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NAACP Spokane’s president applies his firefighting skills to injustice

Kurtis Robinson shares story of overcoming “fires” in his life.

As president of the NAACP Spokane since May, Kurtis Robinson has found that his work as a firefighter, fighting wildland fires for Spokane and now for Spokane County Fire District 10, has similarities to fighting “fires” of oppression to bring social justice. 

He also likened it to his experience of “fighting fires” of abuse, addiction, incarceration, violence and ostracism that had impact on his early life.

“I know from fighting wildland fires in overwhelming and seemingly impossible situations what we need to do to deal with personal, spiritual, social and political wildfires that seem overwhelming and impossible,” he said.

“When fire comes at us, firefighters get out of the way, hook around and catch the tail to put it out, moving from the back and sides into the head of the fire,” Kurtis said.  “Or we back burn up to the fire to cut off the fuel.

There is value in the struggle and chaos, and out of the ashes, there is opportunity for new growth, life that would not grow if it wasn’t for the fire,” Kurtis observed.

“Injustice is like a fire with multiple heads.  Rather than dealing with it head-on from the front where there is momentum, we need to break it from the back or burn towards it to slow and stop its momentum,” he said.

Kurtis sees the NAACP as laying foundations to prevent and “slow the momentum of the dysfunction coming at us, so when it reaches us it does not go further,” he said.

The NAACP Spokane works to ensure everyone’s political, social, educational and economic equality through its committees on equality, education, youth, political action, the environment and criminal justice.

The executive board of the nearly 300-member local chapter recently grew from seven to 14.  It revamped its website, reinvigorated its relationship with the American Civil Liberties Union, connected with the Black Student Union at Gonzaga University, streamlined its member database and social media, is developing its online calendar, and plans to recruit interns.

“We have many moving parts,” said Kurtis, who is completing Phil Tyler’s term that ends in 2018.

“We have been going through soul searching, hungering not only for healing as an organization but also to be a viable, meaningful, energetic organization,” he said.

Kurtis described fires in his early life and interventions that led him to this leadership role.

“I was born in Idaho, but lived six years in the Bronx, where I was beat up as a mulatto boy. In the 1970s and 1980s, I moved from Oregon through to San Diego, the son of a single, white woman concerned about social justice but married abusive men,” he said. “My school years were filled with dysfunction, abuse, addiction and violence, leading to suspensions and expulsion.”

He was 18 when he learned he was also African American and Native American, and the man he’d grown up thinking was his father wasn’t. Lacking a healthy adult role model, he sought to meet his needs with drugs and gangs.

“I became a cocaine-addicted adult and was arrested when I was 24,” said Kurtis.  He was in and out of jail for three years until a probation officer released him to Hope House, a long-term drug treatment program in Anaheim.  Over two-and-a-half years, he moved from addictive behavior to pro-social behavior.

“Victims who do not process their abuse may become perpetrators,” he said, glad he and his mother have worked through their trauma.

Kurtis maintained recovery for several years, even though his felony conviction was a barrier to finding employment. Eventually he began working in plumbing in Orange County, Calif., and then Arizona.

He married and divorced, then married a second time in Arizona.

His older sister’s suicide and the miraculous survival of her daughter drew his attention to spiritual questions about life and God, which he explored through Native American communities.

Then a mountain bike accident crippled his right arm, leaving him in pain and ending his career in plumbing. He was told it would never heal.

In 2004, Kurtis came with his second wife to Keller, Wash., to be near her family on the Colville Reservation.

During the chaos in his second marriage, when he wanted to die, he cried out to God for help. He had been suspicious about religion, because he had seen people of faith harm people.

“I heard God say, ‘Kurtis, I’m here.’ I told God I wanted to go ‘home,’ but God said, ‘I understand, but you’re not done,’” Kurtis said.

He asked God to heal him and began to read the Bible, pray, meditate and talk with the Keller Community Church pastor and other pastors.

One invited him to surrender his life to God. As Kurtis did, he realized he was no longer the “illegitimate son” he had considered himself, but he was “a child of the living God,” he said.

He stopped taking the medicines for his arm, grew stronger and felt called to reach out to people. He entered a tribal program to gain work experience.

Kurtis began asking God, “What do you want me to do next?”

After his divorce in 2007, a fire almost burned Nespelem, so he took wildland fire training.

When complaining about humanity, he felt God call him to “go down off the mountain and do something to help humanity. What do you think I saved you for?”

He came homeless to the Union Gospel Mission (UGM) shelter in Spokane, “open to the experience spiritually and mentally,” Kurtis said.

He returned to Keller, planning to go to North Dakota for the oil boom, but a woman in the church suggested he become a nurses’ aide.  He felt God speaking to him through her. 

In 2011, he brought his belongings, and returned to UGM while being trained as a certified nurses’ aid and working at two nursing homes.

Summers he fought wildland fires.

Kurtis met Pastor Danny Green at Celebrate Recovery and moved into its Reaching Out Advocating Recovery (ROAR) House. In 2012, he began managing ROAR House and the ROAR Project of Family of Faith Community Church.  He helped build up the program, which added more houses.

Then in 2014, he re-married and joined the Spokane County Behavioral Health Advisory Board, through which he met Layne Pavey with I Did the Time, a group challenging discrimination against people with arrest and conviction records.

“I realized impacted communities need to gain healthy voices to speak for themselves,” Kurtis said, explaining  that by “impacted communities,” he means those suffering from poverty, trauma, violence, addiction, incarceration and other societal ills.

In 2015, he became involved with the NAACP Spokane. He joined and then chaired the Criminal Justice Committee, which put him on the Executive Committee. In May 2017, he was elected president.

Kurtis believes it’s what God wants him to do for right now. 

To fight fires of inequality, injustice and oppression, he seeks to help the NAACP Spokane:

• address local to national racial disparities in criminal justice and education systems;

• use solutions-based approaches to address health care, help people be self-advocates and heal relationships;

• galvanize people to stand against the increase in racist behavior with information and awareness of how to be politically involved, and

• institute solutions-focused restorative changes for communities of color and all communities.

“The NAACP nationally has been a hallmark of advocacy for the oppressed and ostracized. It’s called to be that again,” said Kurtis, who is guiding the local chapter to respond to needs “of God’s children crying out for help.”

“Communities of color are traumatized. We need to come to terms with our trauma and seek restorative processes and restorative justice for ourselves, our communities and our society,” Kurtis said. 

“White people are traumatized by the same dynamics that traumatize communities of color,” he pointed out, calling “for soul searching and social dialogue on the capitalist caste system.

“How is it that some have more and some have less?  How do we manifest classism and racism? How do we dismantle classism and restore democratic ideals?” he asked.

“If we are our brother’s keepers, we must help liberate those who suffer and are oppressed.  The future of humanity depends on it,” Kurtis said.

For information, call 509-631-2506 or email


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