by Joyce Hyser Robinson & Amelia Williamson

1. Language Matters

The Harold Robinson Foundation has joined many others in making a conscious effort to humanize our language and retire euphemisms like inner-city,  inner-city children, and underprivileged.  It can be unintentional and out of habit, but we all need to be more intentional about the words we use—language matters. We recognize language has the power to cause harm, particularly in the struggle for equitable systems and industries. How can we truly establish equity when we are always seeking to establish an “other.”  Language has been used throughout our history to divide communities and infer a sense of someone or some communities being ‘less than’ others. Inner-city, underprivileged, minority and poor are a few words no longer used by many organizations because it speaks to circumstances and not who we are as humans.

2. Not all disadvantaged communities are in the inner-city.

Although it may be factual that some disinvested communities are within the inner-city, not all, and perhaps even most of them are not. Downtown/Inner-City/Center City neighborhoods are thriving and have become increasingly wealthy, displacing many long-time residents to more suburban and rural areas. For instance, Watts, the community we serve, has been commonly referred to as an “inner-city” neighborhood. But Watts is about 13 miles from downtown Los Angeles. For context, so is Beverly Hills. 


These are stereotypes, and they evoke racial identification based on where one might reside and gives no historical reference to how and why they exist, which brings us to redlining.

3. Terms like “inner-city” propagate historical biases and institutional racism.

“Redlining, a process by which banks and other institutions refuse to offer mortgages or offer worse rates to customers in certain neighborhoods based on their racial and ethnic composition, is one of the clearest examples of institutionalized racism in the history of the United States. Although the practice was formally outlawed in 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Act, it continues in various forms to this day.” 

Considering homeownership has been how most American families have generated familial wealth, black people, for the most part, were denied that opportunity. Their communities lacked investment, and they were left to die on the proverbial vine.

One interesting fact about Watts is that from the 1920s to the late 1950s, Watts was considered a diverse, middle-class suburb. The public housing developments, which later became notorious for gang violence, were built by the city during WW11 to accommodate both black and white migrants coming from the southern states for work. It wasn’t until white flight took hold in the late 1950s and early 1960s when whites started moving out to neighborhoods that did not allow for black settlement when all that changed. When Watts became a redlined city, not only did private investment dry up, but the city began its disinvestment from the community. Residents could not get federally backed home loans or any type of home improvement loan. Watts, like many redlined neighborhoods, fell into disrepair and poverty brought on by these racist policies. Predominantly black communities became synonymous with crime due to the policies that set them up for failure.

Harold Robinson Foundation is doing its part to change the narrative.

Sixty years later, we are still marginalizing, dehumanizing, and “othering” our most vulnerable resident – it has to stop. The elevation in social discord we are experiencing as a country has put a spotlight on our collective failure in the way we see and treat each other. Over the past decades, the social justice movement has been working to change policy and the language we use in addressing the issues we face together. Language can have a negative impact on our perception of one another, furthering the divides and implanting a sense of ‘us and them. The Harold Robinson Foundation chooses our words mindful of the importance of empowering people, breaking down the barriers that separate us, and addressing the historic disinvestment of communities that began with redlining. Change happens from the bottom up. It is up to us as an organization that works in Los Angeles’ under-served neighborhoods to do our part to make that change happen. It takes all of us working together to make a difference. That is what we at the Harold Robinson Foundation call working in the spirit of UBUNTU.



by Joyce Hyser Robinson


For the first few years of the Harold Robinson Foundation hosting overnight weekend retreats for the under-resourced schools in South Los Angeles, our organization did not have a name for our camp program. We operated out of Canyon Creek Complex, a beautiful 82 acre overnight camp and retreat center in the Angeles National Forest. We referred to our retreats as Canyon Creek Camp, but it was the camp’s physical location, not our work’s essence. About three years into our camp retreats and hosting up to 2,000 campers a year, we began to recognize the impact our camp programs were having in the community of South Los Angeles. It was about time we had a name that reflected our work and mission. 


No matter how much we brainstormed, we couldn’t find something that resonated. Roughly a year and a half into the process, I was working on one of my writing projects when I got a case of writer’s block. I started to mindlessly scroll around on Facebook to clear my head when I came upon a post that my friend and now our Executive Director of the Harold Robinson Foundation, Cheryl Bonacci, had posted to her timeline.


