Reading Books, Raising Consciousness: Meet Ithaca Is Books Ambassador Cal Walker

August 22, 2018


“Education is liberation.”


Cal Walker is a community leader, mentor, social activist, educator, and the Outreach Liaison in Cornell University’s Office of Community Relations. In 2002 he founded the Village at Ithaca, which works to help students—particularly those who are African-American, Latino or low-income—meet or exceed standards of academic achievement. In 2016 Cornell recognized him with two honors: the Debra S. Newman ’02 Community Recognition Award and the Anne T. Jones Award for Community Service.


Cal Walker’ Recommended Books:

The Mis-Education of the Negro by Dr. Carter G. Woodson

The Other America by Michael Harrington

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz


As a child attending a segregated elementary school in Tuskegee, Alabama, Walker felt the power of books from a young age. “Education was amplified,” he explains. “It was deemed important. A sense of urgency was communicated around the need to be educated for black people in the south.” This emphasis meant that books became a symbol for learning, and one could choose what one could learn. Each book he read made Walker feel smarter, more informed, more empowered.


When Walker could not find books at home, the church became a provider of this learning. Walker recalls developing a reputation of being a really good reader and asked to read frequently; this small form of leadership would eventually lead to a life of activism that would touch many communities. Each of the books that Walker chose also raised his political and social knowledge. With that knowledge, he grew and formed an identity.


“These books were foundational to me in helping me understand some of the social, political, and economic realities of the country I lived in,” Walker says. Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon was introduced to him at a lecture by Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther party. Newton was at Syracuse University and Walker, an eighteen-year-old at the time with much respect for the Black Panther party, couldn’t wait to read this book that was referred to as “Consciousness Raising.” Social and political writer and activist Michael Harrington’s The Other America, published the following year, in 1962, discussed the pervasive nature of poverty in this country. Harrington’s commentary helped to lead policies that would address the issue on a systematic level. The Mis-Education of the Negro was published in 1933 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who was critical of the education system’s treatment of black students and would go on to establish Black History Month. Reading books like these encouraged Walker’s desire to access information and challenge the systematic injustices that have targeted low-income and African American communities for decades.


The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz is the outlier on Walker’s list. More self-help than social-consciousness, it explores secrets of success and happiness. But for Walker, much of the success and happiness he’s achieved over his more than forty years in Ithaca connects back to his community leadership.


“I’m an activist by nature,” Walker explains, “and that’s about challenging America to be what it ought to be. Not just being caught up in nationalism and the pledge. Those are visions of what we ought to be rather than what we are.” An understanding of what the reality of this country is becomes inherent to working towards that version of America. In that way, books have worked as a form of education, and, crediting Frederick Douglas, Walker says, “Education is liberation.”  


And Ithaca is no stranger to education. “You say ‘books’ to me, I think knowledge and education.” To Cal Walker, Ithaca Is Books means we are a reading community that values books, independent bookstores, and—in the age of information—the physicality of books.


“I hope we as a community will continue to promote readership and to love and to cherish books. I believe in lifelong learning and so many people access information in so many ways,” Walker says. “I would like to see the love for books and the utility of books not just go by the way of the dinosaur just because there are convenient ways to access information.”


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