Tackling Structural Racism: What we can see early 2016

The Building Bridges initiative exists to support the growth and connectedness of a network of people and organizations working to eliminate structural racism and poverty in our county.

With that in mind, the Steering Committee has identified many local efforts that move us toward the elimination of structural racism and poverty. We also see that these efforts, although significant, are only a beginning. There is a huge amount of work still to be done.

If you know of steps towards eliminating structural racism and poverty that are not mentioned here, please share them (in informational and/or story form)

through the Building Bridges Network.

In the plus column:

MRC Talking Circles on Race and Racism

Facilitated Talking Circles have provided opportunities for well over 600 people across the Tompkins County to be in frank conversations about race and racism in their lives and communities. These conversations have fostered a changing awareness and narrative about racism locally, and have empowered many people to interrupt and positively address racial bias when they see it. This MRC program has also produced a cadre of over 20 facilitators who can lead Circles and support conversations on race and racism. For more information on how to join a Talking Circle, please contact Fabina Colon (fb29@cornell.edu) at the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC).

Race: the Power of An Illusion

Several thousand Tompkins County residents have attended screenings of the documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion, chronicling the economic motivations behind the social construction of “race”, white supremacy, and institutional systems of hierarchy, exploitation, exclusion and in the United States, and their devastating personal and structural effects on people of color in terms of income, wealth, social mobility, housing and health. If you are interested in hosting a showing and facilitated discussion of the video, please contact: Fabina Colon (fb29@cornell.edu) at MRC.

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

This community-read of the last book by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. engaged several hundred people who participated in study groups over three years ago. , Jr. provided readers a renewed and expanded recognition of the depth and breadth of his analysis of the triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism, bravely articulated in the final years of his life, and its relevance today. This community-read prompted a massive reprinting of this book which was freely distributed to community centers and schools, and reinforced with discussion guides and an MLK curriculum for public school students.

All of these conversations and efforts have had a significant impact on people’s depth of awareness and the state of the conversation about race and racism in this community, as well as significant actions including:

Black Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter in Ithaca (BLMI)

The local Black Lives Matter organizers are advancing conversation about race, racism and the assaults on the sanctity and dignity of Black bodies with the power of an intersectional analysis and movement, eliminating structural racism to a level of urgency and strategies of education, solidarity, 21st century mobilization, and resistance that are needed if we are to make any progress in the short term.

BLMI was launched with a rally at the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School gym on Feb. 3rd, coinciding with Cornell and Ithaca community appearances of the founders of Black Lives Matter .

For more information contact Dubian Ade (mailto:dubian.ade@gmail.com).

ALANA Student protests at Ithaca College

As with Black Lives Matter, the speak-outs, walk-outs, occupations and resistance organized by POC@IC have crystalized a sense of urgency and intergenerational and intersectional solidarity in both the Ithaca College community and throughout Tompkins County that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.

White Allies Against Structural Racism (WAASR)

WAASR is a group of local people committed to raising awareness about and supporting actions to dismantle local structural racism. They facilitate a monthly drop-in session on the second Thursday of the month, for white people to learn, think, and plan together. Their goal is to provide a safe, supportive place for any white person to process their experiences of being white, confront any fears or misinformation, think and learn about what it means to be white, confront the nature of white supremacy, and test their thinking about what actions they might take, personally or collectively.

They see their work in conjunction with and in support of people taking actions in the community through SURJ, Black Lives Matter and other groups.

SURJ-Showing Up For Racial Justice

SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice, with a strong focus on eliminating structural racism. A recently started local chapter is focusing both on national initiatives that support the Black Lives Matter movement as well as on local initiatives, such as displacement and affordable housing. Local SURJ is working in close collaboration with the existing white allies group-WAASR-White Allies Against Structural racism For more information, or to join, please contact: Kate Cardona (kate.w.cardona@gmail.com).

Ban the Box

This is an initiative to remove the category of “Convicted Felon” from job applications. Its relationship to race is that there is are disproportionate number of black and brown men in our local jails and in prison, and therefore a disproportionate number re-entering the community from prison, having a very difficult time finding employment. Removing this from the job applications at least creates a greater likelihood of these men being able to be interviewed. Both the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County have removed this from their job applications. This almost certainly would not be happening without the shift in the local conversation about race and racism.


The Next Generation of Manhood works with young men at Southside Community Center and IHS to support them in all aspects of their journeys to becoming men of character. Through mentorship, education and support they provide opportunities to develop leadership skills and peer engagement to prevent incidences of bullying, domestic, sexual and other forms of violence by promoting a healthy and respectful definition of manhood. They also organize activities designed to increase knowledge of how issues such as structural racism, mass incarceration, oppression impact young black men as well as the larger society.

Cradle to Career/Achieving Youth Results

These are integrated efforts to ensure that all of our young people are college and/or career ready by age 24 and have as a central theme the recognition that both poverty and race play a significant role in the life chances of young people and must be addressed if we are to succeed. They also have as central themes the importance of leadership by marginalized groups in developing and implementing strategies for making progress. For more information or to participate please contact Kirby Edmonds.

There are also independent efforts to support mothers of young children throughout the county, for example at Southside Community Center, West Village, Groton, and Linderman Creek.

EILC, the Equity Inclusion Leadership Council

A community-school partnership working to eliminate race, class, gender, and disability as predictors of success for students in the Ithaca schools. The council works on Family Engagement and Student Support, Cultural Competency, and Recruitment and Retention of a racially diverse staff.

