Robin Vander Wall: A life not destroyed

Reprinted with permission from LifeTimes Magazine, Fall, 2018

By Brian Davidson . . . Robin had a choice to make. He could let his past dictate his future, or he could decide to use his past experiences to make a difference in the lives of other people. He chose the latter.

Like many others, Robin lost everything after his conviction. After years of schooling, he was finally going to get his law license.

“Two days before I got locked up I had paid a six hundred dollar fee to sit for the bar. That was already sent in the mail. I was going to graduate in May with two degrees. I was going to graduate with a degree in law and a master’s in political management.”

In addition to his schooling, Robin had been very active in politics, managing campaigns and working with a variety of politicians. All of that came to a crashing halt and he spent over six years in prison.

After serving his time, he knew he had to make a decision about his future. “When I got out of prison, I immediately knew I’ve got to do something. I had to get involved, itching to invest what I could,” Robin told me. “I have skill and I have talent and I have capability and not everybody does and so I think I have a responsibility to do what I can to help others.”

One of the first organizations he became involved with was an organization called National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws, or NARSOL for short. He became the editor in chief for a project known as Minute Men. He was able to draw on all the skills he learned in law school, and all the experience he’d gained in politics, and was soon a prominent leader in the organization.

“Back then we would meet once every Saturday in the morning and map out strategy for the following week. Those were the days. I was very involved and that’s what led to other options and opportunities within NARSOL.”

Today, Robin is the vice chair of NARSOL and the founder and president of Vivante Espero, the foundation that supports it.

This year, Robin was offered a fellowship with Just Leadership USA, a non—profit organization that is dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030. One of the ways they do this is by training people who were formally incarcerated to be leaders in the movement. As part of the fellowship, he will participate in a total of four face-to—face meetings in New York where he will receive training in basic leadership skills. In addition to the meetings in New York, all fellowship recipients participate in monthly webinars.

“It’s really about learning to be a better listener, learning to be a better communicator, learning essentially how to make others leaders. The concept is empowerment.”

I asked Robin if the others in the program know that he is on a public registry. He told me that they all know. “As I normally am accustomed to doing, I’ve taken a very open approach. They all know. I think I’m the token. But I don’t think I’m there because I’m the token.”

Robin says that he takes being the token very seriously. He understands that he is being watched, both by people within the organization and by others in his advocacy work. He knows he is representing an entire group of people who regularly find themselves being scorned and excluded. “Absolutely positively I feel that. If I don’t do anything else at all in my experience with JLUSA, I will feel good about my role and my involvement there having taken the training and used it to the best of my ability and to not have done anything to reflect badly on JLUSA or on NARSOL or the movement in its entirety. Yes, absolutely.”

Like most people on a public registry, Robin struggles a little when it comes to dealing with questions about his past. Even when he’s being interviewed by the media about his successes, he still senses a certain level of judgement. “I do feel that, and I don’t know if there’s anything you can do about that. The only thing you can do is to feel good enough about yourself that you can live with it understanding that yes, that means you’re a little bit damaged. You’re not fully social, you’re not able to be a full social creature. But so what? Trump can’t be a fully social creature either and he’s the freaking president, right? So, I don’t worry about it too much.”

Although he sometimes thinks about what might have been, how life would be different if he’d gone on to be a lawyer, he makes a choice not to dwell on the past.

“I’m not a negative person by nature. I don’t know that it’s a matter of finding happiness as opposed to experiencing it where it exists. I don’t spend time during the day anymore thinking about my lost degree or thinking about my lost opportunities or thinking about what might have been because there’s no use in it. It’s not helpful, it’s not going to change anything, and if I get too preoccupied by it I will inevitably want to pull somebody else into it.”

Robin is excited about his opportunities to use the skills and talents he’s developed over the years to make a real difference in people’s lives. It’s been almost ten years since he was released from prison. In that time, he has found happiness through his work with NARSOL, Vivante Espero, and Just Leadership USA.

“I’m content and I’m happy. Could I be happier? I don’t know. Honestly, I’m not sure I could be any happier and I don’t want to think about it like that because that opens that door. When I start contemplating, ‘Could I be happier?’ then I start thinking about what things could make me happier. Then I might think, ‘Well, if I was a lawyer right now…’ See? There I go, walking down that road.”

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