Launching the LASPA Center

On Thursday, April 2, Scripps Voice (TSV) staff writer Taylor Galla ’18 caught up with new LASPA Director, Lisa Watson, before the launch of the LASPA Center, joined by a writer from The Student Life (TSL). Transcription by Lucy Altman-Newell ‘17, Editor-in-Chief.

 Lisa Watson, courtesy of

Lisa Watson, courtesy of

TSL: Is this your first time on Scripps’ campus since your visit in February?

Watson: It is.

TSL: How’s it been? How have you liked it?

Watson: It’s been great. They had a really wonderful luncheon today, so I met some students, some alumni, and supporters and the speakers today, so we just had a nice lunch, and it was nice to get to know new people who are really interested and dedicated to what LASPA’s going to become.

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

Watson: Okay, so just a little bit of my background: I was a social work undergraduate student and then went on to get my MBA with a specialty in non-profit management. And I worked with the YWCA’s. My latest role has been with the Downtown Women’s Center, so I really spent my work career working at women’s non-profit organizations. So when I found out about Scripps, it was such a good match. One thing is just the belief, the connection that I get and the values of empowerment for women, and the sense of community that’s so strong here. And I was just really impressed by the students and the students’ questions that they asked me in the interview process, and all the faculty and staff.

TSL: Where did you go to college?

Watson: So California State University is where I graduated for my Bachelor’s, and then University of Judaism, which is now American Jewish University, for my MBA.

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

Watson: So, as you can see, kind of the tag line for today is “We Act,” and that’s kind of the action for the whole plan of the LASPA Center: to take innovative approaches to learning leadership, and to create an environment where there’s more opportunity to mend war. And really—well let me back up a little bit and focus on the fact that Scripps already has a lot of resources. And it’s really to work within the resources already existing, the resources that are already here, but kind of build on them. So for example, internships. Looking for leadership positions, like 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 that will give you more practical skills. I mean, obviously you’re learning practical skills in your studies, too, but, you know, how to negotiate, for example. Like—I don’t know if this will be one, but for example, how to negotiate a salary. And doing different types of workshops for the students. So those are some of the ideas. But I’m really looking forward to innovative approaches, and that, I think, will come from my work with the students, and learning from them what they want to see.

TSL: You’ve had an amazing career in community service and social justice work. But you haven’t had much experience in the collegiate environment and working with students. Do you see that as being a challenge for you in the future, or maybe an advantage in some ways? How do you feel about that?

Watson: Well I think in some ways it is an advantage. At the Downtown Women’s Center we have 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. Either undergraduate or graduate school. So one of my favorite parts of work that I did was create a Leadership Institute for our managers there, and helped them to translate what they learned in school into the workplace, and how to be better supervisors. That was my favorite part of my job at the Downtown Women’s Center, honestly, so I feel like this [LASPA] is kind of helping students to prepare before they go into any of those fields. For a lot of them, this was their first job. Some of them were going to go into social justice, some of them were going to go to law school, some of them were going to enter the business community… But for me, it was all about helping them to be better leaders in the community, and to understand that social justice is important in any field that they work in, or are going to go into. […] So I had the opportunity to witness what kind of skills would have been helpful, had they learned them in school before.

TSV: What kind of obstacles do you see in bringing this new center to campus, and the implementation of this into campus life?

Watson: You know, honestly everyone’s been so generous and nice, I really don’t… I mean I’m sure there’re obstacles in any job, but I’m really not seeing them right now. I mean, people seem to be really excited, and I think as long as I keep open to different ideas and willingness to learn from others, I don’t foresee there will be obstacles.

TSL: Scripps has been looking for a LASPA director for a while, and they had a first search that ended with no candidates being chosen at first. I think there’s also been some concern in the community that the mission statement for the center is a bit unclear, and the directorship as well. The mission statement they have right now is: “LASPA Center wants to develop and support future generations of women in leadership, providing them with opportunities to expand access to the necessary attributes, knowledge and skills to succeed in the 21st Century.” It does sound a little vague to me, too, exactly what the LASPA Center wants to provide for students. How do you feel about these concerns? And I feel like it’s concerns like these you need to ease when you get into your role more. How do you feel about that?

