An activist in the classroom

The roots of a sophomore’s racial justice activism

Southwest High School sophomore Collin Robinson. Photo by Courtney Lowe
Southwest High School sophomore Collin Robinson. Photo by Courtney Lowe

Minneapolis Public Schools students were on spring break when Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced his decision not to charge two police officers in the November shooting death of 24-year-old Jamar Clark.

That following Monday, April 4, as students returned to Southwest High School for the start of the fourth quarter, Principal Bill Smith wrote on his blog about a sit-in students planned for that morning. Smith noted missing class for the protest count as an unexcused absence, but the blog post — written near the end of a school year when students had repeatedly walked out of classes to rally for racial justice causes — was more reflective in tone.

“Maybe we are reliving the ’60s,” Smith wrote.

He isn’t the only one reaching back decades to find a precedent for the frequency and intensity of this year’s student protests. At Southwest, many of the actions have been led by organizers belonging to two student groups, Dare to Be Real and Educate Ya Self.

“Students are starting to understand,” said Collin Robinson, 16, a member of Educate Ya Self. “They’re starting to educate themselves on what the problems are, and they’re saying: How can I be a change agent? How can I make change in my community? How can I do my part as an ally in a liberation movement?”

The student activists eschew hierarchy and work collaboratively, but Robinson, a sophomore, stands out among his peers for the way he has worked within and without the school system to effect change.

Robinson was one of two students appointed by the Board of Education to the Superintendent Selection Committee in April, giving him a key role in selecting the district’s next leader. A few weeks later, MPS students elected him next year’s president of Citywide Student Government.

Robinson lives with his mother and sister on the city’s North Side, just blocks from the Fourth Precinct. When protesters occupied the streets outside the precinct building for 18 days in November following the Clark shooting, Robinson was there almost every night — and even some days, skipping class to soak in the experience. He was among the 51 protesters arrested after they marched onto Interstate 94, blocking traffic.

“(At the occupation) I connected with people and I had really deep conversations about what policing is, what it looks like and just talks about racism and what whiteness is and what being black in North Minneapolis is,” he said.

Talking with his black neighbors about the African-American experience in North Minneapolis tapped a deep well of emotion within him. Although he is biracial, the son of an Australian mother and a Cameroonian father, Robinson’s appearance doesn’t suggest it, and he says he doesn’t experience racism firsthand.

“In the social construct of race, I am put into a category, and that category is white,” he said.

Divergent

In a popular series of young adult sci-fi novels by author Veronica Roth, a young woman is labeled “Divergent” because she doesn’t fit neatly into one of the five factions occupying a post-apocalyptic Chicago. Robinson used the term in a similar way to describe his own situation, as a young man who moves between different contexts: black and white, North Side and Southwest.

“That’s probably influenced me in my work, because I feel like there’s a division between races, there’s a cultural division, and I feel divergent — when you’re two or more things,” he said. “Being biracial allows me to live within two cultures.”

Robinson even straddles the worlds of teenagers and adults. Asked if he ever has trouble being taken seriously as a high school sophomore who sits alongside adults on the Superintendent Selection Committee and the NAACP’s Education Committee, he shook his head no.

“Because I look like their uncle,” he said.

“Collin as a ninth-grader had a full beard,” recalled Brian Nutter, an assistant principal at Southwest. Nutter was new at the school in the fall of 2014 when Robinson approached him for help cutting a combination lock off of his locker.

“I said, ‘So, are you a senior here?’ and he said, ‘No, I’m a ninth-grader,’” Nutter said. “I almost fell over.”

It was the start of an ongoing relationship, and Nutter worked closely with Robinson and other members of Educate Ya Self and Dare to Be Real as they planned an all-day, student-led workshop on race and social justice issues in February. For Race to Justice Day, Principal Smith canceled classes, and the students arranged to bring in guest speakers from Black Lives Matter, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and the Minneapolis NAACP.

Robinson led a workshop on how race influences the academic expectations for students. In front of an audience of Southwest teachers, Robinson described what he sees in the classroom: white students, many of them from majority-white Southwest schools like Lake Harriet and Barton Open, where he attended K–8 classes, fill the majority of seats in upper-level courses, while students of color tend to be routed into the less challenging classes.

Nutter said Robinson held the floor like a teacher, telling the adults in the room he was in charge until the bell rang. Some found it “very challenging,” Nutter said, but the response from teachers to Race to Justice Day was “overwhelmingly positive.”

“That was, I would say, an eye-opener for many of our teaching staff,” he said.

Daring to be real

When Patrick Duffy was named Barton principal in 2012, the first student at the K–8 school to reach out to him was Robinson. Duffy said Robinson, then a seventh-grader, sent him an email about “how as a biracial student he was lamenting the fact that he hadn’t had any teachers of color and asked me to pay attention to that as a new principal coming in.”

