Brother Rob Speaks

brorobertHip, slang-slingin’, drum-beatin’, compassionate, and brimming with wisdom—those are the words I’d use to describe Brother Rob. I had the opportunity to interview one of the mentors who joined the Move Mountains project, a month-long project in San Luis, Colorado designed to empower and excite the youth about their own community and get them involved in being part of their locality. As an artist, storyteller, and educator in the community in and around Philadelphia, Robert Edwin Carter, Jr., aka “Brother Rob,”  humbly accepted my interview request.

We met in the common area in front of the house where everyone was staying. Folding, mismatched lawn chairs were set in a rough circle beneath a large tree whose branches stretched out and cast welcome shade. The sunlight speckled through the trees, playing across the ground, and I sat, in awe at the rare beauty of my last afternoon in the San Luis Valley. I smiled and told Brother Rob I’d be recording the interview, and then I began. (Click here to listen to the audio file.)

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Lindsay: This is Lindsay Deen with US Represented, and I am here with Brother Rob. Brother Rob, please introduce yourself, state your full name for the record, and just tell us what you do for a living.

Brother Rob: Thank you so much, Lindsay. My name is—my birth given name is Robert Edwin Carter, Jr., but most people call me Brother Rob. And I take that name seriously. I feel like it’s also a spiritual calling because I think that we are all connected. In fact, one of the things I often say is that I am an African Proverb, I am because we are. Because we are I am. Just kind of appreciate the nature of how we are connected with each other.

What I do for work is I’m an administrator to the University of Pennsylvania, with the African American Resource Center and part time faculty at the School of Social Policy and Practice teaching a course on American racism and social work practice. I’m teaching another graduate course called Psycho-Educational Interactions with Black Males at the Grad School of Education at Penn, so those classes mean a great deal to me. Also, my clinical work at Menergy Counseling Center, where I work with men who are working on issues of being abusive primarily to their wives and girlfriends. . .  . My work actually encompasses a lot of my belief systems. I think it’s important.

Lindsay: Yeah, that’s really awesome. Thank you for sharing that. So, how did you get involved with Move Mountains, and what made you come all the way from Philly to Colorado to this small town in the San Luis Valley?

Brother Rob: It’s a great question. Miguel Huerta, the head of this, him and Shirley—of course, you can do nothing alone—Move Mountains is his brainchild. He’s one of my former students at the University of Pennsylvania, so for policy and practice, he was in my American racism class, and as a student, it’s not like he was always answering questions. He was a pretty quiet and low-key kind of guy, but he can write.

He would come to the African American Resource Center and talk to me. Not so much about school, but about some stuff that he was doing, but we really got close. When Miguel was interning as a graduate student with the school right down the street from Penn, that’s horrible and since then been closed, he was working with the five young guys who were marginal in terms of their school, and one of them was shot and killed.

Miguel brought the four remaining boys to my office, and at this part of my clinical training, I was doing crisis incident debriefment, so supervising him around that—we got close, and I saw how much he cared, but also that you gotta be able to manage some kind of stuff because University City is a rough high school. So that’s when we got tight, and he mentioned this Move Mountains idea.

I wanted to just come and give him advice from the side. In fact, I wrote a curriculum for Peace World Performance Art and Leadership Charter School that I didn’t get to pull the trigger on—it was mainly around the arts and teaching conflict resolution and peace. When Miguel came to me with this Move Mountains idea, I was thrilled because it’s built on learning about the environment, entrepreneurship, community action, and arts. I said, “Damn, I think this young bull got somethin’!”

But he kept coming by the office and saying, “Yo, Naw, I really want you to go.”

And I was like, “Shhhh, I got a lotta stuff going on in Philly.” I’m also co-founder of a band called PLPD Unity, so I perform, and we drum, and we do storytelling. But it’s just something that I also felt it would be something important for me personally to come here, that there would be some spiritual benefit, and I needed a respite because recently, some heavy stuff has been going on with me and my family back in Philly.

Miguel’s initial hook, if you will in terms of music, his initial hook was, “Hey, I’d like you to do this,” but I also had a kind of spiritual understanding that there might be something special here happening in San Luis, and I’m glad I followed the Spirit, and my Brother, Miguel. I’m honored to support his leadership on this project. So it feels great to appreciate being an Elder and be listened to, but also gain and learn from the young people here. I think this is a special thing that’s going on, you know. The inter-generational nature of it—just me with the youth leaders, the teachers, and then with the children, just being graced by them, so yeah. I’m glad I’m here, straight up. It’s a win-win.

Lindsay: I’m glad you’re here, too.

Brother Rob: Straight up, for real, for real.

Lindsay: So what would you say your most powerful experience was here during the Move Mountain’s Project?

Brother Rob: Oh my God, that’s a great question. That’s a great, great, great question. Ooooh. That’s a wonderful question.

