Lynn Watts tackles racism and social justice through open dialogue

Lynn Watts is a people person.

She’s the kind of woman who makes quick connections and remembers names. She has bright, friendly eyes and a disarming laugh, but she does not dance around the issues. She is — literally — a professional at engaging in difficult conversations.

In her work these days, Watts talks a lot about race and justice. She approaches difficult social and political issues like “micro aggressions” and “implicit racism,” but somehow avoids the common traps of personal judgment or, conversely, mockery. She’s as gracious as she is direct, and that’s what makes her so effective in her work.

But Watts never set out to become a harbinger of racial justice and reconciliation in Cincinnati. She just wanted to sell computers.


Growing up Black in Cincinnati, finding a path out

Lynn Watts’s parents were never married. Though Watts says her mother and father wanted to stay together, their parents forbid it. It was 1960, after all, and black girls and white boys weren’t supposed to get married.

After her birth, Watts’s father disappeared. Her mother moved on, married a different man, and raised Lynn and her three siblings in Cincinnati.

The 60s was a tumultuous time for the black community. Watts was just a little girl when riots broke out in Avondale in 1966 and then again in 1967 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Looking back, she can remember her mother putting her in a Black Power T-shirt during the riots so she — with her light complexion — wouldn’t be mistaken for a white girl.

Though she is biracial, with her father out of the picture Watts had never wrestled with her racial identity. She was raised by a black mother with black siblings. All things considered, Watts had always felt, simply, “black.” It would be decades before she reckoned with the implications of her racial identity on her relationships with her white friends and neighbors.

In her 20s, Watts enrolled at The College of Mount St. Joseph (now Mount St. Joseph University), paying her way through the night classes by working full time at a bank. She had a very specific goal in mind — she wanted to work for IBM.

Her boyfriend (who would later become her husband) worked for IBM at the time. She loved the culture of the company and the people he worked with. She remembers them as fun-loving, respectable people. She wanted to be a part of the team.

She had interviewed for a receptionist job with the company but was told they could not hire anyone without a college degree. But she was determined to land that job. So, in 1986, Watts graduated from college on a Sunday in May, moved to Detroit on Monday, and was working at IBM by Tuesday.

Watts began her career as a receptionist and then moved into a sales position. Now married, she and her husband lived in Detroit, then Columbus, then moved back to Detroit, and eventually found their way to Cincinnati around 1990 where Watts then took a sales job with Microsoft. A few years later, her husband was transferred to Connecticut and Watts took a job with Microsoft in New York City. She made the daily commute from Connecticut to NYC for two and a half years.

In 1999, the family came back to Cincinnati to stay.


A new season, old wounds, in Cincinnati

Lynn Watts and her family settled in Evendale, a little village north of Cincinnati proper. With the eldest of her three sons entering 7th grade at Walnut Hills High School, she stepped away from her career to spend more time at home with her children.

Being home with her boys was hard, Watts remembers, but those were a great few years. She loved her new community. She was near to family — “her favorite people” — and was involved in a local Catholic parish. She also became a massage therapist as a part-time gig for when she wasn’t volunteering at one of her boys’ schools.

Her satisfaction back home in Cincinnati didn’t last very long. Within a few years, Watts’s world started to crumble around her.

First, her sister passed away unexpectedly. Then, her marriage of 22 years started to fall apart. She was also growing disenchanted with the Catholic Church, which was early in the process of navigating abuse allegations.

“It was like a perfect storm happening in my life,” she remembers.

It was also around this time, in 2001, that 19 year-old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a Cincinnati Police officer. The shooting spurred days of civil unrest in downtown Cincinnati, which fed the increasing racial tension throughout the rest of the city. Thomas was unarmed and presented no immediate threat when he was shot but the police officer, Stephen Roach, was acquitted of homicide.

Only a year later, Roach was hired by the Evendale Police Department.

Lynn Watts fought Roach’s hiring and spoke publicly in Evendale in opposition. She was even arrested at one point for “disturbing the peace” at a public meeting. For Watts, hiring Officer Roach was an unconscionable decision. But she found out quickly that not everyone in Evendale agreed with her.

The issue pitted neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. Though she knew some neighbors supported her, few spoke up in public. Her fellow parishioners at church showed little care. She no longer felt at home in her own community.


Confronting and healing her own hate

In the midst of this confusion and the grieving of these losses, Watts recognized something happening in her heart that troubled her conscience.

“When I was going through all this stuff in Evendale, I actually started hating white people,” she admits. “If you weren’t someone I already knew, I wasn’t interested in getting to know you at all.”

But she felt God telling her she had to confront her rising hatred because, she says with a friendly smile, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a lot of white people around.”

In an effort to confront this struggle head-on, she returned to the one place she remembered having a great experience with white people — Camp Joy.

Watts had recently been to Camp Joy for a leadership training program for African American professionals with the Urban League. The experience had left a big impression. She called the camp and said she was interested in learning how to facilitate the ropes courses. She was invited to join a training session that very weekend.

