Friday, 03 May 2013 16:39
By Patrice Lockert Anthony
In the beginning, on the south side of town, there were the Community Mothers. They were a group of Black women who took upon themselves the care, upkeep, and uplift of the Black Southside community. They were the village, as it were. From this beginning, an official organization formed, called the Francis Harper Women's Club. The Francis Harper Women's Club created the ServUs League. Members of the league raised money and persuaded four Ithaca businessmen to serve on the first advisory board. By 1927, the League and club were meeting in a house at 221 South Plain Street. In 1932 they were able to purchase property at 305 South Plain Street, the current site of the Southside Community Center. In 1937, the center as we know it was built (by the Works Progress Administration). In 1938, in a ceremony attended by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the center was dedicated. It flourished.
Today, the Southside Community Center is experiencing a re-birth; a vibrancy. Nia Nunn Makepeace, the new Executive Director, is a large part of that renewal. She has brought a new sense of energy and purpose to the Southside Community Center. Indeed, Dr. Nunn Makepeace is purpose driven. She is a single mother, a fairly recent (two years) PhD (in psychology) recipient, the school psychologist at Beverly J. Martin elementary school, and a very engaged, respected, and beloved member of the Ithaca community.
Dr. Nia (as she is called) has a long and rich history with both Ithaca and the Southside Community Center (SSCC). In the first four or five years of her life, her family lived right across the street from the Center. Even after the family moved to the West Hill, Nia continued to grow and evolve with the very generous assistance and embrace of the Center. She was a Girl Scout, and her troop met at Southside. She is a member of the family Nunn, headed by Schelley Michelle and Fe Nunn, each of whom are Ithaca institutions and "warriors for community" themselves. Nia has two younger brothers. Her first job, as a teenager, was at GreenStar. You might say the love of community, and the drive to uplift, is in her blood.
The original mission (formed in 1934) of Southside Community Center was 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." Today, and now under the direction of Dr. Nia Nunn Makepeace, this mission remains intact, and has been unapologetically imbued with new commitment, energy, and spirit. The mission is the uplift of the African diaspora. This does not mean, however, that the center excludes anyone. Indeed, both in staff and center participants, it is clear that the center embraces all people, but its mission remains true to its beginning, and its heritage, even while including others. The model of a purpose-driven mission and the uplift of a particular group of people even while embracing and welcoming others could serve as counterpoint to American history with regard to race and class.
The Southside Community Center is an independent not-for-profit organization. The land the building sits on, however, is owned by the City of Ithaca. These two parties have made for strange, intense, and politically difficult bedfellows in the past. Today, there is an agreement that while the City owns the land and contributes some part of the budget, the running of the organization belongs to the organization. Its mission and purpose are clear, intact, and mostly safe from political machinations.
This is good to know, since under the leadership of Dr. Nia, SSCC will be directly engaged with the education process, and the building and re-building of community. In order to do so, within the context of the organization's purpose-driven mission, relationships may be tested, programs and processes will be challenged, and new ways of imagining will be exercised. Dr. Nia Nunn Makepeace has the patience, the training, and the experience to see, prepare for, and stay the course. Her personal mission neatly dovetails with the specific mission of SSCC, the larger "stated" goals of the Ithaca City School District, and notions of community. The "norm" will be challenged. After all, whatever we consider the norm to be, it doesn't make the norm correct. It may be simply a "cultural norm." A "family norm." A "historical norm." Sometimes the means for measuring must be subject to questioning.
"Dr. Nia, why you talk so white? (asks a black questioner). "Why does everything have to be so Black?" (from a white questioner). "What does it mean to be Black?"
Dr. Nia Nunn Makepeace, in her role as Executive Director of the Southside Community Center, and with her qualifications (and training) as a school psychologist, is going to help us answer those questions. Perhaps along the way we'll be able to define the mechanisms at work behind the first two questions, and thus be well on our way to creating real community. That is what's behind her purpose-driven mission.
I think I hear the Community Mothers sighing.
By Laura Buttenbaum,
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