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Southside Strife: Wage theft and complaints of worker retaliation at Ithaca's beloved community center

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Southside Community Center

Correction: In the print version of this article, Dr. Nia Nunn was identified as Southside's Executive Director. That position is currently vacant. She is the Board President of Southside Community Center, as well as a tenured associate professor at Ithaca College. 

In the minds of many, Southside Community Center is one of the most important entities in Ithaca. Though small, it serves as the premier supporter of black culture in Ithaca, highlighted by its celebrations of Juneteenth and its general fostering of the city’s African-American community through education, promotion and celebration.

But within the walls of the legendary building on Plain Street, workers have been lodging complaints for years about their treatment at the hands of Southside’s leadership and management. Among those complaints are allegations of wage theft, discrimination and retaliation that have contributed to frequent turnover in staff and facilitated a culture of mistrust among workers, according to several sources who spoke to the Ithaca Times both on and off the record.

Rob Brown, of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center (TCWC), emerged as the primary handler of Southside cases, of which there were several—most notably a cluster over a three month period in 2016. Since that time, Brown estimates that 16 people in total have come to the Workers’ Center with separate but very similar complaints about their treatment at Southside, which employs only around 10 employees at a given time (one indication of the center’s high turnover) and has a yearly budget of around $300,000. Alarm bells, he said, always go off when there are that many people from a small organization who are upset about working conditions, especially when they begin to report to the workers’ center during the same time frame.

“It breaks my heart when we encounter that much misery coming out of people who work for a mission-driven organization that chiefly exists to bring light to the community,” Brown said. “A labor violation is a labor violation, anywhere it happens. It feels way different when it’s coming out of a mission entity.”

In a statement, Southside Community Center Board of Directors President Nia Nunn offered a blanket denial of the allegations in this article. Brown did note that complaints from Southside workers have slowed down since that initial cluster in 2016, though they do still come in with some regularity. Whether that gradual dissipation is a result of a new era at Southside, as has been touted previously, or some other factor isn’t clear. The center’s beneficial community work has continued, even with tumultuous leadership, but is clouded somewhat by charges from workers there over the years.

Some, but not all, of those workers have pursued action against the community center via a variety of different methods: small claims court, the New York State Department of Labor and the New York State Department of Human Rights among them. Some have been successful, to a certain extent, while others have either chosen to let their issues lie unresolved or haven’t been able to suitably prove their cases.

Wytheria Harriett served in several positions with Southside: volunteer, deputy director, executive director and president of the board of directors for the organization. During her time as deputy director, the executive director was Leon Lawrence, a beloved community figure who became ill and tragically passed away briefly into his tenure at the helm. During his illness, Harriett began to oversee the organization’s finances, which led her to question where some of the funds were going and to what. That led to tension between Harriett and Nunn, she said, which increasingly worsened. Eventually, she was asked to resign from the executive director position by Nunn in January 2017 after six months at the position, and was promptly replaced by Nydia Boyd, who served until earlier this year. At the time, Harriett sent a lengthy email to the center’s board of directors in which she states her resignation was forced, and arguing she should have had an opportunity to make her case before the board. In the end, Harriett said she felt that despite her leadership position at the center, she wasn’t in control and was the subject of undermining and disrespect.

“I couldn’t supervise my staff,” Harriett said. “It just became hostile.”

That was followed by criminal charges filed in the City of Ithaca against Harriett by Southside for theft and misappropriation of community center funds. Harriett said she felt the charges, which she argued were over issues that had already been discussed and settled amicably between her, Nunn and other leadership at the community center (namely a company-purchased cell phone Harriett says was agreed upon and other expenses), were a retaliation and a “scare tactic” designed to silence her from stating her argument to board members about her dismissal. Eventually, Harriett was acquitted of all charges lodged against her.

Jennifer Forbes, a former executive assistant at the community center, started at Southside in 2014. Shortly after Nunn returned as president of the board of directors in mid-2016, Forbes was asked to step down after questioning the center’s finances as she implemented a QuickBooks accounting system. Nunn’s stated reason was previous allegations regarding Forbes’ contact with a minor, Forbes said, but that had been investigated internally and determined to be unfounded, according to Forbes and Harriett, who was still in the organization’s leadership at the time.

