28 Days of Black Excellence: Jerry Watson

28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence: Jerry Watson

“You have to maintain your integrity, always.”

Jerry Watson


Jerry Watson, a scholar-activist-practitioner, is assistant professor and director of the Bachelor of Social Work program at the University of Memphis. Watson is a licensed clinical social worker and received a master’s in social work from the University of Illinois Chicago, master’s in business administration from Dominican University, and doctorate in higher education from Jackson State University.

Watson has over 50 years of combined experience teaching, working in a variety of community clinical positions, and leading health and wellness programs and initiatives targeting Black men and boys. His research includes offender re-entry, community violence interruption and prevention, community policing training, Black men’s health disparities, cultural and linguistic competency, and a broad range of community issues.

Previously, Watson held teaching positions at DePaul University, Aurora University, Jackson State University, Mississippi Valley State University, the University of Mississippi, and Rust College. Watson’s community service experience spans broadly across community building and development, and he has played a principal role in opening mental health clinics in Mississippi. Watson serves on the board of directors of nonprofit organizations in Memphis and Chicago.

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Tariq El-Amin  00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.

Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King  00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.

Clips from 1995 movie “Panther”  00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here? 
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.

Aisha El-Amin  00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.

Tariq El-Amin  00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.

Tariq El-Amin 0:01
Welcome to Black excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and engagement with Dr. Aisha della me believe that you’re somebody that we study and master a bunch of different things, to study and master a bunch of different things. I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information and welcome to black excellence.

Aisha El-Amin 0:34
Greetings, UIC family and friends. Welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. And it is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, past faculty and past staff. Each day, we’ll have a new guest and I am elated and honored to welcome Dr. Jerry Watson. He is a graduate of the School of Social Work, Jane Addams [the Jane Addams College of Social Work] in 1997 and he’s been up to quite a bit since ’97. So I’m going to hand the mic over to Dr. Watson and let him tell us what he’s been up to since he left UIC.

Jerry Watson 1:25
OK, so one of the things that happened at Jane Addams College of Social Work is, is that I met several professors that would further my work in communities in Chicago. One professor in particular, Dr. Michael Bennett, was doing community work and had been doing community work on the West Side in Chicago since the ’70s. In fact, I remember meeting him in 1970 at a chance meeting when he was actually in school, working on his doctorate at the University of Chicago and he was working with the West Side Organization. But I met Dr. Bennett and very shortly after I graduated… When I graduated, I was actually the director of the West Englewood Health Partnership, which was a university community partnership with Northeastern Illinois University. And when I graduated, I noticed in the newspaper that Dr. Bennett had accepted a position at DePaul University as the executive director of the Urban Center [Monsignor John J. Egan Urban Center], and I called him to congratulate him and he told me he had been looking all over for me because he wanted me to be the director of community partnerships for DePaul.

Aisha El-Amin 2:48

Jerry Watson 2:49
And so that sent me on a seven-year journey at DePaul working in communities, in particular in Englewood, West Humboldt Park, and the Hyde Park-Kenwood Oakland communities. That launched my career in university community partnerships. I worked there, that was the Egan Urban Center. And I found out that John Egan, Monsignor John Egan, had been the parish priest in a community that I grew up in in North Lawndale. We ended up going over in the community and I helped with some projects over in North Lawndale that he was trying to launch and make sure that they were successful.

Jerry Watson 3:36
But there in began my community development experience also. So I’d been doing housing development. We we built 25 homes in west Humboldt Park. We did technology development in Humboldt Park with the Near Northwest Neighborhood Network. We established two community technology initiatives. I began to do some violence intervention work with, what was then, CeaseFire, so I have facilitated them coming in to West Humboldt Park and Austin. And so I began to get my hands in a lot of different community development initiatives, health and wellness programs.

When I got to DePaul, Dr. Bennett says, “So, what’s next?” So while I was at DePaul, I earned… I began taking business classes there but it was more convenient for me to to get an MBA at Dominican University in River Forest because I lived on the far west side, so I got an MBA. And after that, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where I was the assistant vice president for economic development and local government affairs for Jackson State University, and part of that experience about me earning a Ph.D. in urban higher education.

I left Jackson State after, oh, after about five years and I went over to the University of Mississippi. One of the few administrators over there, I was the director of graduate student services. I left there because I wanted to teach. I had been teaching since I was 16 years old and so I wanted to teach. So I took a position at Mississippi Valley [State University], which is an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities], another HBCU. And as soon as I got to Mississippi Valley, Ole Miss called me back and said, we now have a teaching position for you. And you’ll find out later that my wife actually was a professor, still is, at the University of Mississippi. So I returned to the University of Mississippi as an assistant professor and stayed there for seven years.

I was recruited again by Jackson State to be the director of their Ph.D. and Master of Social Work programs. So essentially, I was the director of graduate social work programs, where I stayed for a year. It was a cleanup job. And I retired. I respectfully retired from the state of Mississippi system only to take a job at another HBCU, Rust College, which was closer to home because we live in the northernmost portion of Mississippi. South Haven. They call it the top of Mississippi. So I taught at Rust, which was where Ida B. Wells was actually born, in Holly Springs, and I taught at Rust for three years and then was recruited by the University of Memphis.

