28 Days of Black Excellence: Robert Winn
Dr. Robert Winn is director and Lipman Chair in Oncology in the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center and senior associate dean for cancer innovation and professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at the VCU School of Medicine in Richmond, Virginia.
Winn previously served as associate vice chancellor for community-based practice at the University of Illinois Chicago from 2013 to 2019 and director of the University of Illinois Cancer Center, which is part of UIC, from 2015 to 2019. Prior to joining UIC, he spent 13 years at the University of Colorado in a variety of leadership roles and clinical faculty appointments, including associate dean of admissions and vice chair of career development/diversity inclusion. Winn has nearly 20 years of clinical service to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care and held appointments in Denver and Chicago, including at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center where he established the first multidisciplinary pulmonary nodule clinic.
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 0:36
Hello! Greetings, everyone. Greetings, UIC family and friends. Welcome to “UIC 28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, and UIC’s past faculty and staff. Each day we’ll have a new guest and today I am so honored and elated and just overwhelmed with introducing Dr. Robert Winn, who previously served as a professor in the College of Medicine and as the associate vice chancellor for community-based practice and the director — I could keep saying and — and the director of UI Cancer Center. He does so many things, so many great things, not only UIC but for the nation and for the world. And so I’m going to hand the mic over to him, just for him to talk about what he’s been up to, since leaving us and we’re still crying a little bit, but I’m going to hold those things back so you can tell us what you’ve been up to since you’ve left UIC, Dr. Winn.
Robert Winn 1:51
You know, all those go back on you. First of all, I want to just say thank you for the opportunity to be on what really is an amazing platform. And I think your strength in those conversations, of recognizing that our strength comes in remembering our past as we move forward, the program that you put together is absolutely consistent with that. Sister Aisha, look, back at you! I mean, because you know, miss you guys, miss you guys terribly. Since I, when I left UIC, it was really for an opportunity that ultimately — as you know, one of my philosophies has been to make local efforts for national impact — and so when the opportunity came up in 2019,to accept, at that time, the second ever African American as a NCI designated cancer center director, I was torn. It was a difficult decision. But the reality is I understand that the mission is to not only be helping our folk out and making impact locally, but to make impact nationally. So interestingly enough, you know, when you think about the 50 year history of the NIH [National Institutes of Health], and particularly the National Cancer Institute, that there was only a second African American in 2019, was the cause of celebration, but actually a cause for pause. And in fact, my goal was to not just only be the second, but to create a space in which there’s a third and a fourth.
And by the way, there’s never been an African American sister at the helm. I’m hard at work, not only working what we’re doing here at VCU Massey, but working hard towards making sure that I’m bringing light to that attention. You can’t convince me that there isn’t an African American sister out there who can actually be at the helm of leading one of these NCI designated cancer centers. So, that’s what I’ve been hard at work trying to do. The 50-year anniversary is was in December, of really trying to… 50 years ago, they thought that, in 1971, that they’d be eradicating cancer by 1981. It shows a little bit of the naivete, that we believe that science will actually be the only answer to all cures. What we recognize both through the 50-year act of the National Cancer Act and looking now 50 years later, and at COVID, is that science is a part of the answer. But if you don’t have trust and if you don’t have the input of your community and connectedness to that community, all the miracles that you come up with in the world matter some but won’t matter making a difference, if people don’t believe. So we’ve actually evolved, I think, from only science, only science all the time to recognizing that the science has to matter to the people. And so that’s another philosophy that I’ve been bringing here to VCU Massey, is that the people matter and if the people matter, then that means we have to make the science much more transparent and accessible to them.
Aisha El-Amin 5:02
And this is something that I’ve heard you, many times, talk about, the health disparities, depending on the zip code, right? And, you know, what does that mean for trust? And so I’m just excited that you continue to do this work at a national level and represent us as a second. That, that makes me excited, but also that you continue to push, you know, like, that’s not enough. Where’s the sisters at? Like where is it to make those pushes like that? That is, that’s huge. As you look at your time at UIC, how many years? You were here quite a long time.
Robert Winn 5:39
I came and accepted the job in 2012 in December and started the job in January 2013. So I was there for a minute.
Aisha El-Amin 5:48
Yes, absolutely. Now, if as you look back on your time at UIC, what are some things that you look back on fondly?
Robert Winn 5:58
The people. I mean, the people up in the communities, for sure. Actually, the faculty and the students. I mean, keeping it real real, there were times… It was times where, if I didn’t have, I think, the sense of the students and their desires and aspirations, if I didn’t have the sense that the faculty, particularly faculty of color, among others on that campus, were actually in, and most importantly or equally important for me, that the community was in, it would have been a much shorter stay. I think that I remember fondly that, when I think of all the universities that were in Illinois, that there is only one university, that’s for Illinois, and there’s one only university that’s really for Chicago. And so that really made me… Gave me an extra pep in my step that we were not only just trying to come up with new ideas, and new knowledge for tomorrow, but that we were really focused on really trying to make that concept of communities is why I was drawn to UIC.
