Talking With: Bobby Rodriguez

Visael “Bobby” Rodriguez loves people. The married father of two is charming, funny and curious, always eager to learn and passionate about making a difference for others. These traits serve him well in his role as Cincinnati Children’s first vice president of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations.

Rodriguez grew up in Puerto Rico. His parents divorced when he was only 2 years old, leaving his mother to raise him and his two sisters on her own.

“My mother did not have a high school diploma, so she had to go back and get one,” Rodriguez explains. “Then she went to college and became a special education teacher. I remember as a little boy, I would go to bed, and she would stay up late working, cleaning, getting ready for the next day. I can still recall going to her college graduation and how proud I felt. She performed miracles on a teacher’s salary to give me and my sisters a good future.”

Rodriguez’s grandparents were also a big influence on his life, with their emphasis on service to others and their work ethic.

“My grandfather owned a convenience store (bodega),” he says. “He used to take me with him to town to buy provisions for the homeless who would come to my grandparent’s house. At age 5, I learned how to serve them food in the gazebo in the back yard. For my grandparents, it was always about giving.”

With such strong role models, Rodriguez flourished. He attended the University of Puerto Rico, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial management and marketing. At age 29, he left Puerto Rico to work for the Xerox Corporation, then moved into human resource and diversity positions at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Florida, Maryland and Massachusetts. His most recent role was chief human resources officer and vice president of facilities for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island.

Rodriguez first learned about Cincinnati Children’s through Project SEARCH, a program that originated here and trains individuals with significant barriers to employment.

Says Rodriguez, “I worked with the Rhode Island Office of Rehabilitation to bring Project SEARCH to Rhode Island. Then when I learned about the diversity and inclusion position here, I did some research.”

Rodriguez was impressed with what he discovered.

“I love when organizations do things very well, and Cincinnati Children’s is so well known for quality improvement work,” he says. “I learned about the Anderson Center, Cradle Cincinnati, Every Child Succeeds, and then research and the 42 divisions—I am so happy to be here, to be part of making sure every child is served equitably with the best care.”

Change That Makes a Difference

Rodriguez, who arrived at Cincinnati Children’s last July, has spent his time getting to know his colleagues and working on the new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Strategic Plan. But he emphasizes that the plan was developed with input from many people across the organization.

“We conducted more than 350 one-on-one interviews,” he explains. “We talked with almost 20 focus groups from all over the medical center—Supply Chain, Marketing and Communications, Academic Affairs, Research—who have implemented DEI initiatives in their own areas. We presented them with a framework, then asked them questions and captured their feedback so we could put together one comprehensive plan that encompasses all of the area-specific strategies.”

Rodriguez acknowledges that much good work has been done, but there is more to do.

“We all have unconscious bias. It’s human nature,” he says. “Our brains have to take in so much information and make so many decisions, it’s impossible to do. In its quest to be efficient, the brain then makes assumptions and sorts things into categories. So, when I see a woman, I make an assumption. I see a Black man, I make an assumption. We aren’t even aware that we’re doing it. But making those assumptions can get us into trouble and put barriers between us. We must be more inclusive, and that requires that we challenge these assumptions, set them aside and have conversations to better learn and understand each other.

“The word ‘privilege’ is used a lot these days, and it’s where many people disconnect. The first thing they think is, ‘I work for what I have.’ But that’s not what is being said. Privilege is about the difference in how people are treated based on our assumptions about race, gender, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation. And it has huge and sometimes devastating consequences.”

Rodriguez cites statistics that show African-American children and other children of color are dying at rates three or four times higher than white children because of social disparities, particularly in access to healthcare. Suicide rates are very high among kids in the LGBTQ+ community.

“When we look at our vision and Pursuing Our Potential Together, this is why diversity and inclusion are so important,” he says.

As he looks to the future, Rodriguez hopes to see increased levels of cultural competence across the organization, including building more diversity into the career pipeline.

“We must be strategic in how we connect with people, how we hire and retain them. It’s one thing to recruit a more diverse workforce, but what are we doing to develop them and make them feel welcome once they are here?” he says.

Ultimately, Rodriguez admits, our success depends on every individual taking personal responsibility for becoming more culturally aware.

“Until we challenge our assumptions, until we speak out and act in a more thoughtful, deliberate manner, we cannot change our behavior,” he says. “If we remain silent, we become perpetrators. We are all capable of being better. And if we focus on that, we will have a transformative impact on our workforce and our community.”

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