(laughter)

‘Cause there have been some significant things that happened, but I guess one of the things that just stands out is just seeing the power in the children. Just seeing the power in the children. Just seeing the power after Alex performed her ballet dance and her coming over, and her parents and stuff greeting her and just seeing her face, and we fist bumped, and she was like, I was like, “Wow.”

Because getting to that and how she wasn’t able to complete it at the rehearsal the day before, and it was just such a great emotional high because they were performing, singing, all of that—and it was dance, and I like dance. I respect dance. I love dancing. So when she did it, she felt great about it, and I was like, “Bet.”

I’d consider that one of my most powerful take-aways because it connects to the children as a whole and the growth and development they’ve shown. And I just got here Tuesday, and its Sunday. So, kudos to Andre, Kerry, Jake, who have been here for a month just bringing them [the children] to this point. We got new troops to come in, and we just keep people fresh, so that was one of my shining moments.

And another close second would be Ike and Samuel really engaging one another because Ike can connect to Samuel, and Samuel is one of those free-sprinted children that loves being seen, loves himself, loves life, too, and I used to see some children like that in day cares, and then when you see them five years later, something happens to them in school, and they get beat up, they get told almost like, “Stop being so enthusiastic.”

Lindsay: Uh-huh.

Brother Rob: And that was a corner piece within a part of my workshop with the young people yesterday was on human development, and the day before that was on trauma and recovery because the young ladies. The girl, actually 16 year old child, Talia, she was slain, and that’s gonna be a challenge to deal with, too, Monday, at this funeral thing.

So, I’m digressing a little bit, but, that’s kinda like a key moment, too. Just coming in and doing that workshop with them. Crisis incident debriefment, that’s what it’s called. That’s what I was trained for, just to talk to them about the facts of how they heard about Talia’s death, and what are some of their feelings about it, and what are some of the recovery tools that they have dealt with prior to when they’ve been hurt. I think it’s important.

We’re not going to go from the cradle to the grave and not be hurt, so why not begin to tell young people, and teach them about healing and recovery and what do you need to do so that you can say—say something when people get hurt. Hurt people hurt people. So I was just giving them some basic info.

So that was a high for me also to do that, but also to see—and I wrote a poem around it—to see how different people carry hurt and pain and grief. Yeah. So.

And the bridge—I’m from Philidelphia, so being out in San Luis and seeing some similar kind of struggles because I’ve been involved in healing circles after there’s been murders and when young people have witnessed maybe one of their friends shot and killed, and one of the things I’ve noticed that was similar that I saw with one of the young males, the young boys, is that sometimes the young brothers—they’d much rather be angry than sad.

Lindsay: Uh-huh.

Brother Rob: Particularly around something like that, and that’s why I thought it was really important to talk to them. I was like, “Hold. Listen. You’re hurt. You might wanna hurt somebody else. You might even want to hurt yourself by drinking too much or doing—you know. Just slow down. Calm it down.” It was difficult for them to talk.

And the other day here in San Luis I think it might have been most of the males declined to say anything. They did make one-word responses to their feelings, but they weren’t really big on talking like some of the sisters were. Some of the girls.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Brother Rob: So I think that’s noteworthy. And I like what Laura was saying: you’ve got to have more stuff around gender justice within the curriculum. Working with these guys—guys needed some of the kind of information they get with the therapy group that I do in middle school. We need to get some of these exercises I do to these guys in middle school.

I was doing that with a group called Peaceful Posse. What I did within Peaceful Posse was take the curriculum that I used with Menergy, these guys I was working with issues of abuse, and putting it into an after-school program for boys from the ages of 8-14, and it was a six year project. I loved it. Yeah. I loved those boys.

Men teach boys stupid shit. Still. Still.

Lindsay: That is so true.

Brother Rob: We cosign stupid shit, and we think it’s cool, and it’s really destructive. I mean, I’m still hearing stories about dudes thinking it’s cool to get their sons a prostitute when they turn sixteen. What kinda shit is that? Are you fucking kidding me?

And I’m seeing some arrogant ignorance. Young brothers, who don’t give a fuck. And because they see the terrain, they can either take me or leave me, and that’s fucked up because it also makes the male weak. You know, it’s fucked up.

So part of the work in Menergy is how do you get somebody who’s in charge and running shit to realize that he’s hurtful to himself and others. They’ve got to actually care.

Lindsay: Uh-huh.

Brother Rob: And in this culture, well, fuck, it’s not promoting care. The whole idea of caring and sharing is so basic. It’s like I’m seeing less and less of it. That’s from just working with children from preschool to young adults, and I’ve been doing it since, what, well, in ’75 I got married, and so in ’76 I started working in child care and mental health.

Children have changed over those four decades. Mainly because the context is intense, the culture is intense. It’s deep that children don’t get to physically play without implementation as much as they used to. I think it shows that they’re not as skilled in terms of relating to one another.

