Author: Baker, Chris
Date published: December 28, 2011
In 2005, Syracuse University hired coach Greg Robinson in an effort to revitalize its struggling football program. While SU fans know how that turned out, most are unfamiliar with the tale of his son. Dominic Robinson followed his father to Syracuse as an assistant coach, but left the team after two years to pursue a revitalization project of his own: the city's North Side.
Robinson is the founder and director of Northside UP, a non-for-profit community development project headquartered at 800 N. Salina St. Northside UP (originally called the Northside Collaboratory) began as a two-man operation with Robinson and his friend Maarten Jacobs in 2006. The organization's goal is to improve the overall quality of life on the city's North Side through community and cultural initiatives as well as economic progress.
Before coming to Syracuse, Robinson taught and coached football at a high school in Chicago while taking graduate courses at Loyola University. He was 26 years old when his father was hired at SU. "My dad invited me here to coach with him," Robinson says. "Before I knew it, I was taking classes at the School of Education and was a grad assistant with the team."
Despite an imposing physique, Robinson defies the stereotypical image of a football coach. Those accustomed to watching his father shouting at players and barking orders to subordinates on the SU sidelines would be surprised to meet the quiet, humble 32-year-old. "It's easy to let your work become an ego-driven thing," notes Jacobs, who has known Robinson since he moved here in 2005. "But he's been able to do amazing work and not let it go to his head."
Shortly after moving to Syracuse, Robinson met the Rev. Canice Connor, director of the Franciscan Northside Ministries. Despite a 50-year age gap, the two became fast friends, regularly discussing philosophy and urban development. It was Connor who gave Robinson the opportunity to start a new career.
"He said he could pay me enough to live on if I wanted to put my ideas into action," Robinson remembers. "While I loved football and coaching, I was ready for something that didn't require me to work 100 hours a week."
The two men worked out a budget that allowed Robinson to hire one employee. He called Jacobs, who has a background in community organizing, and offered him the job. "Dom and I were neighbors when he first moved here and we spent a lot of time talking about what this city needs," Jacobs says. "So when he called and offered me a position, I quit my job and he and I started at Northside UP."
Today, Northside UP is a seven-person outfit and boasts impressive partners ranging from St. Joseph's Hospital to Catholic Charities to CenterState CEO. As the program's primary financier, CenterState CEO is, technically, Robinson's employer. In addition to his work with Northside UP, Robinson serves as deputy director of urban initiatives at the chamber of commerce-type organization. His duties in that role, he says, typically overlap with those at Northside UP.
Jacobs has since taken a position as director of a similar project-the Near West Side Initiative-but he and Robinson collaborate and share ideas frequently. "It was a tough decision to leave," Jacobs says. "But it's given us an opportunity to bring Northside UP programs to the Near West Side."
One such program is Green Train, an educational program that teaches environmentally friendly construction practices to residents. On the North Side, the program has trained more than 100 neighbors, and nearly 90 of them now work full time, Robinson says, making Green Train one of his most successful projects.
While Northside UP is involved in various community projects, their main focus is economic development. "The only way to permanently increase quality of life is by changing an area's economic conditions," Robinson says. "The greatest challenge we face here is poverty."
Robinson began combating this challenge by partnering with Cooperative Federal Credit Union, which opened a branch in December 2008 in the same building as Northside UP. The credit union provides services and education regarding loans and mortgages for its members.
Next, Robinson and Co. began renovating buildings in the area and working with entrepreneurs to bring businesses to the small commercial district. Northside UP has worked with Wild Flour Bakery and the recently opened Craft Chemistry, an art gallery, helping secure grants and retail space for the burgeoning businesses.
In addition to the economic projects, Northside UP has funded public arts projects and community gardens. The result of these combined efforts is a blossoming sense of community on the North Side, the portion of the city that has historically welcomed the first waves of immigrants, whether they were Italian, Somali or Hmong. "We're adding a sense of excitement in the neighborhood and getting people to feel connected to the place where they're living and working," Robinson says.
As he nears seven years in Syracuse, Robinson admits that this is the longest he's spent in one place. The son of a football coach, he has lived in a half-dozen cities. It was in Syracuse, however, that he met his wife, Jonnell, and found work that he truly loves.
"We have a lot of work left to do here and I completely intend on doing it," he says. "A lot of people place their trust in what we're doing here and I, for one, am extremely excited about it."