This post burst through my computer screen and hit me right in my solar plexus. It’s what I refer to as a “God-shot.”  Like finding a bright double rainbow after a  thunderstorm. THIS WAS IT. I have never been more certain that I had found what we had been looking for this entire time. One word that says so much, UBUNTU. One word that embodies everything we do, everything we preach—the essence of us. A word like that does not exist in the English language, a relatively young language. Only in the ancient languages, African and Aramaic, will we find one word that can have so much meaning. 


Ubuntu comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages and is one of the founding principles of the new republic of South Africa. It’s about humanism. Something that, sadly, seems to be in short supply these days. The literal translation in Zulu is I AM BECAUSE WE ARE, and it represents the respect, love, kindness, and connectedness we believe should exist between all people.


Thankfully, my husband and foundation co-founder was as convinced as I was that Ubuntu was the perfect name for us. It was a manifestation of our vision. We could not have been more excited to introduce the word and the philosophy behind it to the Harold Robinson Foundation’s Board of Directors.


I wish I could say that the process of adopting the name was an easy one. It was not. It took quite a few conversations to get us there. Our well-meaning board had many and some very fair concerns. They ranged from the word being too difficult to pronounce to an African word and philosophy not being inclusive enough for the Latino population that was also a part of the South Los Angeles community we serve. We felt confident that these were all concerns we would easily overcome.


We consulted with several non-profit and academic world professionals who all agreed that it was a great name, a great philosophy, a philosophy that could live and should live beyond South Africa’s borders. One of the academics we consulted was Dr. Renford Reese. Dr. Reese is a professor in the political science department and founder/director of the Colorful Flags program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of American Bravado, Prison Race, Leadership in the LAPD: Walking the Tightrope, and American Paradox: Young Black Men. This was his response to me:


“I just looked at your website and your Youtube video. The camp experience seems amazing! The testimonials are inspirational. I love what you are doing and I fundamentally believe that your approach embraces the concept of “ubuntu.” The concept, like your camps, transcends ethnicity. The problem seems to be the ethnic sound and origin of the name. The word/concept is African and cannot be de-Africanized, so it will always sound ethnic. If this is an inherent issue with your team, it will continue to be problematic. This problem is analogous to naming a K-12 school after Martin Luther King Jr. As soon as the school takes on this name, it takes on distinct ethnic connotations that we do not want to discuss be we all subtly acknowledge, e.g., the school is/or will become black, underachieving, dysfunctional, “ghetto.”  If the reason for the pushback, however, is because of the sensitivity of appropriating an African concept, I do not think this should be a concern. By your foundation using the concept, it means the concept has been manifested in the way of its original intent.”


Another argument that I believe may have swayed our board’s decision was NBA head coach Doc Rivers’ adoption of the Ubuntu philosophy during the 2008 Boston Celtics’ championship year. Doc and the entire Celtic team credit the spirit of Ubuntu for their achievements that year.

The word ubuntu is even engraved into their championship ring.

In 2014, we finally named our signature camp programs Camp Ubuntu and Camp Ubuntu Watts. To proclaim that the new name was a resounding success is not hyperbole. The community of South LA  embraced it wholeheartedly. Some schools made it the word of the year, some teachers adopted it in their classrooms, and others used it as their graduation theme. Parents told us that they used it at home too. It did not take us long to recognize that we made the right decision.


In 2014 Harold Robinson Foundation/Camp Ubuntu won a prestigious award from the American Camp Association.

During our camp retreats and at summer camp, Ubuntu is spoken and discussed daily. We use it as a rallying cry during team-building activities and at the ropes course when someone achieves their goal or overcomes a fear with their fellow campers’ help and support. We use it to encourage our campers to challenge themselves and step out of their comfort zone. 


