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Appreciating the special partnership of two community leaders

Marcia Fort and David Skorton

Marcia Fort, longtime director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, with Cornell President David Skorton. Image: Provided.

As one prominent Ithacan – President David Skorton – prepares for a new life in 2015, so, too, does a friend of his, Marcia Fort, longtime director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC).

Fort, daughter of the late Cornell Professor Emeritus Donald Graham, has long been a progressive leader on community issues and a champion for those without a voice. She was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, but moved to Ithaca as a young girl – when her dad entered grad school – and GIAC has been her professional home.

When she retires at the end of this year, she'll have put in three decades at the lively corner of Albany and Court streets in downtown Ithaca, leading and loving a community that, like anywhere, has challenging and inspirational days. A former Cornell Public Service Center Civic Leaders fellow, Fort doesn't shy away from tough topics, while forwarding solutions that aim to help make Ithaca, the community, work for everyone.

Empowering young people, initiating diverse GIAC programs and encouraging viable, steady race relations have always been part of Fort's broad portfolio.

members of the women's sailing club

Marcia Fort. Image: provided. See larger image

Shortly after Skorton's arrival in 2006, Fort and friends in Cornell's Office of Community Relations reached out to him about controversies tied to race and racial relations in Ithaca. Fort told Cornell's new president that when there were race-related issues, which sometimes involved Cornell, it was too late to forge relationships in a crisis. She then offered a simple solution: a local leaders of color group, co-chaired by Fort and Skorton, that could meet on a regular basis to talk about shared interests in Ithaca and/or on campus.

Since Skorton's first year on the job, African-American, Latino and Asian-American community leaders have met in church basements, at Cornell Cooperative Extension and at GIAC, sharing challenges, connecting resources and bonding, not in a crisis, but as part of everyday life. This steady working philosophy of the Local Leaders of Color (LLC) has proven effective. Skorton has missed only one meeting since the group's inception.

The LLC has proven its value many times over the years, including during a town-gown controversy in 2010-11 related to programmatic and alignment strategies for the university's Africana Studies and Research Center. Africana, its students and leaders carry a special place in the heart of many Ithacans, and decisions related to its future were of great interest to the community at large.

Fort and Skorton led the LLC through three intense meetings on the center and its future. In another era, without such a group, lines in the sand might have been permanently drawn due to poor communication or misunderstandings. These meetings increased insight among LLC and Cornell participants and further strengthened Skorton's and Fort's friendship.

At the 2012 Town-Gown (TOGO) Awards, Skorton presented Fort with a special TOGO award, citing her leadership, wisdom and ability to get things done for the common good.

A picture from that day is kept in a visible place in both of their offices – a symbol of a quiet, special partnership.

Gary Stewart is Cornell's director of community relations.

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