An Interview with Lauren Robinson, Assistant General Counsel, American Medical Association
Geeky. Thoughtful. Gregarious.
Tell me about your current role.
I structure strategic alliances, negotiate contracts, and advise our business units to help them implement the AMA’s mission to improve the health of the nation. I help our staff execute their programs in a way that mitigates legal and operating risk. The AMA’s work addresses chronic illness, transforms medical education, tackles physician burnout, and implements health equity in all that we do. One initiative I worked on was the AMA’s investment in West Side United, which is working to eliminate the “death gap” on Chicago’s West Side. It is an honor and pleasure to help our mission-driven staff do the AMA’s important work.
I am unfamiliar with AMA’s structure. Can you say more?
The AMA, the nation’s premier association of physicians, is a not-for-profit, professional membership association. Employees work in the AMA’s different business units implementing the policies of the AMA, which are adopted by AMA’s members through its House of Delegates, a deliberative, policy-making body representative of physicians across the nation and medical practice specialties. The AMA’s work involves implementing programs, lobbying, and litigating to facilitate the work of physicians and strengthen the primacy of the physician-patient relationship, which is integral to providing quality health care.
If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?
Well, the anthem is “I’m Every Woman.” Any song that makes me feel badass or boss is on the soundtrack. Feeling “Good as Hell” right now. I’m a big house head so “Follow Me.” A lot of 70’s Funk, Soul, R & B, especially those inspirational/unity jams like “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” “Yes We Can Can,” “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” and “Move On Up.” Songs in the spirit of ‘we’re all in this together’…we’ll lift up ourselves and each other.
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 and how you reconciled that tension or not?
Not too long after I was elected to the partnership of a large law firm (where I was the first African American woman partner), I resigned. I was not professionally satisfied so I left. I had no job but literally, nothing was better. I was incredibly fortunate that I could leave a job without having another one – or another source of income or spouse. That I was privileged to make that choice was not lost on me. A good run is better than a bad stand any day. Sometimes, we must walk away in order to remain healthy and whole. Sometimes, we have to consider whether we are living our own dreams or living up to the expectations of others.
That resignation led me to the social sector and eventually, my ideal professional scenario – practicing law in a large, sophisticated, resourced, mission-driven organization. I emphasize “resourced.” It is extremely challenging – even demoralizing, working for “mission” without the resources. I have been on a circuitous path to get here and feel deeply fortunate that I have arrived and can “do good and do well.”
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?
It’s every day. Every day, there are multiple tasks I can be doing at any particular time and there are multiple clients who want some of my time. I have to choose how to spend time and how much time to spend. I do not “choose” that there are so many demands on my time but as much as I can, I choose how to address them. Not everything is urgent! I block time out on my calendar so others cannot schedule meetings with me so I can actually work. Work is always there so I set boundaries as to when I work. It is a constant struggle. It’s about dedicating the right amount of time to work and to living my life outside of work. The “right” amount of time changes. I’m mindful of spending time with the people and on the activities that make me happy, healthy, centered, and whole. I work very hard and I work a lot, but I don’t overidentify with work. It’s unhealthy, delusional, and overly self-involved to do so. We are so much more than our work lives! I also don’t beat myself up when I’m less productive. I’m a person, not a machine. In the spirit of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Fifth Agreement, I simply do the best I can which changes from day to day.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals to survive and thrive?
My relationships are crucial. Connecting with my family and friends (and recognizing my connection to people I don’t know) and things going on around me help me not get so self-absorbed. Being very cognizant of how bountiful my life is from a relationship and resource perspective helps keep me grounded. What does it mean to have in a world in which most people don’t have the basics? How should I manifest that understanding in my actions? What does this privilege mean?
I get in nature. I walk the mile plus from the train station to my office a few times a week — sometimes as a walking meditation; some yoga, working out, running and tennis. My husband and I prioritize travel. I love just being still — reading, relaxing, some music in the background. I wish I had more down time like this.