One of my favorite stories and a great example of the power of how we use and teach ubuntu happened at one of our weekend retreats. We were hosting the 5th graders at 99th St. Elementary school, and they had their school football team and their coach Mr. Sanchez at camp. The football team had to leave very early on Sunday morning to go back into the city to play in a championship game. The team returned to camp later that day victorious. They had won the game, and they credited the spirit of ubuntu and what they had learned about it at camp. The story goes something like this;


With only a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, our team was down by 12 points (2 touchdowns), and it didn’t look good for them. The kids were getting upset and losing their energy when they were in their huddle; before the next play, one of the kids said to his fellow teammates, “remember the word we learned at camp the weekend?’ They all replied, “UBUNTU!” The captain said, “yes, that’s right, we have to come together as a team cause if one succeeds, we all succeed!  Let’s go. We can do this.” They put their hands in and yelled Ubuntu on the count of 3.  They broke out of the huddle and took their positions on the field. Right before the snap, the Coach yells out, “UBUNTU!!” That very next play, their Quarterback throws the ball downfield; the receiver catches the ball, and the player runs it in for a touchdown. Now the score is 12 to 6. They kick the ball to the other team, and the defense holds the other team, and they get the ball back with 15 seconds left in the game. Our team catches the punted ball, the coach yells out UBUNTU, and as their player is running it down the field, he jukes out everyone that comes near him. He runs the whole length of the field to score another touchdown. The game is now tied 12 – 12 at the end of the 4th quarter. They’re going into overtime. Our team wins the toss. As they are about to run their first play Coach Sanchez once again yells, “UBUNTU!!” The Quarterback throws downfield, the ball is caught, and the player runs it in for the touchdown. The team goes crazy. They’ve won the championship!! The kids are celebrating on the field, jumping up and down and yelling UBUNTU. The coach from the opposing team walks over to congratulate Coach Sanchez. He says to him, “Great job, Coach. I gotta ask you a question. What the heck is the ubuntu play?”   


Through ubuntu, young people learn that we must rely on and support each other to ensure success as an individual, as a family, as a team, and as a community. Through these philosophies, our students recognize that they play an essential and valuable role in their community.  


I strongly believe that our country cannot thrive if our disinvested communities, families, and children fail. The Harold Robinson Foundation is spreading Ubuntu all over Los Angeles, and it’s beautiful to watch all of the very diverse communities we work with embrace this humanist philosophy. 


If we unite, we can make our community, our country, and our planet a better place. 

Shola Richards Tedx on ubuntu. 


How HRF Is Helping To Break The School To Prison Pipeline

by Cheryl Bonacci

The first time the Harold Robinson Foundation brought students from South L.A. to the overnight camp in the Angeles National Forest, it sparked an idea that somehow the experience of camp might be able to play a role in helping to break the school to prison pipeline. It began a journey worth exploring. The how-to do that needed to be figured out, but the seed had been planted. 

Harold Robinson Foundation partners with A.R.C. an organization focused on reforming the criminal justice system

It was when I was the Program Director with The Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) (a support and advocacy organization committed to helping formerly incarcerated women and men through reentry and advocating for criminal justice reform), and met Jeff Robinson  and Joyce Hyser Robinson in 2013, that the lightbulb lit up for all of us. We decided to hold our annual retreat at the camp facility in 2014 and together we knew there was a partnership to be developed between ARC and HRF. ARC brought on retreat 100 young men and women who come from the same communities, or similar to Camp Ubuntu (CU) campers, and the reaction to the environment and opportunities was very much the same: laughter as the primary agenda and a brave space to let down some of the guards that had helped them navigate the challenges of their youth. Our ARC members were once just like their campers. Our members knew the unspoken pain and trauma HRF campers struggled to share. As an organization that works with people who come from a shared lived experience as CU campers, the members of ARC had a unique perspective that no one in HRF leadership had. ARC works with people who are currently incarcerated and/or who recently returned home to the community from incarceration. People of color who had contact with the criminal justice system and/or violence as a youth. We recognized that ARC members were able to connect with our campers in a way that was more powerful and impactful than anything we had created. ARC members who began working with us often commented that if they had had a Camp Ubuntu when they were growing up, they may not have taken the path they did. Through our partnership, we deepened the work that each of our organizations was doing; helping those who have caused harm to heal by paying it forward and guiding our next generation to the brave spaces of Camp Ubuntu and Camp Ubuntu Watts with people who had a shared lived experience, where they could see themselves in a new light and develop skills for a better future.

The Harold Robinson Foundation believes every child needs to be seen, listened to and valued. 

This camp is the space where our work can help interrupt the pipeline that finds our students in under-resourced communities three times more likely to be suspended or expelled and ultimately dropping out of school. The space where creative play helps children learn positive social skills and exercise plays a critical role in academic success. So we did our homework and validated what we know to be true as parents who were once children ourselves, that every child needs to be seen, listened to and valued for them to be empowered to reach their greatest potential. Raising a child whose life had been filled with both, I took for granted the enormous impact creativity and recreation played in his development. 