And it is what I’m still excited about, UIC and the work that you guys are continuing. That it’s not just a lot of, you know, academics for academic sake. It’s academics for the good of people and communities. And, you know, that got me jazzed up then, it gets me jazzed up now. I have to say that the special sauce is having things like Mile Square. And the importance of Mile Square to the community and the importance of having an academic institution that finally has come to grips and embrace the fact that Mile Square isn’t just some sort of FQHC [Federally Qualified Health Center] that’s attached to a university, but it is really emblematic of the impact we can have in communities. And so seeing that a full embracing of Mile Square as part of the UIC family also was an incredibly fond memory. As well as, you know, Danny Davis, and you know, other people… And Henry Taylor and the folks that are just actually doing a great job there at Mile Square. It’s been a wonderful time and those are fond memories for me.
Aisha El-Amin 8:15
I love that and I know… Community. I know something about you, and I want you I want you to tell everyone else [laugher] about your skills on the, on the spinner, and some of your background. Your work is grounded in community in a very authentic and particular way. And so if you could just kind of tell folks a little bit more about where you come from and your connection in the community.
Robert Winn 8:43
Yeah, I always say that I’m one of the, probably only, cancer center directors who really gets the following. I was born to, my mom was 15, 16, grew up in neighborhoods, many of when we talk about, I was that proud Head Start kid. My first love was, was believe it or not, not science, it was really my goal was to become the youngest foreman at GM [General Motors]. Luckily for me, that didn’t work out. But you know, but the reality is, you know, even though I’ve gone through Notre Dame, and you know, Michigan and all these other places, it’s never left me about what I was learning and how that would impact communities. Now, my community is up in New York, but the truth of the matter is, once you actually step off your block, you recognize that those blocks are replicated in many areas of the United States. And so we’re all actually in this together. So if I can actually make a move about the West or the South Side of Chicago, and that can actually translate into helping on the east end of Richmond or the Southeast Side of D.C., then that’s what we’re supposed to be about. And so it’s never left me that what I was doing was not for me, but for a service of my communities.
And so it’s never left me that what I was doing was not for me, but for a service of my communities. And for that, I give straight up credit to my mom, my grandmother, you know, strong sisters who’ve been around me and also, you know, some brothers, like my uncles and my dad and my grandfather, who would also have actually put in me, from the beginning, that mine was a role to serve our community. Period. And so, you know, and you know, I had a little fun along the way, right? Got to do little things with, you know, Mos Def and some other things. And you know, I had a little bit of time up in the music thing, you know. But the funny part is, it turns out that probably a lot of what I’ve learned, as a leader in an academic medical center stems from not what I’ve learned at some of these academic centers, but what I learned from my hood. What I learned putting together a piece of music.
The reality with… You know, when I was working with Black Thought and these other things, and you know… I mean, I don’t know, if people… I think people still know The Roots but you know, who knows? I know there’s Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi [Vert] and all these other people. But before there was a Lil-whatever, there was, you know, The Roots, and there was Mos Def and there was these brothers who were actually really trying to be very conscious about bringing the music into their town. And interestingly enough, I think, when we put out the voices of the urban renewal, where we took folks from Chicago and around the world, right — Joe Claussell, and many others that put that package together — that was done in the spirit of bringing, making, moving mind and moving butts right all at the same time. I say that to say that what I learned from that was the courage it actually took to understand that, when you’re creating a piece of music, it just can’t be from one person. If you’re going to make a piece of music, it ultimately requires that you actually have the grace and humility to understand that you may not always come with the freshest beat and that may be somewhere else. But that as you work together as a team, you can build some things that actually really, I mean, just … To this day, you think of some of the things that were created from Stax Records, from Motown, and from our movement from 1979 on about around Hip Hop and that culture, or whether it was House and that culture, that’s not always done because one person actually thinks of it. It’s done because it takes a team. And even when the musician or the artist comes up with something, you still need distributors, you need other people. And so it gave me the reality check that whatever I do, including even in science, that even if I’m the most brilliant scientist, I still need other people.
And it’s the connectedness and the awareness of having to bring people on board and allowing that grace of humility of understanding that you don’t have all the answers that I think is the root of my leadership style, even when I have one of the 71 national designated cancer centers in the country. That is a perspective that I think sometimes other people don’t actually carry with them. And although I’ve learned how to wear a blue blazer? Bottom line is I know where I’m from, and actually, I don’t make an apology for it at all. I think sometimes as African Americans, when we get into these positions, we want to forget. I don’t want to forget. I want to run and embrace, because I learned probably more from my grandmother, my grandparents, my mom, my dad, my uncles, and aunts, my friends on the block, as well as doing the music stuff, that really has shaped a perspective that I have understanding that it ain’t just all about the science. Right? It’s about the science and… So this concept of how your ZNA impacts your DNA is still running with me because ultimately your ZIP code neighborhood of association actually is impacting your biology and your outcomes. That message has to get through not just locally, but nationally. And until we’re all singing that intersectionality of ZNA and DNA? You know, my work ain’t done. Bringing on the next generation to then take it to the next level, just like we did in music. We understand that if you the only voice, and your stuff gets old, then what happens? What we lookin’ for is the young people that are coming through with new creativity. Just like we did in music, I’m looking at that in the context of science and in health.
