Carley Robinson ’20

Portrait of Carley Robinson

Carley Robinson ’20 says she knew she wanted to study the psychology of adolescence since she was a teenager herself. She applied to Cornell Human Ecology (CHE) after reading about the major in human development, with plans to become a sexual health educator after graduation. But then a chance encounter with a local theater organization changed everything.

“It completely reshaped the way I thought about theater, and thus the world,” Robinson says.

In her sophomore year, Robinson took a class that required community engagement. Because of her experience doing theater in high school, she was matched with Civic Ensemble, an organization in Ithaca that describes itself as a “home for theater that explores the social, political, and cultural issues of our time.” 

After talking with Sarah Chalmers, one of Civic’s co-founders and now a visiting lecturer in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Robinson began working with Civic’s ReEntry Theatre Program, which enables formerly incarcerated people to learn theater skills and develop scenes to tell their own stories, process their experiences and change perceptions of the criminal justice system. 

“Working with ReEntry turned theater on its head for me,” Robinson says. “Seeing people talk about how Civic Ensemble literally saved their life, helped them with their sobriety, helped them stay together with their families – and for Civic to lead with a mentality that these stories are valuable, and they deserve to be on stage, performed by the people who are telling them – felt completely revolutionary to me as a 19-year-old.”

Robinson kept working with Civic Ensemble the next semester, this time through the Einhorn Center’s Community Work-Study Program, which enables Cornell Federal Work-Study students to work for local nonprofit organizations, schools and municipalities.

In addition to helping with ReEntry, she also got involved with Civic’s theater in education programs. She says that those experience showed her the potential of applied theater techniques to empower young people and inspire social change. It also made her curious.

“Learning about applied theater changed the way that I thought about research, and it raised huge questions for me around behavior versus attitude,” Robinson says. “What has to come first to create change?”

To start finding answers, Robinson became a PRYDE Scholar, part of a group of undergraduates who learn about youth interventions in collaboration with experts through the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s (BCTR) Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement. She also worked with ACT for Youth, a partnership among BCTR, Cornell University Cooperative Extension of New York City, and the Adolescent Medicine Division at the University of Rochester Medical Center. 

Robinson says that translational research – an approach at the heart of the BCTR and Cornell Human Ecology – and applied theater are similar. Both are not about the work for its own sake, but for social change, in collaboration with the community. 

“Everything can be drawn back to the things that I learned in human development,” she says. “How does a human being thrive in the world? I got an education in that, and I learned how to ask that question in every space that I occupy.”

In 2020, Robinson received the Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award from the Einhorn Center for her work with Civic Ensemble and the ReEntry Theatre Program. Civic Ensemble has been a partner on a number of past, on-going and current projects and activities funded by Einhorn Center grants and programs, including the Theatre and Climate Change class supported by an Engaged Curriculum Grant and involving Cornell faculty Sara Warner from Performing and Media Arts, Toby Ault from Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and Chalmers.

“The Einhorn Center has been proud to support many connections between Civic Ensemble and Cornell over the years,” says Basil Safi, the center’s executive director. “The variety and evolution of work we’ve seen — and continue to see — is the epitome of high-quality community-engaged learning’s longstanding reciprocal partnerships addressing community-identified needs and connecting back to the academic strengths and mission of the university and shows the many forms this work can take on.”

After Robinson graduated, she did end up working as a sexual health educator for a brief period. She also worked for the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca and the Community Folk Art Center at Syracuse University. Then, she says, “I knew I had to come back to Ithaca.”

In April, she returned to Cornell as a program coordinator with BCTR, where she is connecting Cornell researchers with colleagues at GripTape, BCTR’s newest partner organization, and she plans to bring in more local community partners from Ithaca and Tompkins County. 

Robinson is also back working with Civic Ensemble – and preparing to make her directorial debut with the world premiere of Fertile Grounds in June. The show is part of Civic’s series of community-based plays, in which community members come together over 18 to 24 months to create a play around a topic that is meaningful to them. Fertile Grounds, written in collaboration with playwright Katie Ka Vang, invites the audience onto a BIPOC farming cooperative to explore the relationship of grief, community, and wellness. 

As part of the continuing Cornell-Civic partnership, first-year students from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity have been working on a digital storytelling project to share the process of developing the community-based play. 

Robinson says that getting to direct the play feels like a kind of homecoming.

“I will be at Civic Ensemble for five years in October and being able to direct professionally for the first time with this company feels incredibly, incredibly special,” she says. “I was nurtured and mentored and housed by this company, and now I can give back. I’m honored to have been entrusted with this story of land, of healing.”

Robinson originally came to Cornell from Virginia. When asked what still ties her to Ithaca, she says her affection for the area started with her work with Civic Ensemble. 

“This community gave to me as a young person who was far away from home, farther than I ever thought I’d be,” she explains. “I had people who were willing to mentor me and care for me and invest in me. Tompkins County is a deeply creative place – it has so much disparity, and so many opportunities. This place has such potential to become a forward thinker and innovator in the space of community relationships. I’ve seen what a bridge between Cornell and the community can do.”