Public Service

Robin Lee speaks up because she cares

The Massey Award-winning housekeeper advocates for her fellow employees and makes students feel at home.

Robin Lee in office space wearing a white button up shirt with a black blazer.
Carolina housekeeper Robin Lee is a Massey Award winner not only for her advocacy, but for how she looks after students and residence advisers at Kenan Residence Hall. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Robin Lee’s mother warned her that her mouth would get her in trouble, but that never stopped her.

“I’ll speak my mind in a minute,” said the University housekeeper and 2024 Massey Award winner. “That got me in trouble plenty of days, but I know how to get myself out of trouble, too.”

Lee is an advocate for her fellow housekeepers. A campus worker union leader, she organizes colleagues, speaks at rallies and meets with state lawmakers to champion raises and better working conditions. For her efforts, the Employee Forum honored her with the 2023 Rebecca Clark Staff Award for Moral Courage.

The Massey Award recognizes her advocacy, too. But the 45 students and resident advisers in Kenan Residence Hall who nominated her also wanted others to know how “Ms. Robin” looks after them. They wrote about how she keeps their home clean and safe — getting a damaged microwave replaced and a flooding shower repaired. They described, too, how she helps them emotionally during trying times.

“She has helped students through homesickness, breakups and everything in between,” one student wrote.

Mostly, she talks with them. Calling them “sweetie” or “baby,” she checks in with students daily, writes encouraging notes, shares cooking tips.

“Once I get them to start speaking to me, that’s when they open up,” Lee said, peering over her big glasses and smiling. “It’s just like I’m talking to my grandbabies. I got 120 grandbabies from all different places.”

Her own grandchildren motivated Lee to become a state employee 20 years ago.

“Every time my daughter would bring my granddaughter to my apartment in Carrboro, I always had to carry her to the park because she didn’t have no way to run around,” Lee recalled. She told her mother, “You know what? I’m going to build me a house for my grandbaby.”

The job she took to pay for the house was as a housekeeper at McDougle Middle School in Chapel Hill. In the past, Lee had studied computers at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte and had sold hair care products door-to-door, but she didn’t like either career. She kept returning to housekeeping — in private homes, retirement communities, hotels — because she enjoyed meeting new people.

At McDougle, they were middle schoolers, who posed their own challenges, like one spectacularly graphic illustration on the wall of the boy’s bathroom. “He was good at drawing but not at spelling,” Lee said.

She built her house in Pittsboro, painting each room a different color. In the evenings, she likes to unwind from long shifts at the University and a second job at Aloft Hotel, relaxing with a cool drink on the front porch.

“I love the little town because it’s quiet,” said Lee, who grew up in New York and Washington, D.C., and later lived in Charlotte for 23 years. “I was raised up in the city, and the older I get, the more I like the quietness.”

She has two educators in the family, a daughter who works with special needs high school students in Alamance County and a granddaughter who teaches fourth grade in Greensboro. Her grandson will graduate from high school next month. The day will be both happy and sad for Lee, who lost her only son in a car crash on that date a decade ago.

“I was tore all to pieces,” she said. “But it’s getting better over the years.”

Even as Lee approaches retirement, she’s still speaking up. Her current goal? Free parking for employees. “I like helping people,” she said. “Some of them appreciate it. Some of them don’t. But I still help them.”