Learn to love to love people: An interview with Robert Burkhardt

13 Dec

This month, we have asked the ALLY SNAPSHOT bloggers to describe someone inspiring they have met in their Public Allies experience. Here’s one of the posts on this theme.

That's Robert in the green vest and stocking hat addressing students and staff at Morning Gathering.

Wise. Caring. Motivating. Strong. These are only some words to describe Robert Burkhardt, Head of School at Eagle Rock School, where I work as an Ally. Robert has been with Eagle Rock since the planning phases in 1991, and he welcomed the first students who arrived in 1993. Eagle Rock is a Honda-Motor-company-funded residential school for youth who are in danger of not graduating high school. It’s a place where people believe in these students and provide them with an alternative education that is designed for them to grow both academically and personally. When I think about all that I love about Eagle Rock, it is mostly owed to Robert. Not only does he guide the school, but he participates in every facet possible, from music to sports. He loves to learn, and he transfers that love to students. Robert inspires me because he is someone who remains committed to his vision despite the ups and down. He doesn’t lose faith in himself or other people. So I decided to interview him, thinking that maybe you could catch some of his energy and see why I find Eagle Rock School to be such an amazing place.

Stephanie: What gets you up in the morning?

Robert: Well, sometimes the alarm clock. Almost always what gets me up in the morning is I absolutely look forward to working with staff and students here. And whether it’s teaching a class, or we got jazz improv that day, or it’s intramurals, I just enjoy this. Also, morning exercise. It was 1° this morning and we ran and it was fun. It’s nice to have students realize they can actually live through something like that. So the job and all that the job implies gets me up.

Stephanie: What do you believe is the connection between service and justice?

Robert: I don’t know that service is always connected to justice, but many times it is and can be when we give of ourselves to help others and we ameliorate situations of unfairness, or injustice, or poverty or degradation of any kind. And we give ourselves to turn that around, then we move, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, toward the arc of justice when that happens.

Stephanie: What do you love most about your job?

Robert:  I’ve been teaching Hamlet this fall and it’s wonderful. The kids have really taken ownership of this performance, and they’re gonna knock peoples’ socks off on Saturday night and I helped to be part of that. Look at this incredible view [points out the window to a view of mountains and snow]. Lizzie [Robert’s wife] and I went for a walk in snow the other day, the campus is beautiful, so there are all these many facets that remind me that I’m incredibly lucky. Honda’s gift to America is just utterly amazing, it’s staggering to think how much money they invested in this place so we can offer hope to people. Those are just a few.

Another picture from Morning Gathering at Eagle Rock School

Stephanie: Every Wednesday morning at Gathering you give away books. What’s the importance of reading?

Robert:  Well I can’t experience what’s going on in Bhutan right now. I don’t know what it’s like in Patagonia, Northern Finland, Namibia. There are these places I have not been yet, so I can read about them and I can see pictures, I can read about other peoples’ experiences. And in order for me to understand other people I need to understand as best I can the experiences that other people have had accomplishing something or being defeated at something. I just read a terrific biography about JFK by Chris Matthews, and a book about the history of the construction Eiffel Tower. I get ideas, I get inspiration, I get insight, and it helps me be that much more effective inside myself and in my interactions with other people

Stephanie: Two things I think I admire the most about you is that you love people, or more accurately, you love to love people, and you believe in them — especially the students here. How important a quality do you think this is for people to have?

Robert: Well suppose I were to say to you, “You know Steph, your haven’t got that much.” What kind of message does that send to people? It’s true that we all rise to some extent because others recognize us and help us with things. So it’s important for me. I like people, I love mixing it up with students a whole lot, teasing, challenging them. I love it when they develop and grow themselves ’cause that gives me inspiration to push myself further … If someone has done something really really dumb and they do it a bunch of times, it’s OK to say, “Hey, excuse me, what? Are you thinking at all?”

For the most part the folks here, the kids here, want to succeed and they want us to be their cheerleaders. Too many of them have come here without cheerleaders or with insufficient cheerleaders, and we get to say, “Come, you can do this, you can do this.” This morning when Issac and Taber [two Eagle Rock students] — the song they sang at the Gathering was really cool, an original song. I want to be the midwife to events like that, and I think that is part of my role here at Eagle Rock.

Stephanie: What advice do you have for people who would say the world is too far gone?

Robert: Get out of my way. That’s such a shortsighted thing. The world has been going to the dogs for a long time. You think the world is going to the dogs? Go back to 1939, September 1st, the start of World War II. Go back to 1929, when the stock market crashed. Go back to the American Civil War. We lost 600,000 Americans. There have been much tougher times than we have right now.

I think people are inconvenienced; they have been fed this pablum that life should be easy and all should be well. It’s not quite that way. Life is struggle, and we have to constantly create ourselves, create our conditions and reshape things so we can move the planet forward. If you’re going to give up … tell that to what’s going to become a butterfly and it’s locked inside in this chrysalis, and it’s trying really hard to get out and it doesn’t listen. And it says, “I’m going to be a butterfly.”

I want Eagle Rock and all of us who work here to give the message to people that we can make a difference in our own lives and the lives of other people. I can’t do anything about the economic situation in Italy, Greece, and Spain right now. There’s nothing I can do about that. What I can do is hope that the experience that students get here in their daily interaction with you, me, each other, help them become that much more effective in the world so that they can be independently healthy of mind and body. And then, world, do your worst; they’re still going to survive and thrive.

Stephanie: How do you assess your impact? How do you know you’ve done something?

Robert: When Matt Casper [former Eagle Rock student] decides to sail around the world. He’s called me up three or four times from his boat, I’m so honored he’s called me …  When Calvin King [another former Eagle Rock student] graduates from Morehouse … I was there, I know Calvin King’s story. He should be dead or in jail. It is the sum of the individual achievements of staff and students, when former fellows go off and start an organization … we made a difference in their lives, so that it’s possible for them to say, “I can do this.” It’s all that human achievement that is my most significant indicator.

Stephanie: Batman or Superman?

Robert: Superman, easy. Because although he has an Achilles heal, which is kryptonite, he wanted to be mild mannered and just wanted to report on things as Clark Kent. He wants truth justice and the American way, but he really just wants to help people in need.

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3 Responses to “Learn to love to love people: An interview with Robert Burkhardt”

  1. MacArthur Antigua December 13, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Thanks for sharing this. Every year, I try to make it to Eagle Rock for my own “community-building” pilgrimage. When I’m there, I’m so struck by how they model the exquisite tension inherent in true community: that inclusivity and accountability are two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without the other.

    To you and your fellow bloggers — keep these posts coming! I know here at the National Office, we love learning about what you’re learning about, and it keeps us very grounded in the work.

  2. Marli December 14, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    Thank you for reigniting my passion and love for Eagle Rock and the community I formed there as an ally. I am grateful beyond words for that experience – It has inspired me in everyway and I can only hope that I can live a life that is as deeply committed as Robert and the role that he played to make Eagle Rock an incredible place to live, learn and play!

  3. Dara December 14, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    This post was amazing. I have only read about Eagle Rock (especially when I was applying to become an Ally) and I wish I could visit and experience what it’s like there because it sounds like an inspiring place.

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