Facetime: A Story About Fitting In
For Natasha Cobb ’97, who was raised in the projects of Brooklyn, finding her place at St. Paul’s was not always comfortable.
Natasha Cobb ’97 is the author of Project Chic to Paulie, a memoir of her time at St. Paul’s. She spoke with Alumni Horae Editor Jana Brown about her experiences with diversity and inclusion at the School.
Where did you grow up and how did you end up at St. Paul’s?
I lived in the Van Dyke housing projects in Brownsville, N.Y. I went to Catholic school, before coming to St. Paul’s through the Oliver Program. A man named John Hoffman ran the program and selected St. Paul’s for me. St. Paul’s was very different from Brownsville. My initial reaction was not a good one, to be honest. I felt completely out of place. It wasn’t somewhere I saw myself going. But I spoke to John and he asked about my goals. I said college and he said, “If you go to St. Paul’s and do well, you can go to whatever college you want.” I did end up at Harvard.
What are you doing now?
I am working in telecommunications in New York City. I also have a show in the Strawberry One-Act Festival in May, It’s not Stamped on your Forehead. It’s the second festival I have been in. The play was in the Midtown International Theatre Festival, where I was nominated for best playwright. I directed my first play at St. Paul’s in the Fourth Form.
What challenges did you face as a student at SPS?
The biggest thing that made me feel out of place at St. Paul’s was the socioeconomic gap. My father was a cook. My mother stayed at home and raised us, but was also a home health aide. One time at lunch, people were talking about their families of lawyers, doctors, and parents who owned their own companies. There was never anything I could relate to. And on the long weekends, the whole school would be gone and the only people left would be the students on financial aid. I couldn’t afford to go to Aspen for two days – or even home. That was the hardest thing to deal with.
What was the support network like for you at SPS?
What started out as Transitions meetings with Ruth Sanchez became Ms. Sanchez leaving the door open. She introduced me to singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. It changed my perspective about what women of color were doing and the options for doing something that made them successful. I also got support from Ms. Allen, who was the Gospel Choir instructor. Making those connections is why it’s so important to have faculty of color at St. Paul’s.
How do you feel the School handled issues of diversity and inclusion in your era?
It is a little different for me because when I was at SPS there was a good percentage of students of color and I felt like I was a part of a community. I attended Alumni of Color Weekend at St. Paul’s over MLK weekend this year. I heard the students say nobody wants to go out with black girls. It didn’t feel that way when I was there. I felt more out of place socioeconomically.
What is the central theme of your memoir, Project Chic to Paulie?
My book touches on the social relationships at St. Paul’s and learning that there were not only myself and other students of color who felt out of place, but also white students who felt out of place. St. Paul’s as a community is not comfortable for everyone [socioeconomically], regardless of what race you are.
In the book, you talk about looking for black families at the Market Basket in Concord. Could you explain why you were feeling the need to find the diversity in Concord, and how you felt when you did not see it beyond the SPS campus?
I grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by people who looked like me and, in a very simple sense, not being in a similar situation made me feel uncomfortable. I went looking for comfort in Concord in part because I did not feel comfortable on campus. When I did not find any diversity outside of campus, it made me feel more alone. There seemed to be no place similar to home anywhere in New Hampshire and I had to figure out where I belonged in an environment where I was a minority.
Why did you write the book?
I never really told people I came from the projects, because in my mind it had a negative connotation. A Paulie to me represents the antithesis of being a project chic. It’s not about being either or, it is about being both. I wrote the book because I was really inspired by Black Ice [by Lorene Cary ’74]. I wanted the younger generation of students to hear stories from another woman of color.