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Trans veteran running for board position at Illinois college
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2017-03-22

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During his Jan. 10 farewell address in Chicago, President Barack Obama suggested, "If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself."

For the transgender community, seeking a leadership role in government of any kind has become essential as decisions have or are being made, on state and federal levels, about their civil rights and place in society by cisgender politicians, often with little or no knowledge of the lives or voices of transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

On April 4, there will be an election in Champaign, Illinois, to decide four open seats on the board of trustees at Parkland College—a 50-year-old community college offering associate degrees in arts and sciences to an annual roll of 20,000 students. Of the four Board seats available, three are for six-year-terms and one is for a two-year term.

According to the News-Gazette, vying for the seats are "the largest group of board hopefuls in at least 35 years and is believed to be the greatest number in the 50-year history of Parkland."

Among them is Kathleen Robbins. She is one of four candidates seeking a two-year term. Robbins' history encompasses that of a decorated veteran who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, service in the Peace Corps, a Doctorate in Ministry and four decades in business leadership.

Answering a March 5 News-Gazette questionnaire, Robbins asserted that she brings "a unique perspective ( an engineering mind, extensive high-level business experience and the heart of a social entrepreneur ) that will enhance Parkland's ability to remain a 'premier community college' even during this difficult time."

There is another level of experience the retired nonprofit director offers to what Parkland College calls "a melting pot of student life, with cultures as diverse as the communities we serve." She is transgender.

Born in Oak Park, Robbins spent her formative years in cities across the country, including Dallas, Minneapolis, Seattle and Tampa.

"My dad was part of corporate America in the '50s," she told Windy City Times. "He was with Northwest Airlines for 45 years and he'd been a Navy pilot in World War II."

It was during a move from Seattle to Dallas after she completed third grade that Robbins began to nurture a dream.

"We drove past the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. They were just building it at the time," she recalled. "I told my parents 'I want to go there.'"

Robbins followed her parent's advice and excelled in school. She joined the Academy when she was 17.

"The way I describe the Academy is it's a great place to be from and the best view is in the rear-view mirror," she said. "It was difficult but great at the same time. I'd hoped to be an astronaut. One of my classmates became a space shuttle commander. But my eyes went bad while I was there so I ended up being a navigator instead of a pilot."

Throughout, she remained closeted.

"I grew up knowing that I wanted to be a little girl," Robbins said. "But I also knew that it was impossible and shameful, so I buried it as deep as I could. It was before the internet so I had no clue that there was anyone else in the world like me. I didn't know about the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. I was still under the mistaken belief that they went together. It was like being separated from half of yourself while carrying around this giant secret."

Six months after she graduated from the Academy, Robbins married a chemistry teacher.

"To my shame, I didn't tell my future wife about my feelings," she said. "I thought I would outgrow or get over them. When I did tell her, we went to a civilian therapist and that was a debacle. It was basically aversion therapy."

Robbins graduated first in her class at Navigator School. She was based at Clark Air Base on Luzon Island in the Philippines and flew C-130 Hercules turboprops.

"We would go to Vietnam for 15 days at a time," she said. "We did everything from carrying people killed or wounded in action to dropping 15,000 pound bombs. It was 99 percent boredom interspersed with one percent sheer terror. I was not worried about dying as much as I was worried about being shot down and captured. By the time I got there in '69, the word was out about how prisoners were being treated in Hanoi. The Air Force would give us a $50 million airplane and say, 'Bring it back in one piece' and the oldest person on the crew was the 30-year-old flight engineer."

After Vietnam and 11 years in the Air Force, Robbins realized that a career as a navigator was ultimately going to go nowhere as even civilian planes began to switch to automation, so she attended night school and achieved her MBA in finance and began her career as a manager in the production department of Proctor & Gamble.

"I learned leadership from the ground up," she said. "I was put in charge of a warehouse team and I learned how important it is to take care of people."

Meanwhile, Robbins began working with another therapist and finally learned about her identity. She started hormones in 1980. In the same year, her wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

"I stopped the transition to take care of my wife and son," Robbins said. "We tried an unconventional treatment and it took care of the tumor. We moved to Dallas and I started the hormones again. We separated and, within six weeks, the tumor was back again."

Her wife passed away in 1989—the same year her son graduated from high school.

"The single hardest thing I've ever done was to tell my son about my transition after he had lost his mother less than a year before," Robbins said. "It was really difficult but, now, we have a great relationship."

Looking back, Robbins believes she was "incredibly fortunate" in her transition. Her landlord didn't care and there were no issues with a burgeoning career in technology and business, which eventually took her to Central Illinois as CEO of Cellular One in the region. Meanwhile, she had been back to school and earned her Doctorate in Ministry.

"To whose whom much is given, much is expected," Robbins said.

It is a philosophy that spurred her to resign her position in 2003 and take her expertise to developing countries such as Haiti and Botswana in order to build 21st Century cellular and internet technology there. Robbins spent 15 months working amidst the horrific poverty in Port-au-Prince Haiti before returning to Central Illinois where she entered the nonprofit sector.

She took the helm of an organization still reeling from the economic collapse of 2008. By the time Robbins resigned in 2016, the organization was solvent.

"One of the things that Vietnam taught me is that it's not a crisis unless there's blood involved or somebody has died," Robbins said. "People in the nonprofit world are highly motivated and caring people. Leadership is critical in whichever organization you're in and, for me, that comes down to servant leadership. If leaders take care of the people and the people take care of their consumers, the consumers will take care of the organization. In the United States today, there is such a disparity between the bottom and the top that it's totally out of balance."

Balance is something Robbins has tried to instill in her own life and career roles. It is something she wants to bring to a position on the Parkland College Board, serving and inspiring future generations of leaders should she prevail next month.

"My priority is funding," Robbins said. "Community colleges in Illinois are just having a hell of time surviving let alone thriving. I'm also bringing in an outside view and the experience of living in Botswana, Haiti and the Philippines in ways that, if you've lived in Central Illinois all your life, you just can't do."

Robbins believes that her transgender identity will not be an issue with voters who will instead focus upon both her life resume, philosophy and vision for Parkland College—one that is in line with the institution's goal of reducing its reliance on State funding.

The budget impasse has been a hard lesson for those nonprofits which have counted on money that has evaporated under partisan squabbling.

"Part of the draw for Parkland College is the cost benefit ratio," Robbins said. "A semester at Parkland is much less expensive than it is at the University of Illinois, plus you get the benefit of smaller classes and teachers who are focused on teaching and not research or writing. One of the big topics that everybody is skirting around is how much local property tax payers are going to be asked to pay. There hasn't been an increase since '06 and, if Parkland decides to do that, how are they going to explain that to the community? The reality is the state's in a horrible financial position and it's going to take some hard decisions that both Democrats and Republicans have been reluctant to make. Parkland's doing the only thing it can in planning on not getting state support."

Her April 4 bid is the first time Robbins has ever run for public office and she admits to some nervousness.

Nevertheless, Robbins believes her "business and leadership background can be of service."

"It's an opportunity to give back," she said. "My college and grad school were paid for and a lot of the kids who end up at Parkland don't have that opportunity. Parkland is a way for them to move forward in the world and a bridge to their future is something I feel strongly about. The students are our bottom line. How do you break the cycle of poverty? Through opportunity. Part of my focus is going to be retaining students once they start and making sure they're getting the support they need to be successful."


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