I still recall my interview to join the board of Community-Campus Partnerships for Health (CCPH). I was encouraged to apply to the board by one of my most influential mentors in community engagement, Dr. Cynthia “Cee” Barnes-Boyd, who was an outgoing board member at the time.
I remember the question asking me about how I ensure “equity” in my work as a community health scientist in my role in academia. I was concerned that those interviewing me were sensing my frustration of being forced to “choose” or better yet, “own” the identity that I felt the interviewers were more heavily assigning to me as an “academic” partner. There was no sense of denial, that I do my work and operationalize my public health practice within the context of academia. There was also no denial, that as a result of my work and research being housed in the academy, there was clear privilege and an unequal power dynamic that surrounded my research and community engagement despite my quest for equity and social justice. But what I felt was missing from the dialogue (eg, interview) was a place and space for my identity as a Black man in academia to be, consoled, comforted, confronted and even celebrated.
I felt a shift in the interview, when the interviewers asking the questions, who clearly had a grounded and humble commitment in assessing the authenticity of community-academic partnerships gave me the space to express how my multiple identities of being a black man in academia provided a unique subculture where my academic privilege was watered-down by institutionalized racism. I left the interview assured that while the discussion was cathartic, I surely would not be selected because of my unwillingness to “pick a lane” and my transparency that my research and scholarship are based in large part on the disparities and inequities that I had experienced in my own life. But, to my surprise, the board members of CCPH not only welcomed my voice to the table, they acknowledged that my transparency both challenged them and reminded them of the complexities of this work.
Although I do my work within “academia,” my first identity is the son of Tommie Lee Watson, a proud black man from Arkansas who migrated north in search of the “Warmth of Other Suns” to provide opportunities for his new bride and soon to be family and the youngest son of his bride, Bertha Watson, whose journey began in Mississippi and ended too early in Michigan due to her battle with breast cancer that resulted in her sunset at the young age of 49.
Fast forward some 30 plus years later, and CCPH would take me to the birth home of my birth mother and my “now” mother (my father found love in both the spring and Autumn of his life affording me a mother after the death of my birth mother) in Mississippi to operationalize one of the pillars of CCPH by convening the board members of CCPH. As the current board chair of CCPH, I have had the privilege of partnering with Al Richmond, the Executive Director of CCPH on multiple trips in the south to convene with community and academic partners. It has been through these authentic conversations with Al and the many community and academic partners that Al has forged along the way that I am even more convinced of CCPH’s ability to create spaces and places for the disentanglement of the multiple layers that impact, shape, bridge and at times disrupt authentic community-academic partnerships.
Al and CCPH do not ask me to “choose” a lane, but rather they ask me to own, acknowledge and even leverage my multiple identities to be a true disciple of the CCPH principles of partnership. As a cancer disparities researcher, I feel that every day, my research and community engagement is the “amen” to my mother prayers. I am grateful for CCPH and its commitment to fostering health equity by demanding social justice in research, engagement and partnerships.
To learn more about how your voice is needed at the many tables where CCPH sits, please visit www.ccphealth.org. It is my hope that my research, scholarship and engagement resonates with the principles of CCPH and that both the board members and members at large of CCPH continue to be inspired, informed and intentional about understanding the intersecting identities that truly create opportunities for us to listen with a deeper sense of connectedness and see with a broader lens of inclusion.
Karriem S Watson, DHSc, MS, MPH
Senior Research Specialist at the University of Illinois Cancer Center (UICC)
Director, Community Engaged Research and Implementation Science, University of Illinois Cancer Center
Instructor, UIC School of Public Health, Community Health Sciences
Board Member, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health