Journey to Manhood April 1, 2016 Edition
Maurice Robinson, Program Manager, Concerned Black Men Richmond
by Monica Haynes
Given his impoverished and unstable childhood, no one would blame Maurice Robinson if he were angry. Any number of young men with such an upbringing have turned the resulting anger into a self-destructive force.
But not Robinson. He has taken the experiences of his youth to fuel his passion for social justice and activism beginning at the tender age of 19. Now, more than a decade later, he is the Program Manager for Concerned Black Men National, a non-profit organization that provides community programs for youth and their families. There is also a Richmond Chapter of the organization, which conducts separate programming.
On a warm spring Thursday, Robinson, 30, is at Franklin Military Academy gathering his group of youngsters in the cafeteria after school. They sign in before being ushered to a classroom for that afternoon’s activity. They are individual balls of energy, talking, moving, laughing, joking, and being typical adolescents. After they settle down to an afternoon snack of juice boxes and Doritos, Robinson asks about the creed they recite each time they meet.
I am great.
I will focus my abilities to do great.
The strongest force I have to counteract negativity is my mind.
I will use education to prosper.
I’m going to reach, prepare, focus and dream.
And the statistic I will become is one of success.
I will show up.
I see myself in the future.
I will use my experience to become an exceptional man
And the pride of myself, my family and my community.
I am great.
The creed could easily apply to Robinson, who has used his mind, education and his quest for social justice to become an exceptional man. He has had stints with AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps. He’s worked with former Richmond 9th District Councilman Doug Connor on a proposed community center. He’s interned with Virginia Delegate Jennifer McClelland at the Virginia General Assembly. All of that is in addition to his activism, speaking at Richmond City Hall regarding matters of police brutality, youth violence and other social justice issues.
But getting from where he started to where he is now was a journey filled with more potholes than a Richmond street after a spring thaw. “Honestly, I was raised in poverty and violence,” Robinson recounts. “Growing up as a kid I didn’t have a stable home.” That instability resulted in him attending 12 different elementary schools as the family moved from one residence to another. “That’s why I didn’t have a chance to grow any friendships as a child,” said Robinson. He was self-described “introvert” whose friends were action figures and comic books.
One advantage he did have at that time was his father’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam. Robinson learned the teaching of Malcolm X. The NOI gave him well-groomed disciplined men as role models, he said, even though his father did not incorporate all the tenets of NOI into his own life. It was his father’s fast lifestyle, Robinson, said that lead to another childhood trauma – his father being shot. While he didn’t see the actual shooting, he does recall the aftermath. “I remember the blood on the back seat [as his father was transported to hospital via car], seeing my mom in shock. That had a great effect on my life.”
Another traumatic family experience involved his mother, Rudean Hicks. In 1997, his mother, who’d been a bus driver in Richmond Public Schools for 20 years, was assaulted by a high school student. Robinson said the student had been expelled from George Wythe High School but had gotten on the school bus and began harassing the female students. Robinson’s mother intervened and eventually got the student off the bus. However, the young man returned with a gun, placing it to the woman’s head and pulling the trigger. The gun jammed. The incident sent Robinson’s mother into a downward emotional spiral and lead to a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sadly, it was one in a series of tragic events that she had suffered over the course of her life. In 1999, when Robinson was 13, his mother’s brother, who had a crack cocaine addiction, was murdered. The killing remains unsolved. She also had to endure the untimely death of her father, who was hit by a teenaged driver as he walked across the Mayo Bridge.
All these things, Robinson said, “put an emphasis in me being involved in the community and having an appetite and hunger for doing something for the community of Richmond.” At the age of 19, he began satisfying that hunger by becoming an activist, speaking at City Hall and protesting things such as youth violence, social inequality and injustice. He had been able to avoid falling into the trap of gang violence while a student at Huguenot High School.
“As a student at Huguenot I definitely had my situations, fights, getting jumped,” he explained. Students were trying to influence him to join a gang. “But I wasn’t a follower. That wasn’t me and I told them straight up. That’s one of the reasons I had to transfer to Henrico High School to finish my education.” After graduating, he attended J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College majoring in Social Science before transferring to University of Richmond to earn a degree in Political Science.
It was also during this time, as a 19-year-old that he faced another challenge. He began dating a young woman, who told him she was 20, but was actually 15-years-old. He found out her true age after being contacted by the police when the teen went missing. Ultimately, she was found safe but the subsequent drama and the possibility of facing criminal charges made him more determined than ever to work to change the hearts and minds of young people headed in the wrong direction. “I found Christ, religion and that’s what really put the icing on the cake for me. After that I really didn’t look back,” Robinson said. He wanted to be, he said, an example that “you can go through this stuff but you don’t have to settle for what’s given to you.”