A little to the left: Tony Robinson decided to be a professor when he realized a socialist could never be president.
A little to the left: Tony Robinson decided to be a professor when he realized a socialist could never be president.

Welcome to the Real World

Maybe it's the political message of Johnny Cash's Man in Black blaring from a back room that keeps blood pumping through the veins of the college students answering phones and pecking at their keyboards inside the Westside Outreach Center. Maybe it's the sharp chill in the building, where the furnace pipes rattle and clank but refuse to let out any heat. Or maybe it's the energy of Tony Robinson that has these University of Colorado at Denver students bent on saving the world -- or at least an old Denver neighborhood.

Robinson, a 35-year-old assistant professor of political science at UCD, created the Westside Outreach Center as a way to get his students out of sterile lecture halls and into the world. As part of the Urban Citizen class taught by Robinson and professor Jerry Jacks, these students are trying to protect affordable housing for people who live in La Alma/Lincoln Park and other low-income Denver neighborhoods. Instead of taking tests and writing research papers, they are discussing solutions to urban poverty in the very community that they're studying; classes are held right at the outreach center, at 1033 Santa Fe Drive, or next door at NEWSED, a nonprofit community development corporation.

With breathless excitement, Robinson leads a tour of the skeletal office, pointing out the workspace of Kristin Mathes, the graduate student in charge of the campaign, then heads up a narrow stairway into a dark attic stocked with computer monitors -- the future site of a resource center for women on welfare. The office is so empty it looks like the group is just getting settled, but the students moved in a year ago.


Previous Westword article

"West Side Story"
Auraria's neighbors don't trust its latest development scheme.
By Harrison Fletcher

The Urban Citizen is the type of class that's known on college campuses as "service learning" -- a sometimes controversial method of teaching that has been around for more than thirty years at universities across the nation. The theory behind it is that students should have an opportunity to apply the skills they learn in school to the world outside -- and to give back to the community in the process. At most colleges where service learning classes are offered, students are involved in such projects as repairing homes for elderly residents, organizing neighborhood festivals and conducting toy drives.

But Robinson wants more from his students; he's pushing them to be political advocates for the poor. "Some people believe that service learning should be restricted to providing direct services, like working in a soup kitchen or cleaning streets," he says. "But I believe service learning should include political advocacy -- organizing and agitation. Some people say that's not the role of a scholar, that a scholar should remain neutral and just teach. But I don't buy that."

Since he moved to Colorado five years ago and noticed the increasing gentrification of Denver's poor neighborhoods, Robinson made preserving their character -- and their affordability -- his mission. La Alma/Lincoln Park -- which is bounded by Speer Boulevard, Colfax Avenue, I-25 and Sixth Avenue -- caught his attention in particular, since the majority of its residents make less than $10,000 a year and only 15 percent of them own their homes. So two years ago, Robinson and his students went door-to-door polling residents in the neighborhood about their concerns.

"We found that the most common complaint was rental conditions. Homes were in disrepair, and rental prices were going up," he says. The following semester, students in the Urban Citizen class organized a renters'-rights conference. Approximately fifty renters showed up and told the city officials in attendance that their biggest concern is the threat of losing Section 8 housing.

In 1974, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development amended Section 8 of the 1937 U.S. Housing Act to create subsidies for private property owners who agreed to house low-income renters. Throughout the seventies, HUD signed twenty-year contracts with landlords nationwide; under the program, tenants put no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. HUD pays the difference and now caps its monthly contribution at about $600. Landlords who signed on with HUD were given the option of renewing their contracts on an annual basis at the end of the twenty years or renting out their units at market rate.

