ITHACA, NY – Earlier this month, Southside Community Center officially ushered in a new chapter, bringing on board a new executive director, Leon Lawrence, and deputy director — which is a new position — Thia Harriet.

The organization had seen substantial leadership churn and financial difficulties in recent years, which culminated in an effort to make Southside an official part of the city. That direction was ultimately rejected, but in the process seems to have brought a new energy and sense of pride to Southside.

In June, Nia Nunn — an Ithaca native, Southside kid and now Ithaca College professor — took on the role of interim director at Southside. One of her major goals during that time was to build systems and strong foundation that would ensure the center would thrive regardless of who might be sitting in the director seat.

Those systems appear to be working, and Lawrence says that his transition to the director role has been very smooth, with the staff, board of directors and new executive team already collaborating well as a team.

Community is the key word

Despite a somewhat abrupt change in direction away from a merge with the city, it doesn’t appear to have hurt relations between Southside and the city.

“The City of Ithaca has been a tremendous foundation for Southside to succeed. I believe in that old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ so I think everybody, as a village, is doing its job to ensure that Southside is successful,” Lawrence says.

Lawrence came to Ithaca from Burlington, Vermont about twelve years ago, and worked as a Cornell administrator for several years and was a regular volunteer at Southside before coming out of retirement to take on the executive director role. His work at Cornell largely dealt with issues of diversity and education, including stints as director of Diversity and Inclusion at the Architecture school, and assistant director of the Office of Minority Educational Affairs.

One of Lawrence’s primary short-term goals is to keep building on that foundation through community outreach, strengthening current partnerships and rekindling old ones.

“It is Southside Community Center — that word is really important to me,” Lawrence says. “I don’t plan to stay in the office… the next few weeks I plan to be out doing a lot of community outreach with everybody from A-Z, whether that’s the mayor and members of Common Council, the different foundations that provide grants, and of course the parents — current and hopefully new parents.”

Lawrence says he’s been doing his homework — looking through census data to get a fuller picture of the many neighborhoods that make up Ithaca, and the various towns and villages that make up Tompkins County so he can “take the show on the road” and reach as many people as possible.

Thanks to Southside’s newly purchased van, involving more people from outside Southside’s immediate neighborhood should be a much easier task.

As for longer-term goals, Lawrence says that’s still in the brainstorming phase — and the input from all the community outreach will be vital to solidifying the new direction for Southside.

“I don’t want it to be top-down, I don’t want anything to be coming from just me,” Lawrence said. “I’ve said this a number of times to different people: we as humans, we have one mouth and two ears. I think I’m a very good listener, and I’m very action-oriented and people-oriented, so I really want to hear what people’s needs are as much as possible.”

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.