Keith All right everybody, I have CJ Stewart with me, and CJ, oh my gosh my friend. What a privilege to have you on this podcast. I've got a handful of favorite people in the world, but you are one of them and your story just blows me away. So thank you for spending some time with our audience today.
CJ Yes, I'm excited to be with you and also just sharing with everybody how you had such an impact on me so that I can be considered a good person. So yeah, this is great.
Keith Super generous, that's nice. We will have introduced you a little bit already in the podcast prior to, just some of the biographical sorts of things, but your story is just such a remarkable story. We ask people a lot of times, think back in your life to challenges that you faced that have really made you into who you are now, and your story is just filled with this from start to finish. And for me, it is such an encouragement. It's so surprising, it's so impressive, and I'd love for you to just share a little bit sort of where you’ve come from and what that's meant to you and a lot of the stuff is–we'll talk a little bit about the book later in the interview, but just a lot of the story– I'm sure you've got kind of a short version of it, but would you mind telling folks a little bit of your story– where you came from and we'll get more to what you're doing now toward the end of the podcast.
CJ I was born and raised in Atlanta, GA, Northwest Atlanta and I was a Grady baby. So I was born in 1976 so if you were born in Grady Hospital during that time, then for all intents and purposes you were black and you were poor. My mom was 16 years old when she had me. My dad was 21, both Atlanta Public Schools alums and so my mom, she and my grandmother and her siblings, they all live near Frederick Douglass High School, which is in northwest Atlanta, but she end up graduating from Washington High School at 16 night school because, you know, she wanted to make sure that, in addition to having me and thank God she didn't abort me, I mean at a young age. I mean, this is tough to have children, but she graduated from Washington High School night school and my father attended Price High School. And you know, for the early parts of my years we lived in Hollywood Brooks Apartments and life was tough. Now as an adult I understand it, but when I was a kid I didn't realize that we were poor with respect to people talking about not having food, not having lights and things like that. I don't ever remember that happening, but it is very clear from pictures of the apartments and just some of the things that I remember, stress of the community that you can feel, you can feel the poverty but then we matriculated and my parents became working class. They've always worked hard. They’ve always been in my life, mom and dad. And then they matriculated into the middle class. So they’re living a great life now.
But there were some things that they just couldn't afford for me to have as a child, and one was as baseball started to get very expensive, they couldn't afford to keep me in it. But not getting too far ahead of myself on that part. As a kid I just fell in love with the Chicago Cubs. My grandfather was a functioning alcoholic. He was a good man and I just found a lot of calm watching Cubs baseball games with him in the summertime. And he would let me drink a lot of Coke. He may have had a little something in his, but I had nothing in mind but the sugar. And we would just sit there and watch the games. And I would get finished watching the games and I would go outside and I would practice hitting rocks, throwing them at trees and all this stuff and so my life from age eight–so that was around ’88, no ‘84. So 84. That was when the Cubs actually started to have a winning season again. And my whole path and decisions that I was making were based me being a Chicago Cubs player.
Keith Yeah, I mean, that's a huge dream for an 8 year old, right?
You wrote a statement in the book that you attributed to your father. Actually, after a spat he may have had with your mother. That having a strong enough why, W-H-Y, a strong enough why to deal with the stress. And that one of the things that- it's almost like you got, I think as a gift because it's hard to build this into somebody– but you had this sense of why, even in the face of your parents, maybe having a different why for you. And the why was baseball. And it's just interesting that through all of these challenges, that why has become more ingrained, and it's become the pathway even for the work that you do. Baseball’s become the pathway for the work that you do and your purpose, and that purpose stays in front of you so clearly. And all of these challenges that you face, all of the difficulties with school, all of the things that you talk about so eloquently in the book, there were battles. There were battles with things outside of you, but so often you talked about the battles inside of you, the things that you had to become. What's your reaction to me bringing that part of this story up a little bit?