In the last two years, 400 expired Section 8 contracts were not renewed in Denver, including 175 in La Alma/Lincoln Park; in the next five years, contracts for the remaining 5,000 Section 8 units in Denver are set to expire. Tenants are worried that their landlords will choose the more lucrative option of renting out at market rates and that they'll be forced to find housing elsewhere. That could be a difficult task, since the vacancy rate for metro-area apartments is the lowest it's been in five years, at 3.7 percent. And as the vacancy rate goes down, rents increase. The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the six-county metro area, for example, is at an all-time high of $751; in the city and county of Denver, the average monthly rent for the same size unit is more than $875, according to the Apartment Association of Metro Denver.

"We didn't know anything about this Section 8 issue until the tenants told us about it. It kept coming up at each renters' meeting. We were not setting the agenda in this case," Robinson says. "We were assisting with it."

At the same time that students were listening to these fears, Robinson and former professor Frank Ford were writing a grant proposal to form the outreach center. They hoped to take advantage of a HUD program that funds centers across the country aiming to build partnerships between universities and communities. Robinson envisioned a center in which students would help residents of La Alma/Lincoln Park to solve their problems.

When he was awarded the grant last fall, he was shocked. "We were promoting political advocacy, and I really didn't think the government would go for that," he says.

Earlier this year, Robinson attended a conference with the other recipients of HUD's University/Community Outreach Partnership Center grants and learned that his is the only center that encourages political activism. Now students in the Urban Citizen class have the option of expanding their community service beyond the semester-long course and getting paid for it.

"I started the class with the idea of getting students to understand how other groups in Denver feel about issues and how we could help them," Jacks says. "Many academics are starting to look at service learning as a way to complement what they teach in the classroom. You can read about urban issues all you want in a book, but it sure is different than getting out there and working in the community."

NEWSED allowed the outreach center to use some of its space at no charge, freeing up half a million dollars for student salaries and other causes. Each semester, five to ten students hold paid positions with the center; dozens more volunteer their time as interns. Since the center opened, the students have helped 400 tenants in thirteen of Denver's approximately 100 Section 8 apartment buildings form tenant councils. They have collected information on the number of people who would be affected by expiring contracts -- they estimate 10,000 in Denver alone -- and have distributed fliers encouraging tenants to attend meetings to learn about what could happen to them.

They have also joined with several other community groups -- including the Community Resource Center, the Denver Center for Independent Living, the Westside Ministerial Alliance and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless -- to form the Save Our Section 8 Coalition (SOS); the goal is to convince the city to help poor tenants handle the impending dissolution of Section 8. Several students are also urging the city's planning department to change the zoning laws in La Alma/Lincoln Park to prevent highbrow apartment buildings and lofts from moving in and displacing residents.

Kristin Mathes, the graduate student in charge of organizing SOS, says Robinson and the outreach center are the reasons she enjoys school. "I was never really a student until I met him. I was just getting through school because my parents wanted me to, but I could have cared less about anything," she says. "Tony gave me constructive criticism in a way that challenged me and gave me confidence. I don't even think I should be paid for this experience; I think I should be paying for it."

Mathes was originally planning to attend law school after completing her graduate work in political science, but now she's dreaming of one day starting her own settlement house for the homeless. "I want to learn what it means, as Tony says, to 'light the fire of political change.'"

The philosophy behind service learning can be traced back to Socrates, who wrote that the goal of education is to engage society. But it wasn't put into practice until Jane Addams's social reforms of the late 1890s. Addams felt her education wasn't being utilized, so to cure her ennui, she bought a house in the middle of a Chicago slum. The Hull House was a place where the poor could come to receive medical treatment, legal aid and education. The University of Chicago adopted the philosophy behind Addams's philanthropy and started encouraging what is known today as service learning.

The philosophy gained more attention in the 1960s, when students on college campuses across the country organized to form Students for a Democratic Society. They set out to discourage political neutrality on campuses with the Port Huron statement, a document that was drafted following a conference where students decided that universities should be the progenitors of social change. In their statement, they wrote, "Academia includes a radical separation of the student from the material of study. That which is studied, the social reality, is 'objectified' to sterility, dividing the student from life."

