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Virginia Cumberbatch fills young leadership gap

Michael Barnes
Virginia Cumberbatch of Austin Area Urban League and Hahn, Texas

Every day after school, Virginia Cumberbatch reported the news. On the way home from Hyde Park Baptist School, she reviewed what happened in the classroom, the playground, the cafeteria.

“Dad called me the family newspaper,” she says. “I gathered intel. And I wasn’t shy.”

Observing and reporting are still part of Cumberbatch’s habits. They serve her well as head of the Austin Area Urban League’s young leadership group and as coordinator of client services at Hahn, Texas, a prominent Austin public relations firm.

The Austin-born storyteller, 24, is the daughter of Ashton Cumberbatch — lawyer, former police monitor and vice president at Seton Family of Hospitals — and Jennifer Rousseau Cumberbatch — writer, musician and pastoral counselor.

The married pastors, who met at Brown University, raised Virginia and her three siblings as Christians at Bannah Community Church and then Agape Christian Ministries.

“My parents got involved not only in the church but rest of city,” she says. “That’s a big part of our understanding of community.”

A well-behaved, high-performing student athlete, Cumberbatch was the only black student in her classes at Hyde Park. The student body was more diverse at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, but she still felt something was missing.

At an elite liberal arts school, Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Cumberbatch discovered the part of the story that had been left out. Caught in between the scholarship kids and the ultra-wealthy students, she didn’t really belong to either world.

Committed to observing and reporting — rather than to succumbing to abstract ideology — she studied the history and sociology of race relations in the Americas.

“I loved the stories,” she says. “I got really connected to the patterns that happen over time and how they relate to me now. What shocked me was how much I didn’t know about myself and how I fit in.”

At the Black Student Union, for instance, she was told by some: “You are not one of us.”

“I got called out on things I wasn’t used to being called out on,” she says. “But I came away with a sense that this is my calling: I had a heart for social advocacy.”

She interned at the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., and plunged into urban life.

“College prepares you for just so much,” Cumberbatch says. “The best people to tell you how to meet needs are the people living those needs themselves. I’m not naive enough to think I have all these solutions, but let’s go get them.”

She considered teaching and applied for full-time jobs in D.C. Yet while at home, a job opened up at Hahn, Texas.

“What is it? A city?” she asked her father. Then she thought: “It doesn’t hurt to plant a seed in Austin.”

A phrase on agency principal Jeff Hahn’s website stuck out: “We help people tell their stories.”

“I can get down with that,” she thought. Two sets of group interviews later, Hahn gave Cumberbatch the job.

In fall 2010, she was invited by a colleague to attend a benefit.

“I thought: “Free dinner and an excuse to get dressed up,” she recalls. “I’m in.”

It was an invitation for the Austin Area Urban League annual gala. She knew something about this national civil rights group that started out finding jobs for blacks, and now offers health, housing and other services for people regardless of race.

Yet when a charismatic young woman spoke at the gala about bringing young leaders back into movement, Cumberbatch paid attention.

“Something about her plea spoke to me,” she says. “Her words brought to mind a thriving, visible and engaged group of Austin young (people) of color.”

Most of her high school friends, too, had left town for other careers. So where would she find new ones?

After a few casual lunches with an Urban League board member, Cumberbatch was drafted to restart the young leaders group. She kicked off her first meeting in December 2010.

“Forty people showed up, and it turned into a venting session,” she says. “They said: ‘Austin doesn’t cater to us. We don’t have a place to meet each other.’ We talked about Austin’s attrition rate for people of color.”

The group wanted to be a resource for the city and for each other. Two years later, it counts 80 members. They assist first-generation college students and a deteriorating daycare center while providing discussions, seminars and mentorship programs.

Just as importantly, they’ve become a friendly face for newly arrived young people of color.

“We need to invest, take part in the fabric of the community — the whole community, not just our enclaves — and be visible!” she says. “Visibility is key.”

Nudes cluster on West Sixth Street. Nudes embracing. Warmly.

These smooth sculptures are part of the Umlauf family estate sale that opened Friday at the Russell Collection gallery. Almost 300 sculptures and 200 two-dimensional pieces by late artist Charles Umlauf are the last big cache of his work to go on the market. They became available to dealer Lisa Russell when the sculptor’s wife, Angeline Umlauf, died in June.

The Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum retains many of the larger works and will determine what becomes of the family’s hilltop house and studio.

The lively assembly at the Russell Collection is eclectic — abstracts, portraits, religious images, family scenes and, of course, echoes of his famous pupil, Farrah Fawcett.

After Nov. 6, the unsold art goes back to the family, not likely to be available again on this scale.