28 Days of Black Excellence: LaDora Robinson-Locke
LaDora Robinson-Locke, director of human resources at Lincoln Park Zoo, has been influential in creating paid internships for students of color and exposing students to careers with cultural institutions. Passionate about diversity and inclusion, Robinson-Locke chairs two committees focusing on hiring practices and inclusivity in work culture, and teaches psychology and career development courses at National Louis University. She previously worked at the National Alliance on Mental Illness where she helped employers hire clients with mental health issues, and the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cook County where she recruited diverse advocates to represent children in the child protection division of juvenile court. Robinson-Locke earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UIC and a master’s degree in industrial/organizational psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:34
Hello and greetings, UIC family and friends. Welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging, and it is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, past faculty and past staff. So each day, as you may know by now, we have a new guest, and they share their stories with us and I am excited and happy to reconnect with our guest today that we are honoring. That is LaDora Robinson-Locke who was in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, coming out in 1997. Who has been up to great things since then. So I’m gonna pass the mic to her and let her tell us exactly what she’s been up to.
LaDora Robinson-Locke 1:30
So greetings everyone. It’s interesting to share my story with UIC students, faculty, staff. I graduated from UIC with a degree in psychology. At that time, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I’ll be honest. I was lucky enough I had a job as soon as I graduated. So I graduated, started work. First job was Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, great organization, great experience. I thought I wanted to be a social worker. I had a great experience there, but I realized I’m more of a hindrance than a help because I care so much about young people and Black and Brown people. I didn’t think I wanted to do that. And for me, it didn’t afford me the lifestyle I wanted to live. So I went to HR. I transitioned to corporate HR, realized I didn’t really like corporate HR. Then I got married, got pregnant and stayed home and went to grad school. Should I just keep going on? I didn’t know.
Aisha El-Amin 2:39
Yes. You got this.
LaDora Robinson-Locke 2:44
[Laughter] Stayed home with my child for a while and while I was in grad school, and then realized I wanted to apply my skills for a greater good for nonprofits, but HR. So I learned a lot with HR. My first leadership role was in juvenile court at CASA [Court Appointed Special Advocates] of Cook County. I was director of recruitment and training. Awesome. I learned so much about my leadership style, about managing people, about just management. I had a wonderful, she’s just retired, the presiding judge was my direct supervisor. She always told me you need to hire for people who reflect the community that you serve. So, if you don’t know, juvenile court, the childhood protection is 80% people of color. Okay. So when we recruit people to be an advocate for these families, they need to understand the culture and who they are representing. So we can’t have someone who doesn’t know that. Even though I train them, it’s only so much you can train. And that was just such a learning curve for me. Just being reflective, I learned so much about my experience. I kept being director.
Right now I’m director of HR at Lincoln Park Zoo and I also chair our culture and inclusion committee, which I’m really challenged with diversifying the workforce and changing the culture of the zoo. For the zoo to be in Chicago, which is a third, a third, a third, our workforce doesn’t reflect our guests. So, working on that and partnering with different organizations. But what you don’t know, and I didn’t know this, which is an equity issue, there’s a lot of people who have unpaid internships. We have have people come to the zoo, they work in other countries, other states and move here, they can work for free and a lot of us can’t do that. We don’t have that luxury. Also it’s unfair, because I see why we keep getting the same people because they have the same experience. So, I’m very blessed that last year, I made all our internships, paid internships.
Aisha El-Amin 5:25
Oh, I love that. Yeah.
LaDora Robinson-Locke 5:27
Thank you. Thank you. I’ve done that at the zoo and there’s also going to diversify, to start that pipeline for having Black and Brown people in roles where they can grow and finish school and then come back, and then be an animal keeper or whatever.
Aisha El-Amin 5:48
We need to connect even offline because the work that you’re doing in the internships, this is something that we’re looking at UIC, right? And you know, that we’re one of the most diverse universities in the country, right? I would love to connect with that and the work that you’re doing there is phenomenal. You’re coming from a space that you’re going to change another space. I’m in awe. I love it.
LaDora Robinson-Locke 6:15
Aisha El-Amin 6:19
You’ve done quite a bit in just a short amount of time. As you look back on your time at UIC, talk about some of the the fond memories that you have of being in that space.
LaDora Robinson-Locke 6:34
I’m so blessed, because I do believe good people find good people. I had a good freshman year, had a good friendship base. We’re still friends to this day. I stayed on campus, which I think was very helpful with forming those friendships. Then I was active in Black Student Union and I knew people. The first two years were just great. Not that the other two years were not great, it’s just then I met my husband and I didn’t care. [Laughter] He was in school away in Alabama. [Laughter]
I think what was so helpful for me, and I look back, because for UIC to be a PWI [predominately white institution], it’s a diverse school, too. I didn’t have any racial challenges at UIC. I did not. And, that’s kudos. I don’t know where we’re at now, but I did not. From teachers, I was lucky I did research with a great professor who had gone to Howard and was coming back and he totally took me under his wings. I could always go to Black Student Union and talk to people. So I had a lot of support. It was a lot of support available to me. I think it still is.
Now my daughter’s at an HBCU, so it’s smaller, it’s more intimate. But I have the personality where I can just ask questions and step out. You have to be that resourceful and take initiative with UIC and I thought that taught me that. UIC taught me you got to go out there and get it. I had a great experience. I really did. I’m still friends on social media with some people. It’s been a really good experience. It was, it really was.