Now almost every community college and four-year university in the country offers some form of service learning, and numerous organizations have formed to advance the teaching model, including the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, the Corporation for National Service and the National Society for Experiential Education. The point is to get young students -- like Robinson himself -- out of their comfort zone and into real-world situations.

Tony Robinson grew up in Hungry Horse, Montana, a tiny town in the northwest part of the state where he and his friends were called "trapline trash," a term for folks whose families earned their keep as fur trappers.

"My dad was a hunter and a trapper. He hunted all of our food. Neither of my parents ever had a regular job, they just lived off the fat of the land," Robinson says. "My mom worked as a nurse's aide and an office assistant, and at different times, my dad did carpentry, ran a poker game, raised hunting dogs and raised hamsters for scientific research. My parents even ran a bed-and-breakfast in the camper out back."

At this, Robinson slaps his knee and throws his head back in wild delight. "Can you imagine that?" he asks, laughing so hard that his eyes tear up. "They thought people would pay to stay in that camper!"

At the time, however, his family's desperate attempts to earn money weren't so funny, and Robinson became painfully aware of his poverty while attending middle school in Columbia Falls, a town ten miles outside of Hungry Horse. Kids from several towns over were bused in, and many of them were from well-to-do ranching families. The kids with crooked teeth corrected their smiles with braces; Robinson still has gaps between his. On most days, Robinson just watched as his classmates washed down their peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with milk. When they asked him why he wasn't eating, he would lie and say he wasn't hungry.

In high school, when the division between the popular kids and the "trapline trash" got deeper, Robinson felt the full weight of his social class. The other kids spoke of going to college like it was the most natural thing in the world, while Robinson wondered what kind of life he'd have after graduation. "I felt a deep sense of personal indignity and injustice in it," he says. "But in class, I always found a place where I could excel, and school became my ticket out. It was a place where my abilities were recognized -- not by students, always, but by teachers -- and it didn't matter whether I was rich or poor. It was my goal from the fourth grade on to be president of the United States."

Toward the end of his junior year at Columbia Falls High School, when the election for student body president was held, Robinson decided to run. He faced a grueling opponent: the homecoming king. A track star with good looks, good grades and money, the guy had it all.

Robinson rallied support from his fellow poor students -- all forty of them -- and the race, he says, "became a campaign for the people from the woods." Together, Robinson and friends produced campaign buttons and made speaking appearances in classrooms, where Robinson debated his opponent into a corner. On the day of the vote, when the two candidates squared off in the auditorium for the final time, the trapline kids created a furor, chanting Robinson's name, stomping their feet and hollering when he walked on stage. The excitement was so contagious that students who probably never would have rooted for a kid from the hills cheered right along. "I won by a landslide! I think they all voted for me because of the emotion of the moment," Robinson explains.

When he visits his friends and family back in Montana, they still reminisce about that day. But the election is more than just a fond memory. Rather, it proved to be a defining moment for Robinson: "I learned that day that I could achieve things," he says. "I suddenly felt like an insider."

Robinson was accepted to Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon, and secured a scholarship and a government loan. "Mine is not a rags-to-riches story where I pulled myself up by my bootstraps," he says. "The only reason I was able to go to college was because the government gave me money. When I got to Portland, I freaked out. It seemed like such a big city to me, and I was suddenly face-to-face with diversity. I had never seen a black person in my life, or a hippie. Back home, people had bumper stickers that said, 'Shoot a Hippie for Christ.'"

For almost four years, the backwoods boy from Montana never set foot off campus. He majored in political science ("I was going to be president, remember") and recalls sitting under trees, digesting with an insatiable appetite the words of Socrates, Rousseau, Marx and Plato. The more political theory he read, the more he recognized that his leftist leanings had a name. "I realized you couldn't be a socialist and run for president, so I decided to be a professor," he says.

