In Public Service: How the arts propelled Cumbo into politics
“I’m Brooklyn born and raised,” Councilmember Laurie Cumbo proudly told the Brooklyn Eagle in a recent interview in her district office at One Hanson Place. She pointed out that she is a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, which is located in her district.
She loves the diversity of the district she represents. “I feel connected to the community,” she said.
Cumbo is a second generation Brooklynite. Her dad, Wilkins Cumbo, came here in the 1940s. “We have been in Brooklyn a long time,” she said.
The arts were an important a part of the Cumbo household as she was growing up. Her mom, Beverly Cumbo often performed at Lincoln Center singing roles in various operas. “You can never grow tired of seeing ‘Aida,’” she said with a smile. Her dad was a jazz connoisseur who often took her to jazz concerts.
“They also loved museums and galleries,” she recalled, adding that her parents handed down their love of the arts to her. “The arts are exciting and pretty meaningful to me,” she said.
Cumbo, who won her City Council seat in 2013, occupies the same post once held by Public Advocate Letitia James. James ran for the public advocate’s post in 2013 and Cumbo made a decision to try to win James’ council seat. She succeeded.
Cumbo is mid-way through her first term representing the 35th Council District, a district that includes parts of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East Flatbush, Downtown Brooklyn and Prospect Heights.
Cumbo grew up in East Flatbush. “It was a community in transition,” she recalled. During her childhood, large numbers of Jews were moving out as large numbers of Caribbean residents were moving in. “It was an interesting dynamic,” Cumbo said, adding that many of the Jewish residents who remained in the community were elderly people.
But East Flatbush retained its small town, neighborly feel. “It was a time when older women sat on chairs outside the building and watched over everyone,” she said.
Cumbo recalled with a smile that one of her elderly Jewish neighbors would often hit her father’s car windshield with his cane, not out of anger, but because he wanted Wilkins Cumbo to drive him to the store.
Her experience as a member of one of the first African-American families to move into a formerly white neighborhood has stayed with her all these years later.
“Gentrification is a concern. It challenges everything I grew up with,” she told the Eagle.
After Brooklyn Technical High School, Cumbo attended Spelman College, a liberal arts school in Atlanta, Georgia that has educated large numbers of young African-American women over the years. “I was inspired by ‘The Cosby Show’ and “A Different World.’ I decided that I wanted to go to a traditional black college,” she said. She earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
Cumbo went on to earn her master’s degree in visual arts from New York University. Her thesis focused on starting an arts museum in Brooklyn.
She interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and studied abroad in Europe during college.
A visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain was a life-changing experience for her. “It was a former shipbuilding town,” she said. The visit stirred her imagination as to the possibilities of opening a museum in Brooklyn.
“We have lots of culture. We needed a museum that reflects that,” she recalled thinking.
In 1999, she founded the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). The museum was originally in a church.
Her family helped spread the word about the museum.
Her parents told their artistic friends. She has a sister who is a buyer for Nordstrom and she told people in the fashion world. Another sister is a Broadway performer and she told her show business friends about the museum. Her brother is a gallery owner and he urged his friends in the art world to visit MoDACA. “We had all of these different people from all of these different worlds coming,” she recalled.
Within six years, the museum’s popularity grew to a point where Cumbo needed a bigger gallery space. It is currently located at 80 Hanson Place.
Cumbo’s connection to the arts fostered her political ambitions.
“I ran for public office because I felt the arts community was not represented in government,” she told the Eagle.
One of her goals as a councilmember is to get the city and state to change the way arts education is viewed so that it can be seen as an essential part of a child’s education, not as an elective course a child could take in school.
“Everyone needs to feel that their culture is important,” she said. “It’s not a quick fix. It’s a long-term vision.”
Cumbo loves serving on the council. There is a great deal of camaraderie in the legislative body. “Everyone has one vote. It levels the playing field,” she said.
The programs she is currently working on includes a project to use art to prevent gun violence among young people. She would like to create a new office, the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence. Her goal is to create a new curriculum in schools to focus on non-violence. Under her vision, certain city agencies would be open 24-hours a day to respond to gun violence. She also wants to bring back community policing.
Cumbo is busy on a number of fronts.
She is pushing legislation that would allow New Yorkers to text to 911 in addition to having the option to call for emergency assistance. Residents would be able to upload videos and photos of the emergency to 911 dispatchers under the plan.
Cumbo is eager to see major reforms in the treatment of female prisoners at Rikers Island. “It needs greater oversight,” she said. Among the reforms she is advocating is letting female inmates choose which obstetrician-gynecologist to examine them.
Cumbo also worked to ensure that New Yorkers who apply for IDNYC cards were given the opportunity to become members of art institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art for free for one year.
She is working to get more art teachers hired in schools.
Cumbo said she is also concerned about the plight of freelance workers who she said are often exploited by employers. She is working on legislation designed to protect their rights. There are 9,000 freelancers in her council district alone, she said.
She pays close attention to the needs of immigrants in her district, she said. Once a week, she lets an attorney who specializes in immigrant issues use her office as a consultation space with clients as part of a program she has with Medgar Evers College. “Two-hundred people have been helped,” she said.
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