Christopher Watler of the ‘Center for Employment Opportunities’: “Engage in radical empathy”

Engage in radical empathy: Commit to confronting your own privilege and bias, then work to actively help oppressed groups in your personal and work life. Focus on actionable things you can do personally. Start a racial justice reading club with your friends, attend unconscious bias training, talk to family members about our racial caste system. […]

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Engage in radical empathy: Commit to confronting your own privilege and bias, then work to actively help oppressed groups in your personal and work life. Focus on actionable things you can do personally. Start a racial justice reading club with your friends, attend unconscious bias training, talk to family members about our racial caste system. I am part of a book club that has included readings and conversations on racial justice.


As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Christopher Watler.

Christopher Watlerserves as CEO’s Chief External Affairs Officer at the Center for Employment Opportunities. In this role, Chris is responsible for overseeing CEO’s national fund development operations, communications initiatives, and various special projects dedicated to advancing CEO’s mission. Chris has over 30 years of nonprofit experience. He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, from John Jay College of the City University of New York.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in Crown Heights, a racial and ethnically diverse community in central Brooklyn, NY. The eldest of three children, my parents came to the United States from Jamaica and Honduras in the late 1950/early 1960s. They both worked and were active in the community and church. Growing up they emphasized the values of hard work, family, education and service to others. As a young kid we were made available to elderly neighbors to run errands. These requests usually came when I had finished my homework and wanted to go out with my friends. I learned early on that serving others was important. These values have guided me throughout my life. When I finished college, I was drawn to public service.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I am an avid reader and have a long list of books that have really influenced my thinking over the years. I just finished reading How to Be An Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi. The book challenges readers to embrace the hard work we all need to do to eliminate systemic racism. The book has helped me to look critically at my own beliefs. As a beneficiary and admirer of the Civil Rights movement, I believe the movement peacefully created more equality and opportunity for many. However, as the author makes clear, Black Americans are still subject to disparate treatment. This hurts all of us by limiting our national potential and creating deeper divisions in our society. By examining our racial caste system and our own beliefs and participation in this system we can get on a path to becoming anti-racists.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

A quote I use often is: “You can’t fix people; they have to want to fix themselves”. I learned this from a drug counselor who worked with me as part of a youth program in the early 1990s. Early in my career I thought I could fix people. If I just gave them the right speech to motivate them or delivered a good program, I thought they would get it. To me it was common sense. I was wrong.

I have learned that if you want people to change you need them to take the lead in defining what matters for them — to be co-laborers in their own change. I learned this painfully from a young man who was in a college readiness program I helped to manage. He was getting a full ride scholarship provided he finished high school. I thought the program would transform his life. When it came time for him to leave for school he just did not go. Instead he and another person committed a terrible crime two weeks after he was supposed to be in college that resulted in the death of the victim. He called me sobbing on the phone from jail. I last saw him and his mother at his arraignment. This experience reminded me that people have the ability to choose and will sometimes make bad choices. We kept trying to get him to do what we thought was a good choice for him. I wonder if we had maybe listened to him more and worked to address the real problems in his life, not just school, maybe things would have been different.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I have always liked John Gardner’s definition: “Leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual or team induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and followers” (Book: John Gardner on Leadership). I have learned that leadership can come from unlikely places, not from persons with formal authority. I have seen incredible people with little or no formal authority work to change systems and lives.

Gardner’s definition doesn’t speak to the type of leader or decisions and outcomes that are good. Leaders can lead in ways that benefit themselves or some of their followers, but not others. There is a moral and ethical dimension to leadership that is essential. To paraphrase Steven Covey, good managers get things done, leaders get the right things done.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I like to use meditation techniques to help calm my mind and body before a big presentation or decision. I simply close my eyes and take deep breaths for a few minutes- in through the nose out through the mouth. I then breathe normally, paying close attention to my breath and focusing on my body to recognize any physical tension that is present. This is usually followed by a short prayer or self affirmation to put the moment in perspective. I also like to talk out my fears and hopes with a trusted friend or family member when making big decisions. Deep and meaningful friendships and partnerships are a valuable resource in these moments.

In 2016, I was making the decision to leave an organization I spent 20 years working for to join the Center for Employment Opportunities. It was a tough decision. I loved my work and colleagues. I was valued and had built a skill set that allowed me to have an impact on issues I care deeply about. Even though I could have stayed another 20 years working very comfortably, I knew I wanted, and needed, a different challenge. My wife became a life coach for me along with a few close friends as I worked through the process.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

This is a difficult topic. I hope your readers will indulge me. I want to be very blunt in my assessment, but also offer a sense of what might be possible moving forward.

Black Americans have been boiling in American’s racism for generations. The racial caste system that preceded the founding of the nation has continued to violate the democratic principles that the Founders established. This was a moral failing on their part. From slavery, through segregation and the racial abuse that Black people face today, it is clear that America has a lot of work to do.

In every area of our national life the potential of Black Americans has been limited by our racial caste system. Today, for example, our mass incarceration system reflects this. At every step in our crimnal legal system a Black person is more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, jailed and convicted than a similar White person for the same crime. Over 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated and 77 million Americans have a criminal conviction These are not just numbers. For 113 million Americans, including 5.2 million children, these individuals are their parents, family members, neighbors and friends.

