Last year, Robinson earned his Ph.D. in language and literacy and his extensive research and advocacy for the education of young black males led him to the White House where he presented his research before people in President Obama’s administration’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.
“It’s like the Drake song, ‘Started at the bottom and now we’re here.’ It’s a long way fomr where I started … being in special ed and not knowing how to read and being kicked out of high school and sent to alternative school to being completely written off. My high school counselors basically told me to my face that I wasn’t going to be s**t,” Robinson tells Madison365. “To go from there to the White House and to be able to present your ideas to all of these important people … you can’t get better than that. Just an amazing experience.”
Robinson uses his journey and his experience to give back and make a difference in the lives of others. His extensive studies have focused on the intersection of race, giftedness, and dyslexia. He is very passionate about this research as he himself first learned how to read at the age of 18 and understands the hardships students face who have not tapped into their gifts because of their misdiagnosis and inability to read. His personal struggle drove him to pursue his doctorate in this field of study.
While there is no scientific evidence backing a racial genetic component linked to dyslexia, in Robinson’s experience, of those affected, black males who come from poor communities with sub-par learning environments, have more at stake. Robinson feels that two elements not discussed when dealing with the achievement gap among black males are dyslexia and the proper remediation.
Living in Madison for the last couple of years, Robinson has seen the struggles of young African American males in school up close. He notes that reading scores for Wisconsin’s African-American fourth-graders trail those of their racial peers in every other state and that the black-white achievement gap is the worst in the nation. Robinson has a wealth of academic experience, training and knowledge about the psychological development of dyslexia and black males. His unique talents, experience, and research could be of great benefit to a city like Madison.
“It’s something that I feel I can really help with. Definitely. But I don’t think they want me,” Robinson says. “They” being Madison. “But something has to happen. Not just Madison, but in the overall state. Wisconsin has the worst black reading scores, period. It didn’t start yesterday. It’s been ingrained in the system.”
“How long have you been in Madison?” Robinson asks me.
A pretty long time.
“I’m going to assume – and correct me if I’m wrong – that the same dialog has been going on the whole time,” Robinson says. “So, when is it going to stop? I don’t know if people here in Madison are serious about making change.
“I’ve reached out to some people in the community who are the faces in the media all the time and offered to provide free workshops for parents of students who are special education – particularly African American students with reading disabilities,” Robinson says. “I got nothing. No response. This was something that I was offering for free.
“It makes me want to keep to myself,” he adds. “But I do have a lot to share … a lot of research and expertise … and also personal experience.”
That personal experience was a childhood of torture for Robinson who, starting at a very young age, had very few words in his vocabulary. A local children’s hospital in Chicago determined that he had a speech delay and provided him with speech therapy classes. However, when Robinson began grade school in Evanston, Illinois, his difficulty with reading and writing became even more apparent and it changed how he behaved.
Without a special education program within his community, Robinson and his mom moved to Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb of Evanston.
“My mom wanted a better education for me. The district in Wilmette was known for having stronger special education services for students compared to the Evanston School District,” he remembers. “She figured she would take a chance.
“I didn’t learn to read until I was 18,” Robinson continues. “I pretty much got passed through the system like the majority of black males in special ed. They just stick you in there and push you through. When you get out … then what?
“Sometimes when you look at the graduation rates and it might seem all good … but are people really looking at the reading rates of students who graduate? They could be four or five years behind in reading but still graduate,” he adds. “It makes the school look good, but the students aren’t really prepared for the real world.”
It was horrible and agonizing feeling for Robinson during his childhood constantly falling more and more behind and being stuck in class with others who were excelling. He acted up in class so he could get removed from class. He did anything he could to avoid the embarrassment. “I felt a lot like many of these students do today – angry and pissed off, acting out,” Robinson says. “It’s like you want to learn but at the same time you don’t know how to communicate effectively. They way to communicate is through outbursts or inappropriate behaviors. A lot of people don’t realize that that might be a sign of, ‘I need help!’ versus a sign of an angry kid.”
“I didn’t learn to read until I was 18. I pretty much got passed through the system like the majority of black males in special ed. They just stick you in there and push you through. When you get out … then what? Sometimes when you look at the graduation rates and it might seem all good … but are people really looking at the reading rates of students who graduate? They could be four or five years behind in reading but still graduate. It makes the school look good, but the students aren’t really prepared for the real world.”
On top of everything, Robinson was dealing with racism growing up at the mostly white school. “When I was in junior high – sixth grade – the white kids made a wall in front of the school so I couldn’t get in and they said, ‘We don’t let ni**ers in here.’ So, that was my start of Hell,” he remembers.
Robinson continued to struggle as a freshman at New Trier High School, one of the top schools in the state of Illinois. He ended up attending an alternative high school for kids with behavioral needs. His dyslexia wasn’t diagnosed until the beginning of his senior year of high school and it wasn’t even caught by anyone in the school district. It was caught by professor Dr. Robert Nash who revealed that his struggles over the years could be attributed to something he’d never heard of before — dyslexia.
Robinson is grateful for the handful of mentors who did their best to support him in high school and college. “I had a teacher in high school who told me that I was making it hard to help him. He told me that I was going to either end up dead or in jail,” he remembers. “He wanted to help, but I made it hard. He told me that I could excel as a peer mentor in Special Olympics.”
Working with students that had Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other conditions gave Robinson a new outlook on his personal struggles.