Lindsay: Exactly.

Brother Rob: Children still’ve got that bright light—they’re still banging it, but they gotta get more and more help a lot earlier.

Lindsay: Yeah, especially around emotional issues. Dealing with emotional stuff. I agree. One of the very first blog articles I wrote for US Represented was called Humanity’s Gom Jabbar, and—

Brother Rob: I love that title.

Lindsay: Yeah. And we really need something to educate us emotionally.

Brother Rob: I think it’s essential, and I’m big on people speaking and speaking to people.

Lindsay: And sharing. Because that’s where the change happens. It’s in the conversation of sharing.

Brother Rob: And I used to log in my head who would speak back when I spoke to them first. Initially, the list was that white males spoke back the least, and white females. Now, as the years have gone by, people are not speaking back. Even black people. I walked by this young boy, maybe a couple months ago, down the street from where I live, I said, “How you doin’, my brother?”

He looked at me, and I heard him mumble, “I don’t even know that old head.”

I’m thinking to myself, you know, I should deal with this guy, but I don’t even feel like dealing with that, and it hurt. And I said to myself, hey, you need to work on not hurting because you can’t let that bother you. But it did hurt, and I said, so I breathed and kept it going, because to me that’s monstrous.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Brother Rob: When Miguel said, “When you walk down the street, people will wave,” I’m down with that. And I’m waving back. But I think it’s monstrous, little incidents like that. And that keeps me juiced on doing the work on human relations, talking about white supremacy, racism—I think that’s one of our biggest social diseases on the planet. It’s looking down on another human being, and that’s why I do the work I do with some of the gender stuff. I really think that as a species, we really can do better than how we roll.

Lindsay: Oh, yeah. It’s totally messed up. We have so much more potential.

Brother Rob: Yeah. It’s wacked. It’s bullshit, how we’re rolling. Bullshit. People starving? This is bullshit.

Lindsay: I know.

Brother Rob: And you’ve got motherfuckers owning an island. What the fuck?

Lindsay: (laughs)

Brother Rob: Owning water? Now they’re owning particles in space. What the fuck? That’s crazy, but if you can believe in that idea, and you can get other people to believe in it, then you run for that.

Lindsay: Uh-huh.

Brother Rob: I also think that we need to take it much more seriously about having children.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Brother Rob: I don’t want to sound like a conservative, but I just think that we can’t keep having them. We need to have a lot more understanding about what it is to develop a human being and spirit because its essential. If we really value, love, want the best for, and think the best of ourselves and humanity—but who’s going to be the person that gets to implement all this stuff, and would they be humane about it? But I actually believe that it’s important for us as human beings to take a look at how we develop and grow.

Lindsay: But just what you’re doing, and what a lot of other people in our society are doing to raise awareness about that—you know, we have people coming from third world countries to America, and the thought on survival is very different in these countries. And until we are actually able to support those countries and help them become first world countries and make us all sustainable together, I think it’s going to be really hard for any other model to exist. You know what I mean?

Brother Rob: Wow.

Lindsay: Because everybody in these Third-World countries are still operating off a survival mindset instead of operating from intellect, and that’s the kind of shift that has to occur in order for us to actually make headway socially.

Brother Rob: But, see, a little pushback. A little pushback is that the first world model is so fucked up in of itself.

Lindsay: It is.

Brother Rob: We gotta deal with that first.  And the other. There’s a tremendous amount of richness in “primitive cultures” and how people relate and get along and have all these family systems, so it’s like how can we know more and more about that?

Lindsay: When I say “First-World countries,” what I’m saying is, countries that have economically prospered enough in order for the population of that country to be able to live a higher lifespan, to have lower births to survive, because in those countries they have to have 20 kids because only two will survive. So, that’s what I’m saying is that our biology is tied to our psychology, and in America, we have a very special chance to really look at our system, see how it’s working, see how it’s not working, and then we can change it to the way that it needs to be.

We have that unique chance now, and my generation, as we continue to take over politics, and take over the country, that’s gonna be what I think we should do, is move towards that goal of making a model that is sustainable that all these other countries can join us with. And then the world can actually have real peace.

Brother Rob: I like that. That’s hopeful. I will ride with you on that.

Lindsay: You want to? Oh, yeah!

Brother Rob: I will ride with you on that.

Lindsay: We just gotta talk about it and make sure that people know about it, that it’s possible. ‘Cause I see it as definitely possible.

Brother Rob: That’s good. I wanna take that in fully. I love that idea, ‘cause I think that things start with that. You gotta think it, believe it. Thank you for sharing that. Yeah. And that’s interesting. So how did you just naturally develop that kind of hopefulness?