CJ Yeah, so you know, I really believe as I look at my life and in writing that book, it was important for me to do it because I went through Leadership Atlanta in 2015. And what that book did was just help reveal just how fake I was. And I was trying to live this life and be accepted here in the city as a leader, but there were so many things that I didn't have. Leadership Atlanta helped me to realize that I had everything that I needed, and I needed to stop trying to be something else. As a child, I heard repeatedly from lots of people that to be successful as an African American man, you had to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, and that dummies played sports. But I just never could get excited about school in general, but definitely not becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I just really liked sports. And so going through Leadership Atlanta, it was a very emotional year for me. And I was turning 40, which in the Bible, 40 is the number of testing and I knew about even that. I mean it was so many of these different things that I had heard about that were all coming together at this year 40 and going through Leadership Atlanta where it was just constant. Every month we were involved in some type of learning session that was just peeling away my fakeness. Not to mention that we started out with the opening retreat with you. You know, even that. I mean, it was just kinda like wow. Just this whole new perspective and making me see myself.
But so the book allowed me to get my story straight. And make sure that I knew it so that I can be consistent with it versus having all these different stories. I was trying to act like I had a college degree. I never said that I had one, but I was trying to figure out how do people act who have a college degree because I flunked out of college twice. I was trying to act like I cared about art. I was trying to act like I cared about playing golf, and I don’t care about any of this stuff. I had all these different personalities. So the book allowed me to just say, hey look, here's who I am. This is what I care about. This is what I don't care about.
Keith Yeah, the exercise of writing the book created the reflection that was required to really be grounded in your WHO and your WHY that you wanted to be about– the mission of your life, and in so many ways is that is that what you're saying.
CJ You know that process of writing the book was so healing, and I think everybody should write a book, but at the very least, if you don't write a book, I mean a weekly blog just to help you be clear on what you care about. Because one of the things we do a great job of is, before we lie to other people, we lie to ourselves–daily. I mean, it’s crazy. I used to do it. All the time just fake it till you make it.
I forget the quote, but it talks about the daily struggle is just trying to be yourself. You know the world is wanting you to be different things every day, and you know deep down inside what it is you want to do, what you care about. And you’re just battling against what everybody else wants you to do, so you know, again, just you know, being an athlete and dealing with baseball and trying to figure out how to lead in this city of Atlanta without a college degree. And if you do have a college degree and you're not at a prestigious University, then you almost don't matter.
But then once I started to really lean in and write this book and be able to own my own story, I knew one of the advantages that I had was the ability to be consistent. I also had joy on my side rather than happiness. I was around a lot of people that were happy, and I was feeling joy. The difference is happiness is conditional and joy is unconditional. And so you know, for me when I would show up with my $150 K&G suit on and I'm having to compete with people that have on tailor made $1000 suits, I knew that I had a life mission to be significant, serving millions, bringing them into a relationship with Jesus Christ starting with my wife, Kelly, my daughter Mackenzie, and my daughter McKenna. And so I knew my mission, which is what gave me direction on who to talk to, who not to talk too. What to say yes to. Always saying yes to assignments and no to invitations. I had the freedom of not having to waste time and energy being places where I didn't want to be, and so you know, just writing the book and being grounded allowed me to just be able to focus and just experience joy.