She remembers the moment that validated her decision to go:

“At the end of the training, everyone went around the circle and shared why they’d come out that day. I looked right at them all and said, ‘I just wanted to meet some good white people.’”

No one even flinched.

Instead of questioning her motives or discouraging her from leading the camp programs, she was invited to come back and jump right in to facilitate.

Camp Joy, she says, became “a saving place for me.”


Opening the conversation about race and then welcoming it home

It was through her experiences facilitating courses at Camp Joy that she learned to love group facilitation. She also made great friends and met some of her greatest allies in confronting the issues of race and racism in Cincinnati. She soon began working in group facilitation as a private contractor, specializing in diversity and inclusion training.

Sarah Brown met Lynn Watts more than 15 years ago while they both worked as adjunct facilitators at Camp Joy.

She was impressed by Watts from the start. Brown was new to facilitation and Watts seemed like someone she could learn from and someone she really wanted to get to know. She was good at her job. She was smart, honest, and a great listener.

And Brown had never had a black friend before Watts.

“I’m embarrassed to admit it but it was true,” she says. “Over the years, Lynn has taught me so much about diversity and love.”

In the years since they met, Watts and Brown have collaborated on various group facilitation and consulting jobs.

Watts’s first few years of contracting work were with companies outside of Cincinnati. This is how she preferred it. Conversations about race were difficult so she was thankful she could leave a tense event, hop on a plane, and go home to Cincinnati.

But, eventually, the conversation followed her there, too.

She remembers one of the most difficult facilitating jobs she ever had in Cincinnati. She was leading a diversity training program with her friend Scott Steele (whom she also met at Camp Joy) and it was a long, two-week program.

“It was the most vile and heartbreaking engagement that I’d ever experienced,” she remembers, “just to hear the things the people at this company said about the people they served and the people they worked with.”

At the end of the two weeks, after the last session was over, she went home feeling utterly shocked and defeated.

“Now it is in my backyard. Now I do live in one of those places.”


Finding a new church home and a new platform for the conversation
Watts leads the prayer team for Crossroads' annual Woman Camp.

It was clear that this problem — the problem of racism and hatred — was not just in some other company or in some other city. It was home, in Cincinnati, in her own backyard. It was a crushing realization, but it also birthed a new vision for her professional life.

Through a friend, Watts learned about an open position in spiritual growth at Crossroads. She had been attending church at Crossroads since 2005 and felt like this position was the fulfillment of some of the vocational dreams and desires that had been growing within her. She wanted to help people develop their personal faith. This job would focus on prayer and the spiritual development of the congregation.

Watts’s new position was not specifically focused on diversity issues, but it didn’t take long for the conversations about race, justice, and diversity to start happening at her new workplace. The Crossroads staff began engaging in racial diversity and inclusion training internally, among themselves. And then it was campus minister Chuck Mingo who knew it was time to force the conversation within the congregation.

Watts knew she could help people engage with issues of race through group facilitation. But, as important as the issues were, she wasn’t sure she was ready to have those painful conversations at her church. She says she didn’t really want to “peek behind the curtain” and hear what people really thought about race.

But she knew it was time.

Along with a few others, Watts helped develop a new public program at Crossroads called Undivided. The 6-week program is a basic training course in racial reconciliation.

Undivided centers around small group conversations about issues of race and justice. It’s designed to engage participants on a personal level first and then interpersonally in relationships within a diverse group. At the end, the conversation briefly turns to institutional issues of race and justice.

In addition to taking place at Crossroads, other local faith-based agencies and churches have hosted the training program. More than 5,000 people have participated.

Audrey Calloway has participated in Undivided seven times — six of those as a facilitator — and she has worked with Watts in various capacities at Crossroads. Her first impression of Watts was that she was confident and secure in her leadership.

“Lynn is steeped in the knowledge of race history, race dynamics, and has a heart for God,” she says.

“This is her home town and she grew up here in all of the complexities of what it means to be a person of color in Cincinnati. She has ventured out into the world and has experienced other cultures, cities, environments, and people,” she continues. “In returning home with those experiences, she can discern what may be unique about the Cincinnati experience and what is global/national.”

Calloway says Watts clearly wants what is best for other people.

A lifetime of preparation

Watts never set out to engage in this difficult work. But, in some ways, she has been perfectly prepared for it.

Her 15-year career in tech sales, she says, taught her how to speak in front of a crowd, how to address everyone from CEOs to consumers, how to make a pitch, and how to deal with rejection without being wounded by it.

Also, being biracial puts her in a unique position to bridge the black/white divide. Racial reconciliation was — literally — birthed in her.

Watts believes that racial reconciliation is a calling placed on her life and she relies on her faith to help her push through the most challenging parts. She has already worked through — and is always working through — her own racism and hatred. She has learned how to confront it head-on.

This is the eighth story in an ongoing series about Cincinnati’s “boomerang” residents — people who grew up here, left, and then came back for various personal, professional, and sentimental reasons. If you or someone you know qualifies and would like to be featured in Soapbox, email [email protected].

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Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.