IGR alumni spotlight: Karriem Watson, DHSc, MPH, MS

Photo of Karriem Watson

December 2016

Dr. Karriem Watson remembers his IGR days like it was yesterday. Gaining an in-depth knowledge and understanding about social justice and dialogue from IGR has made a profound impact on his life personally and professionally. He grew up in Muskegon Heights, Michigan and is a 1997 Graduate of U-M where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology. After receiving a Masters of Science in Basic Medical Research from Wayne State University, he moved to Chicago to work in the clinical research industry. He completed a doctorate in Health Sciences with a focus on Global Health from Nova Southeastern. In his dual role at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), he serves as the Director of the Community Engaged Research and Implementation Science for the Cancer Center and Community Engagement Research for Mile Square Health Center (MSHC), a group of federally qualified health centers. We are excited to share more about Dr. Karriem Watson.


Q: When you were a student at U-M, how did you first become affiliated with IGR?

A: As a biology major, I was pre-med and toying with the idea of switching over to psychology. I enrolled in some sociology courses and I loved it! I first became a part of IGR when I learned I had to fulfill some race and ethnicity requirements. I was a twenty-one year old who was not in sociology conversations everyday but had some lived experiences. I didn't know there was a name for it. I just thought it was my own experiences.

I was an underrepresented minority on campus at a time when there was racial tensions because of an affirmative action case and a racial incident at Olivet College. IGR, gave me the space and tools that I needed where I could have a higher level of thinking about what I was experiencing on campus, especially because those conversations weren't regularly taking place in biological sciences.

I was involved with Student Life and afforded the opportunity to volunteer at a Dr. Martin Luther King Day celebration where I came across Monita Thompson, now, IGR Co-Director and learned more about the program; known as Intergroup Relations and Conflict (IGRC) at the time.


Q: Tell us more about your involvement with IGR.

A: After I was nominated and trained to become a facilitator, I led a dialogue with another student about race that focused on African-American and Jewish communities. I will never forget the first day of training and the difficulty of dealing with a heated discussion about the holocaust and slavery. There were many crying days. Today, I would call that experience racial olympics or the olympics of oppression. I remember thinking, why are we having such heated conversations when there needs to be alliance building, there needs to be partnership building. We need to look at the shared experiences and see how they are unique, honor the uniqueness and then honor each as a traumatic event.


Q: Tell us about experiences that stands out most while at IGR?

A: I attended a national conference in Washington D.C. where I had the opportunity to meet other intergroup dialogue facilitators from across the country and was blown away. I learned so much and realized how much IGR was making a difference in my life.

Although I was a teaching assistant, being a facilitator was more of an introduction into teaching. I also did some resident hall training but what stands out the most is the self-exploration, the introspection and that self-analysis to see how privilege played out for myself. I remember a discussion when I had another view of myself as an african-american male who never heard the term privilege. Growing up in a working class home, I never considered myself privileged. I knew I was fortunate with resources that some people in my community didn't have but I didn't consider myself privileged. There was a dialogue about gender biases and I had to sit in my male privilege which was different because I usually sit in my racial identity. IGR challenged me to look at my own identities and identify places where I have multiple identities.


Q: Tell us more about the skills you gained from IGR.

A: To this day, understanding how to own multiple identities is probably one of the greatest lessons that I learned other than, of course, conflict resolution. Knowing that I am not just a monolinguistic individual was key to my development. My entire research portfolio is based on community engaged research. When I was the co-director of a health ministry of a large african american congregation in Chicago, I served on an advisory board for the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA), and someone challenged my identity as a community member because I also worked for a university. I remember them saying, "Oh, Karriem, you don't represent real true community". I believe we all represent community and I acknowledge that yes, the lens in which we sit most prominent impacts how we view things. Yes, my day job was at UIC but my major lens was through the faith based community lens at that time. I challenged the person that said I didn't represent true community. I don't think that was a micro-aggression that they were trying to play out, it was a subconscious bias that they don't even know that was a part of their narrative. I can honestly say that IGR has helped me to identify subconscious biases that exist often times in our privilege.