But during his final year, his sociology professor assigned each student to visit a place where he or she wasn't normally comfortable, pretend to fit it and write about the experience. Robinson and his girlfriend decided to go to a soup kitchen in Portland. "The people were so nice," he says. "They thought we were this poor couple, and they tried to give us their food. They told us what to be aware of on the streets -- where to sleep at night, where to avoid -- and I came out of that transformed. It reminded me of my own poor family, and it made me realize I had been out of touch with the world during college."

Robinson decided then that he would go to Berkeley to get his master's degree and Ph.D. in political science and that he would no longer insulate himself from the world. Instead, he would use his education to give back to society.

When he got to Berkeley, he broke out of his shell completely by moving across the Bay to the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco's biggest slums. He lived there for four years and, as part of his thesis research, joined every community group and political cause he could -- a homeless task force, a Safe and Sober Streets committee, the North of Market Planning Coalition, the Larkin Street Youth Center and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation.

The residents there had banded together to change the zoning in the neighborhood to keep expensive high-rises out and rents down, and they were successful. "It was the first time in the nation that luxury developers [eased] the negative impacts of their development -- most notably driving up rent -- by contributing a percentage of their sales-tax revenue to a trust fund for permanently affordable housing," says Robinson.

His doctoral thesis was titled "Gentrification and Grassroots Resistance in San Francisco's Tenderloin." The point was to show that grassroots resistance by low-income people can work, he says. "And now I'm trying to bring that to Denver."

As a student, Robinson grew frustrated by political scientists who he believed had locked themselves inside ivory towers. He pulls a glossy journal off a shelf in his office. It's a copy of the American Political Science Review. If a professor gets published in it, he knows he's arrived. But not Robinson -- he dismisses the journal as academic dribble. He flips to an equation-riddled article called "Coalition Termination and Strategic Timing of Parliamentary Elections."

"This is algebra. This is crap," he says. "Ralph Nader said to a bunch of us [at a 1997 American Political Science Association convention], 'You all study power. And yet how strange it is that I don't know anyone in power who is the least bit afraid of a political scientist.' What he's saying is that we're totally irrelevant, and I imagine he was referring to stuff like this. You tell me what congressman is going to read this. The university should be a social conscience, a spark of social change. We should not be neutral and disengaged in society, especially in political science."

His views don't always bode well with old-school educators who regard universities as neutral institutions whose professors shouldn't encourage activism; Robinson says resistance to his brand of service learning comes in two forms: "There are those professors who, because service learning is demanding and time-consuming to pull off, don't want to do it. They also resist it because it's new. It's just like resistance to learning the Internet, but that kind of resistance can always be overcome with time. The worst kind of resistance is pedagogical -- the professors who don't want to pursue it because it's not academic, because it doesn't leave enough time for the classics. It's kind of like the back-to-basics attitude, only in higher education."

David Lisman, author of the book Toward a Civil Society: Civic Literacy and Service Learning, says the danger in advocacy-based service learning is that the views of the students don't always match those of the community they're trying to help: "The question I would ask is, 'Are we imposing an agenda on the community or are we ensuring that decisions are community-driven?'"

Lisman directed the community outreach program at the Community College of Aurora for fourteen years and is now the director of the service learning program at the University of Denver. He and Robinson met when the Community College of Aurora was paired with UCD for a service learning grant. "[Tony] would say the purpose of service learning is to help students change the unjust nature of society," Lisman says. "The controversy in that comes down to the issue of neutrality at a public university. It can be argued that professors have a responsibility to ensure that students have the opportunity to examine all facets of social issues and decide for themselves what kind of stand they want to take."

In his eight years with the American Association of Community Colleges and the Campus Compact National Center for Community Colleges (an arm of Campus Compact for Service Learning, a national organization that promotes service learning in higher education), Lisman has helped numerous colleges and universities establish service learning programs. But he knows of no one who is doing what Robinson is doing.

"Advocacy, especially community organizing, is not widely deployed in service learning programs across the country," he says. "There are some service learning programs that work on community economic-development issues, but there are ways to do that kind of outreach without necessarily being involved in advocacy."

