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‘I Dwell in Possibility’

Educator, poet and community leader, alumnus Paul Cummins has dedicated his life to empowering at-risk youth to turn their lives around through arts education.

Paul Cummins ’67, who founded Coalition for Engaged Education, believes at-risk youth can improve if given the chance to express themselves through the arts as shown by the above message from a participant. Photo by Matt Meindl.
Paul Cummins ’67, who founded Coalition for Engaged Education, believes at-risk youth can improve if given the chance to express themselves through the arts as shown by the above message from a participant. Photo by Matt Meindl.

Lisa was nine when her mother forced her into prostitution. When the mother went to jail, an uncle in New York took custody and put Lisa back to work on the streets.

At 11, Lisa was removed from the uncle’s care, sent back to California and placed in the custody of social services.

Given the discouraging statistics in cases like this, Lisa’s chances for success appeared dim. Yet, 10 years later, Lisa is a university graduate.

Her life was turned around with the help of an arts program run by the Coalition for Engaged Education (formerly New Visions Foundation), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that supports and promotes educational projects for underserved kids. Its founder and director is Paul Cummins, who in 1967 earned his Ph.D. in English at USC Dornsife.

“Social services sent her to us,” Cummins said of Lisa,   whose name was changed for this article to guarantee anonymity. “By then she was 12 and had started in a summer school program, which she adored. Then we put her in a quality private school. She got her high school diploma, went to college and graduated four years later.”

Cummins has hundreds of similarly inspiring success stories showing what happens when children are given the chance to express themselves though the arts — as well as to discover and develop their interests and abilities.

An educator, poet and creative leader, Cummins has founded numerous educational programs and schools, including Crossroads and New Roads in Santa Monica, Calif., and has raised millions to transform the lives of at-risk youth through arts and quality education.

Cummins was born in Chicago, Ill. As a child he moved with his family to Fort Wayne, Ind., then to Los Angeles.

Image Description

Cummins meets with Coalition for Engaged Education program mentors Jesse Aguilar (right) and Edwin Rios. Photo by Matt Meindl.

Cummins’ father, an entrepreneur who owned a string of restaurants, gas stations, a few nightclubs and — briefly — the iconic Los Angeles Biltmore hotel, encouraged him to play football.

“In retrospect it was good for me,” he said. “I was a shy, quiet little boy. That doesn’t work for long on the football field. I learned how to get knocked down and get back up without crying or being afraid.”

After earning his bachelor’s at Stanford University and a master of arts in teaching at Harvard University, Cummins chose USC Dornsife for his doctoral work.

Cummins has particularly fond memories of a poetry class taught by the late Professor of English Allan Casson. He described Casson as “a life changer” who inspired him to become a poet and devote his life to helping children achieve success via the arts.

Cummins believes in the fundamental human need to say, “Hey, I exist.”

“ ‘But if you won’t let me say that through a dance or a poem, then I’ll find some other way.’ And that might be with graffiti or a gun. The consequences of not providing children with a quality education impact society profoundly.”

Cummins recounted the story of a student who benefited from an organization he created, P.S. Arts, which raises money to reintroduce the arts into public schools.

One day, a school principal was walking down the hall when a third grade teacher stopped him.

“You should come into my classroom and see the self-portrait Jose did,” the teacher said. “It’s spectacular.”

“Jose? He was expelled six weeks ago,” the principal replied.

“Jose was sneaking back into school for his art class, because that’s the only thing he cared about, the only place he felt he could be himself,” Cummins said.

 “These kids don’t have a lot of hope. One of our goals is to open their eyes to the possibilities out there. Emily Dickinson said ‘I dwell in possibility’ and I guess I do, too.” 

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine's Spring-Summer 2014 issue