Personality: DaNika Neblett Robinson

Spotlight on the board chair of the James River Writers

9/29/2022, 6 p.m.
In 2015, DaNika Neblett Robinson found a new path to literary success. At the suggestion of her writing mentor, Stacy ...

In 2015, DaNika Neblett Robinson found a new path to literary success. At the suggestion of her writing mentor, Stacy Hawkins Adams, she attended the annual James River Writers conference, in hopes of finding the inspiration she needed for her work.

There, Dr. Robinson found aid for her writing skills, pitched her idea to others, and ultimately wound up hiring one of the conference’s speakers as her editor for her novella, “The Metamorphic Journey.” The experience at the conference, as she describes it, was critical for her and her writing community.

“Being a part of a writing community allowed me to see one of my dreams of becoming a published author come true,” Dr. Robinson says.

Now, Dr. Robinson is helping maintain a space for Richmond writers with stories to tell, as the James River Writers’ latest board chair. With nearly 500 members in the organization and the goal of supporting local writers in innovative ways, she works with staff on programs that ensure representation for all.

James River Writers’ efforts allow them to reach a wide community through partnerships and programs online and off, from writing contests and shows to poetry slams and more. This diversity of choice is key to Dr. Robinson’s vision for the group — “No limits. No boundaries. All are welcomed.”

“I want to create spaces where people can experience freedom in writing and not pigeonhole others or themselves to believe being a writer en- compasses a limited number of genres,” Dr. Robinson says.

As with many organizations, James River Writers’ efforts were stymied by COVID-19, and the initial wave of the pandemic led Dr. Robinson and other leaders to employ online methods for programming and support as the group faced a decline in membership throughout the early months.

While James River Writers has regained some of its members in the years since, Dr. Robinson believes the impact of the pandemic has had deeper effects on local writers in general, and James River Writers specifically. She sees a change in the tastes and needs of the community that they are still exploring and trying to address.

“It’s fabulous to be able to chat on Zoom with people from California, Texas, and Minnesota,” Dr. Robinson says. “But it’s challenging to anticipate how to best continue as a community and what funding opportunities will support our programs.”

Regardless of the pandemic’s impact, Dr. Robinson is enthusiastic when it comes to James River Writers’ future. The group’s 20th anniversary conference is coming soon, with a large suite of guests and programs for attendees she and other members are excited to have as part of the event. She also plans to take some time off on her own and rest, given the many roles and responsibilities she juggles in her life.

For writers just starting out, Dr. Robinson has plenty of advice, from not obsessing too much with the end product, to the importance that writing has for getting projects off the ground. She also stresses the importance of building relationships within the literary community, and her journey is a testament to how valuable those connections can be.

“Being a writer can be lonely but being connected to a literary community inspires you to see the many opportunities ahead, some you may not have even considered.”

Meet a literary leader for Richmond area writers and this week’s Personality, DaNika Neblett Robinson:

Volunteer position: Board chair, James River Writers.

Occupation: Chief business officer, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy.

Date and place of birth: March 29 in Richmond.

Where I live now: Chesterfield.

Education: Doctorate in education; master’s in public administration, bachelor’s in religious studies, bachelor’s in business administration.

Family: Married with two biological children, four bonus children, and one son-in-love.

James River Writers (JRW) is: Community!

When and why founded: JRW was established in 2002 by three co-founders: David L. Robbins, Dean King and Phaedra Hise. They saw the need to support the growth of the region’s literary community. Basically, their focus was the James River Writers Conference, which was first held in October 2003. They believed Richmond had enough talent that if they built something for writers, writers would come together. And they were right. So many talented writers from the Richmond area attend the annual conference.

The 20th annual James River Writers 2022 Conference is Oct. 7- 9.

For details, visit https://jamesriverwriters.org/conference2022/

How and why I became involved: In 2015, my writing mentor, Stacy Hawkins Adams, suggested that I attend events sponsored by JRW, particularly their annual conference. At that conference, my eyes were opened to a new world that fed my soul. Being a part of a writing community allowed me to see one of my dreams of becoming a published author come true. I was able to pitch my book idea to an agent as well as learn writing tips that brought my characters to life. Most importantly, I was able to connect with a speaker/attendee who I eventually hired to edit my novella, “The Metamorphic Journey.”

Why I accepted board chair position: I am a leader who loves to use my administrative experience to enhance organizations that I am a member of. Also, I earned a nonprofit management certificate from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University and use that knowledge as I work with the James River Writers’ staff to build a flourishing organization.

Number one goal as board chair: To support the writing community in innovative and creative ways. I want to create spaces where people can experience freedom in writing and not pigeonhole others or themselves to believe being a writer encompasses a limited number of genres. Or that they become a writer when society says they are a writer, after reaching some manmade pinnacle of success.

Strategy for achieving goals: I work with the staff to inspire them to create programs where writers of all backgrounds can see themselves represented. Young writers. Seasoned writers. Poets. Academic writers. People of color writers. Speech writers. Published writers. Unpublished writers. LGBTQIA+ writers. Indigenous Peoples writers. No limits. No boundaries. All are welcomed.

Most important thing we have done since we were founded: Built an organization of 500 members—that really says community! Our membership dropped with the start of the pandemic, but it’s steadily climbing, and we have 500 members in our sights. We’ll be there again soon!