Keith Oh my gosh, you know it was interesting to me as a developmental psychologist, as someone who studies how we keep growing as people and eventually as grown-ups, is how much the stage appropriate stuff– in the way your parents shaped so many important values into you in your first 10 years and you just took those on as their child. As you got into your teenage years, in your early 20s, so much of this allowing the outside world to have influence with you, and you even speak a little bit about how some lucky things happened that took you down a good path instead of a path that– But you had this odd sort of centering from 8 years of age, which is crazy to me, that I'm going to be a professional baseball player. Better than that, I'm going to play for the Cubs. It was almost like a True North, that probably at that point you couldn't describe it as a True North. It was just the thing that you wanted to be about. And yet what was challenging you during all that time is how you were going to be seen, allowing the career to define you, what other people thought of you. All of these– allowing these outside sources and even as you reflected back earlier in this very conversation that we're having, you talked about how you were trying to be what everybody else wanted you to be. It was like Leadership Atlanta was this thing that allowed you the point of reflection, that intentional challenges that just kept getting interjected. And it was the thing that shifted the outside-in-ness to an inside-out groundedness– to a knowing who you are, to knowing what you want to be about, to understanding what being involved in baseball and using that to fulfill your mission was going to be about for you.
You know, CJ, one of the things that has moved me about your story is your reinvestment in the community. There is a piece that you wrote in the book. That is, it's sort of set up metaphorically, or as an analogy about “Think about a crocodile infested river. On one side of you, you have zebra trying to cross to the other side to get to food on lush plains. As the zebra enter the water, the crocs are ready and waiting to sink their teeth into them. Some of the zebra will make it across without incident. Others will inevitably get caught and become entangled within the croc's jaws. Some will die, some will manage to break free. Yet with many scars, some of those scars may never heal. The zebra represent black boys in Atlanta. The crocs represent 3 evil barriers in life that are designed to destroy them–crime, poverty and racism. I've decided not to be a spectator on the sideline of this struggle. I am in a lifeboat in the river right in the midst of the crocs. I'm waiting to rescue any boy and young man that will grab hold of a baseball bat that I extend to them if they choose to grab hold of that bat. I will pull them into my boat and take them safely across the river. I've survived the very same struggle and as a survivor it's my duty, my burden, and my blessing to provide safe passage to others.”
I mean that. You know, I get where they grabbed that out and put that on the back of the book, but when it's told inside of the book, it's such a powerful story. Your mission in life is so grounded. It's so self-authored when there were so many forces earlier in your life that tried to pull you in different directions. Some of those were maybe self-imposed by you. Some of those were circumstantial.
CJ One of the things that I discovered was conviction leads to connection. So once I am convicted then it gets me connected to what I'm supposed to be doing or who I'm supposed to care about. That conviction is hard, and it is heart work. You know, H-E-A-R-T, heart work. But it has me really connected to my purpose and then my connection leads to consensus around what I'm supposed to do, and then that leads to collaboration and then change. So for the first time in my life around 40, I just started realizing that you know being convicted is an important thing. I also realized that the Latin word for passion is suffering, so whatever you're suffering from is what you're passionate about, and that also leads to purpose.
Keith As you think now about what's going on in the world. I mean, we're doing this over zoom because of this pandemic. We've got social unrest that's been brewing in the country at a new level that's taking place. Racial unrest that is brewing in a way that I think many people kind of stuffed that in a drawer and thought, well, I think we're doing pretty good here, right? And we're not. There's a lot of growing that we as a country have left to do. You've been vocal about it. You've been sought out by the governor and senators and other people that kind of speak into this. So all of this challenge is brewing all around us right now–that's my point. There's all of this challenge brewing around us right now. What is pushing on you right now that you can imagine being the type of thing that is going to change you, two years, three years down the road. Even changing you right now. What challenges are most prevalent in your world as we're speaking?
CJ Um, so you know just embracing significance is the thing that I'm really, you know, I struggle with because you know, I gotta really work hard to just not apologize for being great at what I do. I want to be around powerful people which allows me to empower our ambassadors. Black boys that we scout out, struggling with grades, attendance, and behavior that are living at and below the poverty level. Some of our boys don't fit that full criteria, but most do. But one thing we will not do is we will not serve boys who feel like they are better than the ones that are struggling the most and the most vulnerable in the city. So with that power I get to empower.
