This Millennial NAACP Leader Is Registering Missouri’s Young People To Vote
When Toni Robinson became president of the Springfield, Missouri chapter of the NAACP in 2018, not only were they leading a chapter of one of the most storied civil rights organizations in the country at just 25, but they were also doing so as an openly queer person.
“It was definitely a drastic change, and the community was like, ‘wow, this has never happened before,’” Robinson told Supermajority News. “But this is a small town, and people know me now, but I still get that feeling that people are making adjustments.”
But Robinson says their visibility has also helped community members see that “this person is really here and really doing something. We’ve seen a lot of movement here, and we’re fighting for young folks and queer folks as well.”
Supermajority News had the chance to talk to Robinson about their work in Springfield and why their chapter is thinking outside of the box when it comes to getting residents to register to vote.
You got a lot of attention when you first became president of the Springfield NAACP in 2018. Was that daunting for you?
It wasn’t daunting in terms of my age. I always revered young activists and figures like Martin Luther King Jr and John Lewis, and they were young; they were my age, if not younger, when they started. If anything, me being young made me feel good, and our former president Cheryl Clay had talked a lot about how we needed to reach out to the younger generations.
It was more the optics and perspective of being an out Black leader under 30 in this area at the oldest civil rights organization in the country. In the United States, especially in the Springfield area, a lot of money and influence comes from older, heterosexual white people. Even in the NAACP itself, there have not been a lot of chapter presidents under 30 across the country — I am one of very few. So I’m breaking that mold in a lot of ways.
You are not from Springfield originally. What first brought you to the city, and what is it like?
I was born and raised in St Louis and came to Springfield in 2012, right after I graduated high school. I went to Evangel University, which I believe is one of the most conservative Christian schools in America in one of the whitest counties in Missouri. I was heavily religious growing up, and my mom said, ‘please get into a Christian school.’ I was like ‘whatever,’ but I just needed to get away and create a different life for myself.
But when I got to school, I was super successful in terms of finding my voice and social justice work. But then Mike Brown was killed in 2014, and here I was at this conservative white school as a Black, queer, and not out person. Trying to navigate that as a person who had never been taught to love my Blackness or my queerness was difficult.
How did Mike Brown’s death affect you?
I think that because [the university] was so small, and there was so much room to improve, the racism around was just so evident and visible — you could feel it every day. I think that propelled me into leadership on all kinds of accounts. After Mike Brown happened, I got the entire university to participate in a MLK [Day] march my junior year — which was huge. That was when I realized that this is what I want to do with my life.
What drew you to the NAACP in particular?
As I said, I wasn’t really taught about Blackness and history growing up. But I was about to start my junior year when the Mike Brown incident happened, and I started reaching out to and forming a relationship with the local NAACP president Cheryl Clay. The NAACP Springfield chapter hosts an annual MLK Day march every year in January. It was just an opportune time to converge with a very legitimate organization and get the school to participate in the march.
Do you have any advice for other young people interested in leadership positions?
One thing I learned with my leadership process [is that] you have to be present with the issues that you want to address. When I was in my mentorship process, I got super involved in one of the LGBT organizations, the GLO Center, the LGBTQ Center of the Ozarks, which has been around for over 20 years. I served on the board and also facilitated the QTPOC group once a month. I think that because those relationships had already formed, it just made me more accessible.
For example, last year we called out the school district for a series of anti-LGBTQ incidents [and] racism. Through the relationships I had with the community, I was visible, and because of my visibility, students were drawn to me. I had a trans kid come up to me and say, ‘this is what I’ve been experiencing and I am tired of it.’
As an activist, I can’t just go to the administrator and say ‘hey you need to get gender-neutral bathrooms in all of the schools’ if I don’t have a student there who can talk about the bladder issues they are experiencing, or [their] anxiety, or the fact that they are being picked on by their peers. But we were able to enter those meetings, and I had those kids right by our side and [we] were able to tell their stories.
The Springfield NAACP also recently met with the city’s police department to discuss new numbers that revealed that Black residents were disproportionately pulled over for traffic stops. Can you tell us more about that meeting?
We have met with the police chief every year about the disparity index, which tracks the disproportionate rate of which Black folks and other people of color are stopped by police. If you don’t know anything about data, just seeing those different numbers might not be alarming to you. But then when you break down those numbers, you realize that we are twice as likely to be stopped by police and that even though we are only four percent of the population, we are 11 percent of the stops. That is very alarming and very, very dangerous.
Springfield is the third-largest city in Missouri, but it is also in the whitest area in the state. We have a lot of history and systemic racism that needs to be addressed. The powers that be who will be continued to be called out as long as I’m around.
Your chapter has also been focused on getting young people in the area to register to vote. How has that been going?
We have partnered with the school district to set up drive-through voter registration centers. So for three weeks, we’ve set up an area where people can go and get registered. They never have to get out of their cars, and everything is sanitized. We even have a notary there if it is needed.
With this being the biggest election in quite some time, we thought that it was absolutely imperative to get as many people registered to vote as possible. That meant that even despite COVID-19 and despite the racial unrest in the country right now, we thought that we had to find a way to do this.
What have your conversations with younger voters about the election been like?
I definitely feel like they are invested in the issues, and they are invested in injustice and getting their voices being heard. I understand why some young folks have the opinions they do in terms of not voting, but the truth is that our voting is our power in this democracy. If you want to dismantle the systems and change things, I do believe that one of the main ways to do that is to go out to the polls. So I am going to keep leading efforts to get young people out if possible.