North Neighbors: Collin Robinson reflects on living intersectionally

  Photo by Azhae'la Hanson

Photo by Azhae'la Hanson

Collin Robinson, 17, lives in the intersections of many worlds in Minneapolis. He calls the Homewood neighborhood of North Minneapolis home but traverses town every day to go to school at Southwest High School. He’s biracial – his mother is white (a transnational adoptee from Australia) and his father is black – with a lineage that stretches back to Cameroon. Robinson has been arrested for protesting on the highway, but he also fights systemic inequity from official positions within large institutions in Minneapolis. He is the Citywide Student Body President for the Minneapolis Public School (MPS) district and the Supervisor at Theodore Wirth Golf Course, part of the Minneapolis Park System. 

In late September, he introduced Governor Mark Dayton at his water quality town hall at the Minneapolis Urban League. It was the first time in several years that the governor visited in the Northside in an official capacity. Robinson implored him, and all in attendance, to hear – and heed – youth voices. 

This issue Robinson spoke to North News about his passion for youth-led systemic change, his unorthodox relationship with his mother who inspires him, and his plans to become a lawyer someday.

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You’re deeply engaged in racial justice work in the Twin Cities. How did that begin? I’m biracial, and in middle school I wasn’t able to sit comfortably with the white students or the black students, and I didn’t have the words or abilities to process the it. My middle school principal at Clara Barton Open School, Patrick Duffy, was the founder of a cohort called Dare 2 Be Real, which uses guidelines to facilitates conversation about race. When I found out about it, I was like: “I gotta do this.” I didn’t know why, but I had this gut feeling.

Jamar Clark’s death also had an influence on you. I was 15 when Jamar died. I was in Dare 2 Be Real, and someone pulled up an article about a man who had been shot and killed a few blocks away from my house. I heard about the occupation, and I emailed all my teachers and told them I would be spending a lot of time there. My mom said I shouldn't go, but I went anyway. I would sleep at the precinct, walk to work, and then walk back. I did that for 17 days.

 Collin Robinson sits in his office at Theodore Wirth Park. He started working at the course as a "cart kid" three years ago and now holds a supervisor role. "I keep my activism and my golf course lives totally separate," he said.  Photo by Azhae'la Hanson

Collin Robinson sits in his office at Theodore Wirth Park. He started working at the course as a "cart kid" three years ago and now holds a supervisor role. "I keep my activism and my golf course lives totally separate," he said. Photo by Azhae'la Hanson

You work as a supervisor at Theodore Wirth golf course. A golf course job might not be what people expect a young social-justice-minded high school student to be doing in his spare time. I started as a cart kid three years ago and made my way up to the highest non-salaried position here as a supervisor. I’m the only 17-year-old I know with an office. I keep my activism and my golf course lives totally separate. A couple of my golf coworkers have seen me on the news and they figured it out. One time I got arrested at a protest and didn’t show up to work because I was in jail. Some of them found out that way. 

You’re also the citywide student body president for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). MPS is frequently accused of perpetuating systemic inequity. What are your thoughts on those discussions and what needs to happen in order for systemic change to occur? My biggest frustration with MPS is that there is a lot of really cool stuff happening on a policy level that doesn’t get implemented at the schools. No one is on the same page. There is no system to make sure people are held accountable to implement some of the bare minimum things, like newer policy that has been passed. 

What are your goals as student body president? We’re working on establishing student government with strong foundations in all the schools. Students need to have an outlet to get their voices heard in a system that’s supposed to be for them. I think they need to have a vote in every single site council and a voice in curriculum. Teachers hold students accountable, and students need to be able to hold teachers accountable. Part of what we’re trying to do is make sure there’s a system in place for that.

How do you get students interested and excited about being involved in educational policy? That’s a terribly hard challenge. Even for me and for other students who might enjoy reading scholarly legal journals, education reform can be daunting. Not only because it’s so complex, but because it impacts so many students who we sit next to every day. I can’t say I have the key. What I can say is once students start to understand not only what is at stake but how the systems work, that’s how we get stuff done.

Do you have role models? My mom. She raised me. She’s taught me everything, and all that I have achieved couldn’t have been done without her. For eight years my mom was a teacher at the juvenile detention center downtown. Now she is a special education teacher at Southwest. I can’t think of a time when my mom hasn’t been in school. She has seven Master’s degrees. She has just continued to work and work and work and go to school to make sure that me and my sister get set up for spreading our wings. To see the way she worked so hard for me, is one of many reasons why I keep doing what I do.

Your mom teaches at Southwest, and you’re a student activist there. Is there tension between the two of you over that? Whenever we do a walkout, my mom gets upset that her students are going to skip class, and I tell her to suck it up. Me and my mom’s relationship is so unorthodox. The way that I talk to her is very different than other kid-parent relationship that I know. Her rule is that as long as you’re open about what’s going on in our house and as long as you’re honest with me and don’t let things interfere with your life, I don’t care. She has always held high expectations for me, whether that be in school, my activism work, or things like me being able to lease a car in her name. All of these things are examples of things that require a deep level of trust, and respect for each other. 

How has your home culture of radical honesty impacted the way you engage with the rest of the world? I try to be extremely honest, blunt and forthcoming, especially when it comes to social justice and when it comes to these things that I’m passionate about. It has molded me into who I am, whether I’m working with the principal or the Superintendent or I’m sitting right next to the Governor. That’s how I was raised and there are a lot of really cool things that come from being able to be really honest and truthful while allowing room for compassion.

You’re a senior in high school. What are your plans for next year?  I just got nominated to go to New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, two hours outside of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I’ll be applying there. I’ll also be applying to Harvard with the blessing of Winona LaDuke, along with some other places as well. 

Where do you hope college will take you? Right now, law school. I think there’s an extremely large disconnect between oppressed communities and our judiciary. Some of those gaps can be addressed through law. I think it takes someone who can speak both languages to be able to go down into the places where a lot of these NYU and Harvard Law School students don’t want to go and use their skills to better these communities. 

You have so much access to powerful people, you’re light-skinned, and you’re a man. How do you think about privilege and the way it operates in your life? It’s really easy for me to go about living my life and doing the things that I do without acknowledging the fact that I’m light-skinned and male. I was raised by a mom, and I have a sister. Growing up with all women for my entire life has been something that has made me able to check my masculinity. I have to do that on a daily basis. If I were a dark-skinned femme do I think I’d be in the same place as I am now? Probably not. But that’s what keeps me going and grounded. I don’t do a perfect job of checking my privilege, but it’s a continuation of learning.

You’ve lived in both South and North Minneapolis. Does the Northside feel like home to you? It’s really easy for me to say that I’m a Northsider because I live in the North numbers, but I live in Homewood, a very gentrified, white, affluent area. It’s a very interesting neighborhood because three blocks west is Theodore Wirth. A few blocks east is the Urban League and a few blocks north are houses that are still foreclosed from the tornado. But south are mansions of former Vikings players. It’s very diverse. Racial binaries exist in my little pocket, and in Minneapolis, so dramatically.

What motivates you to wake up every day and do the work you do? I definitely think that in the fight against racism and its intersections, I should do whatever I can do to make things better. That means juicing every privilege that I have and utilizing all the wonderful people that I can. Have you ever seen how Barack Obama gives handshakes to black and white people? It’s the dap with black people and the “how do you do” to white people. It’s that but being able to live both worlds and speak both dialects and utilize the powers at be to make out world better. I think if you can do that, you should. So, I try to do it every day.

Kenzie O'Keefe