Virginia Cumberbatch and Jehmu Greene on their Austin childhoods, disrupting systems of power and why it’s never too late to learn about self-care
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Jessica Pages with assistance from Katie Leacroy
Jehmu Greene and Virginia Cumberbatch happen to be meeting for the first time, but you would never know it from their conversation. The two women, who have been tracking each other from afar for quite some time, both happen to have grown up in Austin and in their professional work and personal lives are deeply committed to disrupting systemic inequality.
Cumberbatch explains that “most of the time we were the only black and brown people in very white spaces.” In 2006 she moved to the East Coast to attend Williams College, where, upon graduation, she surprised even herself by returning home. Since then she has become an important force in sounding the alarm on systemic racism in the city and is currently the director of community engagement and social equity at the University of Texas. Cumberbatch, alongside attorney Meagan T. Harding, recently launched Rosa Rebellion, which aims to be “a platform for creative activism by and for women of color.”
Greene, whose Liberian parents moved to Austin so her father could attend UT, has been engaged with politics since a young age. After briefly attending UT, during which time she was involved with the Texas Young Democrats and Ann Richards’ 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Greene moved to Washington, D.C., to “empower disenfranchised and vulnerable communities.” Her impressive résumé — director of women’s outreach and the Southern political director for the Democratic National Committee, the president of Rock the Vote and the co-founder of Define American, to name a few — eventually took her to New York City, where in 2010 she joined FOX News as a political analyst.
Now back in Austin, Greene recently sat down with Cumberbatch. We happily eavesdropped on the new friends’ conversation, which covered everything from sushi to gentrification to the joys of returning home.
Virginia Cumberbatch: So nice to connect with you. I know a lot about the impact you’ve had on the political landscape, but I’m excited, since you’re a fellow native Austinite. It’s nice to meet a fellow “black unicorn.”
Jehmu Greene: I was trying to think of the last time I had a conversation with a black woman who was from Austin.
VC: My parents are transplants, and so me and my siblings are first-generation Texans, which I know is the same for you.
JG: And first-generation American also for me.
VC: Where did you grow up in Austin?
JG: In a few different places. We started off in the Colorado Apartments. My dad moved us to Austin because he was going to UT, and we were in building C, apartment 102. We started off going to school at Mathews [Elementary]. Then we moved to South First. The house is still there, and every time I drive by it I can’t imagine how my large family fit into a two-bedroom.
VC: Well, that’s funny, because our family’s story is similar. My dad came to UT for law school. I still remember the stories he would tell about coming here in the late ’70s. Still a very small population of black students trying to build community.
JG: As Liberian immigrants, my parents were helped by the international community, but yeah, the community we built was when my family, one by one, started moving to Austin. Aunts and uncles and cousins.
VC: That’s one way of doing it.
JG: The African immigrant way of doing it! My dad never finished his Ph.D., but thank God we moved to Austin, because I would not be the person I am without having grown up here. To see the gentrification and displacement is frightening. But I am so proud of the city that I want it to do better. And you are helping that happen.
VC: I appreciate that. I feel the same way. I believe you challenge things that you love. I love this city, and that’s what makes it that much more painful to see the ways in which we are not a city of equity. And that my lived experience is not the same as all people of color in this city.
JG: My experience in Austin was mixed and diverse in so many ways. My work in politics and as a progressive has all been informed by growing up in very mixed spaces. And then to come back 20-plus years later, and I don’t know where that is. I think it’s there – I’ll get glimpses of it. But the week I moved here, I read that Austin was the only city of its size that has a declining black population, and it floored me. I knew it was bad. I just didn’t know we were moving in the opposite direction.
VC: It’s a phenomenon. The years I was at school [2006-2010] on the East Coast happened to coincide with this deep decline. The black population went from something like 10% to closer to 6%. And to me that meant there was a misalignment between what we were saying and our values. We’re progressive and liberal, but it was not translating in a way that was inclusive. It was weird coming back after graduation with so many people leaving. Like there was a plague but no one told me. You went to UT, right?
JG: For a little bit. My experience was short lived, and I was so distracted by campaigns. I separated myself in a lot of different ways, because it was so segregated, and that’s not what I was used to. I was supposed to be in this area with all of the black students, and I didn’t know about the places with more of a mix. I bounced.
VC: I feel you. Do you find a city like Austin more difficult because we believe ourselves to be so progressive and liberal? That it’s almost harder to get people to mentally shift because they’re like, “I’m not racist”?