At Providence College in Rhode Island, he adds, "students are establishing a community lending institution, where low-income people can get business and home loans. That's a good example of a strategy that's being used to reach the same goal that an advocacy project would, but in a different way."

It's not enough for Robinson, though. He and his students are now suggesting ways for the city to help Section 8 tenants if and when landlords opt out of the HUD program. The suggestions include covering costs for people who are forced to relocate and passing a law that would give the city first rights to buy an apartment if its owner wants to sell it or convert it to a market-rate residence. Robinson says the city could buy these buildings and keep them permanently affordable by allowing a nonprofit agency to operate them.

Robinson has also suggested that the city could pay for these buildings with sales-tax money or by dipping into the tax increment financing pot created by new developments -- as they do in other cities.

In Portland, city officials can make the first offer for a property, and if the offer is turned down, the owner must put $30,000 for every Section 8 unit into a trust fund from which the city can later draw to build more affordable housing. Since the early 1990s, San Francisco has been dedicating half of all its urban renewal authority's tax increment funds to preserving and building more affordable housing. In Boston, downtown developers of new properties larger than 100,000 square feet are required to contribute up to $6 per square foot to an affordable-housing trust fund. And since 1991, Minneapolis has amassed $400 million in tax increment funds, $20 million of which will be spent on affordable-housing efforts each year for the next two decades.

Other cities -- Cleveland, Ann Arbor, Hartford and Chicago -- as well as Washington State, Vermont and the District of Columbia, have similar programs. Robinson knows of no cities in Colorado that are directly addressing the loss of Section 8 units; officials in Boulder, however, are currently seeking input from residents on how to keep 10 percent of their existing housing stock affordable, including an examination of Section 8.

In Denver, affordable-housing advocates say that they have been asking city councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt to meet with them for about five months now but that their requests have been ignored.

"We've had a good response from several councilmembers, but some just don't care," says Lee Crosby, president of the tenant council at Court House Square, a Section 8 apartment building at 901 W. 14th Avenue.

Dan Lopp, an organizer with the Community Resource Center, which is working closely with the Westside Outreach Center on the SOS campaign, says advocates for low-income tenants are frustrated by Barnes-Gelt's apparent apathy. "Susan Barnes-Gelt talks about being a champion of affordable housing, but she's not talking about the people we're talking about," he says. "She seems to think of affordable housing in terms of people who make $25,000 and up, but there's an acute shortage of affordable housing for people with no or very little income. Somehow this issue has gotten politicized, and she sees it as contentious. I don't think she wants to touch the issue of housing for low-income people with a twenty-foot pole."

Barnes-Gelt was out of town and unavailable for comment, but her aide, Alana Smart, said, "I'm totally confused by those allegations. Susan very much supports a focus on workforce housing, and she made a valiant attempt, on the day she left for vacation, to get the city to add plans for affordable housing at the site of a new parking structure at the social services complex [located near Mile High Stadium, at Federal Boulevard and West 10th Avenue]."

The city had promised residents to provide a remedy to the parking crunch in their neighborhood during Denver Broncos games, so they didn't want to stall the plans to accommodate Barnes-Gelt's suggestion. But when Barnes-Gelt returns from vacation later this month, Smart says, she will ask city officials to present her with a list of vacant land and building projects where affordable housing could be added. In an October article Barnes-Gelt penned for the neighborhood publication Life on Capitol Hill, she wrote, "Denver must actively identify parcels where housing can be introduced. We cannot allow a single project to be approved without asking, 'Can we add housing here?'"

After months of making their presence felt before the city council, Robinson says SOS supporters are finally seeing their persistence pay off. Mayor Wellington Webb and city councilwoman Happy Haynes are forming a low-income housing task force that will be co-chaired by councilwoman Deborah Ortega and an as-yet-unnamed developer. In addition to the two chairpeople, the task force will consist of nine community members. Representatives from the Colorado Housing Finance Authority, the Denver Housing Authority and HUD will also attend its meetings.

