ITHACA, N.Y. —In the midst of what is emerging as a potentially crucial era of race relations in America, Ithaca has lost one of the community’s most significant Black voices in Kirby Edmonds, who passed away peacefully on Aug. 22, five days after his 69th birthday. 

The praise for Edmonds since his passing has been universal and effusive, from those who knew him personally to those who only interacted with him through his professional life or his service in the community. There was seemingly no end to his service in the community: he was heavily involved in the formulation of the City of Ithaca’s Comprehensive Plan, worked extensively with the Dorothy Cotton Institute after its founding, co-founded and led Training for Change Associates, and filled a variety of other roles in vital community-based efforts, as a leader and advisor, and spent countless hours otherwise fighting discrimination and unflinchingly promoting equality locally. 

Edmonds is survived by his wife, Judith Scherer, two sons, Quincy and Ramsey Edmonds, his sister Katree Edmonds and his mother, Doris Edmonds.

Plenty of prominent community figures have made sure to offer their condolences to Edmonds’ family publicly and detail the impact he had on their lives. Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson called him “the conscience of our community;” Ithaca City School District Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown deemed Edmonds an “equity warrior.” Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick noted Edmonds’ work with the city and his mentorship of Myrick personally over the years. 

“Kirby was a marathon runner in the race for social, racial and environmental justice,” Myrick said. “He worked his whole life to make a more just world. […] So many thousands of us have been touched by his wisdom, patience and dedication through the years. I know he’s resting in power and I am praying for peace and healing for the many loved ones—his friends and family—that are mourning him today.”

Kirby Edmonds co-founded  TFC Associates (Training for Change) in 1982 and worked with his partner and colleague Laura Branca over the next several decades. Their work has centered on what Edmonds was known for around the community: training and supporting people to navigate some of the exclusion and systemic and cultural barriers they face in their personal and professional lives, while also designing strategies for institutions and organizations to develop cultural competence, diversity, and equitable and inclusive policies and priorities. 

“All of it had the same taproot, which was anti-oppression work,” Branca said. “The issue of fostering an understanding of the dynamics of exclusion and inter-group relationships and conflicts, and how to bring people to an understanding of the systemic nature of the ‘-isms.’”

As the world’s attitudes gradually evolved, Branca said Edmonds was constantly able to address the changing attitudes and awareness of the people he was training. While the analysis the two were offering have become more popular and mainstream, their ability to engage their audiences has been crucial throughout years when such work was less common to the present when it is more needed than ever. 

“He was a master at leading and designing very thought-provoking, interactive activities, and then being able to help people process what their experience had been and generalize it to their lives,” Branca said. “It involves some skill-building, it involves awareness building, and it involves analysis that people can incorporate into their work in the world, and also their own healing and their own empowerment. He had the ability to pose essential and insightful questions.”

Longtime Ithacan Cal Walker remembered taking a weeklong road-trip with Edmonds and Branca that spanned thousands of miles as they traveled to see a speech Dorothy Cotton was giving in Birmingham, Alabama, stopping along the way to visit historic civil rights museums and landmarks in Tennessee, Alabama and elsewhere. The trip came as the trio were working on developing the Dorothy Cotton Institute (DCI), which was founded in 2007 and for which Edmonds, Branca and Walker all served on the Steering Committee. The institute was named after the civil rights movement legend who passed away in Ithaca in 2018. 

During the trip, they were searching for ways to enhance the DCI, which has grown from a fellowship program to its place in the Tompkins County Center for History and Culture, where it organizes exhibits centered on educating the public about civil and human rights movements nationally and abroad throughout history, reminiscent of Cotton’s own Citizenship Education Programs that she led while working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Walker said though he had been working alongside Edmonds for years at the time of the trip, he was struck by the piercing questions and “hyper-focus” Edmonds showed during their travels, and believes the institute’s current mission benefitted from the inspiration Edmonds, as well as he and Branca, culled from the trip. 

“Kirby and I certainly had very common interests about social justice and community organizing, and he was much better at community organizing than me,” Walker said. “In this community, African-American folk who are particularly involved in the areas of social justice and community organizing tend to not only be colleagues or co-laborers but tend to be friends.”\

Marcia Fort Baum worked with Edmonds for years, both while with the Ithaca Youth Bureau and then during her time leading the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, eventually growing to consider him a member of her “extended family.” A word that often pops up when discussing Edmonds among his friends and colleagues: “gifted,” which Fort Baum used to describe his ability to manage multiple initiatives without losing focus or vision. 

If his aforementioned resume didn’t drive the point home, Edmonds’ ferocious work ethic shone through even in his last days—even to the point of exasperation for Fort Baum, as she felt that he should focus on recovering his health instead of attending Zoom calls for more community organizing efforts. But that wasn’t his way. 

“For those of us who loved Kirby, you might have been a little irritated that he wasn’t making himself the priority, but you certainly understood why, because you knew that’s who he was, always putting other people first,” Fort Baum said. 

Walker and Fort Baum both emphasized the void left behind by Edmonds’ passing, particularly at such a crucial time in national history as this. With protests and rallies about racist police brutality lasting for weeks in some parts of the country, including Ithaca, Edmonds’ leadership would have been invaluable for those trying to advance the movement for justice and equality for Black people. 

“It hurts significantly more because Kirby has been working for decades for such a time as this,” Walker said. “This is a pivotal point, and Kirby’s leadership, his guidance, his inspiration, could have been incredibly helpful. There are a lot of organizations and individuals and institutions within this community that are reaching out for the kind of leadership and recommendations that Kirby was uniquely gifted at helping to identify.”

Whenever someone spends as much time and energy on a particular place, their legacy is bound to last beyond their lifetime, and Walker sees that playing out with Edmonds. He might not have been at the protests each week in 2020, marching around downtown Ithaca or raising a fist with a megaphone, but his effort over the last several decades left an indelible mark on the city and provides a blueprint for those who knew him to pass on, and those who didn’t to learn from. 

“Kirby’s handwork is reflected in a lot of the transformations that are going on locally, and will continue to go on, and that’s the key,” Walker said. “While Kirby will be missed, this is an opportunity for people who are inspired and informed by him and guided by him, this is a challenge for some people to say ‘I don’t have to be Kirby Edmonds, I have to be me, and based on what I know and what I’ve learned and what I’ve been inspired by him to do, what contributions can I make to the multiple works that he’s done and inspired in this community?’”

Fort Baum echoed the sentiment that the years of work Edmonds’ dedicated to the community can now serve as a foundation for the next steps, but only if others are willing to pick up where he left off. 

“Many of us are wondering who is going to pick up many of the things Kirby did and was involved in? My hope is that in honoring Kirby, each person can figure out which piece of the work that Kirby did can they, can we pick up?” Fort said. “So that the work that Kirby did for the community won’t be in vain. […] What I know of Kirby is that he would want not only for the work to continue, but to continue well and be more specific and keeping in mind the ultimate goal, which is making the Ithaca community a truly inclusive, welcoming, respectful place for all community residents.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com