Duffy now works for St. Paul Public Schools, where he’s a member of Superintendent Valeria Silva’s cabinet. While at Hopkins High School in the mid-1990s, he co-developed Dare to Be Real, a program he brought with him to Barton.

“Dare to Be Real is really about systemic anti-racist student leadership development,” Duffy explained. He described it as a “safe space” for students to learn to talk about race and racism, including the kind of systemic racism that afflicts public school systems.

“Public education was not designed, or even intended in its origins, to serve all kids,” Duffy said. “So, to do racial equity work in the school, students are starting to recognize that some of the inequities are part of the design.”

Robinson said Dare to Be Real “was a place where I got to learn what a productive conversation looks like, how to talk about race, what the roles and responsibilities of a white person in a black liberation movement are,” adding, “I think that really helped me in what I’m doing now.”

Because her two daughters also attended Barton, School Board Member Tracine Asberry has known Robinson since kindergarten.

“Collin just naturally developed in that way around social justice and around racial issues, because he wrestles with the identity of being a person of color but being seen as white,” Asberry. “Instead of just keeping it internally, he brought it out externally and he’s used his whiteness as a place to stand up for justice around racial issues and to advocate for racial equity, and that has been developing for some time.

“You also have to give credit to his mom.”

At home

Jean Robinson is a veteran special education teacher, and her last posting before moving to Southwest this fall was Stadium View School, a district program for students in juvenile detention or adult jail. It’s a place that has shaped both her and her son’s views on race and the criminal justice system.

Jean could never discuss her students by name with Collin, but they spoke often about her work.

“I think it was seven years (I worked) at Stadium View seeing just males of color — males of color, every day, 24/7, in and out,” she said.

“The trauma, the violence, the abuse, the poverty — a lot of these children come with the whole package, but they’re still a child and they are still a person, a human being,” she said.

Jean said she doesn’t discount their crimes or the experiences of victims. But she saw that many of her students were caught in a vicious cycle, released from jail and her classroom only to return.

“Oftentimes they’re placed right back in that same environment, where school didn’t do them any justice and it’s just an uphill battle with their barriers,” she said. “A lot of times the system just sets them up to fail.”

Like many young activists, Collin was spurred to action by a string of incidents in which black men lost their lives during interactions with law enforcement, men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in New York City and Jamar Clark here in Minneapolis.

“I have problems with individual police officers, but those are individual police officers who choose to do a job that has been historically racist and not beneficial to people of color and are not doing anything to combat that,” he said.

While teaching at Stadium View, Jean completed a masters program at St. Thomas University in law enforcement leadership. She was the only civilian in her classes, and she came away with a deeper understanding of the horrors law enforcement officers encounter on the job, the sleepless nights and the way “a police mindset is totally different from a civilian’s and it has to be,” she said.

Jean said it can be “uncomfortable” when she brings that perspective to conversations with her bright, strong-willed son, but she tells him “real change and real work may have to come through a different avenue rather than standing in front of the precinct with pepper spray and mace.

“That’s not going to change the culture of policing, which is what the ultimate goal of this work is,” she continued. “… You have to find a peaceful point and a neutral ground to have a real dialogue.”

Fuel for activism

Even though her special education classroom is tucked away in a corner of Southwest’s recently remodeled school building, Jean Robinson can hear the grumbling from some of her colleagues when Collin and other students walk out in protest. Lesson plans are disrupted, schedules thrown off.

“I get that part,” she said. “And then I also hear my other colleagues who raise their fist in the air and say ‘Right on.’ So, you’re going to get both.”

Collin said people outside of the school — and some on the inside — don’t see the work that goes into their actions. The students in Educate Ya Self try to do just that — sharing articles on Facebook and reading books like Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” — and then put what they’ve learned into presentations and discussion prompts that they share with other students during sit-ins.

“Students are learning,” Nutter said. “It’s not that they’re walking away from academics, it’s that they’re applying academics to something that’s important to them.”

Southwest junior Jada Olsen, a founding member of Educate Ya Self, said the work of a student activist can be exhausting. But the positive response to February’s Race to Justice Day was a huge payoff.

“Hearing all that feedback from all the students, telling us how it really inspired them to be more into social activism, that fueled us to want to keep going,” Olsen said.

Collin Robinson has set himself high goals for college: a double major in political science and pre-med. His growing number of absences “are a problem,” he admitted, but he’s satisfied that he’s so far kept a high GPA.

“I think you have to be in high school to be a high school activist,” he said.

Jean Robinson said she’s often the last to hear about a walkout, because, her son says, she’s “part of the establishment.” But then he’ll come sprinting into her classroom to ask for the car keys so that he can drive over to the capitol to meet with a senator, give a speech downtown and make it back to school in time to take a test during seventh period.

“He’s all over the place,” she said. “Somehow he gets it done. And he does his own laundry. I really can’t complain.”

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