Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kurtis Robinson, ex-con who found a higher path, to lead Spokane NAACP

Kurtis Robinson, a rural firefighter and a member of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, is taking over as NAACP president. (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Kurtis Robinson doesn’t shy away from much.

He’s been a wildland firefighter for eight seasons and tackled some of the big blazes around Spokane County last summer.

He’s spent time in jail, kicked a cocaine addiction and gone on to reinvent his life, volunteering with criminal justice reform and mental health advocacy groups in Spokane.

Still, Robinson, 52, knows taking over the Spokane chapter of the NAACP will be a challenge.

“I love my brother Phil, but he set a high bar,” he said, referring to former Spokane NAACP President Phil Tyler, who resigned his seat earlier this year to pursue a run for office.

But while he knows he has a lot to learn, he’s not worried. He views the new office as another way to serve, an idea that has given direction to much of his life.

Robinson formerly chaired the criminal justice committee for the NAACP and has worked with I Did the Time, a local advocacy group trying to address barriers that stop people who have been incarcerated from finding jobs and places to live.

Layne Pavey, the organization’s director, said Robinson helped work on the Ban the Box campaign to get a city law prohibiting most employers from asking about criminal backgrounds not relevant to a job.

Pavey said Robinson has been one of the best advocates for the organization, since his own life is a testament to the value of giving people with felony convictions a second chance.

He’s spoken at prisons and other events for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people.

“He was just this incredibly inspiring speaker,” she said.

Tyler said he plans to stay involved in the NAACP as a regular member and said Robinson’s experience with criminal justice reform would be valuable, especially as Spokane continues its work on reducing jail overcrowding while improving diversion.

“It’s an important issue that’s going on in our community and across our nation,” Tyler said.

Robinson grew up in a family that moved frequently but spent many of his teen years in Southern California.

His mother was white, he said, while his father was black and Native American. Growing up in the 1960s, he said, his mother was often ostracized for her relationships with men of color and for having a black son.

Robinson didn’t meet his father until years after he was born.

“If a guy was there for more than 30 days, he was Dad,” he said.

His childhood experiences have helped shape his views of crime and incarceration, which he views as social issues with roots in larger problems. For kids growing up in families like his – itinerant, poor, sometimes lacking stability – trauma of some sort is practically a given, he said.

People look to self-medicate or escape from the uncertainty of their circumstances, he said, and children are often raised in environments where drugs are present from an early age.

“Addiction and dysfunction are just a way of life,” he said. “That was pretty much my life for a long time.”

In 1984, Robinson was shot in a drug deal gone bad and left with a broken hip and a bullet in his body. He was still addicted to cocaine and figured he would try a strong-arm robbery to get drug money. It didn’t go well – not surprising, he says, given that he was limping and had a colostomy bag at the time.

He spent the next three years in and out of jail, serving time on the original charge and on probation violations because he couldn’t kick the drug habit. Eventually, his probation officer helped get him into a long-term treatment program.

“That man saved my life,” he said.

It wasn’t a straight line from there to sobriety. Robinson relapsed once, though he’s now been sober for 13 years.

Pavey said his understanding of the intersections between trauma, addiction and incarceration will be an asset to the NAACP.

“He’ll bring … the voice of a leader who is willing to put himself out there to talk about the struggle,” she said. “I think people will identify with him and he’ll engage more of our black community members, and I think he’ll be able to rouse people around really changing those social conditions.”

Robinson moved to Eastern Washington around 2004 with his then-wife, who was a member of the Colville Tribe. While living with her on the reservation, he had what he described as a “come to Jesus” moment.

“I found that what I was doing was complaining a lot about humanity but doing nothing about it,” he said. He decided to get more involved and joined the county behavioral health advisory board, of which he’s still a member.

That work led him to Smart Justice Spokane and I Did the Time.

He now serves on the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council’s racial equity committee, which is working to implement a $1.75 million MacArthur Foundation grant to reduce jail overcrowding and the number of people of color and people with mental illnesses in jail.

There, Robinson has focused on trying to get meaningful community engagement to happen.

“If you are in the room with him, you will get something. He has an infectious spirit,” said Francis Adewale, a city public defender who also sits on the committee.

Robinson’s firefighting career started when he was living on the Colville Reservation in 2007. That summer, the Manila Creek fire burned more than 26,000 acres. Robinson remembered being out in the garden when he got a call from local fire crews saying the fire was coming over the hill.

He asked what he could do to help and was told there was nothing, so he stood out in his garden with a hose at the ready, trying to protect his home.

“I decided in that moment that I would never be that helpless again,” he said.

He worked his way through the fire academy and decided to do seasonal work so he could focus on community service the rest of the year. He describes both his paid and volunteer work as callings.

Tyler called him a man of strong faith.

When Robinson was offered the NAACP presidency, “he wanted to consult spiritually and find out if it was a path he really wanted to go on,” Tyler said.

Robinson took office May 2 and said he doesn’t have an agenda other than to help the NAACP achieve what its members want. But community engagement is high on his list.

“No more conversations about us without us,” he said.

Helping people who have been in jail or prison re-enter society will be on the forefront of his mind, as well. That issue hits the black community hard, because of high incarceration rates, he said.

He said he believes in looking for solutions rooted in understanding what’s gone wrong in the past.

“You cannot heal something by pretending it isn’t there,” he said.