Women of Wednesday: Patty Cunningham II on Time, Bootstraps, and Making Change

WOMEN OF WEDNESDAY is a weekly micro-interview series featuring women of color in various industries and walks of life, focused on highlighting their pursuits and making it easy for readers to support their endeavors. If you would like to be featured, please submit your answers to the below five questions here.

Dr. Patty Cunningham II, Director of Social Change/Professor (Columbus, OH)

1. Tell us about the work you’re doing and why it’s important.

When I was born, my family was homeless. I grew up in Section 8 housing and we did not have a car until I was in high school. My Mama Pat (mother) would work two jobs at almost 80 hours a week and I would eventually make more money than her when I was in graduate school. There is no bootstrap when you have no boots. I attended a school district that did not prepare me for the rigor of college but I was in the Upward Bound program. Through this federally funded program I was able to take courses at a private college and learn that I had a lot to catch up on but I could compete at the higher education level.

I was born to be a scholar activist. My life experience as a multiracial woman from poverty in an urban setting married with rigorous academic activity helped me to develop a language and community to push against patriarchy and invite others to be a part of that conversation and action. After performing for six years as a student in the Vagina Monologues and marching on a federal court I knew that there was no turning back. This is the work I was called and prepped to do. And my intellectual swagger was different because of my love for performance, which has helped me be a better professor. Leadership opportunities I took advantage of for each separate degree in higher education prepped me to my current position as a Director. There has been struggle, but by being persistent there has been much progress.

As the Director of Social Change at Ohio State I get to invest not only in my passion but to fuel the passion in others. The work that I do in concert with a great team and allies is dedicated to creating innovative solutions around poverty issues. These range from our neighborhood based programs to youth prison programs and human trafficking programs. As a community member I sit on a school board and two nonprofit boards. One is 1 Girl and the other is the Children Education Learning Center. This work is important because we are at the 52nd year on the War on Poverty and tandem related issues and folks are in worse shape and the economic and educational disparity has widened.

2. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in pursuing the work that’s important to you?

The biggest challenge has been the “red tape” or unnecessary layers of politics and messiness that hinders groups from working together, to fiscal issues, to who gets a seat at the table to make a decision. This includes who gets to speak for the folks who may not have a language for their lived experience; our most marginalized groups.

3. What do you need in order to continue your work in the way you envision?

To do social change work you need money, of course, but you also need people. People to change hearts and minds and to be soldiers in the work. There is an old quote that says, “each one teach one.” I hope that in this work we are empowering folks to be a part of the solutions. I mean the plural because there is more than one.

4. Where and how can we support you to make #3 happen?

Folks can support with their Time, Talent and Treasure. Donate your time as social capital. Bring your talent to help us create these solutions and get other folks onboard. And Treasure is necessary as well. Sharing the work that we are doing is great, too. Giving can be done here.

5. What is your favorite quote?

I am in teaching mode at this point so this is my quote for the fall:

“The university is not only a place for specialized research and the acquisition of skills. It is also a community of interpreters…including both teachers and students as they attempt to understand the past that defines them and engage the past in a critical dialogue about our present problems…It is also a process of critical self-reflection, about both ourselves and our world, that calls upon our hearts as well as our minds, and that has the capacity to change both ourselves and the society in which we live.” -Robert Bellah, 1987