ITHACA, N.Y. — When the Community Unity Music Education Program (CUMEP) launched 16 years ago, 16 kids signed up. This year more than 150 campers took part in the monthlong camp at Southside Community Center, which uses the arts as a vehicle to teach kids the values of creativity, kindness and community.

“We are celebrating black joy, interrupting the anti-blackness that many of our young people are taught on a daily basis,” said Nia Nunn, chair of the board at Southside and professor of education at Ithaca College.

Over four weeks of music, dance and art, Nunn said kids at CUMEP have a chance to engage in conversations inspired by abolitionist teachers like local educator and activist Jacqueline Melton Scott, who passed away last March, and Bettina Love, author of “We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.”

It’s transformative, Nunn said, “to engage them in this incredible opportunity to fall in love with themselves and their contribution to a collective. It’s a true joy, it’s a true joy.”

Kemet Rivkin-Danham-El, a counselor at the camp, said she finds it inspiring to teach kids about subjects that weren’t covered in her history classes. “It’s really cool to see, and really empowering to see, all these little kids talking about actual, important topics. Actually learning things that weren’t taught to us until we were older.”

Kalyani Ramanujan, who was a camper back in the day, said returning to CUMEP as a counselor has opened her eyes to kids’ capacity to understand complex issues. “I find it really empowering and amazing to be able to teach all of these kids, and to be a part of teaching them human rights and also the arts incorporated within that.”

Fe Nunn, Nia’s father and a co-founder of CUMEP, said he’s proud of how much the program has grown. He said more than 300 people were expected for the program’s grand finale on Thursday, a performance showcasing all the kids’ creativity and work.

Looking ahead, Nunn and the whole CUMEP community have big dreams. Inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to the Southside Community Center more than 80 years ago, they’re inviting another first lady to attend next year’s CUMEP celebration. Michelle Obama, if you’re reading this: same time, same place next year.

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Videography by Jacob Mroczek
Location Sound by Kristi Gogos
The Ithaca Voice 2019

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at or 607-391-0328.