Q&A: Inaugural Director of LASPA Talks About 20-Year Career In Social Justice And Vision For Center

Last week, Scripps College announced the appointment of Lisa Watson as the inaugural director of the LASPA Center, which seeks “to develop and support future generations of women in leadership,” according to the college’s website. Watson, a 20-year veteran in the field of nonprofit management, spent the last decade as Chief Executive Officer of the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), a nonprofit organization that provides support for homeless women. In this role, Watson “developed and expanded nationally-recognized housing and supportive services programs, led a $40 million capital campaign for relocation and program expansion and developed a 4,000-member volunteer organization,” according to President Lori Bettison-Varga. Watson will officially begin her directorship at LASPA on April 15.

Watson sat down with TSL and the Scripps Voice before the event-packed launch day of LASPA kicked off on April 2 to talk about her passion for community service and her vision for the center.

TSL: Is this your first time back on campus after your interviews in February? How has it been? How do you like it?

Oh it’s great. They had a really wonderful luncheon today, so I met some students, some alumnae, supporters and the speakers today, so we just had a great lunch and it was nice to get to know new people there, really dedicated and interested to [see] what LASPA’s going to become.

SV: Can we hear a little bit about where you’re from, your background and what drew you to this place and this project?

I was a social work undergraduate student and then went on to get my MBA with a specialty in nonprofit management. I worked with the YWCAs [organization dedicated to empowering women] and then my latest role has been with the DWC, so I really spent my career working at women’s nonprofit organizations. So when I heard about Scripps, it was such a good match. One thing is because of just the belief, the connection that I get in the values of empowerment for women and the sense of community that’s so strong here.

TSL: Where did you go to college?

Cal Poly State University is where I graduated [with] a bachelor’s. And then University of Judaism which is now American Jewish University, my MBA.

SV: What do you hope to accomplish? Can you give us an idea of some concrete plans that are in place to carry out the goals of the center?

So as you can see, the tagline for today is “we act” and I think that’s kind of the action [going] forward. The whole plan of the LASPA Center is really to take innovative approaches to learning leadership and to create an environment where there is more opportunity to mentor. Scripps already has a lot of resources, and it’s really to work within the student resources that are already here but build upon. So for example, with the internships, looking for leadership positions and board positions for students to be on, and having visiting scholars that are of interest to the students, to the faculty, to the staff. And having workshops [about] more practical skills. I’m really looking forward to innovative approaches, and that will come from my work with the students and learning from what they want to see.

TSL: You’ve had an amazing career in social justice and community service work, but you haven’t had much experience in collegiate environments and working with students. Do you foresee that as being a challenge for you in the future, or an advantage in some ways?

I think in some ways it is an advantage. At the DWC, we had about 70 employees, with 90% of them being women, and about 85% were under the age of 30, so most of the staff there were just coming out of college, whether that be undergraduate or graduate school. So a lot of my work, one of my favorite parts of work I did, was create a leadership institute for our managers there, and help them translate what they’ve learned in school into the workplace and how to be better supervisors. Now this is helping students to prepare before they go to any fields. For me it was all about helping them to be better leaders in the community and to understand how social justice is important, in any field that they work in.

TSL: Scripps has been looking to create the LASPA Center for quite some time, and the college's first director search committee did not select a candidate. There has also been some concern in the community that the mission statement for the center is unclear. How do you feel about those concerns since these are factors that you are going to have to ease?

I think it’s a great opportunity because it’s not so well-defined. I think the vision needs to be created by the stakeholders, and so I’m a firm believer that things have to grow organically, and they have to grow from the ground up. I know for some people it was a little hard during the interviews because they wanted to [know], “Well what exactly are you going to do?” But to me, visionary sessions in the beginning and creating it is exciting. I want to be innovative and creative, I don’t just want to say “this is how it’s defined.” There are some ideas like I said, the action grants, the research, the visiting scholars, those are ideas but I think the more concrete concept has to come from the students and the alumnae.

TSL: What sort of feedback and ideas have you been getting from students?

I think what I’m hearing from the students is they don’t want it to be just social justice, but they don’t want it just to be about business too. I think they’re integrated; it doesn't have to be one or the other. I think whether you’re in banking, there are still social justice issues that need to be addressed.

