When you sit down with Jehni Robinson, you can easily leave all the titles and degrees at the door (or virtual waiting room). Her calm, reassuring demeanor makes your voice feel welcomed — like you’re part of something important. Jehni Robinson is accomplished on her own, but once you hear her story, you understand why social justice is such a large part of why she is a leader, passionate about family medicine with a focus on caring for all patients and communities.
Born in Atlanta three years after the decision in the Loving v. Virginia case that struck down laws preventing interracial marriage in the United States, her mother, a Swedish American, and her father, an African American, listed her race on her birth certificate as “human being.” Days after coming home, public health officials came to the family home needing to designate her mother as “white” and father as “negro” — so “they would know how to treat her in school,” Jehni shared.
Growing up, other people were confused by Jehni’s identity. Living as a child of mixed race in Minneapolis, a predominantly white community, was challenging. She felt proud of her heritage, but others challenged how she identified herself.
“We are so used to putting people in boxes, and I did not clearly fit in people’s boxes, and as a result, I was very confusing to people,” Jehni said. “I didn’t really understand until later that people were struggling because we didn’t fit their stereotype of what a black person should look like. There was nothing wrong with how I looked. There was something wrong with the stereotypes that others placed on me.”
With parents of two different races, it would be impossible to choose one over the other, given how much they both influenced her upbringing. Additionally, in a country where “passing” has a complicated history, it would make her uncomfortable to accept a single box to identify herself.
Instead, her parents built a legacy of character. Her father, James, was an attorney who worked with Martin Luther King Jr., advocating for fair housing. Her mother, Janet, a psychologist, always dedicates her time to protesting inequities, and she can still be seen on a street corners holding a protest sign, speaking out against injustice.
“I tell my children, ‘Half a person can’t walk through a door.’ I think you get to claim all of who you are. And I think we also have to acknowledge the diversity,” Jehni said.
“I think it’s so critical for African Americans that we also hold up how resilient, how talented, our many accomplishments and we have a lot of pride in that,” she shared. “And so I always lead with that because I think it’s an important contradiction to the systemic racism that we’ve all inherited.”
A family legacy
Disparities for people of color are nothing new to the Robinson family. Her paternal grandfather Judson and grandmother Josie lived in Texas. Despite having completed a college degree, the best job her grandfather could get was working on the railroad. While traveling to work on the railroads, he saw firsthand the discrimination faced by African Americans, as well as their limited opportunities. The family eventually landed in Houston, where Judson worked in the unions trying to make life better for his community.
“He was really instrumental in the community in terms of trying to improve conditions for people, and he worked in a number of different housing projects collecting rents,” Jehni said. “They would go around collecting rents and they would talk with people, hearing about the issues and the challenges.”
Over time, Judson recognized that for African Americans to have access to better housing and greater economic opportunity, they needed to be able to own property. He started his own real estate agency, where he helped the community by selling homes and financing property.
Jehni’s father, James, was able to go to college, becoming an attorney and devoting his time to the idea of cooperative housing, a concept similar to apartment living, but with the ability for tenants to have ownership along with a collective responsibility of keeping up the property.
It was during a work trip that he sat next to Dr. King on a plane. By the time they landed, he had decided to quit his job and go to Atlanta to work with Dr. King. In pursuing this new path, her father became instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement, doing his part in housing and housing equity.
“When my father passed away, I had several people from the community come up to me and say, ‘You know, you really need to understand the impact your family had on this community in terms of building neighborhoods in terms of building communities,” Jehni said. “It was really clear the important role that housing and community plays in terms of foundations for families, in order for people to be successful and have healthy, productive lives.”
Pursuing family medicine and social justice
Jehni is accomplished in her own right. She attended Stanford as an undergraduate and, when deciding to pursue medicine, knew she wanted to serve her community. She looked at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and continued her educational journey at Morehouse School of Medicine, which has the mission of guiding physicians to work in underserved communities.
“It has always been impressed upon me how important it was to use your career to help others, and how important it was to invest in communities,” Jehni explained. “I think throughout my life I’ve really understood more and more the legacy of slavery and how it disproportionally affected African American communities. There is much work in what we need to do to help those communities to help correct that injustice.”
In medical school, she loved everything from pediatrics to the grandmothers with their bags of medications, influencing a pursuit of family medicine that would offer her the breadth and holistic approach to caring for all patients.
Continuing her passion for urban, underserved medicine, she spent her residency at Harbor-UCLA, staying on an additional year as Chief Resident and completing a faculty development fellowship. Her career followed in community clinics, including serving as Chief Medical Officer for the Los Angeles Free Clinic, now known as The Saban Free Clinic.
Jehni follows former Keck School Dean Laura Mosqueda, MD, as the chair of the Department of Family Medicine, and in that time she has accomplished a great deal. She led the department in revamping its vision that Family Medicine is a leader in health and social justice for all. Clinical services have expanded within the USC Family Medicine practice, and street medicine teams have been added. Under her leadership, research focused on closing health disparities has expanded, the number of medical students matching to family medicine continues to grow, and a new Family Medicine residency is being developed at Keck Medicine focused on innovative approaches to care. In addition, the Primary Care Physician Assistant Program is now ranked among the top 10 programs in the country. The drive to enhance advocacy and bring positive change in our communities continues to expand.
In reference to the merging of medicine and social justice, Jehni believes that the vision and the mission for the Department of Family Medicine say it all.
“Everyone deserves access to high-quality care,” Jehni said. “It doesn’t matter where you are, where you’ve come from, or what your particular situation is right now. In our department, we want to provide that for everyone.”
— Claire Norman