rights trainings that we're offering is that the language of human rights is showing up more often in the community. I'm not saying that we started that, but I'm seeing it as an idea whose time has come. It's rippling out because it has meaning to people. For example, going to the Food Security meeting recently and hearing people say 'food is a human right.' Hearing people in New England talking about health care as a human right. Imagine how different the dialog would have been during the national health care debate if President Obama had described what he was originally proposing to do  by saying  'Health care is a human right and we are not protecting that or fulfilling that adequately for our citizens. Other countries are doing a better job of it than we are. You are entitled to this and our administration is going to fulfill this responsibility.' It would have been a completely different conversation."

"Human Rights are inalienable; they belong to you whether or not they are being protected in your life circumstance and environment. They are a part of what it is to be human. There are important conversations going on all over the world detailing 'what does this mean I'm entitled to, what does that mean we need to do for each other; how are we supposed to treat each other?'"

“Even though much of the language of human rights is in the language describing individual rights, there are also rights of groups of people, rights of indigenous peoples are being drafted, and there's work being done on the rights of the Earth,  - It means we are each responsible for helping to create the kind of community, the kind of society, where those rights can be expressed and realized. That means we can't ignore each others conditions or suffering.”

“Another thing I like about this concept is that nations are accountable for respecting human rights, whether they sign these treaties or not. If they're violating human rights, international response or intervention has to happen, even if that country doesn’t  agree that they are responsible or in violation. For those countries that do sign the international covenants, every level of their governments and every public body is obligated to be aware of its responsibility to make human rights realized in people's lives. It's a very thorough and accessible way of understanding how to build community. It really resonates and I think that people are deeply affected by it when they start having human rights conversations.”

I asked Laura who in the community she would like to see me interview - who she would like to learn more about. We generated quite a list which prompted Laura to mention a couple of initiatives that have happened in the community recently that have to do with human rights and are indicative of the momentum being generated as more and more people  become familiar with this way of viewing the world.

"Community people teamed up with some Ithaca College (IC) professors to provide community-based cultural competency training for IC students before they were connected to organizations and programs to  what is usually known as service learning. That way they could learn something about the cultures of the organizations and communities where they were going to work..”

“At Ithaca High School, for the MLK Community Build kick-off, 17 facilitators (either Human Rights training alumni or Talking Circle alumni) were invited to the high school. Each facilitator took a class and had students share personal human rights stories about their experience of injustice. People who were in those sessions are saying that students have been coming up to them and saying, ‘That was really great! We never get to talk about that stuff.’"

Our list of people and projects became so long that it would take years to explore them all. It feels hopeful that so many people are working toward an equitable and sustainable world from so many different angles. I asked Laura what we could do to better support each other without sapping vital energy for each project.

LB:  "One of the things that I find most frustrating about being a part of the Ithaca community for so many years is the tendency among people who are working for social change, for justice, and trying to make life better - to easily turn on each other. It's demoralizing and such a waste to indulge in  these dramas with each other. We are not enemies. What would it mean to behave as though we truly care for and support one another?"

As she speaks, I nod my head. I have noticed this tendency and it has been a topic of discussion again and again in many circles. She goes on:

LB:  "In every family, in every friendship, in every community we're going to have people that we don't get along with, but that doesn't mean that that's where we focus our energy - on devaluing, criticizing, judging and calling people out and hanging them out to dry. It's so unskillful if we ever hope to make change in the world to indulge in gossip or to imply that our neighbors are not worthy of doing this work - it's ridiculous. When we’re not producing good results fast enough we turn on each other. I've seen a lot of really great campaigns, committees, councils, action groups implode because of this dynamic.  The drama starts to suck all the energy, and people feel pressured to take sides and wonder where the finger of accusation is going to point next,  and people get scared off from taking a stand about things."

Part of my motivation for doing these interviews is to help us all feel connected regardless of which piece of this work we are involved in, and to help us see the humanity in each other so there is maybe less inclination to attack and blame.

As Laura says, "People are not perfect, but  we could be a lot worse!"

I know that Laura, like so many other people who do social change work, feels the weight of this work in her heart and in her body. Activists put attention on the suffering that still exists and there is a pull to use every breath and every waking moment to try to make it better. But that path leads to burnout. So I asked Laura how she maintains her energy and balance in the face of a seemingly endless task - "What do you do to recharge?"

"Hang out with friends, talk to my family, my ancestors- surround myself with beauty, light a lot of candles, listen to music, meditate, read books, I love movies."

Though she says her favorite books are “too many to list” they include Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Teachings on Love by Thicht Nhat Hanh and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. Some favorites in the music category are Hamza El Din's  A Wish, Djivan Gasparian's I Will Not Be Sad In This World, Bob Marley's Concrete Jungle, Celia Cruz's  Raices and Sweet Honey in the Rock's Joanne Little. 

As we have been talking, the room has been filling with coffee-drinkers seeking refuge from a chilly, wet spring day. As we prepare to say goodbye, we see Michelle at the next table and go over to exchange hugs and hellos. It occurs to me that if we filled this cafe with all the people in our community working for an equitable, sustainable world they might not all fit!

On the printout of the questions that I e-mailed to Laura when we made this appointment I see that she has made some notes about ways that activists can support each other in the community:

Work across race, class, place and age. Turn out for each others events. Notice interconnections.

This looks like a good prescription for strengthening and celebrating the vibrancy and commitment of activism in our community.


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