Forbes did end up resigning after deeming the situation untenable, but after an extended back and forth with Southside over thousands of dollars in delayed pay, Forbes did pursue further action for unpaid wages and won her case against Southside through the Department of Labor. She was subsequently awarded $5,000 through small claims court, the maximum amount allowed in that court system. According to Forbes, Southside didn’t show up to fight that case, but then asked for the case to be reopened. At that time, they alleged countercharges against Forbes that included “destruction of agency records, false statement of grant entitlement, history of financial misappropriation of agency funds, etc.,” but after several adjournments and postponements, the case was again decided in her favor, and again without Southside’s attendance. Forbes provided dozens of pages of emails and budget reports to thwart these counterclaims to the Ithaca Times, but since Southside never officially stated their case, the validity is hard to determine. She, like Harriett, felt the charges were meant to scare her into submission. 

Eddie Moran, the former computer lab coordinator and computer literacy teacher at Southside, filed a separate case with the Department of Labor for unpaid wages through accrued vacation and overtime after he was terminated for an alleged misappropriation of funds incident. The Department of Labor ruled in his favor for $3,000. Harriett, who fired Moran over the alleged theft, said she pushed to bring him back after his explanation of the circumstances (a pre-entered credit card number on a GrubHub order), but was overruled. While those cases were decided in 2017, it took until January of this year for Forbes to receive her payment; the lapsed time forced her to give up her car because she couldn’t keep up with the monthly payments, she said.

Both Forbes and Harriett said the workplace dynamic shifted when they began to raise questions about what they felt was improper spending practices regarding grant funding and overall center finances. One of these grant-related allegations is shown in Forbes’ court case, which listed $1,265 in unpaid wages from her work with the Sista4Sista women’s peer advocacy program that was funded via grant. The Ithaca Times could not independently verify these allegations, but other sources confirmed, at least, that Forbes and Harriett both left (or in Harriett’s case, was requested to resign) shortly after they began raising questions about grant funding.

Jennifer Forbes

Jennifer Forbes, former executive assistant at Southside Community Center. 

Harriet said she was told she has three years after her January 2017 departure to file a lawsuit against Southside, and is still deciding if she wants to proceed with litigation. She said she was owed 103 hours of overtime wages, but missed the filing deadline for that particular complaint and will be unable to collect those funds. At $30 per hour, that money also would have reached just over $3,000.

Southside Community Center’s board president, Nia Nunn, issued a statement to the Ithaca Times denying the allegations listed here, and noting that none of the cases mentioned have been decided on merit, meaning Southside didn’t officially challenge them (despite the request to reopen Forbes’ case). She said they value all of their workforce, but noted it is difficult to discuss specific employee cases.

“Southside Community Center is confident that any investigation will prove current allegations to the Department of Labor regarding former employees from years ago to be unfounded as well,” Nunn wrote in an email statement, deferring comment on the criminal proceedings against Harriett to police and prosecutors. “A dedicated volunteer Board, members of the staff, and committed volunteers continue to remain engaged in the agency’s mission and purpose. These allegations will not interfere with the vibrant and impactful work that Southside Community Center has been offering for the past several years. We are incredibly grateful for everyone in the community that is truly invested in the Southside Community Center’s mission and purpose.”

Nunn went on to say that Southside is in the process of hiring a new executive director, and had just received funding for a part-time human resources employee to “help with managing operations in an effort to support the agency with strengthening its policies and procedures.”

Forbes and Moran were both terminated during sweeping changes at the organization, which also included the ousting of several other Southside employees and eventually Harriett, a group that garnered the nickname “the Southside 8” at the workers’ center. Along with Forbes’ car, Moran and Harriett both reported difficulty finding jobs after their experience at Southside. Harriett said the charges, in particular, affected her daily life and standing in the community.

“I had great community ties there in Ithaca, I had done great work in the community before that, but the way they slandered my name was really distressing,” said Harriett, who now lives in Georgia. “That whole first year [afterward], I really just withdrew from everything.”

