October 5, 2020
By Camila Beiner
Creating a Village
A blog series profiling the work of community leaders across the country working to address the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice in their local communities. The series amplifies diverse leadership and the impact on communities, partnerships and members.
Since becoming involved with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), Conrad Robinson has made it his mission to prioritize and recognize the needs of every family with which he works. “It's about being vulnerable, transparent, but also having compassion and understanding where people are coming from and supporting them through their journey,” Robinson describes his role at DCF as an Area Resource Coordinator where he works alongside supervisors, social workers, and managers to correctly identify the best placement for children at DCF. His department supports young adults between the ages of 18 to 22 who are transitioning from DCF to independent living. They also work with members of the local communities and families to keep children safe from abuse and neglect. Robinson, a long-time community leader with Vital Village Networks (VVN), eventually became a social worker and began to develop and implement plans for young adults who need direct social services, such as housing and mental health services. On top of his busy day job, Robinson also is the program director and lead faculty for the Certificate in Community Advocacy and Leadership program, a partnership between VVN and Urban College of Boston.
Robinson first became involved at Vital Village while he was a member of the 365Dad organization, a non-profit empowering fathers and member of the Male Engagement Network (MEN). MEN is a multi-neighborhood collaboration between over 25 neighborhood development corporations and non-profits, including VVN and 365 Dad, with a focus on providing social, spiritual, and financial support to men of color living in the Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury neighborhoods. While attending monthly meetings, it became clear to Robinson that Vital Village values people and wants them to become the best version of themselves in order to become a support system within their communities. This motivated Conrad to become a student fellow in the Certificate in Community Advocacy and Leadership program in 2018-2019 because he wanted to have a greater impact with families and get involved with community organization around issues that are impacting his community. Nearly a year after graduating from the program, Robinson accepted the position to become the Certificate Program Director. “I was just mesmerized seeing how Vital Village supports and cares so much about non-profit organizations in the community… so when the opportunity presented itself in March, I did not think twice about it.” Robinson’s personal mission in life is to help others and as director of the program, Robinson has the opportunity to connect and support people through the process so they can accomplish their goals and live their dream.
Robinson explained the Certificate in Community Advocacy and Leadership program changed his life because it provided him with the tools he needed to become a better advocate in his community. As a social worker, Robinson feels a responsibility to be a leader in his community. For him, it is important to engage with communities and recognize the issues that are affecting families in order to further understand the obstacles they face and to be an effective advocate. Every time he works with families, he is upfront in providing families with direct information and a service plan so families recognize he will be present throughout the whole journey. His main message to families is that he will be their support system for anything they need. Although there will be times they will be faced with harsh realities, he strives to partner with families and connect them to important resources to support them to be healthy.
One of Robinson’s biggest role models is Raymond McPhee, one of his past mentors at DCF. Raymond McPhee became like a father figure to him because of his openness and honesty to Robinson about the type of work he was doing at DCF. McPhee continues to be a community champion for families in his community. “He helped shape my life to the person that I am right now…when you find people that really care about you and invest in you, not just about your work but also your personal growth, you don’t want to lose those people because those people are rare,” Robinson said. Through McPhee, he has learned to be aware of the impact of his actions each and every day. When he comes to work he thinks intentionally about how to prevent harm, not just in his work but in his personal life as well. When it comes to working with families, accountability is key because many times there are deeper issues going on that shape underlying trauma. He wants to be a leader who not only cares about his work but also cares about the people he serves. In a department like DCF, having good leaders is important, especially those who can help teach people how to work with families and to interact with staff and management in the best interest of families. To Robinson, McPhee was that important leader in his life.
Mentors played a critical role of Robinson’s journey to becoming a social worker so he decided to also become a mentor for fathers and families in need. While pursuing a Master’s Degree in Social Work at Simmons College, Robinson completed his first-year clinical placement at Father’s Uplift, a non-profit organization based on Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, in a role that focused on assisting father’s overcome barriers — financial, oppressive, emotional, traumatic, and addiction based— that prevent them from remaining engaged in their children’s lives. “[Father’s Uplift] works with fathers from all cultural backgrounds, fathers who are coming out of the judicial system, fathers who are just struggling but more importantly, what I love about Father’s Uplift is that they help fathers navigate systems.” Robinson said the organization supports fathers to become more self-sufficient and empowered. He worked as a counselor in Father’s Uplift where he facilitated and coordinated groups with children, families, and adults. He was also involved in the youth program where he worked directly with children every week by providing counseling and support. Recently, Robinson returned to Father’s Uplift to continue working with the youth enrichment program with the goal of finishing what he started three years ago—bringing more energy into the program by offering more resources and services to young children.
