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Robert Thomas: migrating ‘home’ to his southern roots

Born and raised in Detroit, Robert Thomas recognizes how history and family have influenced his career and the man he is today.

“I am a byproduct of the Great Migration,” says Robert, a contract specialist in our customer deliverables department. “My great-grandmother grew up in Alabaster, Ala., a town made up of two square miles and one stoplight. My great-grandfather was told about work in a factory just outside of Pontiac, Mich., so they made their way up north.”

Robert believes he grew up during an inspiring time. R&B performers like Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker and Luther Vandross made up the soundtrack of his early life, thanks to his mother and grandmother. But he’s quick to acknowledge the decade that shaped him was about more than the music.

“To me, the ’80s was the decade of love, a time when singers sang about love and intimacy,” he says. “And African-Americans as a people finally had an opportunity to focus on something other than the great fight. The music inspired love, making the ’80s an era of firsts for African-Americans, because they too were inspired.”

Making moves big and small

That inspiration led Robert down his own path — as did the nurturing presences in his life. Robert often thinks back to lessons learned from his grandmother, lessons influenced by her own parents’ migration toward industry.

“It’s ironic, but my grandmother — whose father was a farmhand before moving north and whose mother picked cotton — introduced me to industry and technology,” Robert says. “As she became more familiar with computers and such in the ’90s, she would show me. I can remember her getting up at 6 a.m. five days a week, putting on her skirt suits, stockings and slingback pumps, for her job at General Motors.”

“That tiny experience had a big impact — it taught me routine, structure, professionalism, work ethic, punctuality and just plain responsibility.”

BlueCross Robert Thomas family
Robert, right, with his partner, Dell, and their daughter, Heiress

Robert balances those lessons with the need to constantly look forward. “I come from an era and generation that was molded to know to not only expect changes, but to also embrace them,” he says. 

Embracing change led Robert to leave the city he’d always called home. He and Dell, his partner of 15 years, made their way first to Atlanta for a job opportunity and to be closer to Dell’s family, and then on to Chattanooga.

Finding common ground in different experiences

When Robert joined BlueCross five years ago, he was surprised by the emphasis on diversity, inclusion and cultural competency. He could look around and see a melting pot. Better than that, he found an immediate comfort level and colleagues who took an active interest in learning from each other.

“At BlueCross, no one looks at me sideways,” he says. “I can be myself.  I liken my experiences here to being on a college campus. You have your classes and your requirements, which would be your actual job, but then you can get involved in so many extracurricular activities.”

Robert has participated in our job shadowing and mentoring program, and attended training sessions about unconscious bias and generational diversity. He’s heard all manner of stories and has become not only more closely connected with his colleagues, but with our members, as well.

“Through education, we understand our differences, and we’re more comfortable seeing issues through the lens of the members we serve,” he says. “We can at least all agree on the need to respect another person’s point of view or way of life.” 

Robert’s experiences and journey from the Motor City to Cameron Hill even formed the basis of a presentation at this year’s Black History Month celebration for employees.

Robert, seen here at this year’s BlueCross Black History Month event, presented on his experiences as a byproduct of the Great Migration.

“Here I am, an educated, young, black, gay male, sharing my story with all who wanted to listen,” he says.  “Where else am I going to find that opportunity?”

In his role as contract specialist working with major accounts, Robert has the opportunity to channel the guiding principles — responsibility, professionalism, kindness — that informed his upbringing.

“The best thing about my job is being able to demonstrate my passion for helping people every day,” he says.

“I think back to my time as a team leader within our membership customer service areas. I was charged with developing the best customer service agents possible. I often reminded my team that most of the time, we are the first ones a member speaks to when calling BlueCross. So making a positive first impression is crucial.”

Life’s a stage

Today, creativity remains a crucial part of Robert’s life. He became active in the arts while in middle school in Detroit. The trained flute player, actor and dancer has appeared as the lead in a high school production of “The Crucible” and an extra in the 2012 Whitney Houston film “Sparkle.”

When sharing an anecdote from the set, Robert lights up with admiration.

“I actually encountered the Whitney Houston,” Robert recalls. “It was brief, of course, but I can remember being in a wardrobe fitting, and people started to scramble. An announcement was made that Ms. Houston had arrived. She walked through as carefree as can be, and simply said, ‘Hello, hello, hello’ … and just that quick, she’d disappeared into her private quarters. I’ll never forget that moment.”

Today, he’s teaching himself guitar, just bought a new flute, and is looking into the theater scene in Chattanooga. “I recently made a promise to myself that I will be participating in the next audition season,” he says.

He and Dell have an 11-year-old daughter, Heiress, who also has the performance bug and appeared in the film “Boo! A Madea Halloween.”

“She is a natural — she can cry at the drop of a dime, and cut it off just as quickly,” Robert beams. “She’s definitely a drama queen and doesn’t quite realize it yet. She’s entering middle school and will audition for arts school in the winter.”

BlueCross Robert ThomasWhether looking at his daughter’s future, where he’s been or where he’s going, Robert can’t help but be reflective. He may be a byproduct of the Great Migration, but believes he’s now an expression of what some may call the New Migration. 

“Honestly, likening my experiences to those of my grandmother and others before me is not all that realistic,’ he says. “Gone are the days of staying on the job from straight out of high school and retiring after 30-plus years of service. But then, some of us find a place like BlueCross, and we stay.”

With that, he can’t help but be inspired by the ’80s once more, recalling a sitcom refrain from his youth.

“It’s a different world at BlueCross,” he says. “That’s why I migrated here.”

About Jesse Thompson, Principal Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorJesse joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. A Chattanooga native, he has more than 15 years’ experience in content creation, management, and strategy for consumer audiences, including a six-year stint in health care marketing.

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