As an executive committee member of the Community Brainstorming Conference, former board chair of the Latino Community Center, member of the Penfield Children’s Center board for children with disabilities and former program manager with Acts Housing, Frank Cumberbatch has left deep imprints on Milwaukee’s underserved communities since his arrival to Milwaukee in 1985.
However, his biggest investment might be yet to come.
Cumberbatch wants to raise $80 million to build a state-of-the-art sports facility imbued with the wraparound, trauma-informed services of a community center.
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Cumberbatch, vice president of engagement at the nonprofit organization Bader Philanthropies, is co-leading the plan with Damien Buchman, founder and CEO of a disability-focused nonprofit called The Ability Center.
Why sports? Cumberbatch said his path to purpose in life began when he was a shy and asthmatic 14-year-old running track in his birth country of Trinidad.
Cumberbatch said being part of his neighborhood’s track team, the Abilene Wildcats Athletic Club, gave him the support he needed to keep his grades up and eventually attend the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh on an academic scholarship. While his teammates were focused on the Olympics, Cumberbatch said his goal was to bring his family out of poverty.
“I come from a family where nobody really went to high school. Growing up, we didn’t have indoor plumbing, electricity, running water; we didn’t own our own home,” he said. “I (wanted) to go to high school because I (saw) guys going to school, getting track scholarships, going to America and getting an education; I want(ed) that.
“I told (my mother) I’m going to leave, I just need a one-way ticket, I’m not coming back. But I’m going to do what I can to get this family out of the situation we’re in. And I pulled it off. They all live here, they all have homes, jobs, husbands and wives and children. And they all live at a level that they could not have dreamt of from where we grew up.”
Cumberbatch said he wants Milwaukee’s families to fulfill similar goals with the facility he is unofficially calling “The Opportunity Center.” The following is a Q &A with Cumberbatch on his plans to make it happen:
When did you discover track and field?
Between 13 and 14, I actually ran and won a race in my neighborhood, which to me, was a fluke. The only kids in the neighborhood told me I should join the local track club, the Abilene Wildcats Athletic Club. I joined and I never left and I’m still a member today. I started running the 400 meters as a 14-year-old. I ran it in high school (and) I broke the school record in college in 1981 — it stayed there until 2019. Then, I was nominated and inducted into the UW-Oshkosh hall of fame. That was my discovery of track and it really put me on a trajectory that turned me into the guy I am today.
What do you see as the role of sports in a young person’s life?
I think it’s everything. Children, first of all, naturally migrate towards play. Sports should be educational and should be part of the growth throughout your lifetime. If you listened to me now, you would think as a kid, I was probably the most extroverted, outgoing guy. As a kid, I was so shy, you said boo, I started crying. My self-esteem was so low, I had no confidence whatsoever, until I joined that team. I felt like somebody and my friends made me feel like that. I felt like I belonged to something so much bigger. I had no talent, no goals, but just by making that one move, it completely changed my life and how I felt about me. We have a program called the Milwaukee Mustangs, an inner-city kids’ track club started by Ray Hale. We have kids out in the general community who don’t do very well in school, who wreak havoc out in the neighborhoods and out of that group, not one has ever been arrested or kicked out of that school.
Where exactly will the facility be located? Why locate it there?
The location is in the 4200 block of North Green Bay Road. It is located right next to I-43; it couldn’t be more visible, it couldn’t be more accessible. It lies between some of our most challenging neighborhoods and three suburbs; Glendale, Whitefish Bay and Shorewood. What does that allow? That allows us the opportunity to bring people with economic, racial, skill and age diversity. We then have the opportunity to bring all of them together so they can all benefit and share with each other. That will allow some healing across those paradigms.
Why the big investment now?
There’s no better time than now. To me, George Floyd changed everything. We cannot sustain Milwaukee or the United States in this old way of just turning your back on the injustices, on the inequities that this city has had for decades. We hear all the stats about what we’re worst at. I am the ultimate optimist. I hate those stats. I want our city to be known as the most integrated, the highest-grade-point average for people of color, the most equit(able). If we’re going to be most equitable, which is the standard talk of the day, we can’t do dribbles; we have to put significant amount of resources and bring a huge amount of quality programming for those who haven’t had it for a long time.
How is this more than a sports facility? What additional components will it bring?
It’s more than a sports facility because (it) is designed to create great citizens of our community and our country. You come in and there will always be play, health and wellness. We (also) have to be academically strong, emotionally stable, which is the reason why trauma-informed care and trauma resilience is going to be so integral into the facility. We have to admit to the city that our children and families have suffered quite a bit and we can’t expect them to all of a sudden walk through the door and be positive, bubbly and cheery without addressing the underlying issues they’ve had to deal with all their lives.
How will the supportive services work?
I intend to work with Scaling Wellness In Milwaukee and REDgen, an organization that deals with the mental health of youth and teenagers. I intend to form a collaborative with those communities doing great work and being very effective in the community. We don’t have to be in competition with the Boys and Girls Club, we don’t have to be in competition with the YMCA. We can be complimentary. Let Pearls for Teen Girls come as a group because that is where the (youth) are comfortable.
