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‘Our people need us’: Kurtis Robinson led NAACP’s Spokane chapter through tumultuous 2020

Dec. 29, 2020 Updated Wed., Dec. 30, 2020 at 12:18 p.m.

Kurtis Robinson can – and will – make a list to show the difference he’s made in the region.

But such an enumeration may fail to encapsulate Robinson’s impact as an NAACP leader and in the broader Spokane community, which was built on a promise to enter every discussion with the goal of building a bridge, not pointing a finger.

“Everybody has been negatively impacted by the American system to date, and part of the dynamic that’s been at play has been this persistent punitive perspective about how to deal with each other,” Robinson said.

The approach, he added, “must include accountability, but it does not do so from a punitive platform.”

“The conversation will be restorative and respectful, but it will be truthful,” Robinson said.

Given that philosophy, it’s no surprise that Robinson has been able to establish relationships with leaders like Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, while still sharply critiquing their practices and demanding change from their departments.

Kurtis Robinson  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Kurtis Robinson (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Especially in a year focused on police accountability, Robinson and Meidl have sometimes been “polar opposites,” Meidl acknowledged. But the two have maintained a collegiality in part because Meidl said they share the same goals.

“Two people with similar values can look at something and see it differently. The reason I feel like our relationship has been so productive is we can look at a similar situation, have a different opinion of what has caused that issue, and not demonize or dehumanize the other person – while still not agreeing,” Meidl said.

It’s a moral groundwork Robinson laid when taking the helm of an NAACP chapter still struggling to recalibrate after the fallout from former president Rachel Dolezal, who resigned in 2015 after it was discovered she was a white woman identifying as Black .

Robinson refused, and still refuses, to condemn her.

“If we are who we say we are, we must look at her, as well as ourselves and everybody else from a restorative perspective. We don’t have to agree but we don’t have to condemn,” Robinson said.

Robinson is proud of growing the NAACP’s Spokane chapter during his tenure – increasing its membership fivefold and placing it on solid financial footing. He’s also pleased about fostering its relationship with other organizations and communities like Better Health Together, the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, the Human Rights Activist Coterie of Spokane and Occupy Spokane.

Toni Lodge, CEO of the NATIVE Project and a member of The Native American Alliance for Policy and Action, commended Robinson for always being inclusive and sure to say ‘Black and brown’ people in speeches and interviews.

That inclusive approach is a real shift, and important in Spokane where police and city officials think of issues in “Black and white,” Lodge said.

“A whole bunch of people get left out of the conversation, so Kurtis has been really good about bringing our conversation in a circle,” Lodge said.

This was a year that called on Robinson to lead more than any before, and he will end it by transitioning out of his role of president of the NAACP chapter to becoming its vice president. That decision stems from his pledge to “let the needs of the community dictate our actions” and to not fall prey to a cult of personality.

“I’m setting stuff in motion and I’m going to stay to see it through, but I don’t have to stay and do all the shot-calling,” Robinson said.

Anyone surprised by the central role the NAACP has played in local public discourse, particularly amid social upheaval following the police killing of George Floyd, was not paying attention to the work Robinson and his fellow volunteers have undertaken since he took leadership of the organization in 2017.

It was no secret the country was dealing with racism and anti-Blackness, but in 2020 it became “much more evident, much more up in front of people’s faces,” Robinson said, adding it became a “perfect storm” of intersecting issues.

People of different classes, ethnic or racial backgrounds were “crying out about the same thing at the same time,” Robinson said.

He watched in awe as thousands of protesters took to Spokane’s streets to call for racial justice in May and June, many of whom were shedding an old “survival technique” to “keep your head down, weave and bob and focus.”

“It’s like, ‘No, we can’t do that anymore,’ ” Robinson said. “We can’t afford not to be out here. People are getting that they can’t afford to just try to survive anymore.”

But Robinson’s work didn’t begin this year.

In 2017, the Spokane City Council adopted a new law that prohibited employers from asking about a job candidate’s criminal history before an interview.

That movement, known as “ban the box,” was particularly important to Robinson, who has advocated for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people through the organization I Did The Time. Robinson, who struggled with addiction, served time in prison after a failed strong-arm robbery in the 1980s.

In 2019, Robinson and Knezovich signed a memorandum of understanding to study racial equity at the Sheriff’s Office. Though not publicized until 2020, the agreement calls on the office to commission a third-party analysis of its culture and document arrests and uses of force broken down by race, gender and location.

This year, the NAACP and other organizations advocated against the approval of a new contract with the Spokane Police Guild that critics argued failed to hold officers accountable to the standards set by city law. The Spokane City Council unanimously rejected the contract.

The organization was also part of the movement that successfully encouraged the Spokane City Council to accept a grant to study adding fluoride to its water, which proponents argued would improve the disproportionately poor dental health of low- income residents and people of color.

And at the close of the year, the City Council adopted a 2021 budget that includes funding for its first civil rights officer.

But, perhaps most of all, Robinson touts the organization’s increased involvement and engagement, which has been Zoom-busting even in 2020.

And while he’s stepping back, he’s not stepping out. He refuses to.

“Our community has a tremendous, almost unfathomable amount of need that has been squashed. The voices have been squelched. The depth and extent of that need has been almost explicitly ignored, if not implicitly invisible,” Robinson said.

“Our people need us. I can’t be at peace until I know that I’ve done everything I can to not only help meet that need, but to figure out how to get upstream and stop them from throwing us in the river.”

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