Forbes echoed that sentiment. Several other workers at Southside refused to comment for this story despite their involvement, either formal or informal, with the workers’ center. But they did confirm the accounts, in parts, of Forbes, Moran and Harriett, and generally confirmed the volatile working climate there over the last few years. Their reasons for refusing to comment or go on the record ranged from fear of reprisal from the community, a prevailing support for Southside’s overall mission, or a desire to avoid reopening old wounds from their time there. A few, including Harriett, said at points, working at Southside was some of the best time of their lives, but the end of their tenures left an overwhelmingly sour taste.

Nunn is once again the board president after stepping away several years ago to become a full-time professor at Ithaca College. While she was gone, the top positions at the community center became a revolving door. Leadership turnover at Southside, among other issues, has been a long-running concern, even leading to an effort in 2016 to bring Southside under the umbrella of the City of Ithaca by combining it with the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. At the time, that move was publicly presented as a way for the City of Ithaca to provide more resources to Southside. But a City of Ithaca official confirmed to the Ithaca Times that the effort was motivated, in part, by a fear that the community center would fall apart entirely without the city’s intervention. That effort was eventually rebuffed, and was opposed by Nunn, who did not answer when asked why she resisted the move. Annually, the City of Ithaca contributes between $140,000-$150,000 per year to Southside.

TCWC has had discussions with Southside leadership to address worker concerns, but Brown couldn’t speak to the effectiveness of those talks. Nunn didn’t respond to a question about changes implemented.

“Understanding that everyone’s situation ends up being unique even in comparable circumstances, the overall themes behind these folks’ allegations or workplace challenges have been fairly consistent,” Brown said. “Substantiating them, other than that employees routinely feel unhappy and unfairly treated which seems well established, still rests in the outcomes of any formal actions the workers may have chosen.”

Whatever changes have been made, either by Nunn or otherwise, it’s unclear if they have had any impact. Charles Rhody, a prominent community figure who runs Southside’s food pantry, filed a complaint with the Division of Human Rights over his workplace situation in October 2018. He claimed gender discrimination, retaliation for an “honest opinion, in favor of an [unspecified] female employee who was ultimately terminated by Respondent,” and a hostile work environment over the previous year or so, but the division found insufficient evidence that the Human Rights Law was violated in any of his claims. 

In a special proceedings filing in June, Rhody asked the Tompkins County Courts to examine his case further, restating his claims but softening the gender discrimination allegations and arguing that the DHR’s investigation and hearing process had been improper. Rhody declined to comment for this article, so it’s difficult to know which unspecified female employee the suit refers to, although Harriett stated that he was prepared to testify on her behalf during her criminal trial.

During several interviews for this story, one thing became very clear: those complaining about their treatment at Southside all support its stated mission of supporting and championing the black community, which is especially necessary in a place where the black community represents under 10 percent of the total population. But in deciding to talk openly about their experiences for the first time, they had reached a breaking point.

“I really didn’t want it to come to this, I didn’t want it to be public,” Forbes said, frustration clear in her voice. “I’m just a little girl from South Carolina and I understand what Southside is supposed to be. They’re supposed to be at the helm of the community, uplifting everyone.”

(6) comments

Nia Nunn

The current Ithaca Times article is filled with inaccuracies, for starters, Dr. Nia Nunn’s appropriate title as a tenured Associate Professor at Ithaca College and Board Chair at Southside Community Center was not communicated in the paper. We, the members of the Southside Community Center Board of Directors, vehemently dispute the claims under investigation that derive from 2016 and before. As an agency, there are limitations in our ability to publicly speak about the specific conduct of former employees. That said, our attorneys can confirm that the agency does not owe any former employee money. The merits of the article lack due diligence and we have many corrections for the editor. We are saddened that the Ithaca Times has attempted to resurrect shadows from the past, albeit inaccurately, and are further dismayed that the Ithaca Times acted as a vehicle for degradation. Operating like a Tabloid, the article is not only filled with a long list of inaccuracies about Southside Community Center, its portrayal particularly of Black women reinforces a Master narrative that must be dismantled. Recognizing the power of the written word, people who have expressed outrage are encouraged to WRITE!