I wanna make sure that I'm able to get things done to where my influence is gonna also be able to help thousands of people. Now everybody doesn't think that way. And it took me awhile to get to that point. But now that I'm here, I ain't got time to be trying to help one kid at a time. One person at a time. That's not my mindset. I'm trying to make sure that anything that I do that they can have an impact on millions of people. I want to be significant serving millions. Not directly. I don't know anybody that has the capacity to just deal with a million people directly. But indirectly, through my wife, through my daughters, through our ambassadors through you, through other people having an impact.
But even for me without a college degree. Unapologeticly, I am someone of significance and I have a huge responsibility to develop counted-out black boys. Not boys that are on track to graduate from high school, not boys who are part of a family tradition of fraternities and sororities, not black boys who come from a well-known last name. I’m talking about boys that are among the residue. So when I was born and raised in Bankhead, I was among the residue, not the bourgeois. Not the bourgeois Blacks. And so when I think about this city of Atlanta, for me, one of the biggest struggles is not even so much of dealing with white supremacy, which is prevalent, but it’s dealing with the black bourgeois, the chosen black people who white people choose to serve the black community from a philanthropic standpoint. But then you take people like me that are down on the grass roots, working and serving these counted out boys so you know, that's what I struggle with. Just holding my tongue when I absolutely wanna cuss out folks in this city that are making it very difficult for poor black people to live a life of significance.
Keith Man alive. CJ, you know, every time we talk, you say something that I don't know what to do with. I mean, so we can be challenged by circumstances. We can be challenged in relationships. We can be challenged–there are so many sort of outside-in challenges that we face. But however we are making sense of the world at the moment is our status quo for how we make sense of the world. It's our, it's just the lens through which we see the world. And every single time we talk, you say something that challenges my understanding, and then I get off the phone with you and I gotta decide, well what am I going to do with that?
CJ The feeling’s mutual. One of the things that I love about that whole Leadership Atlanta experience, meeting you and being in that session for the opening retreat was so impactful because it really started to help me. There are frequently asked questions and then there should ask questions. It should ask questions make you go deep. Frequently asked questions is kind of like fishing on the shore. You don't catch big fish. Big fish don’t live on the shore. They're like in a deep, deep waters. But then even also too going through Leaders Lyceum with you through the Atlanta Resource Foundation. In the introspection that you are forced to do, I mean I could have just gave up and just walked out of your session. I was like man, I'm growing too much. Like I'm with myself and I'm learning from myself. And so even where I am now, which I'm not going to apologize, I mean right now I’m in a good– I'm in a great place which is important as a leader because hurting people hurt people So I'm imperfect. But I got a lot of people around me, including you, that convicted me to get me reconnected or keep me connected to my life purpose. For me, my life is going to pure hell if I keep people that convict me away from me. So conviction is healthy.
Keith Yeah, you know it's come up on almost every podcast we've done, but the importance of having the right people in your life, and you've already named five people since we started this podcast. But I love it. You made a statement. “If you're trying to win alone. Stop it now, right now.” And that's it. Having those having those people around you that can push you, but also support you.
If you had- I'm giving you the opportunity now to actually- what would you say is an encouragement to folks who are on the journey? Maybe already kind of grounded in who they are, but many who may not be very grounded in who they are, kind of just trying to make it work. Worrying about what other people think, wherever they are in the journey. What encouragement would you have for them to keep growing?
CJ So I'll just start with, you know, just dealing with it from a conviction standpoint. If you keep running from yourself, you're going to kill yourself. I mean you can.
Keith Wait. If you keep running from yourself, you're going to kill yourself?