Watson: Well, you know honestly I think it’s a great opportunity because it’s not so well-defined. I think the vision needs to be created by the stake-holders. I’m a firm believer that things have to grow organically, and grow from the ground up. I know for some people it was a little hard in the interview because they wanted to be like “Well what exactly are you going to do?” But to me, having visionary sessions at the beginning and creating it is exciting. And we want to be innovative and creative. I don’t want to just say, “This is what it’s going to be, 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 alumni.

PR Director: Lisa emphasized to me that it was very important to her to hear from the students, and that that was something that was a top priority. And as we continue defining the center, working with the students is a top priority for her.

TSV: What have you been hearing from students [in regards to what they want from LASPA]?

Watson: Well at lunch today, I was having an exciting conversation with one of the students, and she’s interested in law, and she was saying it would be great to have guest speakers of women lawyers who come onto campus that are much more geared onto one business, not just a broad range. So maybe one group that comes and talks about legal, one that comes to talk about finance. Or, if I could help them—they have small budgets, some of the groups—but maybe we could go downtown, maybe have someone host. I know sometimes it’s hard to get some of the women lawyers to come down to Claremont, but maybe we could take a bus and have one of the big law firms host an event there for us. So that was one of the interests. And I think what I’m hearing from the students is they don’t want it just to be social justice, but they don’t want it just to be about business too, which, I mean, I think they’re integrated; it doesn’t have to be just one or the other. I think whether you’re in banking, there’s still environmental sustainability. I mean there’re still social justice issues that need to be addressed.

TSV: Something that’s big on this campus is that there’s a lack of a concrete understanding of what exactly the center is, and a lack of clarity. So how are you planning on making yourself and the center clear and accessible, you being a new face on campus and the center being a new resource? How will you integrate it?

Watson: Well first thing is I want to get a student intern that can help me to kind of guide through—because there’s a lot of different activities on campus. I was being told about the BeHeard Forum, so I want to attend the 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. And I want to not only have this, but also utilize the students to do the Wisdom Holder Meetings in the general community and with the alumni. So integrate them with that process, too.

TSL: 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?

Watson: Well you don’t see it from my bio, but I actually did international work, too. I went to Croatia during the war with the former Yugoslavia, and I worked as a consultant in Kuwait setting up a war victim hotline there with the International Rescue Committee and also the National YWCA. So I think it’s just trying to pull upon all of my resources locally and nationally, just create opportunities. And through the visiting scholars, and, like I said, the internships, which I think are really important, just to build those up for more leadership positions.

TSV: How do you see the LASPA Center interacting with resources on campus such as SCORE, CP&R, and those sorts of things?

Watson: Both of those departments have told me they have a lot of ideas for us to work together. I’m going to take a lot of leadership from both of those organizations because they’re already doing great work, and important work. So honestly I don’t know yet how we’re going to connect, but we don’t need to start something brand new. I mean, we need to just build upon what’s already great.

TSL: How did you become this personally involved in social justice work? Did you have any personal reasons that you became interested in community service and helping women in general?

Watson: My grandmother, who’s a very important influence in my life… I had a horrible step-grandpa, and I told her one day—I would come spend the summers with her in California. He was always yelling, and I said one day, “Why did you marry him? Do you even love him?” This was, like, 1940, and 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 him. So it was a matter of convenience.” So at that moment—I was probably 11 years old—at that moment I knew I never wanted to be that woman. I was going to figure out a way to support myself, and help other women so they wouldn’t have to be in that situation. So that really was the changing moment. Which seems odd now because I was so young, but it really was that influential. And then once I started working, it has always just felt really right, whether it be in rape crisis, domestic violence, breast cancer, homelessness... And I love being surrounded by smart, educated, really great women. And I’m sure you guys feel that here! It’s hard to leave it.

TSV: In becoming leaders and gaining those skills, with all of the work that you’ve already done, what do you see that’s difficult for young women in this sort of skill-building and working in these kinds of frames of mind? Are there any patterns or challenges you see?

