Diva on a Mission
Desi K. Robinson is a journalist and educator hailing from the Bronx, New York. In addition to serving as a staff writer here at RNP, Miss Desi (as her students so lovingly call her) is an educator and program coordinator in the New York City public school system, focusing on after-school education with children and youth. She regularly produces shows on New York’s WBAI radio, primarily focusing on issues in Africa and the War in Iraq and is the creator, producer, and host of “Women in the Making: Tomorrow’s History Today,” a radio show focusing on young girls’ perceptions of themselves, society, and global events. Jill Bolstridge interviews Rice N Peas’ very own Desi K. Robinson about her views on the status of women, girls, the media, and the education system.
What made you decide to go into the field of education? And what made you later decide to mesh your worlds as an educator and a journalist by bringing your students onto your radio show?
The only intention I ever really had was to be a journalist. I sort of ‘happened’ upon education through my desire to work in the arts. Teaching and education was a great way for me to maintain my own craft and to effect change in the communities that I worked in. Most of the ideas I have for projects or redirected career paths come from other projects that I work on. I was working in the news room and the public affairs director asked me if I had any ideas for programming for International Women’s Day in 2005. The concept was programming for, by, and about women. The station hadn’t really been doing any programming specifically directed at youth. I had been working with some really great and talented kids while teaching at The Children’s Theatre Company in NYC and thought that it would be great to highlight them in a show about their perceptions of the world.
Do you think that the young girls on your show are enlightening your audience, and if so, how?
Absolutely. “Out of the mouths of babes . . .” The public affairs director really appreciated how fresh the concept was and how bright and articulate the girls could be. On the first show we talked about images of beauty in the media. I believe the show is effective because it looks at all the issues you would see on a traditional women’s talk show and focuses on having the same age-appropriate conversations with the girls. It gives us an opportunity to enlighten and empower girls before they become women with the same issues.
Over the years, you have worked with girls of all ages and ethnicities. What are some of the commonalities these girls and young women share about the image and status of women?
I think that ultimately girls want to be appealing, to not only to boys, but to adults. They really struggle many times with wanting to be liked and getting approval. When I say appealing, I mean it in a far greater sense than sexually. How girls are educated sexually varies widely across cultures. For some it is never spoken of; for others it’s dinner time discussion. Regardless, I believe human beings have an innate desire to feel validated. I believe it’s our job as the community that raises a child to encourage girls to look for validation of their heart, soul, and mind, rather than simply their bodies. In terms of physical appearance, it’s a slippery slope, as images of what is universally beautiful are defined soooooooo narrowly. I believe that it’s important to enforce beauty that entails being clean, healthy, physically fit, and fashionably creative.
What are the major differences in body image amongst black, white, and Latino girls?
When I was growing up in Da Bronx, it was all about curves. It was a pretty diverse neighborhood with many immigrant families. The majority of folks were African Americans, and people of Caribbean/Latino decent. You were actually teased if you didn’t have a round booty. We were hit with some interesting dynamics though, because much of the 80s were all about light-skinned beauty and the introduction of the serious weave. So you had to have a booty but you all also had to attain Lisa Bonet looks. Thankfully we’ve made some strides in terms of widening that parameter of beauty but we still have a journey ahead of us.
What role does the media play in shaping young girls' notions of success?
Fortunately, here in the West, the media has really been good about showing successful women. Many, many shows are hosted by women. If you take a look at the credits, you can see how many producers are women. Women are often times shown in business, education, and sports. Unfortunately, there are so many other images that show success in terms of beauty and wealth. We must continue to broaden the definition of concepts like beauty and success.
Do you find that young girls' uncertainties about body image contribute to premature sexual promiscuity?
I think a few things lead to premature sexual promiscuity. I believe that uncertainty and insecurity can definitely send you looking for the validation we talked about earlier. I believe that lack of education and healthy and frank discussions about sex and its consequences lead to early experimentation. It’s very difficult to have an effective conversation about sexual activity if you wait until your hormonal teenager starts making you nervous. Sex has lost so much of its intimacy and emotional worth, and I believe that age-appropriate healthy conversation about self-worth, hygiene, and health risks will lead to girls making better decisions about sex. I think sexual desire, appetite and prowess vary within human beings and everyone certainly discovers it at different ages. But we can certainly all agree that you are better served by being mature and responsible (of the consequences) and aware of your own capacities, before deciding to fulfill every sexual desire that you have.
What are the racial and economic issues behind women's negative images of themselves?