Q: What are some other ways IGR is a part of your everyday work?

A: Health disparities and health inequities are issues of social justice. My doctoral studies in health sciences has provided the skills to see social justices beyond the local community and think about the global lens. During a recent visit to Haiti to exam how community health workers address the health needs of the population in rural areas, one could see how resources scattered locally and globally are based on the issue of class, race, ethnicity and “isms”; a part of institutionalized racism where you can see a clear distinction of inequities.

With my work in Haiti, I also think about my privilege identity and being mindful of how I dialogue and engage during my one week visits each year. We have to exam the narrative on how we use words like resilient. I’m challenging the word right now and I can say IGR gave me the platform and tools to understand how language impacts the narrative. The word is saying that despite their situation they can make it or they are making it. So, resilient is an asset term for the community living the experience, it doesn't hold those of us accountable in changing the infrastructure, the structure bearings, even why people need to be resilient. It takes the onus off of the institution or the structure that causes the need for the resilience.

Another way that I use IGR everyday is when I serve on international and local boards. I can honestly say whether I serve a school, a community based organization or research, they all address the issue of justice and health. I am a board member for the Community Campus Partnerships for Health (CCPH) and I just got back from our annual conference, "Journey to Justice - Creating Change Through Partnerships". IGR was the first place to provide the platform for me to understand how dialogue leads to true authentic partnerships.


Q: Share a little more about partnerships.

A: My research portfolio is built on partnerships. When I think about the work I'm doing in lung cancer or colorectal screening, they are all based on a health care model called Shared Decision Making. That means the patient or participant sit at a table with the provider or practitioner and engage in dialogue. I facilitate and make sure that there's a shared dialogue and a space to ensure the patient or participant is fully informed.


Q: How does IGR play a role in workforce development?

A: IGR has influenced how I interact with students and how I play a role in workforce development. I encourage students to develop authentic partnerships that lead to sustainability--maintaining a health science workforce that is representative of the population we serve. As part of the diversity and inclusion agenda, there again comes the word, dialogue that has to take place. There has to be a clear understanding between our students, interns, early stage investigators, and how they interact with each other to determine ultimately how they will interact with the community we serve.

I also encourage my students to understand how inequalities are played out and understand the structural and institutional barriers. The conversation I usually have with students is an "and" conversation. Even though we work at a cancer center, we don't have the luxury to go into a community and ask, how can we help with you deal cancer screening and prevention education? You don't get cancer in a vacuum outside of poverty, outside of violence, or a community that you live in. So, I encourage my students to think about how they are going to be a part of the "and" conversation, ensuring that what they are addressing is generalizable to providing the patient or participant a platform to utilize the inherent skills they have for a better health outcome.


Q: What are some things that you enjoy when you are not working?

A: My personal life is a dialogue and it impacts everything I do, everywhere I go. I love to travel and it's one of my favorite pastimes. I enjoyed my visit to Haiti, and I have also been to Africa, Argentina, and studied abroad when I attended U-M. These experiences have led me examine even how groups interact across cultures.

I am a foodie. I enjoy food and culture! Recently, I had the opportunity to host 21 Conversations, a dialogue series held throughout the city and the south suburbs of Chicago around the topic of cancer and community engagement. It's part of a group of conversations called On The Table, funded by the Chicago Community Trust and coordinated by UIC Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement. The purpose of the event is to go back to the cultural traditions of having dialogue with food. Over 200 people attended with a minimum of five people to as large as 20 people around the conversation with breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert.


Q: Is there anything else you would like us to know?

A: What I learned from IGR is invaluable. I gained so many transferrable skills and I'm always amazed how and where my skill set from IGR plays out in my everyday life. I just learned that IGR has a minor and I think that's great!

More about Dr. Watson

For more information about Dr. Karriem Watson, DHSc, MPH, MS, visit UI Cancer Center.