Watson: I think a lot of it has to do with confidence, because I see a ton of young people with a lot of skills. And confidence, or just not the security… Often, young men claim their space in a different way than women do. And I think when you look at—for example, there’re more women graduating with undergraduate degrees since 1988, and yet only 10%-20% of women are on the Board of Directors or in senior leadership positions. If you look at women having a voice, if you look at politics or opinion op-ed pieces, they only represent 15%. So there’s a huge need for women to have more voice and to claim that space. And I think a lot of times that has to do with pushing oneself with the confidence. And creating that space for each other! Because sometimes you’re confident, too, but that space gets taken up by other things, because they’re aren’t as many women in leadership. So I think that’s the great opportunity of the LASPA Center: to prepare so that it doesn’t take so long that that number can be, you know, from 10%-20% leadership positions that we can see, at least women graduating from Scripps. Getting in those leadership positions right away! And I think there’s space for it. I do. And I’ve seen—even with the young women I’ve worked with—a lot of times the skill sets will be the same, but this one’s a lot more confident, and she’s just raised the ranks a lot faster than another person, even though I’m thinking, “she [the second one] probably has more skills. What’s going on?” And I think sometimes we have this idea of what leadership should look like, but that’s not always true. For example, an introverted person could be a great leader. And it’s figuring out how to use your skills to become that leader. So even though you may be introverted or not have as loud a voice as the next person, [you can still be a great leader]… So that’s what I’d like to work with at the LASPA Center, too.

TSL: You left the Downtown Women’s Center in October. What have you been doing since then?

Watson: I started a consulting firm, so I’ve been working with non-profits, mostly in board governments trainings for a few organizations, mostly with youth organizations.

TSL: Are you going to continue that work?

Watson: No. I’m going to wrap that up. This [the LASPA Center] will be my full-time job. I’ll continue volunteering in the community.

TSV: Do you see any place where faculty can play a role in helping out with the LASPA Center? Watson: I’ve spoken with a couple of faculty who were involved in the steering committee, and they really want to help out a lot. They want to be a part of it, and they want to be involved in bringing projects for it. They’re playing a great role in the action grants right now, and going to be the faculty advisors for those, and then I also see that there could be some faculty research grants. But I’m really interested because I know I talked to Winston Ou [Associate Professor of Mathematics], and he’s talking about how we could maybe integrate some of the LASPA programming through the mandatory classes all of the students take the first year or two. The Core classes. So we haven’t figured out exactly how it’s going to work so far, but I know that there is the interest and there is the desire. Even if you’re studying such and such in a class and at the same time having a workshop offered at LASPA, or having a visiting scholar that could match up with one of the classes… But that all has to be coordinated, and I’m not sure exactly how that will work yet.

TSL: Are there centers kind of like this or places on other women’s college campuses that are doing the same sort of work that you will draw ideas from or collaborate with in terms of the work that’s going to be done?

Watson: Yeah! I think this will be more of a national—I mean I’ll be involved in more of a national group of feminists in academia. And if they don’t have leadership, they may have other similar programs. But I think the Athena Center at Barnard is a really great women’s leadership center. And the first part of my being here is researching and seeing what’s being offered. I’ve looked at the different colleges—N.Y.U. and Wesleyan’s programming. They all have their interesting focus, like Wesleyan focuses on the political side, Athena has more of the women-in-film side and social entrepreneurship. So each program has its different core. But we’re the only one on the West Coast, so it’ll be exciting.

TSL: What vision to you see for the LASPA Center? What kind of role do you think it plays in the college? What do you think its image will be in the future? What do you hope to contribute to what you see as a goal for the center?

Watson: One of the goals is that 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. So in the broadest sense, the vision is that that gets done, some of the ideas that I gave. But I think that if we look five years from now, I hope that we are recognized not only on the state, but on the 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 that cannot be. And I think having a national model and practicing best practices are really important. That’s why at the Downtown Women’s Center we were a nationally recognized program, because we were using a best practices, and spending a lot of time researching and figuring out what was most effective. And I think that’s what the LASPA Center wants to do, too.