This story originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Read it here in its original form.
By Lisa Deaderick
Paul Watson is president and CEO of the Global Action Research Center, a social change organization, and an adult mentor for the young people running Youth Will, a San Diego nonprofit focused on empowering and mobilizing San Diego youth under 25
With more than 40 years of professional experience in youth development, Paul Watson is clearly qualified to take on his role as one of three adult mentors at Youth Will, a local nonprofit directed by young people and focused on empowering and mobilizing youth to improve their communities. As someone who began his own activism work as a teen, he’s also passionate about learning as much from his mentees as he shares with them, if not more.
“A mentor helps to guide a person or a group, not to lead them. My goal is to help these young leaders step into the full potential of their individual and collective power. One of the keys is to offer the right questions and allow them to discover the answers,” he says.
“I have traveled around the world and worked with young people in South Africa, Central Asia, Europe, South America, and I genuinely believe that true system change, transformative change will only happen here and around the world if young people are indeed at the forefront.”
Watson, 72, is the president and CEO of the Global Action Research Center, a social change organization providing training, technical support and facilitation. He’s developed programs and led trainings in various countries around the world; worked as a lecturer or faculty member at local colleges and universities; and served on numerous committees, task forces and advisory boards, all focused on community youth development.
Today, he lives in Clairemont with his wife, Marie Watson-Ching, and has three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He took some time to talk about the power and importance of including and centering young people in social justice work, and his own experiences in life as both a young mentee and mentor for youth.
Q: Why did you want to work with Youth Will as an adult mentor?
A: The opportunity to assist this youth-led organization reminded me of my personal journey. One of my first jobs at 17 years old was that of a youth organizer. In Central Islip, New York, while working in an anti-poverty neighborhood center, I formed the Central Islip Youth Council. I was guided by an adult mentor. Over a two-year period, our youth council successfully organized a campaign to establish a youth center that was safe for youth of color. We also organized a high school walk-out to get Black studies taught in the school. We organized a rent strike against slum landlords. We supported a welfare rights protest and led a campaign against police brutality.
So, understanding what youth can accomplish by working together, I was excited to assist Youth Will in creating their social change journey.
Q: Where did this desire and commitment to help youth come from for you?
A: As far back as I can remember, I saw the need to participate in social change. Beginning my journey in the ‘60s, I experienced the power of youth. In those days, we used to say “Don’t trust anyone over 30 years old” because we saw the adults screwing up the world. As young people, we had to step forward and try to change the world. The civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the farm workers movement, the LGBTQ+ movement, they all had one thing in common: young people were at the forefront.
Q: What are some lessons you learned from your previous work that you’ve been able to apply to your current mentoring?
A: Many people are of the belief that you have to accept things as they are. My experience shows me that by working collectively, we can create enough people power to combat the big money interests that oppress and subjugate. We do not have to accept the status quo if we are brave enough to dream about a better way and are willing to work with others to create a new way of being. I think this idea strikes a chord with young people. However, one lesson that I have learned through the years is that social change is hard, and we need to engage all of the resources at our disposal. This is why I operate within a community youth development framework, because it requires youth and adults to work together.
What I love about Clairemont …
Growing up in New York and living in New England for a number of years, the most attractive aspect of San Diego is the weather. I love being in warmth and sunshine so many days of the year. I also love the diversity of people and cultures, especially the food and music. Clairemont is centrally located, with easy access to freeways.
As a community organizer, I am always mindful about building social capital. So, I make an effort to get to know my neighbors. When a new neighbor moves into our Clairemont community, my wife and I go out of our way to meet them. It is important to me to feel connected to my neighborhood and have a feeling of shared ownership with our neighbors. My neighbors in Clairemont have been warm, kind and caring, and I am more than happy to reciprocate.
Q: What is it that compels you to continue working with the youth in each community you find yourself in?
A: When I was working with the Black Panther Party as a college student, I was searching for ways to end the suffering and oppression of people of color, the poor and working classes. As an older man, I have not given up this search. Through my experience, I have a lot to teach, and since we have not solved all of these problems, I realize that I still have a lot to learn. Working with young people around the world, I can do both. I can learn from them, and I can share what I have learned. I call this “bi-directional learning.” That is the beauty of youth/adult partnerships, as long as the partnerships are developed with respect, reciprocity, mutuality, caring and clear purpose.
Q: Are there things you would’ve appreciated in a mentor, when you were younger, that you’ve been able to share with those you’ve been mentoring over the years?
A: I had a great example of a mentor, so he demonstrated a positive “job description” for mentoring. He guided me, but I had to do the work. He provided the right supports when I needed them. He showed that he not only cared about the movement, but he also cared about my well-being (having adequate food, clothing, shelter, health, etc.). He gave me the opportunities to learn and grow. He didn’t try to “protect” me by telling me what I couldn’t do, but rather gave me options to consider. He realized that making mistakes is a part of the learning process, so he allowed me to chart my own course even when he didn’t always agree. All of these things I try to incorporate when I am mentoring. I have also learned that youth can respect an adult who listens to them rather than preaching to them.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: On a personal level, the best advice I have received is to find your passion and your work will bring you joy. On a social change level, if you want to analyze a social problem within a capitalist society, follow the path of the money.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: My real passion is with music. I began my musical training in elementary school and thought about music as a career. But when I watched Martin Luther King, Jr. on television leading the desegregation efforts in the South, I cried and decided to put a music career on hold while I joined the fight for dignity and justice. I never got back to my musical training but have nurtured an appreciation for all types of music.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: An ideal weekend is spending time with my family. I am the oldest of eight children. My mother and father died when we were young, so the children raised each other. Through that experience, family was always of utmost importance. Having my own family, I gain comfort and joy by spending time with my wife, children and grandchildren.