Doing Good: Cammy Watkins Fights Inequity, Builds Diversity and Inclusion

In Cammy Watkins’ 19-year career in the nonprofit industry, she admits to saying “no” more than “yes” to leadership roles. Sometimes, imposter syndrome crept up, her personal insecurities and misconceptions about what it meant to be “ready” to lead. Other times, the intentional marginalization by those in positions of power was clear.

“I had one executive director tell me that I ‘lacked vision,’ and that I would challenge them sometimes and ‘nobody would want that [in a direct report],’” Watkins recalled. “Instances of being passed over or having to beg for a title change (without a pay increase) to give myself better chances for advancement take a toll on one’s psyche. I had to do a lot of self-work, and it took having a really supportive supervisor to help me recognize that I am worthy and I shouldn’t feel as if I don’t deserve or belong in positions of power.”

Today, Watkins is an executive director at Inclusive Communities. She shares the role alongside Maggie Wood. Together, the duo work to balance inequities via the 83-year-old nonprofit, formerly known as the Midlands NCCJ (National Conference for Christians and Jews) chapter. The NCCJ was first reportedly formed in response to the violence and bigotry of the 1930s, characterized partly by active KKK groups, and the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

“There is a common theme of the inequities experienced by people who are the ‘other,’ or the minority,” she said, when reflecting on a diverse range of former organization-employers. “I see it as my responsibility to make a difference in this world before I leave it. And I truly feel like I am, and can continue to do that, with Inclusive Communities.”

A high school-aged Watkins would have answered, “opera singer,” “arts administrator” or “child psychologist” when asked the question of “What do you want to be?” So, at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Watkins naturally studied psychology and vocal performance. She found herself still gravitating toward human services and interpersonal relationships — just not as a therapist.

“So, I decided to work with underserved youth and families,” she said. That led to embarking on her nonprofit career at Head Start.

“After receiving my BA, I knew that I wanted to work in the nonprofit industry as it would allow me to follow my purpose of making a difference in the world,” Watkins said. “I wasn’t sure how I would make a difference but was willing to go where I was called or drawn to.”

Watkin’s willingness to go wherever she could follow that purpose and make a difference is evidenced by her transition into environmental activism.

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“The Sierra Club is really where I gained the best work experiences and learned how to navigate all sorts of obstacles through collaboration,” she said.

The Sierra Club ultimately led to present-day work with Inclusive Communities.

“There is so much work to do,” Watkins said. “We need people who are willing to do the heavy lifting and take chances to be innovative and creative and fail to get to the success.”

Work experience has been Watkins’ “best supplement” to a fantastic college experience and education.

“It’s important to me to show people that higher education is not
the only path to leadership and success,” she said. “We have to shift that narrative, especially as the cost of higher education increases and access to higher education isn’t available to everyone.”

The Power of Support

Unlike other industries, the nonprofit space has been dominated by women.

“In particular, white women,” Watkins said. “While we are starting to see more women of color move into leadership positions, it is still a rarity.”

With that being said, Watkins doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer.

“I am so average and ordinary,” she said. “There are so many people who have done and said all the things I have done and said, they just weren’t profiled for it. There is nothing extraordinary or pioneering about me, and I think that is great.

“I like to champion us average folks who are capable of great things, because it shows that, with the right nurturing support and access to opportunity, anybody can do extraordinary things.”

As it relates to “extraordinary things,” Watkins received the Young Black and Influential Award in the 40s age category this year for her work in advocacy and around the community.

“[The award] was a cool and unexpected honor,” she said.

She credits such successes to those who have “poured into me their greatness, even at the detriment of their own success.”

“That includes my family and friends,” she continued, “but also strangers or people I met along my life journey.”

Individuals like Watkins’ third-grade teacher, Pam Pirsch Williams,

Sierra Club supervisor Steve Thomas, and leadership partner Wood truly “saw” her.

Likewise, Watkins has gone on to inspire others by “waking up every day and putting in work.”

“I believe it’s not enough to talk about it,” she said. “We have to be about it. So, that’s what I try to do, and I hope it inspires others to do the same.”

Watkins jokes that she is still trying to sort what she wants to be when she “grows up.”

“I just follow my heart and look for the places that I can do some good, whatever that might be,” she said. “That place for me right now continues to be Inclusive Communities.”