SV: How are you going to make yourself and the center clear and accessible, you being a new face on campus, the center being a new resource. How will you integrate it?

The first thing is I want is to get a student intern that can help me to kind of guide through. There’s a lot of different activities on campus. I know I was being told about a Tuesday night meeting that’s held [BeHeard Forum] so I want to return to different events but one of the first things I want to do is plan what I’m calling “wisdom holder meetings” where we work together to create the vision. I want to utilize the students not only to have a student wisdom holder meeting, but also utilize the students to do the wisdom holder meetings in the general community and with the alumnae and integrate them in that process too.

TSL: I know you’ve done a lot of local work in L.A. itself, and a lot of work especially focusing on women. Specifically from that background, what kind of opportunities do you hope to bring to students here?

You don’t see it from my bio but I actually did international work too. I went to Croatia during the war with former Yugoslavia and I worked as a consultant in Kuwait, setting up a war victim hotline there. So with the international rescue community and also the national YWCA, I think it’s just trying to pull upon all my resources, locally and nationally.

TSL: How did you first became personally interested in social justice work? Do you have any personal reasons for why you became interested in community service and helping women in general?

My grandmother was a very big influence in my life. I had a horrible step grandpa and he was always yelling, and I said, “Why did you marry him? Do you even love him?” and this was like 1940. She said, “I had five kids, and your grandpa had died, I had no money and his wife had left him and he had no one to take care of himself, so it was a matter of convenience.” In that moment, I was probably 11 years old, in that moment I knew that I never wanted to be that woman. Like I was going to figure out a way to support myself, and help other women so they wouldn’t have to be in [those] situations.  So that was a really changing moment, which seems odd now, because I was probably 12 years old, but that’s how influential it was.

SV: With all the work that you’ve already done, what do you see that’s difficult for young women in terms of skill-building and approaching the working world? 

Often young men claim their space in a different way than young women do. And, for example, there [have been] more women graduating with undergraduate degrees since 1988, and yet only 10-20% of women are in board of directors or in senior leadership positions. You look at women having a voice. If you look at politics or op-ed pieces, they only represent like 15% so there’s a huge need for women [to] just have more voice and claim that space. So I think that’s the great opportunity of the LASPA center so that it doesn’t take so long that that number can be from 10 to 20% leadership positions, at least from the graduates from Scripps, getting those leadership positions right away.

TSL: You left the DWC in October 2014. What have you been doing since then?

I started a consulting firm, so I’ve been working with non-profits mostly and board governance trainings for a few organizations, mostly with youth organizations. I’m going to wrap that up [now].

TSL: Do you see a place where faculty can play a role in helping out with the LASPA center?

I think they’re playing a great role in the action grants right now. I think there could be some faculty research grants, but I’m really interested because I talked to Winston Ou [faculty in LASPA steering committee] and he’s talking about how we can maybe integrate the LASPA program and Core classes. We haven’t figured out exactly how it’s going to work so far but I know there is the interest, there’s the desire. Even if it’s like they’re studying such and such thing in this class and at the same time we have a workshop offered at LASPA or having a visiting scholar that could match up with one of the classes. I think that all has to be coordinated. We’ll figure out a way.

SV: Are there other centers like this? Places on other women’s college campuses that are doing the same sort of work that you can draw ideas for, that you can collaborate with?

Yes, I think I’ll be involved in more of a national group of feminist academia. And if they don’t have leadership, they may have other programs similar but I think that the Athena Center at Barnard is a really great women’s leadership center. I’ve looked at the different colleges. They all have their interesting focuses, like Wellesley focuses on the political side, Athena has some film and women in film side and social entrepreneurship. So each has its different core, but we’re going to be the only one on the west coast, so it’ll be exciting.

TSL: What do you see as a vision for LASPA?

One of the goals is we want a nationally recognized women’s leadership institute on the west coast and we want to be very student-driven by having student conferences here, we want to have women leaders who want to come to Scripps. But we also want to be able to bring Scripps students to really great leaders. In the broadest sense of the vision, there are some of the ideas that I gave but I think if we look five years from now, I hope that we are recognized not only in the state but also on a national level. Scripps is the third women’s premier college so this institute should be a premier center. And I don’t see any barriers why it cannot be.

(Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)