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ICON Awards 2020: Maurice A. Watson, Husch Blackwell

Maurice Watson made the move from law to socially responsible investment adviser two years before the global COVID-19 pandemic, the related economic collapse and widespread protests aimed at ending racial discrimination consumed much of society’s attention.

Maurice A. WatsonBut for the former Husch Blackwell chairman, now principal and founder of Credo Philanthropy Advisers, the seismic challenges of 2020 put his second act’s mission squarely in focus.

“Traditional philanthropy continues to focus on problems,” he said. “But philanthropy can and should drive social change and play a meaningful role in directing public policy. For a long time, I have felt the need to work in this area in a meaningful way.”

A native of Kansas City’s East Side, Watson was the first Black graduate of the private Barstow School and earned both his undergraduate and law degrees at Harvard. He then worked for several years in Washington, D.C. as a senior aide to Sen. John Danforth, with a focus on social policy, education and health care — a portfolio that would largely mirror his future legal interests.

Watson returned home on the advice of mentor Irv Hockaday, the former Hallmark and Kansas City Southern CEO.  It wasn’t a hard sell: the former Blackwell Sanders summer intern joined the firm later known as Husch Blackwell in 1986 and remained there for nearly 33 years — the final six as chair. Notable clients included the Kansas City Public Schools as the district battled the state after its loss of accreditation.

His civic involvement includes past positions as board president at Barstow School, his alma mater; 14 years as board chairman of Children’s Mercy Hospital; and board secretary for the National Association of Independent Schools. He sits on the boards of the Metropolitan Community College Foundation, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City trustees.

Watson’s elevation to chair at Husch Blackwell eight years ago made him the first African American in such a role in Missouri, and one of the first in the country. Like the rest of society, the legal profession is long overdue to correct that disparity, he said.

“Until we have a broader understanding of the role that race has played, the inequities that Black people in America have faced — a persistent problem that goes back 400 years — we can’t move forward,” he said. “It’s a stain on our history.”

In June, Watson wrote a guest commentary for the Kansas City Business Journal urging his white friends, neighbors and colleagues to “Do more than feel bad,” and instead pursue “intentional, thoughtful and disciplined action.”

Citing the “unprecedented infection of empathy . . . from our shared distress,” he called “the recent groundswell of opposition to racism generally and racist policing specifically . . . a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

As a community leader, Watson continues to challenge his peers — and himself — to lean into the conversation that for many remained unspoken until the videotaped death of George Floyd.

“We need leaders who are courageous, well-informed and open to ideas and direction from those who don’t share the same perspectives and viewpoints that they do,” he said.

“Each and every one of us, myself included, have blind spots. The only way those blind spots can be addressed is from people who have different blind spots, who bring their own perspective and can tell you things you don’t know.

“I’m hopeful, he emphasized. “This really is a different point in history.”