Graduation Rates

The good news is that the race gap for graduation rates in the Ithaca City School district (where the largest number of youth in the county go to public school), is closing.

The Village at Ithaca

The Village has long held a sustained focus on equity that has led to published metrics on student achievement in the Ithaca Schools (the annual Equity Report Card), the adoption by the ICSD of equity as one of its goals, and the current improved graduation rates and other indicators of student success.


Some organizations have made progress in diversity hiring goals: the City of Ithaca, the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, Cayuga Medical Center, Taitem Engineering, AFCU, Loaves & Fishes, and Greenstar Cooperative Market, to name a few.

AFCU, Greenstar and Loaves and Fishes, have said they are willing to be resources for other organizations and businesses in both setting and reaching diversity hiring and retention goals.

The Hospitality Employment Training Program (HETP) has been quite successful in creating pathways to employment in the hospitality sector. Contact: Nagiane Lacka Ariazza at GIAC

Food Justice

The recently organized Food Policy Council has equity as a central theme in its goal to ensure food security for all.

GreenStar Community Project (GSCP) hosts community dinners (2 per month) that empower low income community members to share ideas that could change the food system bit by bit. There have been several of these dinners and the next step includes feedback to the community to identify community members who want to lead this process. For more information contact: Holly Payne (holly@greenstar.coop).

GSCP also manages Hot Potato Press (www.hotpotatopress.org) which provides a way for everyone to learn and connect and for marginalized voices to be heard.

The Diversity Consortium of Tompkins County (DCTC)

A joint effort of local employers and leaders dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion in Tompkins County. Their goals are To significantly increase diversity in the local workforce,2) To establish and maintain a learning network focused on diversity, and 3) To collaborate on diversity training and similar initiatives

Civic Ensemble

Civic Ensemble is a theater company committed to producing and developing new plays of social relevance by or about people of color, women, and local issues. They offer writers focused on these issues a place to develop their visions from a place of power and share them so that the larger community can learn and understand. Civic ensemble.org.

Coalition for Sustainable Economic Development

This is a local group of activists committed to making equity and social justice a central principle of our local economic development strategies. For more information contact Irene Weiser (irene32340@gmail.com).

Book Read-The New Jim Crow

There is a group organizing a community book read of the “The New Jim Crow” by Michele Alexander.  For more information contact: Roberta Wallitt (rwallitt@twcny.rr.com).

NLI-Natural Leaders Initiative

This effort to raise up and support the leadership of people in and from marginalized groups has been remarkably successful in shifting the participation and civic engagement of these leaders. For more information, contact Margo Hittleman, mjh17@cornell.edu. Check out their website at: www.ccetompkins.org/nli. 

Re-Entry: URO (Ultimate Re-Entry Opportunity)

The Multicultural Resource Center received a grant to develop strategies to dismantle the structural constraints that keep people who are returning home from jail from succeeding. One of the programs associated with the grant is a mentoring program. For more information about the mentoring program contact Phoebe Brown (peb28@cornell.edu).

The Challenges:

Lack of Information and low numbers

Black people represent about 4% of the county population, Latinos about 4%, Asians and Asian Americans about 10% and less than .1% for First Nations people and Pacific Islanders. Most people in the county don’t have this information; the representation across the county of people of color is low enough that it easy to overlook the importance of including people from these groups in decision-making about how our shared resources are used. This includes their membership on boards and committees, as well as creating other avenues for participation in decision-making.

Housing and Transportation

A significant percentage of the jobs in the county are in the City of Ithaca, where the cost of housing is so high and the stock of housing available to low income people so limited that people of color and people with low income are forced to live outside of the city. Public transportation to and from rural communities is insufficient and limited, making it difficult for residents who are being forced to move out of the city to find reliable adequate transportation to and from work and, therefore, to be able to have stable employment.

In addition many people live in significantly racially segregated neighborhoods and communities, making it more difficult to establish the relationships across race that will be an important factor to address if we are to succeed. We still see housing discrimination in Tompkins County based on race.


This will certainly be an area of focus for Achieving Youth Results and Cradle to Career.

In the Ithaca City School District, the racial achievement gap for high school graduation is narrowing. Yet, there are still disparities in reading levels at grades 3 and 8 and in performance on NY State math tests between white students and students of color. Using 2014 numbers, students of color would have to improve their scores on reading and math tests by 80% in order to match the average score of all other students.

Unfortunately, we don’t have comparable data for the other school districts in the county.

Employment and Business Ownership

While we have made progress, racial discrimination still operates, sometimes subtly, in hiring practices. Unemployment for African Americans is almost 60% higher than for whites, and for those identifying with two or more races the unemployment rate is close to 300% higher than for whites. Blacks own fewer than 1% of the businesses in the County while the number of Latino and Native American owned business are too few to have a percentage listed in the data. Asian American owned businesses are 5.5% or about half of their representation in the County’s population.


All too often we find that many people, particularly whites, deny or do not see that institutional racism exists.

What we’re learning:

Conversations about race and racism are critical to shifting local consciousness and developing the political will for social change and racial equity.   As we pay attention, we are hearing some new conversations that are specific, strategic.

We’re also learning that the institutional, structural issues facing people of color in terms of housing, transportation, education and food access are the same issues that face the rural poor regardless of race.

We’re learning that it takes activism and efforts on many fronts to undo the assumptions and frameworks that support ongoing poverty and racism.  And it requires risk-taking to do things outside of one’s job description and familiar roles, as, for example, in the Cradle to Career work.

We think it is vital to recognize progress and celebrate all that is going well, and we are constantly looking for new ways to engage more people in making things better.

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