Rooting for the underdogs: Renita Robinson
Renita Robinson loves a good underdog story. In fact, she’s made it her life’s mission to support and champion the underdog — to funnel her positive energy into others’ second chances at success. And in the process, that’s how she is writing her very own success story.
As Robinson marks a year as the chief executive officer for the YWCA Greater Green Bay — and as the organization celebrates its 100-year anniversary — she finds herself immersed in all the causes that ignite her academic interests and are a living embodiment of the YWCA’s tenets: eliminating racism and empowering women.
“I really have the best of two worlds,” Robinson said. “I get to be engaged in helping with the things that need to change and engaged in growing the YWCA’s accomplishments.”
The way Robinson looks at it, she has found the job that seems custom-made just for her. Robinson’s roles as CEO align perfectly with her unique skill set. Culled from previous roles as a teacher, a social worker, a domestic violence advocate, a curriculum developer and a grant writer, Robinson has the unique ability to assist nearly each of the YWCA’s clientele. And it is due to this background, too, that she can see gaps in offerings.
“As I’ve progressed professionally, these careers have informed all of the things I’m doing in my new position,” Robinson said. “If you map out my career, the center of each position is social justice.”
That’s what’s particularly enticing about the YWCA. From the children cared for in the facility’s daycare program, to the Green Bay School District-accredited 4K curriculum to the thousands of Brown County women served annually through the Women’s Career Closet and the Women’s Empowerment Center, Robinson sees ample opportunity to facilitate stories of triumphant underdogs.
Before she moved to Green Bay a year ago, Robinson was working toward her doctorate in education at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She finished her doctoral work in 2017 and continues to work toward her oral exam. Originally, her research centered on the hypothesis that exposure to inter-parental violence is causing a high dropout rate. She recently realized, however, that her data set doesn’t work to either prove or disprove the hypothesis. It’s a derailment that could have emotionally crushed someone so close to completing an advanced degree.
“I either need to get a new data set or change the topic entirely,” Robinson admits. “I used to get bogged down by the things I can’t change. An old mentor once taught me to say ‘I’m not on that committee,’ and that is very wise counsel that has helped me recognize that I can only change the things I can change.”
While working toward her doctorate, Robinson was employed as a grant writer for the State of Minnesota. She sought a federal grant writing position, and thought the state job would be a logical entry into the federal role.
Her expectations didn’t quite align with the job’s realities, though.
“I realized it just wasn’t a good match,” she said. “All of my previous roles were directly touching people. This was all paperwork. A friend had been telling me for months that I belonged at a YWCA. I finally intentionally searched for jobs within the organization and found three CEO positions available throughout the United States.”
A GOOD FIT IN GB
Robinson researched the three locations and thought she could make the most impact in Green Bay. She spent 30 years working with domestic and sexual abuse survivors in various capacities, stemming from her role as a domestic violence survivor.
“I don’t shy away from my history as a domestic violence survivor,” Robinson said. “It encouraged me to have a voice and speak for women who don’t have the education or resources to speak for themselves.”
It was through that lens that she turned her application focus to Northeastern Wisconsin. “In researching the area and the services at the YWCA, that is one of the bigger gaps I’ve found here,” Robinson said. “We do not currently have staff on site doing any work with a focus on that.”
So Robinson is eyeing grant money to allow for the addition of a staff member dedicated to work with domestic and sexual abuse victim drop-in clients. In 2018 the YWCA served 2,000 women with the Career Closet — a free service that pairs volunteers with women who are interviewing for a job or starting a new job to “shop” for career wear among racks and racks of donated clothes.
“If they’re here for one thing, we should be focusing on giving them access to everything. Don’t ask them to come back another time,” Robinson said. “We are central as a connector in the community. We have a very unique personality and I want to make sure we leverage our position. We’re right on the tipping point of positive change.”
Today Robinson gets her exercise walking her chihuahua Bentley around her Allouez neighborhood, practicing yoga and taking water aerobics classes at the YWCA.
But she also is an accomplished track and field athlete: She won the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials in the triple jump (but missed competing in Seoul because the triple jump wasn't inducted into the Olympic games until 1992). She also won the 1989 National Collegiate Athletic Association triple jump title while attending the University of Nebraska as a graduate student. Less than a year later, she and her now ex-husband gave birth to the first of two sons.
Her athletic endeavors were sidelined while she finished her master's degree, worked as a social studies teacher and raised her children. But as her marriage dissolved in the late 1990s, she decided to return to her roots and moved back to Lincoln, Nebraska with her 9- and 11-year-old children to train with her former college coach in hopes of qualifying for the 2000 summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. As a 33-year-old mother of two, she missed qualifying for the trials by four inches.
The experience taught Robinson a lot about perseverance and about setting intentions. Setting intentions is a key focus for Robinson as she begins her day.
TUNING IN TO HERSELF AND OTHERS
“I have a morning quiet time where I thank God for my health, family and job and set my intentions,” Robinson said. “I check in with people I love and who love me. It’s not always the same person, but someone from my family or extended family who really knows me and who knows how I am by my voice. I have given people I love and who love me permission to remind me of the best version of myself I intend to be. One of my most important self-care routines is to address things that make me feel grumpy or unsafe. If something is happening in my sphere of influence that fails to honor the space, I address it directly and offer ways to reframe or remedy it.”
To that end, Robinson looks upon her role as grandma to 7-year-old Kyalinn as her most important duty these days. “My eyes and heart light up when I think or talk about my sons and granddaughter,” Robinson said. “Kyalinn is smart, beautiful and a joy to be around.”
When she travels back to Nebraska where both sons live, she makes sure to schedule special time with her granddaughter. They like to stay overnight in a hotel, swim in the hotel’s pool, shop, dine and make craft projects. Robinson said she lives to see her granddaughter’s face light up and hear her peal of unencumbered laughter. It’s the same sound she finds intoxicating at the YWCA, where little ones frolic and giggle through the halls en route to swimming lessons or daycare classes.
Robinson also makes time to volunteer at the Micah Center at St. John’s Homeless Shelter providing hairstyles for clients.
MAKING HER IMPRINT ON GREEN BAY
As the YWCA celebrates its 100-year anniversary, Robinson is immersed in the organization’s “Campaign of the Century.” Tied to the celebration, Robinson is preparing to launch a program that trains volunteers who will speak to groups in the community about diversity education and social justice. Similarly, she is working toward a project to educate the community about the equity gap in pay.
And while Robinson has lofty goals for the YWCA, her biggest task is to keep the organization sustainable for another century.
“My role here is to move forward an organization that is really just on the other side of limping along,” Robinson said. “This is a ready laboratory. I think about that every single day. We have a responsibility in this world to promote peace and stand up for the underdog. That’s what I’m doing at the YWCA.” w