Aisha El-Amin 13:57
You’ve got me snappin’ my fingers. You know? [Laughs.] Throwin’ my hands up. Look, that’s such a beautiful connection, and I don’t think, oftentimes, we make that that clear, of how we learn. Our learning doesn’t start when we come to the university. Like, that’s not it. It’s not. The value that you are placing on that learning and the people that taught you in those spaces I think is absolutely beautiful.
Robert Winn 14:28
You know, what learned from university? Universities taught me how to put tags on things, right? But I already those lessons before I got here. Right? My grandparents may not have had a name for it, right? Or, you know, or, you know, something for it or like their, you know, philosophical approach to it. But as I got to university, what I recognized is, I knew what I knew from my hood. All I needed was the tags to put on it and the language to put around it to communicate then to other people. But the bottom line is those lessons didn’t, as you sort of correctly point out, didn’t start when I got the university. It got refined in the university of being able to put tags and language around it. But a lot of those lessons were actually learned right as I was growing up.
And so I want to reemphasize with people, the importance of why diversity matters. It’s not just because you have people, have different views, different shades, and all the rest of that at a place. It’s that you are bringing different life experiences, which then can ultimately lead to a more richer conversation and a more robust way of moving forward. And this is why, you know, Kanye West 1.0, y’all. From “College Dropout.” I really believe that when he actually talked about, you know, people focusing more on what they lackin’ than what they packin, is what we tend to do. So we believe that universities are our salvation, as opposed to understanding that universities are just one way in which we’re refining ourselves, not creating ourselves,
Aisha El-Amin 15:53
“What they lackin’ instead of what they packin’.” Come on, now. Come on, now!
So with every journey, and as a faculty member, you had dual hats as a faculty member, as a, you know, in an administrative role as well. What were some of the challenges and like, how did you get through those challenges in hopes of helping other faculty, administrators kind of, you know, understand that they’re not by themselves? And you too, will, you know, this too you can get through?
Robert Winn 16:24
Oh yeah, in that, as always, the hard part, and once you recognize that in general, the grass is not greener somewhere else, it’s just green. So that’s the first lesson. You know, the reality is, we always think that is something somewhere else is better and then, you know, it’s just like we grew up and you go to somebody else’s house you like, “Oh. Oh…” It ain’t greener, its just green. So some lessons, I learned that, you know, you really do depend on this team concept and the organizational intelligence that’s needed. Occasionally, what happens that frustrates communities and frustrates certain faculty is that we have aspirations that are frequently sometimes stalled, because the organization really doesn’t get behind it and because the organizational intelligence may not actually be there. What I mean by that is that, that you have people who may not understand exactly what you do, but they understand that it’s good for the overall system and so on being able to say, well, it’s not just about my own little department, or my little division, I don’t really understand what this guy or this woman is doing but you know what the reality is, if it works, then it’s going to benefit the whole organization is something that I’m learning that we ultimately just have to be better at articulating.
The second thing is you just can’t give up. Your North Star has to be there. And that you’re ultimately free. And I think about most faculty, and most of our frustration is when you feel like, well, you’re not free. Well, you are free. You’re free to think. You’re free to articulate. And you ought to, about what your ideas are. And you have to actually be, I think… Again, grace comes up. You also have to show a little grace, not just because you have a great idea, but grace for the people who are also trying to implement that because it’s not easy just to come up with a good idea and just move on through. That’s not even life. You can come up with a good idea and a book and write a bunch of pages, 100 pages or 150 page book, that’s probably the best, but you need other things to actually get it out there. So ultimately I think that, for me, what I’ve learned is that I have to be better about refining, and sometimes re-fining and re-defining how to articulate those things that are important to me. And then how to have the patience and the grace to figure out how to get the people excited about what it is that I’m doing and bring them on board. Because, just because you think is a great idea, so what? That’s like Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Remember that one section? He’s like, “The only person to understand your music is you.” It may be great music. But your job isn’t just to have a great idea. Your job is also to be the shepherd of that, to be able to articulate it and have the grace and patience of figuring out how you’re going to get it ultimately evolved. And if you’re lucky enough to have it so that it’s there long after you’ve left, right, what you want to put together. So my advice to faculties is just, straight up, just good ideas matter. But you also have to make sure you shepherd the good ideas, because a good idea in and of itself ain’t enough.
Aisha El-Amin 19:32
That’s right. That’s right. What sage advice. Oh, Dr. Winn, thank you. Thank you for for spending time with us today. Thank you for your words of wisdom. Thank you for all that you’re doing in the world that represents us so well in being part of, you know, making UIC proud with the history of Black excellence that have come through the doors of UIC and that continues to be at UIC and come through the doors. I am honored. And I thank you again.
Robert Winn 20:03
Thank you, thank you for what you’re doing and you know, go UIC. You know, it was the original place of me figuring out how to, how to put the pieces together and I will be forever grateful for giving me that platform and allowing me the opportunity to grow as a leader. Thank you for what you’re doing.
Aisha El-Amin 20:24
Tariq El-Amin 20:27
[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.