During two decades as an activist, Sabina Carlson Robillard became a significant leader in humanitarian relief efforts as she insisted that the voices of those being assisted should always be the most prominent in every discussion.
“While you’re listening to me, there are 1.5 million conversations happening on the ground, and I’m here to ask you all how we’re listening to them,” she said at a 2010 conference in Boston about her work in Haiti earlier that year after an earthquake killed more than 200,000 people.
She had turned 22 several weeks before that speech and was a seasoned activist. Years earlier in middle school, she began participating in protests and “was already thinking deeply about people who were suffering throughout the world,” said her father, Ken Carlson.
After being diagnosed with clear cell sarcoma four years ago while she was pregnant, Ms. Robillard, who lived in Cambridge, stayed busier than most of her healthiest colleagues.
She worked as a consultant and an operations officer with humanitarian nonprofits, and helped raise her daughter and stepdaughter while being treated for cancer. Ms. Robillard even texted her academic adviser from her Massachusetts General Hospital room the day before she died on Nov. 16, at age 34, to schedule a meeting a few days later with her Tufts doctoral advisory committee.
“In an unassuming way, she changed the course of how lots of money and people engaged in Haiti,” said her friend Jess Laporte of Waterbury, Vt., a Haitian-American climate and racial justice activist who works with nonprofits.
Dan Maxwell, a Tufts University professor who was Ms. Robillard’s academic adviser, first met her when she was a Tufts sophomore.
“She was already well known as a force of nature on campus when she was 18 or 19 years old,” he said.
And though more recently she was a doctoral student, he said, “she was also like a colleague, and in many ways a leader the rest of us followed.”
Ms. Robillard was the lead author for a 2021 report, prepared with Teddy Atim and Maxwell, which called on international relief organizations to adopt a “localization” approach — letting local groups and individuals participate in planning and administration, rather than excluding them, as so often was done in the past.
In October, the US Agency for International Development issued a draft “Policy for Localization of Humanitarian Assistance” that cited the Tufts report and drew upon its findings.
“I was certainly happy to see her live long enough to see that kind of high-level validation of her work,” said Maxwell, who added that Ms. Robillard was defined by her sense of certainty in the field and in her writing.
“She had a North Star,” he said. “She knew where she was going, she knew what was right. While she didn’t force people to agree with her, she could be pretty insistent about what was right and what was wrong.”
The correct approach, she often said, was to listen instead of impose an outsider’s view.
After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, “what I saw firsthand was how much Haitians wanted to have their voices heard in the response,” Ms. Robillard wrote for the website of CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, an international nonprofit based in Cambridge for which she worked.
In Haiti, when necessary, she would sneak local activists into meetings of international nonprofit officials to ensure their voices were heard above all others — including her own.
“She really showed me what it’s like for a white person to be an ally in the way we talk about it now,” Laporte said, adding that “she used herself as a huge example of learning to listen.”
Born in Philadelphia on Aug. 12, 1988, Sabina Carlson was the older of two siblings and grew up mostly in Princeton Junction, N.J.
“She was very proud of being a Jersey girl and growing up a Springsteen fan,” said her father, who is now a scientist with the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.
Ms. Robillard’s mother, Barbara Lepidus Carlson, works in the Cambridge office of the Mathematica policy research organization.
Named for her maternal grandmother’s cousin, who was killed as a child in the Holocaust, Ms. Robillard “was not comfortable unless she was helping others,” even as a teenager, her mother said.
“Sabina was a giant,” said her brother, Adam Carlson of Brooklyn, N.Y., at her Nov. 20 memorial service in Goddard Chapel at Tufts. He paused and added with a smile: “Not literally – she was very tiny.”
Still, their mother said by phone from the family’s Cambridge home, “she was this little powerhouse. You wouldn’t want to underestimate her. She wouldn’t back down.”
Early on, Ms. Robillard channeled her determination into helping others.
“Sabina was always defined by a tremendous sense of empathy,” her father said. “Her empathy was her sixth sense. She always thought of others before herself, even when she was a very, very young child.”
She also was a multi-instrument musician, an accomplished slam poet, and a leader of Amnesty International and gay-straight alliance groups while in high school.
Initially intending to study creative writing at Tufts, Ms. Robillard was soon involved with humanitarian work, spending months away from the university in 2009 to work as an intern with refugees in South Sudan.
She graduated the following year with a bachelor’s degree in community health and peace and justice studies, and subsequently received a master’s in applied community change and peace building. Tufts later honored Ms. Robillard for her humanitarian work.
For the past dozen years, she worked for nonprofits and aid groups including the International Organization for Migration. She was part of the IOM’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea several years ago, and its response to a cholera outbreak in Haiti.
Fluency in French and Haitian Creole made her particularly effective in Haiti, where she had lived in Cite Soleil, a crowded, impoverished part of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. And she used her language skills to elevate the voices of those who lived in Haiti.
A presentation at her memorial service featured her quote: “Why isn’t localized humanitarian aid focused on letting communities determine and lead the work in building their own future?”
With marriage came additional roles as stepmother to his daughter, Dayana Robillard, and parent to the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, Anacaona.
Discoloration under Ms. Robillard’s left eye, initially thought to be benign, appeared in 2017. While she was pregnant the following year, tests showed it was a malignant tumor, and the cancer later spread to her lungs.
Continuing to work for four years, even during her final full day alive, “Sabina wrote Ana e-mails over the last four years — 356 e-mails, knowing she wasn’t going to be around,” her mother said.
In addition to her parents, husband, stepdaughter, and daughter, all of Cambridge, and her brother, Ms. Robillard leaves her maternal grandmother, Luba Lepidus of Somerville.
Ms. Robillard’s husband will bring her ashes to Pak Nan Ginen, a park and reforestation project they cofounded in Saint-Raphael, Haiti, where he plans to build a memorial. Because Haiti is severely deforested, “she wished to use her ashes as soil to plant trees,” he said.
He said he held her hands in Mass. General through her final moments.
“She was a citizen of justice, a citizen of peace, a citizen of goodness. That was Sabina — everywhere, for everyone,” Robi said.
“When people ask what they can do for me, I say I don’t want you to do anything for me, just be a good person,” he said. “When you are helping people, when you are helping the environment, when you are making peace that is how she is still alive.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.