I eat my veggies, laugh regularly, and I don’t take myself too seriously. As maturity brings me closer to mortality — mine and those around me — I focus on what matters, get joy out of the simple, and don’t “major in the minors.”
We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?
I am the mini Harriett Tubman of mentoring. I say mini since she freed hundreds and I haven’t mentored hundreds. I have mentored many — lawyers, non-lawyers, non-white collar — anyone who is interested in prospering professionally or personally; anyone interested in the insights and social capital I can share.
I am the mentor I wish I had. I share the information I wish I had on my professional journey. The corporate culture is alien to Black culture. We are penalized for not understanding the unwritten rules of corporate culture that no one shares with us. So much for fairness and meritocracy! We endure unnecessarily painful lessons that often cause us to internalize racism and self-hate. Through my mentoring, I telegraph that we are fine as we are. There is nothing wrong with us. We do not have to be perfect — and no one is. It is enough for us to be who we are and try to be the best we can be knowing that that will change from day to day because we’re human, not because we are inherently bad or inferior. It is fine to mess up because we all do. Some are permitted to recover, and others are not. We did all of the “right things” so we could thrive, and not just muddle through. I share insights to help others thrive and remain healthy in these environments that are not.
Your point makes me think about authenticity and a recent video I saw of Caroline Wanga speaking to a group of young professionals. Her key point was that who you are is non-negotiable.
I haven’t seen the video. If someone is “authentically” foolish, mean, or unethical, we don’t want that authenticity in the workplace. I sense “authenticity” as a want for “realness” and not “put on” or “made up” — like how Alicia Keys presents. She seems relaxed and comfortable in her own skin. She doesn’t use a lot of makeup or do anything else that emphasizes her attractiveness over her talent — a rarity for women in entertainment. We don’t know her, but we experience her as real, down, nice, and cool based on her “authenticity.”
Who we are may be “non-negotiable,” but one is privileged if one gets to bring their full selves to the work place. A Black Alabama woman “authentically” wore her dreadlocks to a job interview and got an offer, which was rescinded because her hair violated company policy. In 2018, a three-judge panel in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with the employer. So, who she is may be “non-negotiable” but now she has no job. Who she is must unfairly be negotiated if she (and Black women and men) want a job. Most of us cannot be “authentic” in the workplace even when “authenticity” has nothing to do with ability but goes to our ethnicity and who we are. How harmful for our government institutions to tell people they must be something else to get a job, especially when that “something else” comes with psychic cost, financial expense, and physical pain! The “First Conk” chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X vividly describes that pain. I highly doubt the 11th Circuit is aware of any of these costs to Black people, which is just one problematic aspect of this decision. It is deeply sad and unfair that we all cannot be “authentic,” and we continue to have these exhausting discussions about Black hair.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to amplify their voices and become better self-advocates?
First, know yourself — and then be yourself — even if that means being different. Understand your limits of assimilating into the corporate culture. What values are non-negotiable? Be willing to accept how your choices may limit you in some ways and liberate you in others. Do what centers you.
Next, we thrive when we support each other. In every work environment, Black people — from the mail room to senior management — have supported my success and I am thankful. In return, I have leveraged my relative power to their benefit.
Work is professional, not personal. The discomfort and dissatisfaction you may experience is not unique, and in general, is not about you individually. It’s just business. Having that distance and realizing the crazy stuff going on around you isn’t your fault or personal to you helps you stay focused and unbothered.
Stay on your path and understand why you are in your environment and what you want to achieve there. And act accordingly. Stay on your square, your path and do not get sidetracked on someone else’s road.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
The social sector deserves examination in terms of who has decision making and financial power and who are the beneficiaries or targets of the sector’s services. The decision makers generally do not reflect the beneficiaries. Are the beneficiaries’ perspectives truly considered when programming is structured and implemented? Is the programming designed to affect change? Is the sector being prescriptive and directive or is it listening and including the community in the process and in leadership? We need to address power, as well as racial and gender inequity, and make appropriate structural change.