When YWCA of Green Bay CEO Renita Robinson was called upon to deliver a keynote speech last month, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she knew in her mind how she wanted it to go.
It was a snowy Monday evening that MLK Day yet she had made the effort to come out and speak. There was a room full of patrons there to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King.
No one gives thunderous speeches quite like Martin. But in front of a packed house and with the topics being personal, Renita knew she had it.
Until she realized she literally didn’t actually have it.
“I actually left my notes at work!” Robinson told FoxValley365 in an interview. “So I got up there and I was like ‘Lord have mercy’. I sat in the back and tried to write stuff from memory. My printer was jammed in my office and I left it right there on the printer.”
But Robinson pushed through and delivered a resounding speech during which she gave personal examples of racial profiling and explored aloud how to raise her kids in an era that has become increasingly dangerous for youth of color, particularly in interactions with police.
The words rang true especially at the local church in the shadow of Green Bay Correctional Institution, a place where the lives and dreams of young people have gone to die for over a century.
The audience that night was receptive and Robinson knew she had achieved her goal. But as the CEO of the YWCA in Green Bay, her work to bridge the gaps in racial disparities is never done. That’s a lesson she knows now way more than she realized it when she started.
“I was in a grant meeting for some programming for the Y. Our mission statement is to eliminate racism and empower women,” Robinson said. “And the funder, at the end, was like ‘Why do you include eliminating racism? Is that a problem here in Green Bay?’”
That person’s perspective was not unlike the one many around Green Bay and the Fox Cities have. For many of those residents, the word Racism evokes images of the Klan riding spectacularly or sit-ins and marches and speeches and police brutality. The subtleties of the covert racism and microaggressions people of color face are not as felt by the residents Renita Robinson first encountered in the Green Bay area.
“So, we have an older population who remember the Sixties and they feel like we’re in great shape,” Robinson said. “But we need to have conversations about covert racism. I think people have no idea.”
Bringing the covert issues out into the open starts with the school-to-prison pipeline. Robinson is deeply concerned about the disparities between black and white students when it comes to things like school expulsions, dropout rates and witnessing familial violence. All of those are strong factors when projecting out a child’s future and how close to the system those factors can bring kids.
“My master’s thesis was on the impact of witnessing violence and what the outcomes of that were,” she said. “So my research for that led me to the school-to-prison pipeline stuff. My doctoral dissertation is going to be looking at the pipeline in terms of the dropout rate and seeing if witnessing familial violence is part of the middle school dropout rate. I will work that into the things we do at the YWCA. At the Y, we’re really trying to buttress up the community on issues of covert racism. I’m trying to shine a spotlight on it. We understand the volatility of these issues. We’re creating a safe space where people can ask these questions.”
Robinson has been working in social justice all her life. She was a middle school teacher for several years and spent about 27 years working in domestic and sexual violence before a friend of hers asked if she would come be the CEO of the YWCA up in Green Bay. At the time Robinson was working as a Senior Grant Specialist in Minnesota, responsible for a 20 million dollar budget. She had also been the Executive Director for the largest service provider in southern Minnesota for domestic and sexual violence.
But coming to Green Bay would be a different experience. One that would present Robinson with a unique set of challenges. It would be a very…. Well, a very White experience. But Robinson was ready for it.
“I had a friend who thought I would be amazing in the role here at the Y. She said they’ll treat you well,” she said. “I’ve had white women who actually get it and understand their own privilege and micro aggression. It’s really crazy trying to deal with people who treat you like a child. I have a great personality and that enables me to stand against it because people drive you crazy. People mean well but do badly. I’ve met towns of well-meaning white people. But until people look at their own privilege it’s difficult. I think sometimes for people of color it’s a catch-22. They’re looking to confirm the bias that you’re an angry black woman. So you’re doing a dance trying to manage the insults and aggressions that they’re not even aware of. People of privilege don’t even realize they have a certain effect of needing things to be a certain way. Fighting disrespect with aggression is different than people of privilege are used to. So I have a pretty powerful presence.”
When Robinson took over the YWCA just over a year ago, it was flailing a bit. Some financial issues were off track but Robinson said the CFO is amazing and Robinson was able to quickly get those issues back on course through accountability and fidelity.
“The YWCA is 100 years old on May 1,” Robinson said. “We’re saying ‘Come back to the Y’. My goal is to revitalize the Y here in Green Bay. And I think it’s a long list of different reasons we were in this position. I think men are usually the people in power and women are threatening to that. People of extreme privilege being against the things the Y stands for is a challenge. It’s been a long haul and I like to say in some of my teachings that women have been complicit in the marginalization of other women. So that’s a huge thing I’m addressing here at the Y. People don’t talk about hard stuff in this region of the midwest. People don’t wanna be seen as someone who’s causing a disruption to the status quo. We’re certain not to make progress if people continue in those mindsets.”
The Midwest as a whole must be a culture shock for Renita Robinson. She grew up in Los Angeles where her graduating class of 1,500 students was 80 percent African American. Her educational experiences as a kid were completely different from her adult experiences in terms of racial exposure and issues.
Robinson said that living in Minneapolis was even more diverse than in Green Bay but at the same time prepared her for life as an outsider, not just geographically as a native Californian but racially as well.
Robinson currently is in a doctoral program through the University of Minnesota-Duluth in addition to her work at the YWCA.
Robinson says the biggest challenge in her work leading the Y is overcoming the negative impressions of the YWCA that have existed as a result of past mismanagement.
“The biggest challenge is letting people know we are fiscally sound. They can trust us,” she said. “We need to let people know. We serve about 500 youth a month and we have 90 or so little people in our building in child care. We have a large number of swimming lessons every day. Once a month we have a community event that serves kids. So we’re an essential part of this community. It’s difficult to say ‘help us’ without having people run because they worry they’re putting money into a sinking ship. We really want people to take a chance on us. We have good leadership here. Good staff here. I’m working with the sharpest people I’ve ever met.”
The goal is to let the community of greater Green Bay know that the Y is there and ready to help. Personally, Robinson is focused on remaining a powerful and present force in the community.
“The community just needs to know as the Y does better, the community will do better,” Robinson said. “Community strength is really detectable by the strength of its women and it’s programs that support children. If you support one woman, you support one family. You can change a lot with supporting just one woman.”