Conversation with WATTSHealth Systems’ Dr. Clyde Oden, Jr.
Vision of Community in South Los Angeles
Holistic worldview can help integrate career, faith, and values.
It wasn’t enough for Dr. Clyde W. Oden Jr. to be a successful optometrist, so he earned a master’s degree in public health and began delivering a broad range of healthcare services to residents of South Los Angeles. And it wasn’t enough to run a successful healthcare organization, so he enrolled in the Presidential/Key Executive Program at the Graziadio School and built WATTSHealth Systems into one of the largest healthcare systems in Southern California. Finally, it wasn’t enough to simply be a successful businessperson, so Dr. Oden earned a master’s degree in divinity and became an ordained minister while continuing to manage his rapidly growing organization. Dr. Oden recently reflected on this remarkable personal journey in a conversation with Professor John Richardson
Dr. Richardson: I am very impressed with your rich educational background. You have six degrees covering a wide range of disciplines including optometry, public health, management, and theology. How has this helped you to accomplish your personal and organizational goals?
Dr. Oden: I think the diversity of my background is due to a holistic worldview that evolved over the course of my career. I started out narrowly focused as a clinical practitioner. That’s what I thought I was going to be. But, after I graduated from the School of Optometry, I was introduced to public health and community health and the idea of serving the community rather than individual patients.
After I became involved in community health here in the Los Angeles area, I was given the responsibility to help direct an enterprise, and I realized that my healthcare grounding did not give me a wide enough view of what it is to run a business. Pepperdine helped me to fit in that part of the puzzle. Then there was this other issue of seeing the whole person, and appreciating the interconnectedness of the enterprise, and the communities and people we serve. I think that, for those of us who are in business, we dare not look too narrowly at the world…at only our product or our service or our customer. We’re connected in a much larger way and, ultimately, our success should come from that.
When I was in the P/KE program, one of the things that I noticed as I interacted with classmates was the high level of spiritual awareness that many of them had. In that environment, perhaps they allowed themselves to disclose more of themselves than one normally might. And it happened to click with something I had yet to discover about myself…that I needed a connection between my career, my faith, and my values.
GBR: Did anything in particular prompt this spiritual awakening?
Dr. Oden: There were two things. Unfortunately, one of my classmates died during our class. He was a person who had always talked about his faith. That impressed me. The second thing is that I had a very clear encounter with God. I knew that God was calling me into the ministry. I had never wanted to be a minister and had no wish to be anything other than a good person and a good Christian. But, when I had that spiritual encounter, I knew I needed a theological education and that led me to pursue a Masters of Divinity at Claremont School of Theology.
GBR: When you go into things, you really go full force because now you’re the senior pastor of the Holy Trinity AME Church of Long Beach. Do you give sermons there?
Dr. Oden: Every week, and one in Spanish on the first Sunday each month.
GBR: When do you find the time to prepare them?
Dr. Oden: That is a challenge. I’m still looking for the eighth day. But, in actual fact, what I’ve done is just commit my life to all these things. There’s no off time. I start at about five in the morning with reflective and theological work and, by about nine o’clock, I’m engaged in the business side. It’s not uncommon for me to have a business meeting, then do a funeral, then go back to business meetings, and then lead a Bible study in the evening.
GBR: Do you see any conflict between your professional and spiritual roles?
Dr. Oden: Not at all. In fact, I see my roles as almost seamless. I think there’s nothing wrong when a person holds strongly to his or her faith while being a businessperson, a clinician, or whatever. It’s just a matter of understanding the audience you’re with.
GBR: Tell us about your community fairs.
Dr. Oden: We do health fairs and business fairs. Sometimes we focus on the African-American community, or the Latino community, or the Korean-American community.
We try to give voice to the particular community that we’re dealing with. As the CEO of our company, I consider myself to be the Chief Diversity Officer. I also consider myself to be the Chief Ethical Officer.
GBR: That’s fascinating. At a recent Pepperdine gathering, Dr. Ken Blanchard shared that he considers himself to be the chief spiritual leader of his organization. What geographic area does your organization serve?
Dr. Oden: We provide services in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino counties.
GBR: How is your organization structured?
Dr. Oden: We have a holding company called WATTSHealth Systems. This is a non-profit holding company where we marshal the resources for all the other things that we do. Then we have WATTSHealth Foundation, which is the largest single company. It is also a 501c3 corporation that has two major divisions. One is a managed care organization called UHP Healthcare. This is a federally qualified state licensed managed care organization with about 100,000 members. We provide a full range of health services, plus we have a dental managed care product.
