Catherine Cushinberry has seen firsthand the critical difference education makes, but she also knows that simply opening school doors isn’t enough to change a child’s direction. With City Year Memphis, she coordinates AmeriCorps volunteers into public schools to create a positive impact on attendance, behavior and course competency — the true ABCs of on-time graduation — and helps to impart the broader skills that determine lifelong success for both students and Corps members. Meet this week’s erudite FACE of Memphis, Dr. Catherine Cushinberry!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was raised in Smoky City, North Memphis, in a very matriarchal family, very strong women figures, very much focused on achievement. We were impoverished in terms of money, but very rich in the investment around common sense and wanting to be a good citizen and to be educated.
My mother retired after over 37 years in what was formerly the Memphis City Schools system. Caring about education is absolutely in my blood. I saw it and lived it with her. It is a legacy.
What were your goals and expectations when you began your career?
Going into my Ph.D. program from the University of Missouri-Columbia, I went in saying that I wanted to be prepared to teach at a research institution, but my passion was really nonprofit management. I knew I wanted to go into doing work in support of children and families. That really was what drove me.
What did you learn about Memphis by living in other places?
After I graduated high school, probably like a lot of young folks here, I wanted to get away. I was fortunate to explore. And then in my travels and living in so many different places, I realized how other people love the city.
I also learned by traveling that — this is so cliché — but there really is no place like home. It is something very special when the work you’re doing impacts and influences families you know, people you love, communities that poured into you. It really is a special, special place.
Why did you choose to come back to Memphis?
A year prior to applying for this job, my mother was considering a major surgery, so I was home seven, eight times in 2016, trying to help prepare her home for her surgery. It was during that time that I would get a chance to see the city through new eyes. I got a chance to see all the places and spaces that people have worked to develop while also maintaining the history and spirit of the city and the grit and grind of the city. The level of passion is so real and so deep. I’m a proud Memphian. It’s a great feeling to be in this space that I never thought I would be in.
One of the things we hear a lot, especially in Memphis, is that education is the ticket out of poverty. How is that only one part of the story?
What we don’t always take into consideration is that the pathways out of poverty are varied. We also compartmentalize what education looks like. Learning how to overcome challenges and think about different ways of being and doing, those things aren’t always taken into consideration as we think about what it means for someone to be successful. Those are some of the soft skills that we forget that are important for overcoming poverty.
What can Memphis specifically add to the national conversation about education?
How is it that Shelby County Schools, Achievement School District and these different charters work together to fill in the gaps where they may not have all of the strengths? That is a unique niche conversation that Memphis can bring to a national table, that we don’t always have to see each other as competitors. Ultimately, and this is a perspective that City Year carries, we’re here for ALL kids. We want ALL children to get what they need and to be successful.
What do you most enjoy doing in your free time?
I enjoy a very small, intimate group of friends, like two or three people, and having time with them to have conversation about what’s happening in the world or our lives and laughing. I also enjoy traveling, whether it’s domestic or abroad. I love immersing myself in other cultures and trying to be as aware and present as possible when I’m in and among different cultures.
What was the last best trip you took?
Singapore, because it was a space where so many different cultures converged. We talk about a melting pot; they weren’t trying to melt together. I could be in and among the Indian culture in one space, I could be in and among the Filipino culture in another space. Just being able to move around and in one country get all of that in real, authentic ways, it was beautiful. It was rich. I got a lot in one space.
Where are your favorite places to take visitors when they come to your hometown?
I love to take them to Cozy Corner for wet barbecue. I love to take them to Beale Street for music options, dance options, people-watching. I think that’s one of the few places where you see locals and tourists really converge. I take them to some of our spots that are newer to me that I love, like Loflin Yard and Railgarten. I take them on a trolley ride down Main Street, just to see what’s there and also to see what’s not there. Our downtown area has so much potential and more opportunities, and I’m excited to show people, “Look, we still have room to grow! If you have a business, we have space for you.” And I love to take them on a walk by the riverside. I’m proud of our Mississippi River, and I’m proud of how beautifully kept it is.
What is your best advice?
One of the quotes that I live by is, “No one has to live with you for the rest of your life but you.” Even if you’re sleeping next to someone, they don’t know what you’re thinking, they don’t know what you’re feeling. You have to make decisions knowing that at night, you are the one truly and ultimately left with what you feel and what you’re thinking. That’s a level of self-awareness and self-care that we often compromise for others.
Other than the big things like faith, family and friends, what are three everyday things you can’t live without?
Certainly, my cell phone — the multi-purposes of it are real; my laptop — I type about 100 words per minute, and it’s just much faster than my cell phone; and my Keurig — I’ve got to have coffee, tea, something … that morning ritual.
Thank you for sharing, Catherine! To learn more about City Year Memphis, visit cityyear.org/memphis.
And thank you to Mary Kate Steele of Mary Kate Steele Photography for these beautiful photos.
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