Panelists address disconnect between SU and community

Panelists address disconnect between SU and community

The local activists spoke on the gap between the university and the city and the struggles Syracuse residents face.
Published: August 29, 2020 | Updated: September 3rd, 2020 at 2:43 pm
Racial Justice Panelists at SU on Aug. 29, 2020
Activists speaking on the Racial Justice Panel sat socially distanced on the stage as they discussed racial injustices.

Syracuse has a “gown versus town” problem, at least according to Koy Adams, a student at Syracuse University and member of Syracuse’s Black Lives Matter chapter.

Joined by other community activists, Adams spoke at a racial justice panel in Goldstein Auditorium on Saturday. The event, hosted by the Student Association, saw local activists as panelists and student leaders as moderators engaging in a discussion aimed at dismantling white supremacy.

Adams’ comment underscored a recurring theme of the dialogue: that there is a disconnect between SU and the surrounding community. Like many of the other panelists, Adams is caught in a limbo between both groups. He recalled his peers at SU advising him to avoid the “townies” in certain parts of Syracuse, neighborhoods where Adams’ family members resided.

Clifford Ryan, a lifelong Syracuse resident and founder of OG’s Against Violence, was surprised by Adams’ experience, saying, “I didn’t know they were calling us townies. That is extremely offensive.”

The panelists agreed that the use of the word “townie” is merely symptomatic of the larger disparity between the school and the city, frequently describing SU as the “school on the hill,” one out of touch with the people that live below.

Gina Iliev, of the Black Leadership Coalition of Central New York and graduate of the Public Administration program at the Maxwell School, said she has seen this disconnect firsthand.

“I’m fighting for the person at the bus stop who doesn’t know how to get up the hill,” Iliev said. “It’s not that they don’t know how to get up the hill, it’s just that the road is invisible right now.”

Iliev said she is committed to stabilizing and widening the path from the city schools to the university. While there are some programs in place, like the Syracuse Challenge, intended to encourage students in the Syracuse City School District (SCSD)to apply to SU, Iliev thinks that the university could be doing more to foster education in the Syracuse community.

The panelists agreed that the university could allocate more money towards the SCSD and youth services. Twiggy Billue, a local activist, author and mother, highlighted the need for more than just funding for education — she used the current pandemic as an example of SCSD’s lack of resources.

“60 percent of my community doesn’t have devices to connect for school,” Billue said, adding that students can’t learn if they can’t access the classroom.

In the past, she has petitioned the Maxwell School to donate used tablets to SCSD students. But beyond money and technology, there is another resource that too many members of the community lack access to: food.

The panelists discussed the wealth inequities in Syracuse. To Billue, one prominent issue is that there are so many SCSD students who lack access to food, that the entire district qualifies for free school lunches. While SU has a food studies program that could conceivably help. In addition, truckloads of food waste travel down the hill from the university and pass directly through a community where people go to bed hungry.

Mayor Ben Walsh has proposed millions of dollars in cuts from the Syracuse budget. Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, a member of the Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition and the Central New York chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed frustration that some of the proposed cuts will come from youth services funds. Meanwhile, there are no proposed cuts to the Syracuse Police Department’s budget, only temporary freezes in funding.

The panel concluded with a call to action for the SU community to become more active in the issues facing city residents. The activists encouraged SU to become more involved — financially and socially — with the people in the greater Syracuse area. Ryan emphasized the importance of solidarity within the SU community and the surrounding community, saying, “One fist we stand together. United we stand, divided we fall.”

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is a 2020 contributor to The NewsHouse and magazine, news and online graduate student.