Lindsay: (laughs) Alright. When I was five years old, my father told me—well, I told him that the world should be a better place, that people didn’t need to be hurting each other, and that people needed to respect each other and love each other.

Brother Rob: That’s beautiful, get out.

Lindsay: And that they should care for each other. Yes. And then my father told me, this is what he said, he said, “Well Lindsay, if you believe that, that’s gonna get you a lot of hurt.” And ever since that day, I’ve been focused on proving my father wrong.

Brother Rob: Oh my God, that’s such a blessed story. That’s a father. Such a blessed story. Thank you. I’m so glad I asked the question.

Lindsay: But he grew up in a really awful way. His mom died when he was 12, and he was the only one who took care of her, and she died of cancer, and they didn’t go to the doctor, and she died of pancreatic cancer with no morphine. So, of course my Dad is going to tell me that, right? But I didn’t understand all of that context when I was a kid. All I knew was I was angry, and I was out with a mission to prove him wrong. And not till I was 28 did I even come to terms with that part of my personality, that rebellious thing, and I thought, “I can use this for good.”

Brother Rob: Power. Respect. That’s wild, man. How old’s your Pop?

Lindsay: He is 51. He’s gonna be 52 soon.

Brother Rob: Man, my Pop just passed away two years ago. That was my man. More than anything, he’s a jazz musician. Purist. Piano. Acoustic. He did play electric towards the end, but still miss the brother. That’s my man. Still talk about him. I say danas to him as a tribute to my ancestors every day.

He was the first black truck driver for Schmidt’s Beer but mostly I just enjoyed him. As a child, we had live music twice a week. The band rehearsed at our house. They were characters, my Pop and his boys. They was characters. One of my earliest memories as a child was my mother hollerin’ downstairs that they was gonna have to lower the music ‘cause we were taking a nap.

I remember him hollering, “They’re just gonna have to fall asleep to the music, and that was what we winded up doing.” So you felt the music, and then as I ate and stuff, I remember people crowding around the basement when they used to rehearse at night. Our house was just so popular, and I didn’t really get it, how special that was, till after the years rolled by, and I was like, wow, that was special, to have and do that.

And he had a precarious relationship with his father. He and his father were not cool with one another, but my father’s father love me. So that was interesting to see ‘cause my Pop’s mom and my father’s father didn’t stay together. She was a very vicarious, strong, left-hand piano player, in the church, and very outgoing and all this. I think he couldn’t take her overshadowing him.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Brother Rob: Think about that. That’s 1920s. And this is me piecing stuff together over the years. My mom was oldest of nine, and those boys were wild. My mom was the oldest of nine. I felt for my mom. My mom was the oldest of nine, got married at 17, and then she had four children in four years. I didn’t get how tough that was until I started having children and working in daycares.

She was about order, so we would line up, literally, to go to school. I remember her lining us up, brushing our hair all hard, putting grease on our faces, and pulling our noses because she didn’t want our noses to be flat like Africans. That was our daily ritual.

Now, I’m like, “Wow, this is crazy.” But that’s reality. We’ve got these little things within our culture that it’s important to look at and highlight, address. It’s not just a theoretical discussion. That’s why I love that I get to teach about American racism and social work because I think that how we relate to one another, it’s important. And it’s not just a theoretical discussion. That’s why I use this all the time, [asking], “How’re you living?” Just how are you living? How are we living? How are we living?

And we said this a few seconds ago. We could be living a lot better than this, in terms of relating to one another, so in San Luis, I think we’re living good. It’s been a good experience.

Lindsay: Uh-huh. It’s been beautiful.

Brother Rob: It’s been a very powerful and positive experience spiritually, and an enhancing experience. Basically just being listened to and listening to the other. That’s why I’m so glad you interviewed me. Thank you.

Lindsay: Thank you for the interview. This is Lindsay Deen, signing off for US Represented.

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As I ended the recording, I went over the conversation in my mind. Brother Rob sat beside me in silence, perhaps doing the same. He’d shared some of his fondest memories, some of his most serious sorrows, and the sharing left me with a sense of peace.

The realities we face in our world can overwhelm the best of us. As I watched a small brown bird hop across branches in the tree above, I thought about the laughter we’d had in our conversation.

Although we’d examined some of the most difficult subjects of our time—racism, the portrayal of the male in modern society, war, famine, and injustice—I felt hope. The laughter we’d had in our conversation gave us hope. The fact that we can have joy amid sorrow because of our sharing, peace alongside death, calm inside wartime—these things give us the power to overcome the obstacles of the present and bring humanity’s future forth in fullness.  

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Lindsay Deen writes for USR for free, but she spends a great deal of time creating and editing her content because she is dedicated to social justice, issues of reform, and transforming the planet. Her fundamental mission is simple: she wants people to care about each other. If you agree with her mission and her dream for humanity, click here and donate to her PayPal. She can use all the support you are willing to give.