How will you overcome the concerns over privacy and giving information out that many parents, and especially Black parents, experience?
Any information that we collect about any individual will be confidential … and there are many techniques to keep people’s names, addresses, Social Security numbers and (other) identifiers out of these records so they don’t end up in the (wrong) hands. The information gathered will be for programming purposes and addressing the issues around the individual. If there are learning issues or grades, we’re dealing with it, but it’s done in such a way (where) you are not revealing that someone is at some deficiency to the norm.
How will the facility be financially sustainable?
$80 million is still the goal and the optimist in me is hoping that we beat it. The sustainability has two or three models. First, there will be a membership fee at a tiered model. Secondly, we will have an ongoing scholarship campaign. Regardless of how you tier it, there will be families that function on such bare minimums that they cannot afford any more expense for their loved ones. So, if you are a middle- to upper-class families, we will ask, do you mind paying more than the membership fee and those dollars will go to a scholarship fund for those who cannot pay. Then there is sports tourism and an inward draw of tourists coming in. The third is an endowment. Take a portion of 3 to 4% of what we have, put it in a trust and then in a down year, we can draw on that to offset costs.
There are specific groups that you plan to focus on. Talk a little about them.
We have to show the (elderly) that we see them, we acknowledge where they are in their life’s journey and there ought to still be fun activities that have a positive impact on their health and mental well-being. It’s no time to quit on them because we think they’re ‘old.’ They will have their tai-chi … play bridge, play cards, sit and talk, dance to the music that means something to them. They will have it because they are human and you know, they damn well deserve it.
I think girls suffer greatly in their early years, especially in their teenage years. You design a program for boys and then hand it over to a coach for girls. At the facility, we will pay particular attention to girls because in this country, for the most part, girls are treated like boys with long hair. We can’t have that. It has a very negative effect on those girls and many girls quit because their issues are not being addressed.
For the disabled, that is where my partner, Damien Buchman, comes in with The Ability Center. This could not happen without them or him because they’re so focused on disabilities. However, it’s the same issue as dealing with the elderly and some of these other groups; typically, it’s an afterthought: we build a gym and it’s open to the disabled from 9 to 11. No, it’s always time for the disabled. A lot of times, a young athlete and especially African Americans get hurt. You played sports all your years, you get hurt and you’re in a chair, it’s gone. Hey, I used to play basketball, now I’m still playing, I’m just doing it from this chair. Another reason for having a focus on disabilities is there aren’t a lot of resources for them that works directly with them. We don’t want to have anybody sitting outside looking in saying, hmm, they forgot about me.
How will you ensure the facility does not prompt gentrification and displacement?
It’s not hard to be distracted by dollars. Sports tourism takes off and we’re getting all these calls and all you’re seeing is thousands of dollars and before you know it, the kids in the neighborhoods are only getting an hour here or an hour there. You could lose sight and realize, we’ve drifted way off our mission. We will intentionally schedule and be very purposeful to maintain the community center portion of this. I really want to bring the Historically Black Colleges and Universities into the facility to compete and (be) showcased so that young people from the neighborhood can say, ‘I like that school, the colors, the team, the coach — I want to go there.’
How do you convince parents from neighborhoods that have historically experienced significant disinvestment that something like this is for them?
For some families, it’s going to be a wait-and-see. So, we have to deliver on our promises. The public will be involved in a lot of our conversations going forward in building the facility. We will hold public events and share ideas in these spots and get their input. We have to get buy-in from the people who live within some geographic range, I would say three to four miles of that location. All along the way, they have to know what’s going on, their family members have to play a role in the construction of the (facility). The bulk of the jobs, if not all of them, will come from these neighborhoods.
Talk about the metrics you want to accomplish with the facility.
We’re going to measure everything. We’re going to ask the questions constantly. We want to measure changes and have some metrics to show that we’re being effective. Baltimore is about a similar size than Milwaukee. I intend to pick up the phone and call the mayor of Baltimore and say I have an offer; let’s see which city can lose a million pounds the fastest. If a community loses a million pounds that is live-saving. It saves a ton of Medicare and Medicaid dollars (and) has an impact on chronic disease. But how fun is that? It’s a no-lose situation, even if we lose.
What would you say to parents who have stereotypes about the area and/or some of the youth who might be here?
Give it a chance, that’s what I would say to them. The gross majority of a lot of people’s thoughts about what has happened here is true. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t change or advance opportunities for all. Give us a chance: have a Black girl from 24th and Hopkins playing with a Hispanic girl from 14th and Becher playing with a girl from Whitefish Bay. Let them have their conversations and talk and be with each other. Even if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable or skittish, let’s give it a chance. Some people will say it’s not for me and I can’t go running around chasing all of them, but for those who come, I think it will be transformational.
Talis Shelbourne is an investigative solutions reporter covering the issues of affordable housing and lead poisoning. Have a tip? You can reach Talis at (414) 403-6651 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @talisseer and message her on Facebook at @talisseer.
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