The 2018 academic year marks the 50th anniversary of our first Black students enrolling at Converse College. Throughout the year we are reflecting on the courage of these women, our heritage and growth, as well as the work still ahead of us. This is the second in a series featuring our alumnae.
By Courtney Hammett ’19
Cindy Ball ’81 has led an extraordinary life of service. A Spartanburg native, she recently moved back home to serve as caregiver for her mother. She has been a young mother in college, a teacher, a grad student, filmmaker, activist, non-profit administrator and human rights activist. Her work has taken her all over the United States and Africa, yet community is one of her greatest values.
A first-generation college student from a family of 22 children, she never forgot her Upstate roots. Not long after returning to Spartanburg, she held meetings with community members to gauge how the area had evolved and to ask, “What do you need?” Now, in various ways, she addresses those needs.
After graduating from Converse with a Special Education degree, she worked in Spartanburg District 7 as a teacher for seven years, as well as at the School for the Deaf and Blind. Though she loved teaching, she craved a more holistic service for children, and this brought her to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. From Spartanburg, she moved to Charleston and then Indianapolis, climbing the ranks of leadership. Locally she began the first homework help centers. In Indiana, it was Cindy who helped transition the organization to include girls, and she conducted exhaustive research on how best to serve them.
One should ‘know yourself’ before you start mission work
Cindy helped transform the organization’s activities to include college tours, Girl Power conferences, community events and more than 100 weekly structured programs. Though these changes were drastic, Cindy stressed that the Boys & Girls Clubs of America boast over a century of “great impact on the futures of the .” She simply consulted the youth and their families and developed programs based on outcomes.
While an executive in that organization, Cindy felt led “to do something internationally.” In 2004, she resigned and went on a 5-country tour in Africa. Her initial goal was to found a Boys & Girls Club there, and several now exist in South Africa. But her next service project focused on a village in Kenya where 75% of the people were under eighteen years old. She focused on a single family of eleven children, getting them back to school and supporting them financially. Partnered with a university and social worker, Cindy supported that family for six years.
Cindy chose to help directly because in many big charities, “the money stays in management.” She said, “the opportunity to do service in another country is great, but what is the true motivation?” She urged that one should “know yourself before you start” mission work, and to work with—rather than for—people in need.
Cindy said, “America is still a good place to live,” thanks to our social programs, and spoke of the progress yet to be made. “If we were the greatest country in the world,” she remarked, “we wouldn’t have homelessness and all of our children would be fed.” Yet, despite our country’s wealth, “the poorest of the poor can’t get medical care.”
You either use your craft or you lose your craft
Her heart for helping others, and a fascination with movies, led Cindy to earn a master’s degree in Digital Communication and Media/Multimedia from Ball State University. After dabbling in website development and animation, she “shifted focus to documenting people’s stories from an anthropological, ethnographic standpoint.” Put another way: “I do films on human rights.” Her master’s thesis led her to Ghana, and one of her most successful films: An African-American Quest for Authenticity. (The trailer is available here.) Cindy describes the film as “a 60-minute documentary about 21 ‘repatriates’ who left America to return to the land of their ancestors and live an authentic and fulfilling life in Ghana, West Africa.”
Another film, The Great Land-Grab, took her to San Francisco, where a longtime housing cooperative had been ousted by Housing and Urban Development. In 2015, one of her films centered on Spartanburg. Candles in the Dark presents the “views and opinions of the Black public on Black leadership; what it is, what it’s not, and what it needs to be to improve the condition of Black Americans.” On resuming her documentary work here, she quipped: “You either use your craft or you lose your craft, right?”
Though racial justice has always been a theme of her work, Cindy remembers facing very little, if any, discrimination at Converse from the late 70s to early 80s. This was only a decade after Converse College integrated, and Cindy was still one of fewer than 15 Black students. She remembers a good atmosphere, great professors and a welcoming Day Student Union.
When I met Cindy, she presented me a gift of loose herbal tea, wrapped beautifully with instructions on its medicinal effects and purpose. She tells me she has been into herbal remedies for 37 years, only to care for her family. Rather than replacing medicine, she sees natural and Western medicines as complementary. The business of selling this tea, The Vibe Tea House, serves a dual purpose of sharing the healthy teas and supporting her many other projects.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Cindy has remained active in the Spartanburg community. She has held multiple Carolinas Human Rights Conferences with Southeast community leaders. In 2013, she and her Ubuntu Institute for Community Development worked in the Upstate to register newly-eligible people for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Her organization still hosts film screenings, and Cindy teaches classes at hospitals, churches, and colleges in the area on everything from tea to tai chi to filmmaking.
What’s on the horizon for this trailblazer? Cindy is seeking funding for a youth entrepreneur program and is beginning a filmmaking project that would help families document their histories.