"Section 8 is a very critical and important issue, and I've raised it before the council for the past couple of years," Ortega says. "I don't want to wait and let this slap us in the face. We need to have things in place in case landlords opt out of HUD contracts; otherwise, we'll find ourselves reacting to it after the fact. But the reality is that there are some people in the city who think we already have enough affordable housing for low-income people."

Smart acknowledges that SOS Coalition members asked to meet with Barnes-Gelt but says that because the low-income housing task force is being formed, "I explained to them that it would have been extremely premature for one councilmember to address them when a whole process is being formed around the issue. I know Susan would be very supportive of them bringing the Section 8 issue before this new group."

The task force members have not all been chosen yet, but Ortega hopes the group will convene within the next three weeks and come up with recommendations for how the city can help low-income residents in six months.

"It appears they've finally gotten the message that there's a housing crisis for low-income people," Lopp says.

Senator Wayne Allard, who heads a HUD oversight committee, recently sent a letter to the regional HUD office asking officials to try to find out what landlords plan to do when their Section 8 contracts expire; he has also told Lopp that he plans to hold Senate hearings on affordable housing in Denver in December or January.

For three years, Robinson tried to convince his colleagues in the political science department to make service learning mandatory, but some professors said their students were too overburdened already, and others didn't want to mandate volunteerism.

"We all believe service learning is extremely important, but some people had some reticence about requiring it, because our students have jobs and family obligations," says senior political science instructor Lucy Ware-McGuffey. "Because UCD is a commuter campus and parking is expensive and hard to find, we worried that requiring students to stay down here and provide community service would add stress. We don't have a philosophical problem with service learning; it was just the reality of our students."

Still, Robinson's suggestion was approved last spring, and the requirement went into effect this year. Students can satisfy the requirement by taking the Urban Citizen course, working or volunteering at the Westside Outreach Center, interning at the State Capitol or at a law firm, or by structuring their own service project. Students can also get credit for community service performed in the past.

"We recognize that students shouldn't feel pressured to participate in any one form of advocacy," Ware-McGuffey says. "They can be involved in work whose advocacy is vastly different from that of the Westside Outreach Center. We've had students work on Governor Bill Owens's campaign, for instance."

The political science department is the only one in UCD's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that requires service learning, but Associate Dean John Lanning says professors will discuss adding service learning to the general-education requirement of core classes -- math, English, science -- when the college revises its curricula in the near future.

DU's Lisman says it's rare for universities to require service learning, but he knows of three exceptions: California State University at Monterey Bay, Portland State University and the University of Vermont each require students in all disciplines to perform community service. "At DU we have a course -- Service Learning and the Challenges of Multicultural Democracy -- but it's optional," he says. "About 300 students take it each year."

Robinson is happy to see that service learning will be considered in other departments, but he is already moving forward with his own program. Students at the Westside Outreach Center are now providing grant-writing assistance to neighborhood groups, and soon they'll open a cultural youth center at the office so that young people in the neighborhood can have space to work on art a few nights a week.

Each semester, Robinson's students design a course at West High School in conjunction with CU Succeeds, a joint effort of the Denver Public Schools and the university. West High students can earn college credits by taking the class, which stresses activism; this year, students in the political leadership development class -- which is taught by UCD students and professors -- will learn about the political history behind Denver's west side. At the end of the school year, the students will lead a walking tour for the public and guide people to politically significant sites in their neighborhood, such as the former headquarters of the Crusade for Justice, a 1960s militant Chicano movement.

Robinson beams with pride when he talks about how fulfilling it is to watch his students pass along the importance of service learning to even younger students.

"It's wrong to say that we should be neutral," Robinson says, "because what we're doing is...well, heck, I'll just say it: What we're doing is right. And we'll push the envelope as far as we can."


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >