Celebrating the life of ‘superstar’ Cynthia Mewborn

A Black woman in a knitted hat smiles up at the camera.

Cynthia Mewborn. Photo courtesy of Ann Herzog

Cynthia Mewborn’s voice was extraordinary — a deep, rich blend of soul and gospel. She often told people she was a “vocalist, not a singer,” and loved performing, both in Street Sense Media workshops and performances, and for her friends.

Mewborn died on Jan. 11, after she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in late 2023. She was 59. 

Born in Baltimore on Feb. 4, 1964, Mewborn joined Street Sense in 2013 as a vendor while living on the streets. Her passion for performing led her to join several initiatives, including “Staging Hope,” a Street Sense theater workshop and the “Interactive Art Group,” an art showcase. By the time she left Street Sense in 2017, she had directed a film, written several songs and helped create numerous art pieces, including a mobile exhibit of a retrofitted bus. 

Mewborn then moved to Second Story Cards, which partners with people experiencing homelessness to produce greeting cards. She worked there until she died.

Mewborn was always artistically inclined, according to Leslie Jacobson, a Street Sense volunteer, who described Mewborn as one of the first members of Street Sense’s theater workshop in 2013. 

“She got a lot of joy out of performing, and it gave people a lot of joy to watch,” Jacobson said. “She kept imagining other ways to use her talent in this world.” 

For those in the workshop, Mewborn’s presence was always notable. “She carried herself like a superstar, like she was already there,” said Angie Whitehurst, a Street Sense vendor who participated in the theater workshops with Mewborn. “She wanted to do and be everything.”

Mewborn wrote many of her own songs, including an original called “You don’t know what it’s like living on the streets” for an animated short. But her musical pièce de résistance was a 17-aria opera titled “Came Out the Wiser” on which she’d been working for seven years.

Mewborn began developing the project while working as a vendor for Street Sense. 

“She’d move through the office humming and singing as she was developing [the opera], using that amazing voice she had,” Eric Falquero, the former editor-in-chief of Street Sense, said. 

Mewborn loved singing, often using it as a medium to express her feelings or uplift others. “Even in hospice, she treated us and sang a little bit,” Reed Sandridge, founder of Second Story Cards where Mewborn worked, said. “She had a beautiful voice.”

Mewborn’s creative work took inspiration from her life. She was often candid about her time living on the streets, which left her living with post-traumatic stress disorder. She was without housing twice, and even after receiving housing, continued to feel like she was living in an unsafe environment, a topic about which she often wrote.

In 2015, Mewborn directed a film titled “Who Should I Be Grateful Too?” about her experience living in a tent as a sexual assault survivor, and how the trauma continued to impact her after she moved into housing. According to Bryan Bello, founder of the Street Sense Filmmakers Cooperative and former artist-in-residence, the short film screened at the National Museum of the American Indian alongside a feature film by Sterling Harjo, who six years later would make the hit show Reservation Dogs. 

Familiar with the danger of living without housing, Mewborn hoped to do advocacy work for seniors experiencing homelessness. At the time of her death, she was in the process of creating a nonprofit called National Legal Christian Advocates to advocate for people who had been homeless for seven years or longer, according to Sandridge.

While working to create her nonprofit, Mewborn designed a plethora of greeting cards at Second Story Cards. Her graphics were often nature-inspired, a reflection of her love of science and the planet. Sandridge highlighted Mewborn’s attention to detail, describing how she would pick up every card and feel it to ensure that the texture and design were up to her standards.

But Mewborn’s design capabilities weren’t limited to cardmaking. She was also an avid knitter, according to Ann Herzog, a Street Sense volunteer who knew Mewborn for more than a decade. Herzog would purchase the paper from Mewborn in front of her local grocery store, where the two struck up a conversation. Eventually, Mewborn asked Herzog to teach her to knit. 

“She made my husband and me both wrist warmers for Christmas,” Herzog said. “She had an incredible creative use of color. Whatever she did, she did it well.”

Generous to a fault, Mewborn would often gift people things, even if she did not always have money to spend on herself, according to Sandridge and Herzog.

“She bought [my son] baby gifts when he was born, when I knew she didn’t have money to go buy baby gifts,” Sandridge said.

Mewborn was playful with children, according to Herzog. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mewborn had the idea to write a children’s book about the importance of volunteerism, which the two finished and submitted, unsuccessfully, for publication. “This was just like Cynthia, she was always coming up with ideas,” Herzog said.

Many of her projects relied on her dogged perseverance and intelligence. Few people would be able to identify a NASA scientist out of a crowd, but Mewborn could. According to Herzog, Mewborn had a regular paper customer who frequently wore a NASA shirt. Mewborn would holler at him using the moniker “NASA guy.” 

One day, Mewborn shouted at him, “What do you know about CASSINI?” Although engaged in conversation, he stopped and answered. It turned out that “NASA man” was Dr. Jim Green, the director of the planetary science division at NASA, who had worked on the CASSINI project that sent a space probe to Saturn. 

Through Street Sense, Mewborn interviewed Green, diving into questions about virtual reality, alien life and the importance of science. But the interview was not the only way Mewborn shared her love for science with the Street Sense community. She also organized a nature walk through Malcolm X Park to show people how to identify various flora.

“She wanted to make sure we used our platform to try to educate people,” Falquero said. Mewborn eventually started a science-focused feature called “c=md2” after her initials.

During the 2016 solar eclipse, Sandridge has a distinct memory of Mewborn, armed with her eclipse glasses and a prime location by the Street Sense office, thrilled to see a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “[Cynthia said] this doesn’t happen all the time, how are you not just amazed?” Sandridge said.

Mewborn’s joy at watching the world unfold was most evident in her love of film. Mewborn and Herzog would regularly go to the movie theater together before COVID-19. There, Mewborn’s “wicked” sense of humor shone. She would often laugh at the parts no one else laughed at. As Mewborn’s laughter filled the oft-empty theater of their afternoon matinees, Herzog would realize that what was just said was quite funny and she hadn’t realized it yet.

“She had a deep, joyous, belly laugh,” Herzog said. “She’d lean her head back a little and laugh.”

This piece has been updated to reflect that Second Story Cards is located in D.C., not Baltimore.

Issues |Art

Region |Washington DC

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