ITHACA, NY – From an outsider’s perspective, it looked like Southside Community Center was poised to become an official department of the City of Ithaca.

Early in June, a task force that had been discussing the merger gave a presentation on the topic before Common Council, which was met with enthusiastic support. Then-President of Southside’s Board of Directors, Khalil Griffith, spoke of finalizing the details by August and initiating the merge in January.

Less than a week later after the presentation, the Board of Directors had undergone some changes and the status of the merger plan became uncertain.

Now, it’s clear that the merger idea is no longer a part of the discussion and Southside will maintain its autonomy.

As Interim Director Nia Nunn explains it, this is not a setback, or even a rejection of the city’s role at Southside. Rather, it’s a reaffirmation of the independent spirit of Southside, and something that has created new ideas, excitement and enthusiasm in the organization.

Systems and structures

The last few years have seen instability in the leadership at Southside. In fact, this is the second time that Nunn has taken on the interim director role. She served in that capacity in 2012 into 2013, and the intervening years saw two other directors come and go.

When she returned to the role in June, Nunn said her first task was to “restore the faith” in the organization — particularly among its staff. Between the instability and some communication issues surrounding the merger, that faith had been shaken.

“With my time here, I put the majority of my energy into listening and brainstorming, first with staff… just doing some really authentic listening to the people who play a major role in serving people here,” Nunn said. She also tried to facilitate engagement and foster relationships between staff, stakeholders, funders and the community — including the children who frequent the space.

Once that was established, Nunn says her goal was to work with people to establish systems and structures that would ensure that no matter who was at the helm, Southside would have a solid foundation to build on.

One element of that  was solidifying the relationship between Southside and a community that often wanted to support Southside, but didn’t always know how.

“I’d like to have a setup where we’re concrete with community members about how they can contribute, what roles they can play,” Nunn says. Most people are humble and they don’t need their name on stuff, but just being more concrete with folks about how people are contributing who they are to the space. That’s what makes Southside strong, that’s what makes the organization so incredible.”

(Image courtesy of Southside’s GoFundMe)
(Image courtesy of Southside’s GoFundMe)

Food and transport

A final goal was also to look at specific programs and resources that Southside could provide for the community.

Nunn says that the two major barriers in Ithaca — aside from affordable housing, of course — are food and transportation. Southside already has programs that provide food, but haven’t been able to offer transport for some time.

Nunn recalls coming to Southside in her youth as part of an all-black girl scout troop, where there used to be events at Southside every Saturday, and the kids would take trips up to Cornell, Ithaca College or out to Corning for events.

That’s why the “Southside Pride” van was essentially her capstone project. As both an enabler of new services and a sizable fundraising challenge, securing a van for Southside was also symbolic of the new direction for the organization.

“The van is one of those really beautiful and powerful, extremely useful resources but it also helps us strengthen the level of excitement but also demonstrate and model our ability to follow through.”

The van will not only enable Southside to organize field trips, but will also provide transportation for children who could benefit from Southside’s services, but don’t live in the neighborhood and lack reliable transportation to and from the space.

Next steps

Nunn will soon be stepping down from the interim director position – though she’ll continue to be involved in Southside programs like CUMEP — as Southside welcomes some new members to its leadership team.

On Saturday, Aug. 12 at 1 p.m., Southside will be welcoming a new executive director, Leon Lawrence, as well as celebrating other new and current leadership staff.

Nunn is optimistic that the foundational changes she worked toward will keep Southside running strong and smooth with a renewed sense of energy.

That optimism isn’t based on faith alone, though — Nunn is very clear that the things that have been accomplished in the last few months weren’t a one-person job: “My name’s on a whole bunch of stuff but there’s nothing here that’s just me. This is a collective effort.”

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.