This interview is the twenty-second in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Alicia Robinson, Senior Managing Director of Talent and Equity, Flamboyan Foundation
Conscious. Connector. Inclusive.
Social media: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aliciarobinson; @alicia72 @edplusteam
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
I think my headline would be something about liberation. Period. Something related to freeing marginalized people to be and have what they deserve.
I’ve been in the education reform space for close to twenty years. I worked in public relations and event planning for seven years before going into the classroom as my first step in education. I grew up in Rochester, NY and had a really strong public education. In D.C., I wanted to be part of the solution and not just talk about how the school system was a mess. As I moved through my career in education I’ve had many different jobs, and the common thread is the liberation piece: wanting to help others, the most marginalized, get free.(Alicia Robinson, pictured at right.)
Some of my work has very directly impacted students, like being an elementary teacher. However, working with and around many different education professionals, I realized we just weren’t doing enough to support the adults that make quality education possible for kids and wanted to give them the support necessary to be sustainable. I’ve also learned a lot about what it’s like to be a black person in “education reform” (the cognitive dissonance, the feelings of exclusion) and wanted to support other people who look like me in being able to have a seat at the table — and even own the table and choose who can be invited to join them!
What are some of your career highlights?
I look back on it, and I’ve done a lot of work in talent: as a recruiter, developing staff, supporting job seekers. My first reaction is to think about my resume. I’ve been a teacher and worked for a couple local and national nonprofits that focused on students or adults directly. I’ve spent the last ten years or more focused on the talent side of the education world, but when I really thought about it, the highlights are actually the times when I decided to leave a job…when I thought outside of the box. The highlight was leaving the job having accomplished what I came to accomplish. I felt like I was ready to do more, have a different kind of impact, or there was a values misalignment. I had “gotten woke,” in a sense, to those issues related to liberation. I wanted to be clear that I stand for X, so if I stand for X, I needed to be doing Y.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
Constantly. [laughing] It’s a bit like the James Baldwin’s quote: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” As a black person in education reform, you are constantly questioning your values alignment. The starkest realization in doing this work is that black and brown kids don’t have the same access or opportunity for no good reason. Poverty is the way it is because we are not setting people up to exit lives of poverty. I’ve worked with others, particularly leadership, who weren’t in the work for that same reason. More recently, I find that I constantly have to step back. I need to make sure that leadership is about liberation and that people who are leading the work for this organization create policies, procedures, and culture all emanating from a place of social justice. Of course, it should be coming from that, but as “education reform” gets older it continues to attract people who aren’t in it for those reasons or are just in it because there’s money or notoriety in it. At the end of the day, they don’t come to work every day because they want to impact the lives of the most marginalized kids. I have seen that come to light in the last five or so years as more focus has been placed on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. It’s a no-brainer that we should be talking about racial equity; it’s the root of the issues in U.S. education that divide, separate, and keep folks from being liberated. Some are further along in their journey. Some, as we know from this current administration, when they say “school choice” it doesn’t have anything to do with the kids.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I think they are the ones where there’s an opportunity, and someone has shown some openness to get on this journey for racial equity, yet they’re not quite there. As I said before, that permeates so many issues we deal with in education. I love those challenges where we get to dig in and I can say, “Here’s what you can read and here’s what you need to be thinking about and here’s who else you can go to.” As a black woman, I don’t always have to be the one in service to help them get on that road, but it’s even helpful to be able to turn to my white co-conspirators to see the light.
I have done work with someone about racial healing on all sides. White people in many cases were the oppressors and they have things to heal from too. I like the challenge of getting us to that point of healing. That’s not to say that I don’t get frustrated or that it isn’t exasperating, but at the same time it feels like it’s the challenge we should be talking about and dealing with.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
I have ten books I am in the middle of right now! [laughter] As an author, I read anything by Brené Brown. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead spoke to me a lot. It spoke about understanding vulnerability and the need for it. Vulnerability is a key part to work in the education sector and key to liberation and equity. Just being open and dealing with things like shame, the effects of that, the big topic of vulnerability, and how you’ve got to put yourself in the arena to get things done. It’s an important part of leadership.
It’s one thing to get a senior-level title and another to say the thing or think outside the box and not just maintain status quo. I need to be vulnerable enough to say, “I don’t think we are getting at it from this perspective.” This brings me back to racial equity. Those are tough conversations and a lot of people — black, white, brown — don’t want to have them for all kinds of reasons. Be a leader who is vulnerable enough to talk about it. Generally, that attitude of vulnerability and empathy makes a good leader, no matter your level in the organization.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
A friend/colleague and I did a session at SXSW EDU this year called Lead like Max: Leadership Lessons from Maxine Waters that offered a framework for truth, change, and freedom. It was a framework to think about things like: Does this help me reach my highest goals? Does doing this allow me to keep my eyes on the prize? Am I aligning time with what I value most?
“Reclaiming my time” made me think about how I use my time. A big lesson or example is the decision to leave working for myself. I had been doing my own consulting for four and a half years. I loved working for myself in a lot of ways. I wasn’t necessarily seeking to go back on the inside of an organization, but realized that the work I was doing was taking me broad, not deep. I was spending more time on the hustle of proving myself worthy to prospective clients and on projects that maintained the status quo, not work I wanted to look back on and say, “That’s what I did during the Trump era.” I joke sometimes that every other week I’m leaving education because I’m frustrated by us not naming the thing holding us back from achieving education equity. The organization I am now working for is one I knew of from my consulting work and knew they were on the right track in thinking about education equity and doing the internal and external work. Personally, getting out of the worthiness hustle with clients was going to allow me to put some of my personal energy outside of work towards things that were most important to me. The shift allowed me to be able to be involved with organizations and efforts around supporting women of color in education, working with a group of friends called Be Loud, a D.C.-based women’s group trying to make an impact on politics during the Trump administration the best way we can. D.C. doesn’t have a vote, but we are getting the chance to support efforts that will hopefully push towards supporting what we now call “undocumented me” (but 100 years ago would have just called “new Americans!”). There is an intersectionality of issues that needs to be addressed right now. I feel like I’ve reclaimed my time to be able to do that depth of work in a full-time role and in personal life that a year ago felt I was too stretched to do purposefully.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
Thinking about self-care is more than bubble baths and massages, though I definitely love those. Being intentional about friend time and downtime are things that rejuvenate me, for sure. Someone in the audience at this year’s New Schools summit said that for some people self-care can be figuring out how to manage their finances better…figuring out how to manage life better and more efficiently. In consulting, I heard about outsourcing: what’s the cost benefit of paying someone else to do it? This is a mix of reclaiming my time and self-care. How am I using time efficiently and setting myself up for where I want to be in the future? I don’t have that all perfect. Having that focus and spending time to be intentional about how I’m setting up my life and using my time is part of self-care now.
What advice would you offer other black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
First thing I’d say is to get yourself a crew of people you can really count on. The crew looks different for different phases of life, relationships, professional steps. Maintain some humility to be able to push and be vulnerable. Say the thing and go for what you want. Have critical friends who will be able to tell you when you’re being unreasonable, messing up, or should prioritize differently.
Think about your values and be really clear about what’s important to you. Luvvie Ajayi’s TED Talk, "Get comfortable with being uncomfortable," offers a framework for her own life with three questions she answers to determine whether something is aligned with her values. Get really clear about those things that are important to you. Base them on your values and make sure everyone is clear about what you’re about when you support X or push back on Y. Re-evaluate those values on a regular schedule — maybe every year — to see how they have shifted. Identify your values and share with your closest people and ask them to help hold you accountable to them.