The grassroots initiative Unbroken Promise is Jordan Clemons’ response to the question of the year: what do you intend to do about the injustices that you see?
Born out of a desire for new leadership at the helm of Ithaca civil protest; and a fervent demand to effect substantive change in Ithaca’s own forgotten communities, Unbroken Promise is a pledge to Ithaca’s West End, and one that is most vocal on Sunday afternoons, blending chants for an end to racist policing to fiery speeches advocating for the lifting up of the local Black community and the West End specifically.
“The name ‘Unbroken Promise’ came from remembering everything I had to go through as far as breaking the cycle and being a model for my family, I made a promise to myself that part of the reason that it would be so significant was because I would be able to create change for anyone who comes up behind me,” Clemons said.
The Promise’s mission is to bring opportunities to the neglected neighborhoods in the West End. Clemons and his team—Matt Stupak, Maro Kariya and Kate Leboff—said that they hope to eventually establish a localized economy within the West End that will give residents the resources and opportunities they’ve long felt denied: better access to youth, childcare, vocational, educational and mental and physical health services; as well as better nutritional health opportunities.
The initiative would effectively make the West End a small, co-op owned hub within Ithaca city limits. Currently, the team is speaking with architects and developers to assess five-acres of land they want dedicated as a land trust and base for potential health and youth rec facilities, common cantina, co-op facility, and farming ground, etc.
“Ithaca has all of these great features and they offer them—just not to our community,” Clemons said. “Whether it’s unconventional or inconvenient at times, it has to get done because we can’t move forward until these people are taken care of.”
The West End hasn’t seen the economic nor the architectural development downtown Ithaca has seen over the last 10 years, despite showing a greater need for improvement.
“If you live on West Hill, you have to come down that hill, which is an obstacle on its own,” Stupak said. “If you talk to Svante [Myrick] or Seph [Murtagh], they’ll say the first thing they’ve done for West Hill is build a sidewalk so that people can access resources; walking a mile or more just so they can get to downtown. Putting these things right up on the hill removes a huge barrier.”
The team is also actively surveying with community members in West End to learn what they think they need in their neighborhoods. In March, the IDA and the City of Ithaca released a survey to measure the potential budget and priorities for the 2030 Strategic Plan to revitalize the West End. The survey asked questions about cleanliness, accessibility and safety and was released online for public input. The Unbroken Promise team said the survey embodied the very action of their initiative model since they felt that neither the IDA nor the City of Ithaca actively pursued the input of West Enders who will be most impacted by their decisions.
“A lot of times they say they have a plan, they want to revitalize a part of the community, but it just means that someone else is benefitting from this revitalization,” Clemons said, reflecting the frustration he and others feel. “All the while you’re coming into the space you forced us into and now you’re doing whatever the hell you want.”
Gentrification plays a role in stoking Clemons’ skepticism of the city’s intentions. After all, city development gradually led many former Southside residents into the overcrowded, neglected, but affordable housing on the other side of the inlet, including Clemons’ family. As a result, the demographic that once relied heavily on popular downtown cultural hubs for community and identity have suffered because of its distance, according to Clemons. A reformation of ties and support from the community will be essential to sustaining Unbroken Promise, but he’s asking that they meet the community where the community is—in the West End.
“In the black community, there’s always been the saying ‘It takes a village,’” said Clemons. “When you say what does a village need? What are we looking to put on that West End? All the things that are essential to us as people in the struggle.”
Clemons said he never saw himself becoming the MC [a term he prefers over organizer and leader] before the COVID-19 outbreak began, but he took the mic because he felt a need for direction and an opportunity for the movement. To Jordan, revisiting the West End isn’t just about revitalizing a struggling part of town, it’s about bringing back the due dignity to his home and to his people—his community. His intensity is rooted in a clear-sighted, no nonsense response to addressing the injustices reaped over the West End: fix it.
Residents, who’ve been attending the protests at the Bernie Milton Pavilion every Sunday, said they’re excited to see the gatherings, which started in mid-May, take a specific direction. For a while, the community would gather and listen to a random arrangement of speakers assembled by Occupy Ithaca, but no one seemed to know how to direct the community’s energy—save suggesting investing in Black-owned businesses and donating to bail funds. But Clemons’ initiative sheds light on local injustices and resolvable inequity that many students and year-rounders may not know exists. Recent protests have shown a growing support for the Initiative’s goals, highlighted by strong attendance at the weekly Sunday rallies. Protestors also marched on the Hall of Justice in June to protest IPD’s budget, organized by Cornell students.
On June 21, the Unbroken Promise Initiative’s GoFundMe was unveiled. The goal is $20 million, which the team says is only a start. Stupak explained that ultimately the project is an investment in a community that is eager to build itself into something greater, so it’s worth it.
Meeting with attorneys, developers and architects will also come from that amount. The team emphasized their need for Ithaca partnerships, volunteers and support. The team said that getting people into the West End is how they’ll reframe preconceived notions of the West End many people have accepted based on discriminatory narratives that are perpetuated by those elsewhere in the Ithaca community.
“Specific things that money gets spent on: acquiring land, building structures to house these services, having staff to provide these services, getting supplies like providing meals,” Stupak said. “Maybe schools have breakfast and lunch covered, we’ve got to get the third meal of the day. So, 10 to 15 million goes specifically to building and development and outfitting these facilities with whatever they may need like kitchens. In the short term, funds are going toward community events that uplift the West End community.”