Recognizing how systemic racism feeds the school to prison pipeline 

We have a history in our country founded in racism and racially imbalanced systems. We have denied that it has existed, implemented lip service policies and changes that have given the appearance of change and evolution, and turned a blind eye to our most marginalized communities. As long as “they” were NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) and our children had access to quality education, safe playgrounds, and the potential to reach their greatest potential, we didn’t see the problem or simply didn’t care about the problem. Generations pass and the baby steps we have made cannot topple the system that was doing exactly what it was designed to do; ensure that people of color did not have equal opportunities and access. The result has been generations of children stepping out into the world in elementary school wanting to learn how to read and add, but find they are instead destined to go to prison: the school to prison pipeline. 


The school to prison pipeline is, in simple terms, the system that has been designed to criminalize children, putting them on a pathway to continued police interaction and a criminal record at a young age from which they will have a mountainous battle to climb to separate themselves. The incarceration of children is the antithesis of what every single child needs to reach their greatest potential. If we were only to punish our children, give them a time out or other consequence but never offered them support or guidance on how to change the behavior, they are doomed to repeat it. Yes, a juvenile criminal record ultimately can be expunged at the age of 18, but the emotional, intellectual and physical damage caused to a child each time they are arrested, shamed, demonized, and consistently separated from the only people who have any belief/love for them, begets the belief of unworthiness and defeat. When we feel unworthy, we are more likely to manifest that belief in unhealthy or dangerous behavior. 


What do we expect to happen if we continue to tell our children they are intelligent and powerful with unlimited potential? 


What do we expect to happen if we continue to tell our children they are stupid, useless and bad? 


I began my career in criminal justice reform as a Catholic Chaplain working with youthful offenders: children ages 14-18 who were being tried and convicted as adults in adult court. I watched child after child leave on a County Sheriff’s bus heading to a California state prison for up to Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). This is virtually a death sentence for a child. As a single mother with a one year old child at the time, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to my son’s experiences as he became the same age as the young people with whom I worked. 


At no point during his early, elementary or secondary school years did he go to a school that had police officers or metal detectors or actual juvenile courts on the property. As a child of color, my son definitely experienced what it felt like to be marginalized or feel like an “other,” but we had the means and opportunity to minimize that. 

Why the Harold Robinson Foundation focuses on the transition from elementary to middle school

The truly apparent differences between my son’s potential life path and that of my kids in juvenile hall slapped me in the face in middle school. Middle school is hard. It’s funky. Sometimes that was the only advice I could think to give my son when the endless stream of challenges and struggles and frustrations came out of his body and mouth in inappropriate behavior. For my son, his challenges were met with teachers and administrators who continued to see him as a developing child, a young human being. To give him consequences while also giving him encouragement and support. At the very same time, there were thousands of children in under resourced schools in South L.A. who were getting arrested for being truant because the campus LAPD officer saw them arriving at school for the second period where the policy was that if you are not present for the first period, you are considered truant. These children are handcuffed and taken to juvenile hall – separated from their family, teachers and community. No one ever asked them why they were late to school. No one asked if they were hungry or safe.



We treat children differently depending on the community they live in and the color of their skin. 

We ignore their needs and cries for help because they’re not our biological children. At least until their unaddressed pain and trauma turn outward and they hurt someone else…then, we want to throw them away because ‘they should have known the difference between right and wrong’ and now they must be punished and criminalized. What we fail to recognize is that if we ask any one of these children who are incarcerated about their life and childhood (and I have asked many) we discover that their childhood has been riddled with punishment. Their neighborhood isn’t safe, their school is under-resourced and their parks and playgrounds are deplorable if they exist at all. 


Over the years,the Harold Robinson Foundation has strengthened our programs implementing social-emotional learning tools and listening to our best experts, our campers. We want to do our part to help make communities safer and break the cycles of inequity. We believe that together we can work toward eliminating the school to prison pipeline. However, until we create a public school system that provides equal, quality education for ALL of our children, remove police officers from school campuses replacing them with social workers and trauma informed credible messengers and provide critical creative, empowering, inspiring opportunities for ALL of our children to learn and grow toward their greatest potential, we will have a school to prison pipeline.