Shortly after 9 p.m. on Wednesday, several hundred members of the Cornell community gathered in front of Willard Straight Hall. They stood shoulder to shoulder, in relative darkness, holding glowsticks that, when lit, engulfed Ho Plaza in a sea of blue.
The gathering, called “Illuminate the Night,” was organized by the Cornell Caring Community and served as a public opportunity for Cornellians to support each other in the wake of recent incidents of sexual assault and bias on campus, according to Student Assembly President Adam Gitlin ’13.
Co-sponsored by more than 50 student organizations, the event featured a variety of speakers and concluded with a recruitment session for student groups that promote sexual assault prevention and social justice.
Shrouded by the light of the glowsticks, attendees listened to anecdotes and reflections that included students with personal experiences of bias on campus and University President David Skorton. Organizers emphasized that the event was not designed to develop a concrete solution to addressing issues of sexual assault and bias on campus.
“Tonight’s event will not solve all the safety issues on campus. Blue glowsticks will not resolve some of the structural issues or hurdles in our society,” Gitlin said. “But the event and the glowsticks are symbolic of so much more … Tonight is a recognition of [the fact that] over hundreds of students … can commit ourselves to strengthening our community.”
Skorton –– who stood in the crowd for the majority of the event –– also emphasized the importance of creating a strong community in the face of the recent incidents.
“We have all to learn from each other, we have all to lean on each other, we have all to learn each other’s language and hear and listen and really hear,” he said. “We have to pull together. We have to share our fear until it is gone. We have to share our love until it is strong.”
Additionally, students shared some of their experiences with racism and other forms of bias on campus.
One such student was Ulysses Smith ’13, the newly-elected S.A. vice president for diversity and inclusion. Smith, who is African American, described a recent incident when he was confronted by a group of white men “obviously coming home from a crazy night in Collegetown.”
“They said to me, ‘Smile next time, so we can see you better in the dark,’” Smith said.
Smith said the incident initially filled him with anger that transformed into a resolve to improve tolerance on Cornell’s campus.
“These are things I would have expected to hear in my home in north Florida, but not on this campus where people are working so hard to address issues of social justice,” he said.
Speakers also directly addressed the incident of racial bias that occurred on May 6 at Sigma Pi fraternity, in which a visitor to the fraternity threw beer cans and hurled racial epithets at students passing by the house.
Charles Winslow ’13, president of the Multicultural Greek Letter Council –– who said he was one of the students targeted in the Sigma Pi incident –– said what transpired at the fraternity was not a unique experience for him.
“Incidents like last semester are not new to me … but I don’t expect them to happen on Cornell’s campus,” he said. “What if Cornell’s community was more integrated? If so, would these incidents be as prevalent today?”
At the event, Zach Smith ’13, president of the Sigma Pi fraternity, said the incident caused him to look outside “the bubble” of fraternity life and academics in which he had previously focused his Cornell experience.
“As president of the fraternity, I experienced firsthand how racism affects everyone as I was suddenly the face of what people called a racist organization,” Smith said. “This was a difficult label to bear, but I … started to understand where people were coming from.”
He said the incident has prompted him and his fraternity brothers to take a greater interest in issues of bias on campus –– but encouraged attendees not to wait for their own “wake-up call” to become active in the community.
“I wish it hadn’t taken the bias incident to get me involved,” Smith said. “Too often, people get sucked into their own worlds and become bystanders … A proactive approach is what it will take to better this University.”