Self-less, wholesome, well spoken and a force to be reckoned with, I'm a better person because of her. She gives me faith in humanity. She makes me hopeful for a better future and a richer society. Her sarcasm goes unmatched and if you talk to her long enough you can bet on a dry sense of humor. She continues to amaze me and sometimes I feel unworthy. Yet...she constantly reminds me just how worthy I am.
Virginia Cumberbatch, the director at community engagement and social justice institute at the University of Texas challenges the ivory tower with unrelenting passion. She published a book last year (As We Saw It: The Story of Integration) and co-founded an organization called Rosa Rebellion, a platform for creative activism by and for women of color. She has a laundry list of accomplishments, sits on a bajillion boards…and looks incredible while doing it with her bold jumpers, red lips and colorful shoes. She’s also an incredible daughter, sister and friend and I have no idea how she manages her time…seeing that I barely find enough to brush my teeth in the morning. Sigh.
For Virginia’s birthday I gave her the gift of photography. We met at my house so I could sift through her wardrobe and pick a few outfits. The decision wasn’t easy (see: ‘looks incredible while doing it’). We moseyed through Travis Heights (surprised?) and the greenbelt, stopping in front of jasmine and large, majestic trees. An hour later we chased sunlight to the east side, shooting in front of a stark white building and a dilapidated warehouse. Each location had a designated look that vibe-d perfectly with the surroundings. And the timing was perfect. The golden hour turned blue just as we got our last set of images in front of a bright blue wall, Virginia notably in orange.
Last October, Virginia sat on a panel I moderated and hosted at Space 24 Twenty. Every word she spoke was powerful but here are a few highlights:
“I am a planner, like a crippling planner. But the thing is, you can’t plan spontaneity. It doesn’t work like that. And so, in the last few years I’ve realized that I have to be super intentional about creating rest for myself. And that takes form in multiple ways. Learning that ‘no’ is not a reflection of you or a reflection of an individual, cause or organization. It took a long time for me to accept that me saying ‘no’ may mean that I don’t think I’m equipped right now to contribute to the level that you deserve and that I deserve. Maybe saying ‘no’ means ‘not right now’ or ‘I know someone who’s a better fit’. When I say ‘no’ to you I’m going to follow up with three names who can serve in this capacity or when I say ‘no’ to you it’s because I know my limitations. And that has been such a liberating act; to learn how to say ‘no’. I’m gonna learn it in five different languages. Mix it up, you know? Like ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’.”
“Something that was really set as a precedent by my parents was truly living an integrated life…and that means that you have your own personal ethos, your own personal mantra, that you align yourself with…and it serves as this constant reminder so that when you are in really roughs spaces where you feel like you’re being threatened or challenged - and it’s not out of love - you center yourself back to that mantra. I’ve found beauty in providing platforms for communities of color to truly have a voice but also to document and have ownership of their own story because I think that’s really powerful. Look at what happens when we build communities that not only serve to be diverse but are also inclusive and equitable.”
“If I could speak to my younger self I would tell her to let go. I think I held on too tightly to this idea of what I was supposed to do; searching for affirmation from other people. About a year ago I thought to myself: what would happen if I just took six months and was like ‘AHHHHH!!!’. Then I realized…well…ok…it’s not actually possible for me but it’s fun to think about. But I think the underlying principal was: the world will not come crumbling down if you just let go. And that’s been both freeing for me in my personal life but I think it’s also been a spiritual practice…that if I truly believe that this is what I’m meant to do, that this is where God has me…then letting go should feel normalized, it should feel freeing.”
Easily one of my favorite sessions of the year. There’s nothing better than the gift of photography. Woke Beauty was in part inspired by my relationships with my friends - photographing on road trips, during slumber parties or even just after a quick lunch. I’m hopeful that spirit of spontaneous, fun, spirited co-creating never dies.