According to Father’s Uplift Inc., over 5,000 fathers and families have been part of the program in the last nine years, and 95% of the fathers have reported improved their sense of self-worth as well as their relationships with their children. Robinson loves to work with fathers, who have a lot to bring to the table but may need additional support, including many fathers of color who live in historically under resourced neighborhoods. In addition to his work with Father’s Uplift and DCF, Robinson has been a facilitator for the nurturing father’s curriculum, a training program designed to teach parenting and nurturing skills to men, for more than seven years. He continues to stay in contact with fathers he worked with over seven years ago. This enticed him to create his own organization called Pathways to Fatherhood guided towards teaching fathers— whether it is young fathers or grandfathers— how to become nurturing fathers and giving them the tools to become the fathers that they want to be for their children. “I want to [build on]…my connections… to really sit with fathers who are dealing with the systematic issues, navigating the court system, [and connect them to] friends who are lawyers and help them, teach them how to navigate the system.” This approach would allow him to more integrate himself into the lives of fathers and also establish check-in’s to evaluate how fathers continue to navigate the issues they had to previously overcome through these new relationships.
Mental Health and Trauma
A traumatic event – such as a violent or stressful life experience often referred to as adverse childhood experiences – can have lasting detrimental impacts on health, development, and wellbeing in childhood and later life. Robinson also hopes to prevent and mitigate these experiences by starting a school-based suicide prevention program where he can educate elementary school children all the way through high school students. This aspirational program would promote preventative measures and support children who are at higher risk, specifically focusing on communities of color within cities. Robinson wants to increase our understanding that children exposed to violence within their neighborhoods and through online media can experience more distress and be more vulnerable to mental health challenges. According to the America’s Health Rankings, mental health disorders and substance use disorders are the most significant risk factors for suicidal behaviors. Stressful life events may also increase risk for suicide. In 2017 there were more than 6,200 suicide deaths among adolescents and young adults ages 15-24, making it the second-leading cause of death for that age group. Increasing awareness of the warning signs and reduced access to firearms can reduce the risk of suicide for young children and teens.
For this reason, Robinson wants to start a program that provides services to these children that they otherwise may not have available. This is a topic Robinson is extremely passionate about and is currently working on a paper, ideally published at the end of the year, describing what is happening in cities all around the nation and what schools can do to support children around prevention. “I believe that if you are going to talk about suicide, you can't talk about it without educating the families….at the same time, you can't talk about that without educating the schools,” Robinson said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2016 suicide rates overall increased in nearly every state by more than 30 percent, with Massachusetts’s rate increasing by 35.3 percent. The next step to continue building this program is to bring together community leaders who want to be affiliated with program to create a strong cohort of people supporting the project.
Fostering Future Leaders for Systems Change
His advocacy and drive to create change in his community also stems from wanting to be a good father to his two children—a ten-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. He wants his children to not only be able to navigate the world effectively but also make an impact on the world. America has seen one of the largest movements in U.S history with the spread of Black Lives Matter protests continuing over the past few months. People are not only protesting George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, but the systematic racism and rampant police brutality in America more broadly. One of Robinson’s priorities is teaching his children about what is going on in the world, acknowledging that eventually they will start dealing with these difficult situations. To this end, he took them to a recent Brockton rally after the murder of George Floyd. “I had to tell them about the different forms of people in the crowd: there are people that come in for the rally and want to create change, but also there are people that want to be destructive and bring negative attention to what is really happening.”
Robinson explained there is a deeper issue plaguing America that we do not really see on television—institutional racism, systematic racism, medical racism— and it is really difficult to break those systems down. Robinson points to the need for balance, believing that, as a society, we can get to a place where police change their behavior towards becoming more community-centered, and where the community can understand the role of the police. “I'm not for defunding the police, but I am for re-organizing, training, and more social justice programs teaching around how to interact and support the community.” Robinson pointed to reported incidents of violence following the death of George Floyd, including in Boston. He doesn’t support these forms of community violence, but also recognizes the strong impact on the mental wellbeing of people of color who witnessed what happened to George Floyd. He describes the danger of assuming that what is happening—the countless number of Black people who have died at the hands of police brutality—is normal. When in reality, there is nothing normal about it. Robinson remains committed to changing people’s mindsets.
If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.