JG: For sure. It is much harder to get people to look in the mirror and see what their flaws are. It’s really interesting, because being from Austin wa s something that made me unique. I even used that story to help open doors.
VC: How do you change the way people see themselves?
JG: I started off as a grassroots organizer, and I still see myself in many ways as a grassroots organizer, using media as a medium. But yeah, as I think you’re probably familiar with, there are times when you’re not being seen, you’re not being heard. In the spaces where you’re the only woman, you’re the only one of color, you’re younger than anyone else in the room. I had to defend myself and my work and my ideas. It’s not always pleasant, but I also feel like that’s part of me being an organizer, trying to connect with those communities that are different from my own. Where did you grow up in town?
VC: I grew up in Central Austin. I’m one of four.
JG: Me too.
VC: I went to Hyde Park [schools] growing up, K through sixth. And that was a great sort of foundational space, but both my brother and I were like, “Yeah, we’re tired of being the only melanin up in here.”
We ended up going to St. Stephen’s, which was a great experience. But in some ways that sort of followed suit to where Austin was. It was a very liberal school — we had all these international students — but what about the cultural diversity right here in our backyard?
I grew up in a household where my parents were activists, community organizers. We used to joke all the time about how many community meetings we had to go to. I’m pretty sure we integrated our neighborhood in the ’90s. My parents sued the neighborhood association. The deed on the house still said something like, “No negro should live here.”
VC: What led to your move back to Austin?
JG: Quality of life. It was way past time. Every city I’ve lived in I have loved and I’ve gotten a lot out of professionally, personally, but I would come home and my friends would be like, “You sound like a different person when you’re home.” I was a different person when I would visit. I kind of always had a plan to end up here. And then I found myself in New York and really unhealthy. Ordering in every single night, not walking enough. So I moved back a year ago, mentally drained.
Now I’m walking Town Lake, doing the three-mile loop. I drive a Jeep, and there’s the wave when you cross another Jeep Wrangler — you do a little [demonstrates a finger wave], and it just feels fantastic.
VC: You know, you bring up something I’ve been exploring in some of the work I’m doing outside of UT. Particularly for those folks who I believe are on the front lines of disrupting systems: taking stock of our mental wellness and really doing what’s necessary to preserve our own mental health so that we can continue to do the work we do.
JG: I’m doing it for the first time and a little late to the game but very happy with my progress and happy with how I got here. The idea that I would not take a vacation for years at a time — that’s a person I will never be again. I tried to address this through my talk at South by Southwest. It was this incredible conversation with prevalently creative and entrepreneurial black women, trying to give each other tools in which to deal with these environments within progressive movements where they are battling for their lives on a daily basis.
VC: Think about Erica Garner [daughter of Eric Garner] — died of a heart attack at 27. You can’t tell me that’s not connected to the trauma and the work she was doing, advocating for black people within the system of policing.
We’ve always been this cool, hip city, but there’s this thing called the 1928 plan that was written into law and we’ve never done anything to systemically dismantle it. It’s part of the city’s DNA. I-35 is an intentional marker of haves, have-nots, black and brown, white. It’s been interesting to see the recent media spotlight on Austin. “Oh, by the way, Austin, you’re the most economically segregated city in the country.” And there’s no hiding from it anymore.
JG: I was going to school in Clarksville when they were trying to push the black people out. That’s the story of resilience, until it wasn’t. One by one, all of my friends left.
VC: Dr. Stephanie Lang works at UT, and her grandmother is one of two black residents still living in Clarksville. They’re right down the street from Sweet Home Baptist, which is the first black church. We have no understanding of that history. This is the site of the first black freedmen’s town in the whole state, and they got forcibly removed. So besides walking the lake, what’s been your favorite thing about coming back?
JG: Uchi. I spend a lot of time there. It’s my happy place. I was there last night!
VC: Do you still have your “y’all”?
JG: I do. I had it my entire time away.
VC: Well, you give me hope, ’cause that’s how I always felt — that Austin’s always home no matter where I end up. It doesn’t matter how long you go away; you can always come back to Austin and you will always feel that connection. I know we’re really glad to have you back in Austin. There’s so much more I want to talk to you about.
JG: Please, can we? I’m dead serious. We’re not leaving here without scheduling something.
This story is part of our new series “Listening In,” where we pair SXSW speakers and artists and then happily eavesdrop on the exchange. Find the complete series at tribeza.com/listening-in.