Throughout the nation’s history those that benefit from our racial caste system have, through their actions or inaction, denied the kind of equality of opportunity and justice they have demanded for themselves. We all saw the death of George Floyd. We saw the cruelty and indifference to human life that the actions of the police officers involved represented. No American who believes in justice and equality under the law could feel anything but outrage.

The opportunity for us now is to reimagine our national life without a racial caste system. Improving the lives of Black Americans will improve the lives of all Americans. Imagine if we lived in a country that was a true meritocracy. Where a person’s race or criminal convictions was not a statistically significant factor in the treatment they received or life opportunities they could enjoy. Imagine what it would mean if instead of states spending 85 billion dollars a year on prison systems, they invested in small business creation or education. Imagine if employers hired the best candidates for a job. If everyone had a stake in the potential of America and voted and were in conversations with their neighbors about the kind of government they wanted. Maybe there would be less fighting about ideology and more solving of problems.

It will be painfully hard for our nation to break free of the racial caste system. I believe this is possible, but it will take hard focused work and leadership. We need leaders who are willing to ask tough questions and work with others to answer them. Leaders who confront their own biases and prejudices and invite others to do the same. What author Isabel Wilkerson calls, radical empathy.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

I am proud of the work we are doing at the Center for Employment Opportunities on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. We have a terrific team leading this work and the effort has strengthened our community. This has included making sure our compensation structure is equitable, offering learning opportunities and employee driven affinity groups, and raising the voices and stories of our participants in our programming and policy work.

This work has been especially important over the last few months during COVID. After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Armand Aubrey, we convened internal dialogues where staff could hear and support each other. I co-led groups for Black identifying employees that were a space for us to heal. We also instituted weekly town halls to make sure that staff were hearing from our executive team as we all worked to understand the trauma being caused by the pandemic and police abuse cases. We are a stronger organization as a result of this work. It has made us more responsive to each other and the program participants we serve.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The business case for diversity and inclusion is a strong one. There is evidence that diverse executive teams and boards hire and promote diverse leaders. McKinsey’s research has found that diverse companies perform better. We also know from Deloitte’s research that employees want to work for inclusive employers. With a declining labor force participation rate and lower population growth in the U.S, employers who want to be competitive in the future must find ways to bring in groups that have traditionally been on the employment sidelines — including job seekers with convictions.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

Engage in radical empathy: Commit to confronting your own privilege and bias, then work to actively help oppressed groups in your personal and work life. Focus on actionable things you can do personally. Start a racial justice reading club with your friends, attend unconscious bias training, talk to family members about our racial caste system. I am part of a book club that has included readings and conversations on racial justice.

Support structural reforms to address our racial caste system: In your work or personal life commit to supporting structural reforms. It is one thing to hire someone your company might normally not hire, it is another to change hiring practices. At CEO we launched an initiative called Levelset to get employers to change the way they hire so qualified job seekers with convictions would have more access to employment. This demand side solution has the potential to unlock millions of job opportunities for job seekers with conviction histories.

Support Black led organizations: Black led organizations struggle to access sufficient funding or strong board members. Consider making regular donations to these organizations or volunteering your time. While I work in the nonprofit space, I also serve on the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem board. This has allowed me to support an organization doing good work addressing issues I care about in a historically black community.

Be a mentor: Look for opportunities to mentor others, especially individuals who may be less represented in your spaces. This can take many forms. You can volunteer as a mentor with programs like Big Brother Big Sister. You can make yourself available to a colleague or someone in your industry who could benefit from your connections. I have always made myself available to others for advice and guidance. One tactic I use is to offer open office hours at my job for anyone who wants to talk. Often the conversations are about a person’s career aspirations or life advice.

Take care of yourself: Dealing with difficult issues like racial justice can be stressful. With the added stress of the pandemic this is a time for all leaders to practice and encourage self-care. I held a self-care video meeting early in the pandemic for my team and invited a colleague who is also a social worker and therapist to co-lead the workshop with me. A key outcome was to get staff to commit to their own self-care action plans.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I am an optimist. I look for inspiration in the stories of people I meet on my travels through life. I have seen people transform their lives after dealing with very difficult circumstances. At CEO, our participants leave prison with very little and must overcome so many obstacles just to access a job. They inspire me.

It won’t be easy to create a more inclusive and equitable world, but it is a choice we all can make. In our personal lives we can choose to learn and grow, be of service to others, be open about our own blind spots. Where we have done things we are not proud of we can try to make things right and heal the harm. We can do this on a national level too. It takes leadership, vision and hard work. We saw in the peaceful racial justice protests a rainbow of leaders all across the country inviting everyone to end our racial caste system.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Stacey Abrams. I have followed her work and think she is one of the most compelling leaders of our time. I really admire her work around voter registration.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on twitter: @chriswatler or on Linkedin

I also invite readers to follow and support our work at CEO: www.ceoworks.org / @ceoworks

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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