A seat at the table: Collin Robinson is a 16-year-old social justice and education advocate
By Julia Larson
Last school year, Collin Robinson helped select the next superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.
He took part in organizing a day-long workshop about social justice at Minneapolis Southwest High School.
He occupied the Fourth Precinct in north Minneapolis after the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark last November.
And he was only a sophomore in high school.
It’s normal for young people to spend their early years focusing on their own personal growth, but Robinson, 16, is focused on the growth of his entire community. Now a junior at Minneapolis Southwest, Robinson has proven himself as a young social justice and education advocate to peers, school administrators and community members.
“Advocating for people who are underserved when you have the privilege to is morally right,”
Robinson said. “I think that should be the norm. When I see students impacted by the work that I do, it’s emotional.”
Robinson hopes his work this school year will include a focus on education reform, specifically what he sees as systemic issues within the education system and “how to uproot those that specifically target students of color, special education and lower-income [students],” he said.
Robinson has thought about racial inequality and social justice for most of his life. His mother, Jean, was a teacher at a program for students in juvenile detention or adult jail in Minneapolis when Robinson was a child. He saw through her how “systemic oppression could affect students,” he said.
Tracine Asberry is director of the Board of Education for Minneapolis Public Schools and a longtime friend of Robinson’s family. Asberry has known Robinson since he was in kindergarten at Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis with Asberry’s daughter, Farrington.
“I would go to pick Farrington up and Collin would always be there saying, ‘Hi Tracine! Hi, Farrington’s mom!’” Asberry said, chuckling. “I’ve seen him grow up and do the walkouts, the superintendent search. I am just so proud of him and to watch him grow.”
DARING TO BE REAL
Robinson first discovered his voice when he was 12 years old, he said. His new principal at the time, Patrick Duffy, introduced him to a program called “Dare 2 Be Real,” a student program that promotes, addresses and discusses racial equity and leadership.
“If I didn’t have Dare 2 Be Real, I don’t know what I would be doing with myself,” Robinson said. “I would still probably be a kid who doesn’t know how to vocalize his emotions.”
Robinson has continued with Dare 2 Be Real into high school. Then, last year, he felt called into action.
In November 2015, a Minneapolis police officer fatally shot 24-year-old Jamar Clark four blocks from Robinson’s house in north Minneapolis. Witness statements conflicted with police accounts, and Black Lives Matter responded in the following days by blocking I-94 and occupying the Fourth Precinct in north Minneapolis.
“I didn’t hear about it until Dare 2 Be Real the next day and I went home and there were all these police cars and people,” Robinson said. “Soon I was there every day after school, and then all of a sudden I was missing class.”
Robinson said the experiences he had protesting at the Fourth Precinct were unforgettable.
“The way that I grew at this area was incredible,” he said. “I would learn so much more at the Fourth Precinct than I would ever learn sitting in a classroom with a textbook.”
RACE TO JUSTICE DAY
Robinson helped his classmates organize in a similar way. Following the occupation of the Fourth Precinct, students at Minneapolis Southwest performed walkouts in response to police violence.
As a compromise with administration, Dare 2 Be Real students organized an all-day event in February called “Race to Justice Day” to address systemic problems within the education system. Activists from Black Lives Matter, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the Minneapolis chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People and other organizations joined the event. Attendance was mandatory for all Southwest students.
Robinson taught a workshop specifically for staff in the building, he said.
“My workshop allowed a space where students could sit in front of teachers and administrators and speak their mind,” he said. “I had teachers leave the room crying, really moved about what’s going on and things they didn’t realize.”
Asberry also attended Race to Justice Day, representing the Minneapolis Board of Education. Her plan to stay only a couple of hours was derailed. She was so moved by what she saw and heard that she canceled her plans for the rest of the day, she said.
Other workshops included seminars taught by students on intersectionality, colorism, racism in sports, #BlackGirlMagic and more.
The overall response to Race to Justice Day was positive, Robinson said. The experience was unifying for those who attended, he said, but not everyone did.
“A lot of the kids who really needed to hear it didn’t show up that day,” Robinson said.
This past school year, Robinson also was one of two students on the Superintendent Selection Committee that analyzed candidates for the new superintendent position at Minneapolis Public Schools. He helped select the finalists that the school board would vote on (The board voted to hire Ed Graff in May).
Robinson’s responses in his application for the committee were “stellar,” according to Asberry.
“When I talked about [his application] on the school board,” Asberry said, “I used his responses as the standard to measure the other adult responses that were a little more ambiguous.”
The superintendent search was a learning experience for Robinson, who was later elected as this year’s president of Citywide Student Government.
“What I did learn is that there is a lot of adult power in decisions,” he said. “Even though students can be at the table, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be heard. Students need to go above and beyond to be heard and recognized.”
Robinson’s work to get students’ voices at the table is already starting to have a lasting impact. A second Race to Justice Day has been scheduled for Feb. 9 at Southwest. Minneapolis South and Washburn high schools also will have the program this school year.
As for Robinson? He plans on attending college in a couple of years to study political science and medicine. Robinson, who also is a member of the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar, Educate Ya Self and the Minneapolis NAACP Education Committee, also plans on remaining active in his community and fighting for social justice at every chance.
“I want to be like a cooler Ben Carson,” he said.
And when asked if there was anything else he wanted to say, he added: “Black lives matter.”