Conversation With Robin Wonsley Worlobah

Photo Eric Mueller

I was born in 1991, on the Southside of Chicago in a predominantly working-class Black community. For the first 18 years of my life, I grew up surrounded by Blackness. My neighbors, my school, and my church were predominately Black. I was my mom’s only child and the eldest of two for my dad. Both parents and many of my extended relatives treated me like a child prodigy. They invested their dreams, time, and resources into me, in hopes that I would be the one in our family to escape.

I still don’t know why. It could have been that my parents grew up in dire poverty and they simply wanted better for me. It could have been that my parents did not want to see me work multiple minimum wage jobs or 12- hour shifts in order to make ends meet, like they had to do. It could have been that several of my relatives were swept up by local gangs and mass incarceration.

A Deficit Mindset

Growing up on Chicago’s Southside, I learned that I lived in an apartheid system. White residents downtown got Emerald City while Black and brown residents in my neighborhood got vacant lots, makeshift burial sites, liquor stores, check-cashing and pawn shops, drug addicts, and dealers. I wanted Emerald City for myself and my family, and I believed I needed to distance myself from my people in order to have it.

I adopted a deficit mindset, which caused me to view us as the problem. I wanted to distance myself from poor and working-class Black folks. I excelled academically to prove that I was one of the Black folks who had potential and was worthy of a quality life.

I didn’t know that government policy was largely responsible for the destabilization of Black communities and Black life in Chicago. Instead, I believed Black folks were to blame for their collective demise. I internalized these conservative views even more once I got to high school. I excelled academically, leading me to Carleton College in Northfield. There I sought mentorship from Black folks who succeeded in individualistic pursuits and distanced myself from my family and community.

To challenge [my white peers’] perceptions about us, several of my Black friends and I threw ourselves into performative activism. We thought that if we exposed our white liberal peers and faculty to various aspects of Black culture, their understanding of and relationships with us would change. We hosted cultural events that required Black people to share their traumas and engage in a lot of dancing and singing. At that moment, we didn’t realize that we were asking Black folks to perform unnecessary labor just to demonstrate and prove their humanity.

Unraveling My Worldview

It is hard to pinpoint the influences and events that unraveled my individualistic politics. I do know most of them occurred while I was at Carleton. I learned there is not an us and I, but rather an us and them: us being marginal, poor, deprived Black and brown folks, and them being entitled, neoliberal, and wealthy white folks.

African American and women’s studies courses exposed me to critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, and imperialism. This helped to frame my lived experience in Chicago. I saw how the rich and powerful directly benefited — via profits — from the closure of Chicago public schools; from the decimation of public housing; from the expansion of retail and fast food chains on the Southside, which barely paid workers minimum wage; from the misdiagnoses and overmedication of Black youth; from the constant imprisonment of poor Black men, women, and youth. Black folks’ suffering and exploitation yielded profits and selective freedoms for the white and wealthy.

In 2011, a friend in the Occupy Wall Street Movement sharpened my analysis of capitalism and expanded my activism. On a gender studies program in Europe, I discovered that Occupy had spread worldwide. In Poland, I visited Auschwitz. Two days later, I was chased down the street by Neo-Nazis. I realized the struggle for liberation stretched beyond the U.S. Black and brown folks in Europe, Asia, and Africa had been screwed over by the same culprit — wealthy, greedy, white capitalists and imperialists.

In 2012, after Trayvon Martin’s murder and the emergence of Black Lives Matter, I started hosting forums, conferences, and workshops on police brutality and the prison industrial complex at Carleton. My crew of student activists brought Michelle Alexander to speak about her book “The New Jim Crow.”

Searching for Restorative Approaches

Around this time, my cousin’s reentry journey redirected my scholarship and activism. After 15 years behind bars, he graduated from an anti-recidivism program and secured a job. I went to Chicago to work with Geraldine Smith, who had recently received a pardon from the governor after 19 years on death row. Her work inspired my senior thesis on reentry programs in Chicago.