WRITE about your reaction to the normalized racist and sexist portrayal of Black women in the current Ithaca Times article. The article portrays personal and personnel conflicts within Southside Community Center as a battle between Black women, which is buttressed by potent visuals in the print version: as if two Black women are squaring off, against one another. Not only is this portrayal of past circumstances inaccurate, it also degrades and discredits Black women for everyone’s pleasure. This article feeds a narrative of fratricide and anti-Blackness. With all of his power and privilege as a White, Male, Writer it is a shame that Matt Butler made the choice to capitalize off of sadness, personal suffering, and desperation. The work that we are doing at Southside is about interrupting the internalized self-hatred that many of our people bear. Any attempts to publicly humiliate Southside Community Center reinforces the desperate need for this work. WRITE about how and why the Ithaca Times article is demeaning to all of the services and critical work that is happening at Southside Community Center today.

WRITE the truth about what you see at Southside Community Center. Since 2016, the structure and dynamics at Southside Community Center have improved significantly. We haven’t been just surviving, WE ARE THRIVING!! Speak to your specific experience with and observations of staff members, board members, any programming, and even the energy of the space. WRITE about the partnerships, transformations, and the impact that you’ve felt and observed. Help to communicate the truth about the Southside Community Center today.


There are several avenues to communicate your support of Southside Community Center.

1. Comment directly: You can comment on the Ithaca Times article directly online

a. The comment section at the bottom of the article

b. Instagram post

c. Facebook post

2. Write to the Ithaca Times

3. Write to the Ithaca Voice

Southside Community Center is a small not-for-profit organization that is 15 years away from celebrating 100 years of service to the community since its incorporation in 1934. A dedicated volunteer Board, members of the staff, and committed community members continue to remain engaged in the agency’s mission and purpose, therefore, the current Ithaca Times article and sharing of inaccurate and unnecessary information will not interfere with the vibrant and impactful work that Southside Community Center has been offering for the past several years. For more information about the Southside Community Center, please visit our website at

Thank you to everyone deeply invested in the Southside Community Center’s mission and purpose.

-Southside Community Center Board of Directors

Dr. Nia Nunn, Alkay Waller, Vannessa DeJesus, Richard Nwakire Onyejuruwa, Raquel Mercado, and Pastor Sonya Hicks

Laura Gottfried

I attended 2 events at Southside this spring and summer. The first was a public dialogue between Dr. Bettina Love and approximately 6 young Women of Color, ranging in age from 10-22. It was powerful and exhilarating. Dr. Nunn had spent weeks getting the girls ready for the experience. They were confident and completely engaged and seemed very cognizant of the highly unusual opportunity afforded them. The audience (~75) served as witness to the dialogue and held the space for the important work being done by these young people. As a lifelong educator, I can attest to the attention necessary to prepare young people to hold their own in circumstances like these. The importance of those few hours in dialogue with Dr. Love, being supported lovingly by their own Dr. Nia, cannot be overstated.

August 1st was the annual CUMEP celebration. On display in sizes ranging from itty bitty to full grown was Black Joy in full force. As a white woman, I was greeted with warmth and wide smiles. Those kids were proud and accomplished. They had clearly enjoyed the hard work of creating and preparing a grand performance. The pride displayed by Dr. Nia and the other adults-most notably the college student counselors- was infectious. The spirit of an entire community coming out to celebrate being alive, we all need that! Not just the campers.

Running a non-profit is not an easy task. There are always some disgruntled folks in the mix. I encourage your readers to read between the lines and think critically about this story. Laura Gottfried, Principal, The Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca.

Eiza VanCort

Southside Community Center is a gem in our community, as is their Board Chair, Dr. Nia Michelle Nunn, who I have watched work tirelessly for years on behalf of our children and families.

Time is money. Given Dr. Nunn’s credentials she could put her time elsewhere, and with great financial reward. Yet Nia’s reward has always been the feeling you get from tireless service to your community.

