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VOL. 133 | NO. 158 | Friday, August 10, 2018

Inspired by Unlikely Hero, Robertson Fulfilling Needs

Anna Thompson

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Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.

When thinking of “heroes” or “role models” for African-American males, the first names that come to mind might be sports phenoms or our immediate past president, Barack Obama. But wherever your mind wanders, I doubt it lands on Bayard Rustin.

But for Courtney Williams Robertson, Network for School Improvement manager at Seeding Success, this often-unsung hero has become a beacon of inspiration and a pioneer of sorts.

“In my spare time I’m also an actor, it’s one of my main passions in life,” Robertson explains. He recently won the Diversity on Stage and Film (DOSF) Award for Best Male Actor for his role portraying Rustin in “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin.”

Courtney Williams Robertson

“I hadn’t heard much about him before this role,” Robertson says. “He was a civil and gay rights activist, as well as the strategist behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was an adviser to Dr. (Martin Luther) King and A. Philip Randolph was his mentor, so he’s an unsung hero in a lot of history books. Because he was openly gay, it came with a stigma in the 1950s and ’60s. He’s a fighter for sure; it’s a really beautiful story.”

Playing the role of Rustin was difficult but timely for Robertson, noting that he had revealed his sexual orientation “to my parents around two years ago and to the rest of the world shortly after.

“[The role] was very emotional but very uplifting – to know there was someone who looked like me doing this kind of work,” he said. “He’s a hero to me now, and I even have a picture of him hanging in my house. He was so talented that people overlooked their biases to have him lead the movement, so I would love to be that well-respected and have that kind of confidence.”

It is unsung heroes like Rustin, and today, Robertson, who often make the biggest impact on those around them. Robertson’s passion for using data to aid organizations in the Memphis area has yielded tremendous impact.

“I’ve always known I was a people-person and loved connecting them to resources, but I didn’t view that as a potential career path [until college],” he says. In his work with Seeding Success, he is able to support organizations, specifically in the nonprofit education space, and use data to inform best practices.

“We are what is called a ‘cradle to career’ collective impact organization,” Robertson says. “We mainly support organizations that work in the after-school space around education and youth development. We manage a data sharing agreement with the Shelby County School District and support partners by using data to inform their practice. There are specific outcomes along this pipeline that are considered measures of success; literally ranging from birth to obtaining a college degree and securing a living wage. We have partners whose missions align across these outcome areas, for example Knowledge Quest and The Boys and Girls Club. I support these relationships so that everyone can authentically communicate and reach their desired outcomes.”

When asked what the most important part of his job is, he explains that solid relationships are crucial for progress in any arena. “Authentic relationships are important, especially those you’re trying to do the work for, not just for self-gain. It’s about coming alongside people, particularly as you think about neighborhoods in Memphis. Come into the work with a level of empathy. I think empathy lacks across humanity as a whole right now. You have to empathize with them to truly hear them, and hear them to understand what their needs are. Just because you have the degrees and know the theories doesn’t mean you have all the answers. People know what their needs are, and it’s not necessarily what you think they need based on research.”

It’s all about coming together to reach a common goal -- a better, more educated Memphis. It’s all about focusing on the bigger picture.

“A lot of times organizations can be blinded by funding. We all feel like we’re in competition for funding, or ‘if we share a piece of our program model, then someone might take it and does it better.’ This work is important because it brings people together to remove the focus from self and think about what’s good for Shelby County. Thinking at a more macro level then saying ‘how do I contribute to this?’ If I have a practice that’s really working, share it to scale it up. We are trying to bring people together to leverage each other and common resources. The people doing the work are the experts but we can all ask ourselves: How can we support you? What does that look like?”

Courtney Williams Robertson is a graduate of New Memphis’ Embark program. Learn more at newmemphis.org.

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