I found that most of these programs assumed incarceration was the result of bad decision-making and lack of Christian faith. They did not offer systemic solutions to incarceration and recidivism.

With a Watson Fellowship, I went to Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Ireland to study their anti-recidivist efforts. I was horrified to discover they had adopted U.S. retributive penal practices. These countries once had low incarceration rates, but their prisons overflow with poor folks, Aboriginal and Native folks, Black folks, and immigrants. I realized mass incarceration cannot be eliminated without radically transforming the political and economic structure of our global society.

Back in Minneapolis, I began work in nonprofits, only to discover that this sector — which secures millions in grants and contracts in our city to serve marginalized communities — often operates so that Minneapolis’s racial and economic inequities persist.

Building Power

In November 2015, Jamar Clark’s murder by two law enforcers in North Minneapolis sparked a fire in my soul. My nonprofit work felt insufficient to advance racial and economic justice. I attended anti-racist and police brutality community forums and Black Lives Matter actions and protests. I joined organizations that built power amongst poor and working-class Black and brown folks.

In 2016, I became lead staff for 15 Now MN, an anti- capitalist, Black– and brown–led campaign. After taking on numerous blockages that city council members and corporate leaders threw our way, we won a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. I thought, “if this small coalition could succeed, we [have] the potential to eliminate police and corporate terror in our cities.”

This optimism led me to pursue a Ph.D. in women’s and gender studies, researching domestic and global resistance movements to dismantle capitalist systems and bring about new equitable, restorative, and democratic structures. It is why I am fighting alongside my community to get George Floyd and Daunte Wright the justice they deserve.

Thinking Globally and Building Locally

On Monday, May 25, 2020, I sat in my car, paralyzed by an image that appeared at the top of my Facebook timeline: Officer Chauvin, with his knee buried in George Floyd’s neck. I tried to regain control over my breath and nervous system. Tuesday morning news outlets reported that George Floyd’s death was the result of medical distress. At this point, millions of people across the world saw the video of George’s public execution. What they saw directly contradicted the police report. Minneapolis residents who took to the streets understood these false allegations were grounded in the extensive police history of negating responsibility and accountability for brutalizing and executing Black and brown men, women, and youth.

As a socialist, I guide my political orientation and actions by the needs, dreams, and political interests of the working- class, and particularly Black, brown, and queer communities. Racial capitalism thrives off the exploitation of our lives, labor, and natural resources. Forces that help to preserve and strengthen this system include: 1) political leaders, 2) corporate and private big business, and 3) police and military.

For decades, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and allied communities in Minneapolis tackled the destructive and racist impacts of these forces through traditional political processes: voting, lobbying, civil actions.

After the uprising, I worked with Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America to provide food and distribute supplies and services to local Hi-Lake residents. Later in the summer, I worked with the Seward Police Abolition Coalition to block the rebuilding of the 3rd precinct that burned during the uprising — a $10 million project. We successfully stalled the rebuild. I continue to work at a neighborhood level on real public safety: passing rent control, fully funding social services. We worked to write a people-centered budget that addresses human needs. Rebuilding the 3rd precinct is not in that budget.

While police violence has produced gross and repressive militarized attacks against our grieving community, it has also triggered revolutionary uprisings across our state, nation, and the globe.

We must never lose sight of the world we deserve and need to build. If we forget this, we will constantly get pulled into a cycle of saving systems that harm, exploit, and erase us.

We must also broaden the “us.” As much as I want this to be the case, I know Black people alone cannot take down the system of global racial capitalism. Our movements must strive to link the struggles and collective interests of Black and brown folks, LGBTQ+ communities, unionized and hourly workers, and immigrants.

I have a tattoo on my upper right arm that says that the Revolution Is My Boyfriend, a mantra that best describes my dreams and passions. In every facet of my life, I strive to spark and advance revolutions in my own healing journey, my scholarly pursuits, and my activism.

Robin Wonsley Worlobah (she/her) is running as a Democratic Socialist in the 2021 Minneapolis City Council election.

Go Deeper

Find our video conversation with Robin here