That’s a whole other dissertation. Briefly, I think things like health, education and physical health have been greatly compromised in our school systems. Self-esteem building curricula like music, theatre and sports have been sacrificed in so many schools. They are now building many city schools with no gymnasium. In the United States and abroad, we are seeing numbers of obesity in children that are off the charts. In black communities, children are contending with being predisposed to silent killers like heart disease and diabetes because of our fabulous fatty cuisine and we don’t vigorously promote exercise and swimming because it’ll wreck our hair that we spend lots of time and money to maintain. There are so many extremes and imbalances in our society. You can watch a commercial for Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig sandwiched between a Sara Lee commercial for cakes with fudge swirls and a Papa John’s commercial for pizza with extra cheesy bread thrown in. We look for quick fixes for health and beauty rather than spending the necessary time, money, and resources on good-lasting health.
One of the constant gripes about the hip hop scene is the degradation of women found in so many of the lyrics. Teaching in Brooklyn, I'm sure that many of your students have a taste for that music. Do you think that hip hop culture contributes to young girls holding negative images of themselves?
When Don Imus called the Rutgers basketball team “some nappy-headed hoes,” it set the wheels in motion for some much-needed discussions about the themes of hip hop music. I have a very conflicted relationship with hip hop. I’ve loved it since the beginning and have followed so many permutations of it: from basement parties to boardroom discussions. I teach hip hop dance. What Imus said was, of course, inappropriate, but I wondered when that all went down, did the Rutgers girls go home to celebrate their success at a party where Jay-Z or 50 Cent was played by the DJ? It’s like having a relationship with a big brother. He can harass you and call you out of your name, but as soon as someone outside of the family does it, it’s grounds for a woopin’. I do not believe that hip hop is the reason girls have negative images about themselves but I do believe that if you are not already empowered with strong self-esteem, it doesn’t help.
What influence does hip hop have on your male students and the ways in which they perceive women?
I think hip hop has a very big influence on young men. They really want to emulate these rappers. I think that there are many rappers in the game right now that are doing great things for their communities. Rappers like Diddy, Nelly, Jay-Z and 50 Cent have foundations that really serve young people. The problem is that we rarely, if ever, see that side of them. We just see them blingin’ all over the place, supermanin’ dat ho. We must continue to talk with our young men about not objectifying girls and how to address and treat young ladies without having them think that it’s corny and “gay” to be kind and respectful.
You can't stop youth from gravitating toward believing what they hear in hip hop and the media. How do we re-educate the youth about self-respect without being preachy?
The hip hop game has really changed. It is sooooo important for young people to know the difference between reality and entertainment. Even that is difficult with the emergence of reality television and entertainment. They have to know that there is a decision being made by a person (who may not know much about hip hop) in an office at a record label about what gets sold. We have to show our kids that rap music serves as entertainment in the same way that action heroes exist in movies. It’s true that many rappers rap about their lives and how they live and those lives are oftentimes parallel to those of the kids who listen to it. It’s hard to hold entertainers to a particular standard because it requires the push of the masses, but we certainly can talk with our kids about what is acceptable. But it takes work. We can’t just bash and discard our kids’ music because it sounds like noise. We have to create an early dialogue with them. Listen to their music. Talk with them about why they like it. Is it the beat, the hook, or the lyrics? If kids think we take them and their interests seriously, they are more likely to value our advice about their conduct.
What effect does the public fall-out of idolized role-models such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have on young girls?
I think it’s very difficult to be a young person who is given lots of cash and “yes” people positioned around them and set to live in a fish bowl where your every move and mistake is front-page fodder. I think the same thing applies here. We need to talk to our kids and let them know that Britney and Lindsay are young ladies living very extraordinary lives in entertainment. But those conversations need to happen as soon as we sit our kids down in front of the television. It’s harder to make your point after the pantyless pictures and mug shots are all over the television. Miley Cyrus is very hot right now. All the girls love her as Hannah Montana. She’s sweet, funny and wholesome and I’m sure many parents feel safe having their kids watch her, but they need to let their kids know that Miley has much of her life ahead of her and that she may not always make decisions in her career or personal life that are smart or agree with what our family thinks is important. She is human and fallible and sometimes people make mistakes.
What impact do the historical images of women have on girls growing up in today's society?