Then we have, under WATTSHealth Foundation, a division called Community Health Programs. That part of WATTS Health Foundation is the direct deliverer of health care and that’s where we started. Community Health Programs includes two federally qualified health centers. Those are primary care health centers where we serve about 50,000 customers. We have about 50 different programs that we offer in a number of locations that range from senior health care services, to AIDS and HIV, and transitional housing for victims of domestic abuse, and substance abuse. We have a school-based health clinic and a women and children’s (WIC) nutritional program. Between the HMO and the community health programs, we serve about 200,000 people.
Then we have WATTSHealth Charities, which is a fund development company. We’ve always tried to reach those populations that are on the margin because they are low income, chronically ill or, for some reason, are not receiving mainstream services. We have developed an innovative program of partnering with corporations, foundations, and individuals to raise money to serve these populations.
Our other corporation is a financial services company, which includes Family Savings Bank. We also have a property management company, and we run the Los Angeles Black Business Expo and Trade Show and the South Los Angeles Economic Development Partnership.
The main theme running through these activities is that, if you want to have a healthy community, you have to do more than just write medical prescriptions. You have to impact all the things that impact health including housing, employment, health services, and education. What I got out of Pepperdine was the ability to view the engine of business as the means of doing these other things.
GBR: What do you see as the most important motivations or values in your life?
Dr. Oden: One thing that drives me is the issue of fairness. We’re not a perfect society or people. We have a significant disparity with respect to resources. Clearly, one of my missions in life is to assist those who are on the margins in our society. I’m driven to help make our society and our world fairer and more just. My ultimate motivation is to help the “least of these” in our society and in our world.
GBR: What new ventures are you contemplating for the future?
Dr. Oden: One possibility is an urban-based senior citizen’s village. Looking at the changing demographics of our community, baby boomers are getting older. We will need to have communities that meet the needs of that population – particularly the urban dwelling baby boomer. It’s the concept of a “Leisure World” in an urban context where you have an organized community of aging persons ranging from very active to those who are minimally active and need living assistance. The idea is to build a community where it is both safe and attractive for seniors to live for the remainder of their lives. This idea has never been done in a comprehensive way. We are looking at financial implications such as tax credits, land acquisition strategies, and other things in order to see what would make it work.
GBR: Would this be in the South Central Los Angeles area as well?
Dr. Oden: We speak in terms of South Los Angeles rather that South Central L.A. That is the area south of the 10 Freeway and between the 405 and west to the Alameda corridor.
So, there’s a need to do this in a central city area where you can include seniors who are an important resource in any community. They represent a lot of brainpower and financial resources, and excluding them makes a community less rich. Seniors can be a great help to the next generation. We need the village elders. It is important that this important resource stay in urban centers to provide wisdom, stability and service to the upcoming generations. So that’s one of our dreams.
There’s a second one that I don’t mind talking about. I believe that housing projects are one of the most serious social failures of our society. When you bring together persons who have a high misery factor and a low success factor in the same geographic area, you don’t promote success. Those persons who need economic assistance from society should not be isolated in certain communities or areas.
Watts, for example, has five housing projects within three square miles. I would like to see a plan developed in which local residents help to tear down these projects and replace them with a more diverse range of properties. This could transform Watts from an economic desert into a viable community.
GBR: What would you like your legacy to be?
Dr. Oden: I would like people to remember that I tried to make a difference. I tried to help those who needed help the most – by teaching people how to fish and not just supplying fish. Also, that I believed it’s possible to create a successful business environment in South Los Angeles. One can operate significant enterprises in a community that has not really been noted for having great businesses. I would love to be known for helping to improve the economic, health, social, moral, and ethical environment of South Los Angeles and, indeed, Southern California. I would like my life’s work to be an example of how people of diverse backgrounds can work together.
Finally, I hope my legacy will also speak to the contributions of African Americans in our society. For too long, our society has marginalized the contributions of African Americans to the greatness of this country. My life and work, prayerfully, will speak loudly about the contributions and nobility of African American people.
GBR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dr. Oden: I would like to say that there is tremendous opportunity in South Los Angeles in terms of investment, growth, and involvement. I hope that one day we might be able to convince the Pepperdine community to adopt some of the activities that I’m describing. We could use the brainpower and the contacts that Pepperdine has and say, “We’re going to set up a wonderful demonstration by taking business practices and resources and creating something very positive.” We could take on a housing project or something else. I would be thrilled to marry town and gown in a very real way. We could involve students and faculty in a type of creative community activity that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done before.