Supporting working-class students

Chazz Robinson headshot.

His goals: Create change. Ease the journeys of others.

During this past very unusual summer, GSE PhD student Chazz Robinson (EdM ’19) watched protests from a hotel window in his hometown of Milwaukee. He felt curious about how the unrest and police killings of Black people were going to affect students and educators.

As a researcher, a scholar and an activist, his ambition to be a dean of a graduate school of education has deepened. As he finishes his coursework, he knows his dissertation research will involve collecting stories of people like him from working-class backgrounds who found ways to navigate white education systems. His goals: Create change. Ease the journeys of others.

To get this far, he persevered through unlucky, and lucky, twists of fate. As he watched protestors in the Milwaukee streets in July, he wondered how many of them could use the same kind of life-changing help he’s found along his way.

He was 13 when his mother, once a landlord with 10 houses, slipped into poverty after the 2008 economic crash. “We lost everything,” said Robinson, 27.

When people start sharing stories with each other something powerful can happen." -Chazz Robinson

He went to three high schools. He was expelled. Things were particularly bad after his mom sent him to live with uncles. When he slept, rats and roaches were near. Gunshots rang out. He ate Doritos for dinner. He lashed out at school. Fights were common. Studying was hard.

“I was just angry all of the time from being hungry, tired and constantly in survival mode,” said Robinson.

Year by year, things changed. He studied. Mentors stepped in. He landed at HOPE Christian High School, where the college acceptance graduation requirement motivated him.

At his first college, a disagreement about a project led classmates to say he was threatening. A dean, Kate Herrick of George Williams College of Aurora University, said the accusation was racist, suggested he transfer and drove him to Minnesota’s Saint Mary’s University to visit.

He enrolled and Esther Peralez, a dean of the student success center at the time, grew concerned about police shootings, the danger Black men faced, and made a habit of checking in with him.

He knows he wouldn’t be in graduate school if not for help from teachers and deans. The list now includes his current advisor Raechele Pope, associate dean for faculty and student affairs and associate professor of higher education.

While he was earning his EdM in higher education last year, she encouraged him to go for his doctorate in higher education.

“My story is one story of so many. There’s a community of people who never even got the chance to get access to education, to get their story told,” he said. “The more we can get these stories, the more we can start advocating. I think that through storytelling we begin to understand the different things that are affecting people ... When people start sharing stories with each other something powerful can happen.”

Published March 1, 2021