I think that, living in a time where we have more generations of people than ever before (because people are living longer), we have more representations of different cultural mindsets. People are not dying at 60 and 70 anymore; people are living to 80, 90, and even 100. So we have more representations of different views about women. We are at a time right now in the United States where it is possible to have a woman running for president. So even if she doesn’t win, this is still a milestone for many living women who were daughters of the actual suffragettes. So because of this, we have many extremes of opinions about womens’ place in society. For example, my grandmother thinks it’s in poor taste to go to a wedding without pantyhose. I went to a wedding in May and I had on a cute dress and some silver strappy sandles and I thought I was looking pretty cute. Well, my grandmother gave me a once-over and she said, “Gurl, where’syo pantyhose at?” But then, you have Stacy London on TLC’s What Not To Wear telling us it’s unfashionable to wear pantyhose with open-toed shoes. So we’re living in a clash of standards. So it’s important to create a dialogue about it, to find a balance. We need to teach our young girls to be respectful of the days gone by, even possibly incorporating some of that into the future, because I think it’s important for ladies to still be ladies. We don’t have to let our journey of being evolved women come at the sacrifice of conducting ourselves as ladies. The sexual revolution was about taking ownership of our freedoms, understanding our bodies and how they work, and not being afraid to talk to our partners about our desires. It didn’t necessarily mean that you had to go out and sleep with everyone; it meant that you could be more in control about the choices you make sexually. And I think there’s a big difference. So, to put it in simple terms, I think the sexual revolution was more about quality than quantity.
Do you think that artists such as Lil Kim and Trina have helped today’s young girls lose sight of that? Do you think that young girls are buying into the notion that “women’s rights” means having the freedom to go out act like a trick?
I think that every woman is within her right to explore her sexual desires. But I do believe that a misinterpretation of the sexual revolution has caused some misguided behaviors. Take the character of Samantha on Sex in the City, for example. My initial feeling was that they were trying to portray an image that, if you allow yourself to be casual and to just partake in whoever sparks your interest, then you’ll enjoy every sexual experience you ever have, thereby becoming a “liberated woman.” I do believe, though, that, because the character is bright, successful, and financially responsible, that she is in the position to handle the consequences of her promiscuity. A lot of it is about personal responsibility, and as much as we try to act like we don’t care what people think, I think it is important to care that people respect you.
You teach children and youth classes in every subject matter from music and drama to culture and journalism and back again. Tell us a little about your cooking and fashion classes, and how these art forms aid you in educating children about unity and diversity.
Being a freelance journalist has given me so many opportunities to not only cover world events but also things I’ve had a passion for all my life. I was a plus-size model for about 15 minutes and it gave me some interesting perspectives. There are certainly some evils in the modeling industry but there are some great things emerging in the industry as well. Even though I was plus size, I still had requirements to be in good health, toned and proportioned. There is also more diversity and designers are really paying attention more to a forgotten market of plus-size women. There is a lot more in the way of fashion available to bigger women. I have also conveyed this to young girls in terms of seeking out fashion that works for them and mixing, matching and being creative with current trends. I’m currently developing an educational cooking show that brings together international music, costume, language, and dance. It came out of my own experience as a learner. I always thrived when many of my senses were stimulated. The students I’ve had really thrived in the class. Unity in diversity is celebrated because we realize that everyone’s got a version of rice, beans and meat, and our culture just dictates how we will prepare that. So many of the conflicts we have in the world stem from cultural ignorance and if we really look, we see that we are much more alike than we are different. Prejudice is taught so we can certainly counteract that with teaching tolerance and respect.
Anyone who's seen you in action knows that your fashion sense is definitely a huge part of your presence in the classroom. What do you think your personal style says to the girls in your class? What exactly is it that you are role-modeling?
You’ve certainly tapped my passion for fashion. I love to see what’s hot and new and then turn it on its ear. I think my students see that I really embrace everything. Some east, some west, some old, some new, some cheap, some high end. It’s about appreciating it all and taking pieces of it to make it your own.
Is the present education system adequately serving our children?
As an African-American woman, I appreciate and honor the young people who fought in the past so that I can have an education today. I’m sometimes daunted by the apathy that so many students have about education today, when they would have been risking their lives just to walk to school 50 short years ago. There’s so much that needs to happen in our school systems and I can’t confidently say what that all is. I do know that our communities need to hold our elected officials and our boards of education accountable for educating our children. Some of our schools are like prisons with security officers and metal detectors. I would like to see our teachers, parents, and families work more closely together to create and a school that kids will want to come to and that caters to several different kinds of learners. I would also like to see social services more integrated in the school system: for example, having medical, dental and therapeutic services housed right in the building so there is a continuum of care.
Desi K. Robinson’s radio shows can be heard on WBAI New York, 99.5 FM Pacifica Radio, or streamlined on the internet at www.wbai.org.