“Even when I got kicked out and went to an alternative school, the teachers knew how much the Special Olympians meant to me and they made it part of my behavioral modification plan that if I did well, I could go and coach in the afternoon,” Robinson says. “And I have been coaching ever since. I’ve been a keynote at their banquets. I’ve gone to state Special Olympic games. I’ve been very active in the Special Olympics community.”
Watching Special Olympians overcome obstacles they faced in their lives to succeed inspired Robinson to do the same. Robinson’s mom relentlessly sought out college programs for students with learning disabilities and heard about the Project Success which Robinson was accepted to. It would take Robinson six long years of playing catch-up at a collegiate level before he would receive his bachelor’s of arts degree in Human Services in 2002 from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. After that, he earned his master’s degree in school counseling from DePaul University in Chicago.
“I had to pretty much self-teach myself things I missed in high school,” he says. “College took me long because I was still catching up. That was a task itself. My master’s took five years and my Ph.D. took seven years.
His Ph.D. work at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee in the Literacy and Language program was on the intersectedness of race, dyslexia, and giftedness. His research and advocacy focused on the link between illiteracy and racial bias. Black males especially, he says, are not talked about in the literature. The more he studied it, the more he could easily relate it to what he had experienced.
“Back in high school, I wasn’t even conscious of it because I was so angry,” Robinson remembers. “It wasn’t until I was able to read the literature that I could make the connection. It was a self-awakening. It was liberating.”
As he was finishing up his PhD., Robinson was asked to come to the White House in Washington D.C. to talk about his experiences. He met the director of My Brother’s Keeper and Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, along with a host of other White House people. “Specifically, I remember sitting in the West Wing and all of sudden out the door comes all of the former secretaries of states including [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell. They were right next to us,” he says. “That was an amazing experience for me.
“I talked about my research on dyslexia in the African American community, particularly males, that is simply not discussed much and it needs to be discussed as a factor in why students might not be excelling in the area of reading,” Robinson adds. “I talked about my work and my publications.”
It was a long, long way from the very angry kid that was humiliated and embarrassed by other students because of his reading. Is Robinson still a little angry about that?
“Nahhhhh,” he says. “Maybe five years ago I might have had some [anger]. Not anymore. You have to let stuff go. Life is a journey and a process … it would do me no justice to hold any resentment towards people for how they treated me 20 years ago.
“The cool thing about it is even though the high school I attended was one of the tops in Illinois and even the country, they just honored me with an achievement award,” he adds. “In March, I will go back to receive that and my picture and bio will go on a plaque that will be on the [New Trier High School] Wall of Fame forever. The same school that wrote me off and told me I wasn’t going to be anything … 20 years later is recognizing me as an outstanding alum.”
Robinson knows that he is one of thousands and thousands of black males that get passed over and forgotten forever.
“We have so much talent out there. There are so many students who are in special education that have great potential that, for whatever reason, have given up,” Robinson says. “With black males, there is so much more at stake. There are cultural differences and cultural biases that white students may not face that black students face.”
Robinson understands the hardships that students face who have not tapped into their gifts because of their misdiagnosis and inability to read.
“I see that with a lot of the students that I work with today. They are pissed off and angry and a common denominator of it all is that they can’t read,” he says. “They don’t have any hope. If you don’t have any hope, what’s the point in living?”
It’s not just the kids that Robinson sees struggling to read, it’s the parents, too. “I’ve seen some students’ parents that couldn’t read and then they think, ‘How am I supposed to support my son or daughter?’ That can be extremely frustrating to not be able to help your son or daughter,” he adds. “They might have dropped out of high school or had a bad experience with school themselves.”
Robinson works as a dyslexia consultant and researcher at Pure and Complete Phonics, LLC and is currently an an adjunct professor at Rockford College in Rockford, Ill. He makes it clear that he’s not very crazy about making the hour-long commute to Illinois all the time. But he loves the students.
“I’ve learned to take my own experience to my teaching practices. Many times, these are adult-aged students who have been identified as at-risk and one of the things that I really stress and focus on is helping them change their narratives … how they see themselves,” he says. “If they don’t change how they see themselves, psychologically, you’re just knocking on the door and nobody is answering.
“Changing the narrative of students … that’s so important. Because once you get that hook — and they are hooked and have that motivation — the light is going to click and they will soar,” he adds. “The most rewarding thing is to see the light clicking on and the hope that a young person now has.”
On Oct. 21, Robinson will receive the 2016 Outstanding Young Alumni Award at the UW-Oshkosh Alumni Association’s Alumni Awards Celebration in conjunction with Homecoming 2016. Robinson has been honored by other places of higher learning in various communities, but feels like he has a lot to offer the city of Madison with his unique experience and expertise. He wants to pave the way for others to follow in his footsteps.
“I’ve got street cred. That goes a long way when you’re working with students,” Robinson says. “I’m looking for an opportunity, but I know what I’m dealing with here in Madison. People aren’t serious about diversity, to be honest with you — hiring and making changes that need to be made. Every year, they keep talking about the same thing and they have all of these committees and discussions and what are they really for? They are just things people can put on their resumes … make them look like they are involved.
“Next year, we’ll be talking about the very same thing. Let’s stop talking about this and actually put solutions on the table and move forward,” he adds. “I already have had 13 articles accepted or published and that’s rare. I feel like we could change any community; we can change any school … any classroom of students who have been neglected – black, white, Hispanic. All I need is an opportunity.”