By Phillip Milano
It took a U-turn to steer Richard Cuff’s life in a new direction. 
That, and some insights into how to make real change gained from his JU coursework.
Cuff, 53, who’s working on a double-major in marketing and management though Jacksonville University’s Accelerated Degree Program (ADP), used a chance encounter to help create a program that teaches underserved kids about music and free enterprise at the same time.
Cuff_2small.jpgAs described in a recent Florida Times-Union editorial in which he was lauded for his efforts, Cuff, who had been manager of the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestra, was driving on Pearl Street in downtown Jacksonville in 2011 when he passed All About Kids VPK Music Academy.
On a whim, he turned around, went back and had a talk with Joann Walker, who operates the pre-K facility. One thing led to another, and from their chat, they built “Guiding Success.” It’s a kindergarten-to-college program that introduces 3-year-olds to the violin while offering them schooling about business – along with a college savings account.
In his work with the JSYO, Cuff had already built a community outreach music program for underserved elementary school youths that has now grown from three schools to six and serves about 150 children.
But he sensed something more needed to be done.
“I had a real desire to make an impact, and I saw that the biggest challenge to introducing underserved African-American kids to something outside their culture was that by 9 or 10, it’s already five years too late,” he said. “So I decided to try to do it at the pre-K level, at about 3½ years old.”
It’s been a harmonious relationship with Walker, and it’s also paid off for the kids in the program, which has grown from about 4 youths its first year to an estimated 70-plus this coming summer. They perform at venues across the city and learn discipline, patience and other fundamentals.
In fact, one group of six students that graduated from the pre-K system is now called the J.H. Walker String Ensemble. They performed on First Coast News recently in a tribute to victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Connecticut (see video here).
“The kids are learning well; you can see how music brings these kids to life. It’s really my way of putting to use my education immediately,” said Cuff, who graduates in the spring of 2014 and plans to go on for a joint Master in Public Policy-Juris Doctor (MPP-JD) degree at the new JU Public Policy Institute. “I don’t have to wait to graduate for the ideal job. I’m creating it now.” Cuff credited JU and its instructors with helping him rethink his approach to entrepreneurial community projects designed to make change.
“For me, I always felt I needed to go grassroots and fight the system, but now I have a better understanding of how the system works, how the economic development process works, and how to pull coalitions together to create a new dynamic from within the system.”richardcuff1.jpg
He gave as an example a sociology class he took with JU Prof. Nathan Rousseau, in which Rousseau lectured on the concept of subcultures. Cuff realized that subcultures – whether African-American, Hispanic, Caucasian or other groups – all arise from a fully developed society, not the other way around. He saw that whites were not the “main” culture in the U.S., with all others subjugated to that main culture. They all are subcultures of the overall society.
“A bomb went off in my brain. I understand now that rather than trying to change a culture, I need to impact society first. It begins with action. Rather than write protest letters or complain about a subculture’s treatment, I need to find a way to become part of the institutions that have developed out of a well-formed society. If minorities aren’t part of those institutions, then I need to take action to change that.”
In fact, he was so taken with Rousseau’s concepts that for a while the pair even co-hosted a radio show – The Richard Cuff Weekend Report on 105.3 FM – that focused on stimulating meaningful dialogue with  guests and listeners on issues important to society.
He likened his epiphany about making change to that of a person upset about being served a cake he doesn’t like, but who then realizes he could have improved the end result by getting involved in baking it in the first place.
“What really is the best place to affect the cake? At the slicing? At the icing? When it comes out of the oven? How about before that?” he said. “Culture equals slicing the cake, but sociology is more about understanding the ingredients that go into the cake. Now, I don’t complain about getting a small slice, so to speak. I recognize that I’m an ingredient in the cake and have to do what I can to change the flavor.”