Why you should care
Because he’s fighting for a seat at the table.
Inside the city community building, Kurtis Robinson, 52, has his hands tucked into the pants of his weathered firefighter uniform. He’s listening intently as Virla Spencer, a local advocate for battered women, addresses him. “You’ve been through hell and back,” she says. “They’re going to try to move you. My suggestion to you is to learn to stand still.” Speaking for the marginalized, the alienated, the impoverished — she understands the temptation to stay silent. “A lot of people are ashamed. They try to hide things,” she continues. “Nothing is hidden in this town. So be transparent about it.”
“This town” is Spokane, a city of about 200,000 that was rocked by the scandal of Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP branch president who two years ago refused to come clean after her parents outed her as white. Since then, two more chapter presidents have come and gone, and now Robinson, elected in May, is trying to pick up the pieces for a city that became “a laughingstock,” as one resident told OZY. Yet the lessons learned here could inform other small cities eager to look past a person’s skin color and seek real justice — in a nation holding 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its incarcerated people. “Spokane is a very good petri-dish example of that,” Robinson says, noting that the city’s African-Americans make up just 3 percent of the populace — and 15 percent of the county’s imprisoned.
This is a gospel he preaches easily, because he’s lived it. Robinson is a former convict, shot in the ’80s after a drug deal gone wrong and then arrested during an attempted robbery, which had him cycling in and out of jail for three years. Fast-forward to now, and Robinson, a dozen years sober, is a poster boy for the power of reform, working with criminal justice groups like Smart Justice Spokane and I Did the Time. “He was a very dynamic speaker,” recalls Layne Pavey, another former felon, who served with Robinson on Smart Justice Spokane. “You can’t really ever discredit the man. Despite his criminal history, he’s one of the hardest-working people.”
Yet this will be his first time running an organization, and leadership comes with scrutiny. Ex-convicts rarely get a second chance to participate fully in society, let alone lead it, as Pavey notes: “We are all sort of fighting for a place.” Even pre-Dolezal, African-American members of the Spokane NAACP felt like meetings were filled with well-meaning white neighbors calling themselves allies — and Robinson, who attends an addiction recovery service rather than the traditionally Black churches in town, will need to make further inroads with the African-American community he didn’t make his name in. “If you don’t come out of that, you do have some work to do in terms of connecting,” says Sandra Williams, editor of The Black Lens, the only African-American newspaper in eastern Washington.
No more conversations about us without us.
However, “word is already spreading about him,” Williams adds, and so far Robinson’s enthusiasm in telling his personal story has helped win over many. Although he joined the NAACP chapter just a year ago, Robinson is already adept at identifying issues of unevenly applied justice. He’ll have a chance to take some of those issues on while sitting on the racial equity committee of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, which has been tasked with applying a $1.75 million MacArthur Foundation grant to ease jail overcrowding by one-fifth by 2019. He helped push the ban the box initiative in Spokane, joining a national movement that has seen over 150 cities and counties remove the conviction-history question from job applications to give ex-criminals a fighting chance. And he led marchers through the streets in May after an all-white jury acquitted a white 29-year-old who claimed self-defense in the shooting of a 45-year-old Black man in the back. As Robinson pointed out, national studies have shown that juries without color rule disproportionately against defendants of color. “No more conversations about us without us,” he intones, echoing a phrase that has become his calling card.
Robinson takes a similar approach toward racial disparity. “You have to deal with it from multiple perspectives,” says the eight-year veteran of wildland firefighting. “Natural fire is a fluid, dynamic situation — and that’s what we’ve had here on the race issue.” Progress will take organizing, not just with communities of color, but also communities of privilege. And his is a mandate to serve African-Americans, as well as Asian-Americans and Native Americans. “This systemic racism has had a siloing effect,” he explains, and it’s succeeded because “we have been allowing our multigenerational resentment to hamstring us.”
Whether he can make an impact outside the Lilac City depends on his solutions taking hold — and being exportable, as other communities, from California to Delaware and Louisiana, rethink their incarceration efforts. He admits it feels as if his life is moving at warp speed, and it seems surreal that he, once a cocaine addict, is now expected to lead.
Still, Robinson has overcome far tougher challenges. Growing up a mixed kid, born to a white mother and a father who was half Black, half Native American and fully absent, he felt ostracized by all sides. He’s since healed, a process that began when he lived on the Colville Tribe reservation near Spokane. There, he says, he received a message from God: “Now you get to serve,” he recalls. And he has, proclaiming he’s ready to stand against powerful forces while trying to be open about his own demons. After Dolezal — who Robinson believes might have been forgiven had she been forthright — perhaps sincerity is just what Spokane needs.
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