Black History Month: Profiles in Leadership

February 29, 2016  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership,

The final interview in this series dedicated to celebrating diversity is with Alfreda Rooks, Director, Community Programs and Services, Program for Multicultural Health, and Comprehensive Gender Services Program.

HH: Why is it important to celebrate/focus on Black History Month?

AR: I believe that it is important to celebrate/focus on Black History Month because all too often contributions and achievements are overlooked or minimized when you are not part of the majority. This means that your (hi)story goes untold or misrepresented, especially when you are not the author. African-Americans made (and continue to make) significant contributions to the growth of this country. Our impact spans culture, the arts, industry and science. It is important to acknowledge that to take time to focus on Black History in no way lessens the contributions or achievements of others – that’s the value of diversity. All are recognized for their strengths and the role they play in our success.

HH: What does it mean to you to be a leader?

AR: “Leader” is a word that you hear more and more these days to describe a person. To me, being a leader is more than a title. It is actively role-modeling the behaviors I wish to see in the people I work with. I work very hard to provide what I call “Roots and Wings” to the folks that report to me. By “roots,” I mean giving them resources and a strong foundation of support to take risks, try new things – if they fail – what was the lesson in the learning from that experience? “Wings” is simply encouraging them to believe in their own growth to reach their highest potential. I never want a person to succeed me, but to exceed me. It also means “bringing your best self” to work every day. People will hear (not necessarily listen to) what you say, but more importantly, they watch what you do.

HH: How has past history impacted or directed your career path?

AR: If I answer this question from the context of social history, I would say that the past has significantly impacted my career path. I am originally from Birmingham, AL. This means that my family roots are grounded in the struggle for civil rights. I stand on the shoulders of my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, who worked to ensure that opportunities not afforded to them were available for future generations. You do not squander your talents; education is taken seriously. I joke with my mother that I can remember as young as kindergarten hearing her say, “When you go to college …”

Early in my career, I did experience prejudice, including from a direct supervisor, who called into question my abilities to perform my job. I think if it had not been for history and the values instilled by my family, I would have quit my job. It wasn’t my first encounter with racism, nor would it be my last experience at UM. But after some reflection, I decided to stay because I believed I had a responsibility not to change my boss’ mind, but for her to see another perspective. Sometimes it’s better to “show” than “tell” – a teachable moment for both of us. That choice not to give up put me on the career path and trajectory that led to a very long career and my current role. I was always taught that you have a responsibility to ensure that others have the same opportunities as you. I’m proud that I now work with a number of important programs, from ensuring that homebound seniors and others have nutritious meals through Ann Arbor Meals on Wheels to supporting housing sustainability and preventing senior homelessness through the Housing Bureau for Seniors and operationalizing the health system’s commitment to providing for the underserved through the Comprehensive Gender Services Program, one of the first national programs to address the specific needs of the transgender community. My experiences fueled my passion for diversity and inclusion and my commitment to continue to change perspectives. I stayed to be the change I wanted to see in my world.