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By Jenny Stockdale
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Soil and Crop Sciences Section
  • Natural Resources and the Environment
  • Agriculture
  • Communication
  • Environment
KAR Robison, a junior majoring in environment and sustainability, passed away unexpectedly in late December. They were 41.

Robison originally attended Baylor University, where they took courses in pre-medicine, philosophy and African studies. They went on to work in the field of sustainable food marketing in both San Diego and New York City for nearly 20 years, before returning to higher education in fall 2018 at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). In addition to majoring in environment and sustainability, they were pursuing a minor in Africana studies from the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).

The Cornell community shares a collection of memories about their time with Robison.

They hoped to work with farmers — locally and internationally — on developing sustainable agriculture practices for a changing climate. Robison was interested in working on policies that would shift human behavior to better protect the environment while also supporting communities’ cultural and economic development. Their future academic goals included earning a doctorate in sustainable development with a focus in cultural sustainability.

KAR Robison stands by a tree
KAR gets ready to visit the Penan community of Long Lamai, Borneo. Photo by Shorna Allred.

“I had numerous conversations with KAR and enjoyed their wisdom, creativity and sense of wonder about agriculture and the natural world,” said Antonio DiTommaso, chair and professor of soil and crop sciences in the School of Integrative Plant Science. 

As a research assistant and intern with the Global Citizenship and Sustainability Program, Robison was helping develop a digital museum to document the life and culture of the Penan indigenous community in Malaysian Borneo. The island is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world and jointly governed by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Primarily nomadic until the 1950s, the Penan are noted for their practice of 'molong,' an ethic and caretaking that denotes stewardship and never taking more than necessary.

“KAR was instrumental in advancing the indigenous cultural resilience partnership with the Penan, and was committed to authentic community voice in all the work that they did,” said Shorna Allred, Robison’s faculty advisor and associate professor of natural resources and the environment and global development. “I appreciate the deep level of thoughtfulness and the immense care that they brought to the project and to all of our interactions. They were the kindest and most thoughtful person I have ever met. Their memory will live on through their contributions to our partnership with the Penan.”

“KAR took my large introductory social science course, NTRES 2201: Society and Natural Resources, and they shone brightly, which is difficult to do in a class of 200 students,” said Richard Stedman, chair and professor of natural resources and the environment. “KAR was a near-constant presence in my weekly office hours, and I really looked forward to our conversations, which covered topics ranging from global politics to species extinction, to how to work on justice for people disadvantaged by environmental harms. I found KAR to be a delight, and the world is poorer for losing them, especially so early.”

In addition to their research, Robison was involved in many extracurricular activities and organizations, including the Cornell Environmental Collective, the Cornell LGBT Resource Center and Compass: The Cornell & George Junior Republic Partnership (GJR). Compass facilitates collaborative after-school opportunities between Cornellians and students at George Junior Republic High School in Freeville, New York. The group currently works with the Poetic Justice and Computer Science clubs, providing students with a platform to empower creativity, learning and leadership.

“Working with KAR through the Compass program allowed me to see just how compassionate they are. From taking the time to work one-on-one with students, to making artwork inspired by the students’ poems, KAR showed at every step that they were invested in lives of the students around them,” said La’Treil Allen ’22, a government major (A&S). “KAR’s imprint will forever be remembered by the students at GJR, as well as at Cornell. As someone who expressed care, patience and love in everything they did with Compass, it would only make sense to honor KAR by continuing to share the love they spread.”

Additionally, Robison served as a Public Service Scholar, a program that was coordinated by the Cornell Public Service Center. Scholars engaged in meaningful community service learning, completed a community-based research project and performed social advocacy work — developing their leadership skills and elevating active citizenship relationships between Cornell and the local community. Through this program, KAR got involved with the Poetic Justice Club at George Jr. Republic High School. 

“KAR had a talent for connecting with folks from various racial-ethnic backgrounds and lived experiences with ease and authentically,” said Amy Somchanhmavong, associate director of service-learning and partnership at the center. “KAR left memorable imprints for folks that have gotten to know them.”

Robison was also an accomplished muralist, photographer and artistic hat-maker. Their paintings and wearable art have been on display in New York City and Houston, Texas, as well as exhibited across five Latin American countries. They found unique ways to combine art with science, describing themselves as a restoration gardener and permaculture farmer who enjoyed painting with plants.

In fall 2019, Robison worked with Johannes Lehmann, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry, and visiting artist Karine Bonneval, on an art installation in the Ag Quad, as part of the Sounds of Soil project, a unique exploration at the intersection of art and science.

“I loved that KAR jumped on the opportunity to work with our visiting artist Karine Bonneval," Lehmann said. "KAR was a wonderful person to talk with about the world, and I learned a lot from them. I have very fond memories of KAR coming over for dinner to our house and sharing stories of what they did in their time before coming to Cornell. I wish we had more time together. I will miss KAR.” 

People gather around a soil art project in a lab
Professor Johannes Lehmann (left) with KAR, graduate student Shiyi Li and artist Karine Bonneval (right) in the soil lab in Bradfield Hall, preparing wire mesh forms for an art installation on the Ag Quad for the “Sound-of-Soil” project. Photo by Laurel Marie Lynch.

Originally from Pasadena, Texas, Robison found a home in New York state in the late 2000s, working as a sustainable development marketer for Whole Foods in Harlem, before moving to Ithaca in 2017. They quickly became invested in the local community, volunteering at several non-profit organizations, including the Multicultural Resource Center, Loaves & Fishers and Sustainable Tompkins.

Read more about Robison’s life and impact

Support services are available to all members of the Cornell community. Students may consult with counselors from Cornell Health Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling (607) 255-5155.
Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program at (607) 255-2673 or fsap [at] (fsap[at]cornell[dot]edu). The Ithaca Crisis Line is available at (607) 272-1616. For additional resources, visit Cornell’s Caring Community website.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community, friends and allies can also reach out to Cornell's LGBT Resource Center for support at lgbtrc [at]
Header image: Artwork by KAR Robison, provided.

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