CJ You kill yourself. I mean, it's just exhausting to be living this life that other people want you to live versus you getting grounded in who you are. And then being able to see and realize who you're supposed to become. You look at your calendar and you probably got 10 things going on in the week that you absolutely don't care anything about. You're probably meeting with people that you don't care anything about. Now everybody is important and everything is important. But we only have so much capacity to care for people and for things. And so just being worn out. I mean, I'm sure a lot of people during COVID it was a blessing to just be able to break away from work and break away from doing all these extra things and just starting to realize, like, man, I actually got some time to meditate. Which when I'm thinking about meditation, I’m not thinking about it from a scientific standpoint. It is literally like just being still and just hearing your thoughts and then being able to take time to read books or listen to a podcast like this. So you know my encouragement is– conviction leads to connection. With whatever you… if you feel disconnected, embrace conviction because that conviction is going to get you connected to your purpose, your reason and then that purpose is going to be sustained by grit, which is the relentless pursuit of purpose. So you've already gone through a lot in your life. If you're struggling right now, the good news is, if you're struggling at least you’re not stupid.
Keith I wanna hear what you're saying, I wanna hear it clearly 'cause I think it's important. How do we run from ourselves in ways that keep us from- is it like hearing the conviction? What is it with the conviction? Just talk to me more about that. If you don't mind.
CJ I'm trying to think of the most recent. I mean, you know even in my house and me being married. I love my wife. And I say it, but then, I don't- I gotta make sure I'm doing it. And so that requires sacrifice and it requires doing things that you don't want to do that you need to do. I may be at home, and I want to spend time on my phone scrolling through social media. That's what I want to do, but what I need to do is spend time talking to my wife and spending time with her doing Bible study. So if that's something that I'm neglecting, then I need to be doing that.
Another example, this morning- we just got a chocolate lab and so with that chocolate lab- we've only we've had it for less than a week, and my wife, who she's been spending a lot of time training the dog. She asked me this morning. I woke up at 6:15 and she said, do you want to go out and walk the dog? And I'm like hell yeah, yeah I do. But it was like, you know. But I need you to get some rest so I'll go do it. So is this the difference between want and need. OK, so there are things that I need to do that I'm putting off. Because I don't want to do it. And that's what I'm talking about convicting. So I'm I have this inner voice to say you need to do this. You need to work out.
Keith So the conviction is the voice that we hear that is telling us- It's like the Angel that sits on the shoulder that says this is the right thing to do. Is that, I mean that may be oversimplifying it, but-
CJ No that Angel represents need and then this bad Angel is the want. So we're doing everything we want to do and don't do the things we need to do. So I want to eat desserts every night. I need to work out and get rest. So you end up doing all of this. And then you're dying, like you're going to die 'cause you're not in good health. I want to go hang out with these people. We’re in a pandemic. It’s gonna be a large group of people. I want to do this, but I need to be safe. So I go out with all these people, I end up getting sick. So I'm looking at it from the standpoint of wanna do / need to do. That's one of the lessons that I teach our ambassadors. As well, too, is you know, commitment and discipline. Commitment is a promise I made to myself for myself. So starting with me, so I'm committing to being on this podcast. Before it's about you, it's about me making a promise to myself. So that way if something comes up, it's gotta be so important to the point where when I tell you, you're like, hey CJ. I understand. We’ll reschedule. But if it’s not, I gotta keep that commitment. Discipline is doing the things I need to do that I don't wanna do. And so again, I'm just giving those Angels names. So need and want. We gotta do more. We need to do. I don't. I don't want to do this. I need to do it and I could live a much happier life and have joy rather than the want side and just being happy.
Keith And it's an - it takes you to the bigger me, the more important values. The thing that you really want to live into.
CJ And just damn, I mean I want my life to matter. I have two grandmothers that that recently passed and they lived in their 90s ,both 95. And I was able to get both communion shortly before they passed. But they were all intents and purposes ready to go. I mean, like they weren't kicking and screaming, trying to stay on earth. Like they were ready to see the Lord. I want-when it’s time for me to go, I wanna go. So right now that's the reason why even writing a book. I mean, I write blogs monthly. I try to understand, in addition to what I'm teaching our ambassadors to do, I'm starting with why we're doing it. Because even if I forget what to do and how to do it, if I can go back to why I'm doing it, then that can help me and I can innovate from the why. So as I'm documenting all these things and developing my children and then empowering my wife, and being empowered by my wife. If the Lord takes me today, which I don't wanna go, I mean, I'm not going to be kicking and screaming because I feel like I'm leaving a legacy and leaving a playbook. Just like the Lord left with the Bible I'm leading, documentation of what’s in my head.