Aisha El-Amin 8:30
I love to hear that. UIC is a Hispanic-Serving Institution, it’s a Minority-Serving Institution, it’s also an ANNAPSI or Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. So we have all of those kind of signatures that are the pride that our student body represents. So there’s a generational connection to UIC, right? So if you just talk about, I know your daughter is doing phenomenal things at an HBCU and just a great reflection of you and your husband. What connection did you make to UIC with your daughter as well?
LaDora Robinson-Locke 9:13
We connected with Dr. El-Amin with Saturday college at UIC. My daughter has always been…I say she’s a reflection of my husband, which is why she’s gifted. I’m smart. She’s gifted, like she knows random stuff. I’m like, “How do you know that? How do you retain that?” [Laughter] We connected when our girls did Saturday college together and found each other, our girls found each other. They were friends and going to school and it was wonderful. It was a great experience. Great UIC. I think that it didn’t start her, but it really helped her form her interest in science.
Aisha El-Amin 10:03
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. So with every journey, and as folks listen to this, and they are on their journey and they are students now and they may have challenges and struggles along the way. Part of what I want them to know is that everyone has struggles and challenges, right? And you’re able to get through because there’s a legacy of Black excellence that folks that have been here and paved the way. Can you talk about maybe some challenges that you had, and how you were able to manage those?
LaDora Robinson-Locke 10:35
So one thing I noticed, and I’m a product of this environment, I didn’t have much family support. So a lot of our young people have to know we’re resilient as one, as people of color we are, and we figure it out. I always tell my daughter, figure it out, out make it happen. So I think we have to push forward no matter what challenges we have. I have to tell the story and it was, I think, my junior year. I had no idea where I was going to stay my senior year, I didn’t know, I didn’t have a place to stay. And I wasn’t worried. I remember my husband still talks to this day. I had to be out of the dorm because I did a summer program at UIC and I had to be out that next day. I didn’t know where I was going. But I knew I had faith, I just knew it would work out. I don’t know how I knew. I don’t know. I got home had a voicemail, because that was back in the day when we had answering machines.
I had a voicemail from housing saying we found you a single room. It would have been, was my senior year. That next day, my husband was going to school and we packed all my stuff up and moved me into the the single room for senior year. I tell that many, many years later, because I just knew it will work out. Sometimes I think when we’re put in situations we have to, one, work hard and just trust it’s going to work out. At the time you are going through something though, it seems like it don’t get no worse than this. At that time, I did feel that way. But looking back, it’s like, okay, it happens and I just think we have to trust ourselves and do the work. No one said life is fair. Life isn’t fair. Life is unfair, but it is what you make it. Putting in the work and putting out positivity and having goals, you will be rewarded for that.
Aisha El-Amin 12:55
That is a beautiful story. I don’t know how familiar you are with the current state of affairs, but there’s a lot of folks without food, without housing. Our students are part of that population. So hearing that was something that you were concerned with, and now look at you, right? It shows the other side of it. As we close out, I would love for you to give some words of advice that could help someone or even go back and talk to your 1997 self. What advice would you give?
LaDora Robinson-Locke 13:37
My 1997 self would be: Stop and enjoy life. When you come from from humble beginnings, you go, go, go. I got to do it, I got to do it. I got to make this grade, I got to get this job. I think at one point, I was working probably about 60 hours now going to school. Sometimes you have to just relax, you got to relax. I know it’s a challenge because you’re trying to make it and you’re like, I’m not going back where I came from. I know that. You’ve got to enjoy life a little bit and not be so stressed. I think I was really stressed in ’97. But also people of color… You don’t look like what you’ve been through. When I tell my story today, they are like really? I was struggling. I was struggling.
Aisha El-Amin 14:29
Go on and say it again.
LaDora Robinson-Locke 14:31
You don’t look like what you’ve been through. No one will ever know your story until you tell it. I’m very transparent because you never know how your story can impact somebody else. I think it’s our responsibility to help young people in the next generation and the generation after that. So any little tools and seeds of encouragement that I can give, I want to give it because people need to know you can do it. It’s okay. People have done it before with less than what you have. I think it’s also important to know, somebody is worse off than you. We think it’s so bad. It’s always somebody worse. There’s always somebody better, too. [Laughter] But there’s always somebody worse.
I would just say, take some deep breaths. I think mental health is really important.
Aisha El-Amin 15:22
LaDora Robinson-Locke 15:23
I think you have some fun. Looking back, even in college, I loved to work out. I would work out so much then because that was therapeutic for me. So what is a healthy therapeutic way? I started counseling in college, at UIC. College is also the time that you deal with your childhood trauma and you start to question things. You need assistance processing that in order to move forward and not pass down generational curses, and not continue in the cycle that your family might have had you, or some might have had you go down. That’s really important to find out what what brings you joy, and what brings you happiness.
Aisha El-Amin 16:14
You just hit on quite a few, just phenomenal things that I could not have said better myself. It needs to be heard throughout our community that it is okay to get help. Mental wellness is something that we all seek and getting help with it is a normal part of your growth, so thanks for highlighting that. Thanks for being part of this series and thank you for the good that you bring out in the world and that you’re doing that Lincoln Park Zoo and everywhere that you’ve been thus far, and just being part of UIC’s beautiful legacy.
LaDora Robinson-Locke 16:50
Absolutely. So great. Thank you for having me on to share my story and connect with you. I just wish everyone the best of luck. I just wish everyone the best of luck.
Aisha El-Amin 17:05
Thank you and we’ll certainly stay connected. Yeah.
Tariq El-Amin 17:12
[Music] Thanks for joining us. Find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.