It seems there are two sides here. One is quite vocal, one is not. This does not surprise me. Dr. Nia Nunn would fall on her sword before going after a young woman finding her way, regardless of the circumstances. She is kind, thoughtful, and stands firmly in her principals and her care for, and protection of, our young people…always.

Nia is a friend, a fellow mom, and someone who was raised to give back, even at great cost. She is a woman of tremendous integrity. She is a leader we look to, and someone I call upon regularly to help me understand the complex issues, and intersectional nature, of race. (I should note her patience with me has been bottomless, despite my occasional ignorance.)

The good Southside has done cannot be measured.

I hope if this story moves forward we will hear from the countless people whose lives have been changed for the better because of this benevolent organization and it’s astute, generous leader. I’m sure the children whose lives were transformed, the parents whose hearts swell with gratitude, the elderly who have watched generation after generation benefit from this organization, and the people like me who watch in awe as this happens... I’m sure all of us will tell a very different story, and that story must be told.

That is the history and legacy of Southside.

Aubryn Sidle

In the past, I have had a lot of respect for this authors reporting work. Unfortunately, Matt Butler, I think you have missed the mark here. To only interview and report on one side of this story not only does a disservice to your paper, but also to our community. Before you publish next time, and before your editors allow you to do so, I would hope that you have gone above and beyond to capture both sides. Dr. Nia is an important spokesperson for SSCC but if she was unavailable there are countless members of the board and SSCC community who could have testified to the important work of this organization and to the bias in the allegations that have been lodged against it. Southside is an amazing and important organization that, like the majority of our local nonprofits, has been through a tough period of transition. As our local community paper, I'd prefer to see you invested in propping up organizations that have served and continue to serve US, and that are thriving despite hardships in the pat. I would also like to point out (as others have) that your portrayal of this conflict is incredibly problematic. I would encourage you as a reporter, to think more carefully about your whiteness, your maleness and the privilege that goes along with both of those identities before reporting on key issues affecting people of color in our community.

Elisabeth Nonas

Our nephew Luke, now eighteen and headed to college this month, has spent time with us in Ithaca every summer since he was a young boy. During many of those visits he attended CUMEP (Community Unity Music Education Program) at Southside, a half-day program for children, ages three to sixteen, run by Dr. Nia Nunn and her father, Fe Nunn. Both are educators (Dr. Nia, an associate professor of education at Ithaca College; Fe Nunn, an accomplished keyboard musician and ICSD administrator).

Luke is a middle-class white boy from New York City. Most of the camp participants were/are Black. Even though Ithaca is not his home community and his CUMEP participation was time limited he was enthusiastically welcomed into and encouraged to be part of the joyful music, dance, and civic and personal development opportunities. Each summer, after a full year’s absence, he was energetically greeted by campers he knew from previous years as well as counselors and other staff. His last summer there he was promoted to counselor-in-training and given a staff t-shirt and a small stipend. The best thing for him was that he became “Mr. Luke.”

Luke has been studying tap dancing since he was five and was enthusiastic about sharing what he knew with other campers. He was asked to show some basics to younger children and had a pretty amazing time teaching them and then watching them perform the Time Step. The warmth and excitement with which he was greeted each time he stopped by CUMEP when he visited us in recent years was but one example of the welcoming community Dr. Nia and Mr. Fe work to establish. One way of describing what father and daughter have accomplished is that each summer they create a freedom school, an environment where campers and staff, regardless of title or age, learn to speak the truth about their lives: to value themselves and others, to speak up and nonviolently resist the bad behavior they may experience, to understand what fairness and justice are.

To have Matt Butler’s one-sided, inaccurate, and in some ways slanderous article printed in the Ithaca Times as if it were carefully researched objective journalism is more than offensive. It is destructive and flies in the face of all the things the campers/staff at CUMEP are encouraged to believe in and do. It helps to fuel sloppy thinking, discredit legitimate news reporting, and pass off lurid journalism as the truth. In “progressive” Ithaca this is particularly reprehensible.

Nancy K. Bereano & Elisabeth Nonas

Micky Fox

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