There’s No Syllabus for This

by KeShonna Jackson ’24

Amber Haywood ’21 hadn’t finished settling into her freshman dorm room when an assault in Collegetown, a neighborhood where many Cornell students rent houses and apartments, brought nationwide attention to racism on college campuses. A Black Cornellian, right outside the house where he lived, was called the n-word and sustained physical injuries that sent him to the hospital. The person who was charged with assaulting him was a 19-year-old white man and a fellow Cornell student.

The assault shook the entire community, and news of it set Haywood on a course of action. She refused to live her next four years in fear. Change was needed, and Haywood wanted to help lead that change. She sought community in clubs such as #DoBetterCornell, Black Students United, and Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service. “Social justice orientation was very formative to my Cornell experience,” she says.

Her engagement didn’t end there. Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the world. Social gatherings and travel were restricted, classes became fully remote, and protests in response to the murder of George Floyd boomed throughout the country. For Haywood, these shifts revealed deep inequalities. Her social justice instincts told her this was the perfect time to act.

The key, thought Haywood, was to cross the line from performative activism to impact. Her campus job gave her an opportunity to do just that. At the Office of Engagement Initiatives (OEI), Haywood works to ensure diversity, equality, and quality participation within the Cornell community. OEI encourages learning through community engagement and fosters respect across difference, creativity, and personal growth by funding community-engaged learning projects for faculty and students, hosting workshops about community involvement, and promoting courses that have a community-engaged component. They also work to support a network of Cornellians dedicated to making change through community involvement.

Community Engagement during a Pandemic

The pandemic forced major shifts in OEI’s programs. The majority of Cornell students were studying remotely, and safety measures meant that OEI had to reimagine what community-engaged learning looks like. The Community-Engaged Student Travel Grants were altered to accommodate restrictions on domestic and international travel. Most projects that originally involved working overseas, in Kenya or Tanzania for example, had to be adapted to engage students’ local communities. As a result, the travel grant program became the Serve in Place Fund.

The situation presented challenges both for the students seeking funding and for OEI’s mission. Many of the community projects that students proposed lacked a core OEI value: diversity. “We saw a huge decline in people interacting with Black and Indigenous communities,” Haywood says.

Haywood had to figure out what was happening and how to fix it. “Over the summer, we were saying that Black lives matter but wrestling with how do we put actions behind our words? That was kind of the question that we were tasked with, and I had to find a way to answer it. This research was a way to answer it.”

It was as challenging as any research question she faced in her classes at Cornell.  Haywood analyzed applications from 2019 and 2020, focusing on the locations of impact, the demographic diversity of those locations, and the projects’ goals. “I was tasked with going through our grant applications from 2019, which were pre-pandemic, and 2020, when we were into the current pandemic, and seeing the percentages, finding out what the difference was, and then coming up with ways to improve that,” Haywood says. Her research revealed that for applications submitted during the pandemic, the locations of impact—typically an applicant’s home community—lacked diversity. In 2019, about half of all proposals submitted to the Community-Engaged Student Travel Grant engaged with Black or Indigenous communities. By the early summer of 2020, that number dropped to one in four for proposals submitted to the Serve in Place Fund.

“Over the summer [of 2020], we were saying that Black lives matter but wrestling with how do we put actions behind our words?”

Learning from Diverse Communities

Once Haywood saw this decline, she knew something had to be done. With the assistance and guidance of her team of mentors at OEI, Haywood changed the grant application to communicate OEI’s priorities. The goal was to increase engagement with Black and Indigenous communities. “We made it clear to applicants that we are looking for projects that engage with Black and Indigenous communities. We asked on our application how [applicants] are interacting with these communities, and we had them go into detail versus just checking a box. Also, we held [online] workshops around why it's important to be interacting with Black and Indigenous communities.”

The outcome: Haywood’s strategy doubled the number of project proposals that engage with Black and Indigenous communities, successfully restoring the diversity of community-engaged learning that OEI supports.

For Haywood and her colleagues at OEI, however, seeing an increase in numbers isn’t enough. They want to see change. One goal of the Serve in Place Fund is to help students grow. “We really emphasize doing in-depth research on the place that you're going to and the communities that you're working with beforehand,” Haywood says. “We have meetings with the students beforehand, and we do check-ins throughout the summer. We encourage [students] to challenge their biases. We don’t ask for receipts. We’re more focused on critical reflections than money.” By inviting students to reflect on their experiences through group discussions and journaling, OEI challenges students to confront their assumptions.

In addition, OEI seeks to establish a mutual impact, wanting both the grant recipients and the communities where they work to reap the benefits of these funded projects. Reciprocity is a core value of OEI. The community-engaged projects that OEI sponsors are intended to be learning experiences. The students and the communities are both making changes and being changed.

As a result of her research, Haywood is a coauthor on a paper that collaborators at OEI have submitted for a special issue of the Journal of Experiential Learning & Teaching in Higher Education on “Exploring the Relationship between Experiential Learning and Social, Economic, Environmental, and Racial Justice.”

Reckoning with Histories of Dispossession

“Historically, there are communities that have been left out of the conversation,” Haywood says. “I've been an advocate for a long time, but it's kind of been a recent trend to acknowledge that [Ithaca] stands on sacred land. The point is really to give back to these communities that have been displaced. We need more action. We need to go out to these communities. And we need to repay debts to the Black community.”

Haywood is encouraging fellow Cornellians to get involved. The goal is to have a positive impact on everybody: the researcher and the community members, students and faculty, minorities and non-minorities, current and future generations. “At Cornell, we want to build an antiracist facility on campus specifically to have these kinds of dialogues and conversations. The goal of OEI is to have every student interact, somehow, with community-engaged learning and critical reflection,” she says.

A Passion for Justice

Haywood hopes to leave a legacy at OEI. “I like being able to train other people ... I want them to be able to continue the work that I was able to do. It’s kind of like my personal passion project.”

Haywood wants her changes to the Serve in Place Fund to spur future efforts that promote equality activism that will benefit both the Cornell community and the global community. “There are still so many demands that need to be met. There is still more to be done,” Haywood says.

In the final few weeks before graduation [in May 2021], Haywood, who is a psychology major, is finishing her honors thesis on the mistreatment of caregivers during the pandemic. After graduation, she plans to work in health-care consulting for two years before going to medical school.

What is she taking with her when she leaves? “Definitely the people, relationships. Cornell has taught me a lot about grit and effort. I’ve learned that being genuine with everything that you're doing is important.”