Biggest hurdle JRW has faced: Navigating the pandemic. Like most organizations, we’ve had to instantly learn how to put everything online while ensuring that our programming provides the support and inspiration that our literary community desires. People’s tastes and needs have changed, and in some ways, our members themselves don’t quite know what they want yet. It’s fabulous to be able to chat on Zoom with people from California, Texas and Minnesota. But it’s challenging to anticipate how to best continue as a community and what funding opportunities will support our programs.

JRW partners with: Anyone in the community who loves words! We judge an annual contest for the Virginia High School League, are sponsoring a poetry slam with Richmond’s Poet Laureate Roscoe Burnems, helped the Virginia State Library with a series of Book Breaks featuring Virginia authors, provided ideas and support for Richmond Magazine’s Writer in Residence series on Instagram and, additionally, work with them every year on a literary contest. We’re helping the Poe Museum with an upcoming poetry contest and often work with the Visual Arts Center.

Youth writers’ involvement and JRW: We make our programs affordable for students. Our monthly Writing Show is only $5 and a student membership is $25 instead of $45. The program that attracts the most young people is our conference, and we try to offer as many scholarships as possible. For several years we’ve partnered with Richmond Young Writers to showcase the young authors of their Picture Book Project at our conference. High School students get to attend the conference and sign and sell their books, just like other authors!

Black and Brown writers and JRW: We believe in showcasing our entire community on stage. Our conference has a diverse lineup of literary super stars, which you can see just by glancing at the conference home page. Also, we offer annual conference scholarships, first to individuals from under-served populations. I personally have looked for opportunities to support the attendance of HBCU students at our upcoming conference. I want them to dream about the possibilities of being a writer just like I did. The annual conference will ignite a passion within them to complete their next project. It did for me.

Practical advice for aspiring writers: Your project starts with one word. Don’t think too far into the future about the end product. There will be plenty of time to fine tune what you have written. Just start writ- ing and the vision for the end product will come alive. Be- ing a writer can be lonely but being connected to a literary community inspires you to see the many opportunities ahead, some you may not have even considered.

Ways to get involved: Show up! One of the easiest points of access is Writers Wednesday. It’s usually the second Wednesday of the month (Oct. 19 is an exception), often online, and always free. It’s a great way to network, ask questions, and relax with people who understand writing. We also have a form on our website for people who want to volunteer, and our newsletter always has the latest on events and opportunities.

Upcoming events: The 20th annual conference! We’re so excited to have Beth Macy headlining and Stephanie Foo of NPR doing a plenary session on harnessing trauma in your writing. We’ll have online master classes, so people anywhere in the world can learn from masters like Ryka Aoki and Amina Gautier. Plus, we’ll have a free poetry reading in person at the Visual Arts Center featuring Nick George, Michel- ande Ridoré, and Sheree Renée Thomas with Rosa Castellano moderating.

A perfect day for me is: Taking a moment to reflect while listening to the crashing waves of beach water.

What I am continuing to learn about myself during the pandemic: I need to take better care of my physical and emotional health.

Something about me that people may not know: I’m very shy and it takes a lot of energy for me to engage with people, but I enjoy it.

What inspires me to write: It’s therapy. All of my writing starts as a journal entry.

A quote that inspires me: “To thine own self be true” — William Shakespeare.

My friends describe me as: Inspiring.

At the top of my “to-do” list: Self-care. I plan to completely disconnect in December. My mind, body, and spirit are in desperate need of a time out.

Best late-night snack: No late-night snacks for me; it doesn’t agree with my stomach.

The best thing my parents ever taught me: Remain humble and show love. 1 Corinthians 13:13 from the King James Bible reads, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” This is what inspires me to give back to the community. My accomplishments don’t make me; sharing my resources is what makes me. Whether those resources are time, knowledge, or financial. I am blessed to be a blessing. Maya Angelou stated, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel”. The only way people can feel genuinely seen or heard is that you connect with them, the individual. That can only be accomplished through humbleness and love. I’m a living witness.

The person who influenced me the most: My children. I was 16 when I became pregnant with my son, and 21 when I gave birth to my daughter. My children inspired me to dream bigger because I never wanted my decisions as a young mother to disappoint them. Besides, it was important for me to show them that dreams do come true. You don’t have to accept the label that society puts on you.

Most inspiring writer for me is: Any writer who can grab my attention in less than a minute and provide me takeaways that I can immediately apply to my life so that I can become a better version of myself.

Book that influenced me the most: To be honest, the only book that has influenced me is the Bible. I started as a Sunday School teacher at the age of nine. Studying the Bible regularly prepared me with the knowledge needed to teach others and lessons to live by. It serves as the foundation of my leadership style.

What I’m reading now: I am that person who reads multiple books at one time. Right now, I am reading:

• “Self-Care for Black Women: 150 Ways to Radically Accept & Prioritize Your Mind, Body, & Soul” by Oludara Adeeyo

• “Feeding the Soul (Because It’s My Business): Finding Our Way to Joy, Love, and Freedom” by Tabitha Brown

• “Just as I Am: A Memoir” by Cicely Tyson.

Next goal: Continue to embrace opportunities to rest. I’ve always engaged in multiple activities that feed my soul. My professional work, teaching tomorrow’s leaders, and serving in board posi- tions all put a smile on my face but being intentional about resting, completely disconnecting has always been challenging for me and I want to do better. I no longer want to be a self-care hypocrite ... one who encourages others to do it without ensuring I do it myself.