Full Circle: Virginia Cumberbatch On Reshaping the City That Shaped Her

In 2010, Virginia Cumberbatch, MPAff ’16, returned to Austin after graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts. Four years later, she had a tough decision to make: Return to the East Coast, or start grad school at UT. Realizing she could work in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) while studying at the LBJ School, the choice became much easier, and she enrolled. Now director of the East Austin-based Community Engagement Center (CEC), under the umbrella of the DDCE, Cumberbatch helps bridge the gap between the university and the community surrounding it, applying UT resources and research to improve organizations and underserved sections of the city. She spoke with the Alcalde about the Precursors, the first African-American undergraduates at UT; the goals of the CEC; and her work in the community.

Alcalde: How did you get involved with the Precursors?

Virginia Cumberbatch: Not to be too bleak but these stories were literally dying off. There was also an urgency given the current political and social context and climate of students on campus. While we have made huge strides in the systemic infrastructure of UT conversations about inclusion and diversity, there are still a lot of students of color or students from historically marginalized communities who still feel very isolated on campus. We felt like this would be a really great opportunity to bridge this generational gap and be a healing process for both ends of the spectrum.

What’s a lesson that a reader can learn from the book you helped edit about the precursors, As We Saw It?

One is this conversation of de facto activists. A continual thread throughout the book was these students realizing it wasn’t so much the title of activism as much as this was about creating a safe and inclusive space for themselves, and also the people that were going to come after them.

Do you have a favorite story?

One that sticks with me: UT integrated graduate studies in 1950 and undergraduate studies in 1956, but we didn’t see the integration of social activities, including athletics, until 1965. For football games or track meets, a lot of the African-American students would still go to these events, even though they didn’t feel really connected or part of them and were a little resentful about the idea of even rooting for the Longhorns to win. Charles Miles and Leon Holland talked about  completely leaving behind any allegiance of burnt orange and just rooting for any team that had an African-American player on it.

We always use this metaphor: You were invited to a party but no one asked you to dance. You’ve been given the opportunity to get an education, but are you truly being included in the cultural political fabric of the institution?

How do you work with the local community without the office coming off as a mere figurehead?

It’s a big question, one that I’ve been grappling with a lot this year. Particularly, how do we transition ourselves to not just be a space where people can look to us for resources, but how are we contributing to the dismantling of systemic issues? And I think part of that credit goes to people like Suchitra Gururaj, assistant vice president of our Longhorn Center for Community Engagement. And folks like Greg Vincent, when here, and Leonard Moore, who truly are living out that mission.

If we’re really about this work then it means that we’re willing to sit in the trenches, side by side, with people and organizations that have been doing this work for decades and seeing how we can best serve them with our fiscal resources, with our thought leadership, with our research, with our students.

How do you build trust within communities surrounding UT?

One of the programs that we’ve launched in the past few years is our Front Porch gatherings. It’s a metaphor that we’ve been trying to position ourselves as: we are the Front Porch of the university. It’s a place to share what’s happening in the community. There’s accessibility. It’s not about UT being able to check that off and put it in our annual report that we did this. It’s about building sustainable work.

What are some spaces that you feel like are best suited for the CEC’s help?

One is education and equity, particularly in East Austin. Partnering with not just schools but programs throughout the university, throughout UT, and throughout the community that are particularly focused on issues like the school-to-prison pipeline. We organically have been partnering with the Dell Medical School and their program Population Health, who are making sure they were asking the right questions so that we are allocating resources to communities that by and large have been completely ignored.

And then our other two focus areas are affordability and gentrification. And I think it’s a really great demonstration of how we’ve created this opportunity for there to be a pipeline between activist scholarship in the community, mainly, “How is this great research across campus living out in the community itself?” [UT Associate Professor] Eric Tang, who has served as our director of the Social Justice Institute, has been a great model for how we do that. His work around the displacement of long-standing residents, black residents in East Austin, of those who have stayed who feel socially displaced has been instrumental in a lot of the larger conversations, politically, in terms of policy changes.

What DO you do for other organizations outside UT?

I’m a founding member of the Six Square board,  [a nonprofit] formed with the understanding that we were in danger of losing our historic landmarks and cultural spaces, particularly in East Austin. It represents the six square miles of the African American Historic District in East Austin—one of the only cultural districts in Texas related to ethnic culture. There are some amazing landmarks that a lot of people don’t understand the significance of, like Downs Field, where Jackie Robinson played, or Rosewood Courts, or Ebenezer Church—all of that rich history that makes East Austin and Austin at large what it means today.

I am also part of Global Shapers, operated by the World Economic Forum. They saw 10 years ago the unhealthy trajectory of not including millennial voices into decision-making at local levels. The Austin hub has been around about three years, and we’re mostly focused on affordable housing. Those two spaces innately connect to my personal passion around community equity, which is a part of the mission of the  CEC.

I also founded HUX three years ago [with my brother]. What we found missing from larger conversations was the authentic voice and nuance to tell stories in a way that connects to not just the black community but the black diaspora. We started taking on projects that helped capture that: Huston-Tillotson University wanted to reposition its brand as an institution, and we have worked with South by Southwest and other smaller nonprofits. We thought, rather than constantly complaining about lack of competence in these spaces, why don’t we pool our resources to do that work?

Do you feel more invested in the community because you’re from here?

It definitely feels like a natural evolution. I would always feel committed and invested but there’s surely that much more eagerness and energy behind it because these are the spaces that shaped who I am, these are the spaces that I want to continue to shape everyone, not just one particular piece of our Austin community. I don’t want this to become a city of haves and have-nots. I want this to continue to be a city we can all call home and we can say I thrive in and that cares about me and that I can contribute to.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

Credit: Tania Quintanilla of TQ Photos


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