Keith Yeah CJ, this is all so good. We're drawing a little bit to the end of our time. The difference that you're making in the community, the mission that you have just blows me away. The work you're doing blows me away. What are you most excited about in your world right now in terms of the impact that you're having that is furthering that legacy that's building into that legacy that you're going to leave?
CJ I'm most excited about seeing people who otherwise would never be together, be together. I'm excited about that. I mean through the work that we do with L.E.A.D., I got our ambassadors that are in relationship with boys from Westminster, Lovett, let's see, Marist, Woodward Academy, Holy Innocents, they come together through our Human Ambassador project, which is a similar situation and experience that I had with Leadership Atlanta.
I'm excited about my daughters. You know one is 19 at Southern University and the other one is 13 at Lovett. And they’re in spaces where they're talking about race and talking about politics with people that don't agree. Ironically, my daughter Mackenzie, who's at Southern University. She plays tennis. She's on the tennis team there on scholarship and the majority of her team have young, have women from the continent of Africa on it. And so, being from Africa is very different than being African American, and so two totally different perspectives. And so here my daughter is coming from Westminster, predominantly white private school going to an HBCU. But there's conflict from those different perspectives. And then McKenna being at Lovett, you know, even with the recent Presidential election and the divisiveness that we have in the country. She's in a place where she's uncomfortable every day. I'm excited about helping people navigate that.
So if you're uncomfortable, great. That's a good starting point. You're being convicted. And then the next thing is, if you stay in there long enough, you're gonna get connected with a purpose that is going to bring you joy. Then when you start to take that for granted and not handling that well, then God willing, you'll get convicted again. Just don't run from it. And then you can live this great life. So I'm excited about helping people be convicted.
Keith Yeah, convicted to get connected to their purpose. Oh my gosh, it's so beautiful. For folks listening to the podcast, Living to Lead, L-E-A-D is not only the name of the of the nonprofit organization that you run to scout the counted out, right? Did I say that right?
Keith But It stands for - remind me what lead stands for?
CJ Stands for Launch, Expose, Advise and Direct, which is, you know, I think a great mantra not only for myself but for everybody else. And you know, just launching, being exposed, advise and direct.
Keith Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct: A story of, passion, purpose and grit. You can get this on Amazon folks. If you're watching the video, there's the cover of the book. I have to tell you this book I've read twice. Both times I think I've read it in an hour, maybe an hour and 15 minutes. I've got it all marked up.
CJ, your story is amazing. It's more than inspirational. It's challenging. You and I grew up in some pretty different circumstances. And man, the way your story intersects with my life and gets me to look at my life is a big deal. And so I hope folks gain that today. But thank you for sharing that story with us today and just sharing your perspective on what's going on in your world. I so so appreciate it.
CJ Well, thank you Keith for just giving me a voice. Being right now, you know, just as we deal with the racial climate, one of the things that African American people in general, but me specifically as an African American man, I want my voice to be heard. I want my pain to be shared so that people can be empathetic and then come alongside me to help if in no other way just to be in prayer. When people see me and they may say, CJ, he's not himself. Ask me why. Those are the kind of things–people want to be heard. So the fact that you're giving me this opportunity to have this space and creating this brave space for me to speak is important. That's one of the things that Doctor Catherine Meeks talks about is having a brave space. I am reluctant to say a lot of things and so I just feel like it's my responsibility when I don't feel comfortable saying things to be brave. And that's where my authentic self can come out. So thank you.
Keith Your bravery is unbelievable. CJ. Thank you for spending time with us.