Now, in the interim, I worked for the mayor of Memphis as the executive director of the Second Chance Program and Second Chance Inc., which was a private corporation. I worked for the county governor as the director of cultural competency for a mental health project and I was also the director of a juvenile delinquency program. This was all at the same time while I’m teaching, now. And so I’ve had my hands in a lot of different projects. Right now, we just started an initiative called Men Healing Men and Communities in Memphis through the university.

But in addition to that, I still actually work in Chicago with Metropolitan Family Services, training police officers in the community training academy. I wrote the curriculum, along with another brother from Chicago, for that, and I also wrote the curriculum for the Metropolitan Peace Academy in Chicago, which is communities partnering for peace. So I’m still very active in Chicago, working there, writing curriculums, training trainers, actually training police, training violence intervention workers, and so I’m pretty busy. I start also started two mental health clinics in northern Mississippi.

Aisha El-Amin 8:22

Jerry Watson 8:23
One is for adults, and it is treating addictions. The other one is for adolescents. Mental health, straight mental health, for adolescents in Marshall County, which is a rural area which includes Holly Springs, Byhalia, Red Banks, Potts Camp, some small little towns that really don’t have those kinds of services. And those those mental health centers are still actually building up, but I had to play a significant role in them because they have to have… One of the things I did, and I didn’t do it right away, but I did it about four years ago, I began the process of credentialing and getting my clinical license. And so I’m a licensed clinical social worker now, in addition to, and there’s very few African American men that are LCSWs. And so in a nutshell, that’s what I’ve been doing.

I might mention also, that one thing that I began while I was at Jane Addams, through one of my colleagues, my fellow students, is there was a storm, I think it was Bertha that hit the Caribbean islands. And so we went down, a group of students, we went down to St. Thomas and Puerto Rico and spent a month doing disaster relief counseling with children and families. And I started that in probably 1996-97 while I was a student and I’ve continued to do that. We’ve had a number of storms and I’ve took students down to Hattie Springs [Hattiesburg]. We had a very bad hurricane, a tornado, that hit Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and one of my colleagues in the doctoral program I was in was the mayor of Hattie Springs [Hattiesburg]. So I took a group of students from the University of Mississippi down and we did some door-to-door, helping people to tell their stories and access resources. When I was at Rust, I’ve always liked to expose students, I took a group of seniors to New York and Washington, D.C. so that they could visit some of these “higher class” institutions like Columbia and New York University and let them know that they could go to those schools too if they would like to.

And I’ve been an avid participant in the National Association of Black Social Workers, as well as the National Association of Social Workers. In fact, in March, I’ve been tagged to do the keynote speech for the Mississippi chapter’s annual conference. So that’s an honor for me.

Aisha El-Amin 11:11
I am not very often without words but wow is the only word that I can come up with just knowing all the things and the footprints that you’ve made both here and in Memphis and that you continue to make. I want to give you both high accolades and my gratitude, right? Because I know that you’re paving the way for so much of the work that I’m doing and so many others are doing, and you continue to pave that way. As you look back on your… this rich history of… I mean, it’s history and its current, right? Of all the things that you do, as you look back at UIC, what are some memories that you have that… you know, fond memories of that space?

Jerry Watson 11:58
Well, first of all, as an ex-convict with a felony record, I was extremely afraid when I was at UIC that I would be discovered, if you will. And one of my fondest memories is when the associate dean came into one of my classes and called me to the door. And I was like, oh, my God, they’ve figured out who I am and I’m in trouble. And he told me that he wanted me to attend a breakfast because I had been awarded a scholarship, a cash scholarship, for my distinguished service to children and families. And I was like, oh, my God.

That was one and the other one was, is when I was nominated to be the president of the class. And that was another one because I was instructed, when I first got there, to just close my mouth and just do the work and so be it. I was tagged, one of my colleagues, student colleagues, nominated me for the presidency of the student social work organization, who would then speak at the graduation. And I won! And I was like, oh, my God! I couldn’t believe it. [Laughter] I mean, I had literally been, for the three years of the program, I had been strategically silent. That’s all I could tell ya. I only talked when the teacher asked me directly a question. I didn’t have comments about anything. And I was told… My advisor told me that, he said, you bring a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, but I want you to just shut your mouth for three years do the work and do your best. And those are my two fondest memories when I actually won and the third one was giving the speech at graduation. That was something.

Aisha El-Amin 14:11
It looks like they made the right choice as well. So high accolades for that. So, with every journey there’s challenges. Can you tell us what may have been a challenge that you had and how you engaged that challenge, as a way of giving advice to the folks that are now in your shoes at UIC and trying to get that degree and trying to do the community service. What do those challenges look like and how do you face them?

Jerry Watson 14:43
There were two that really come to mind and one is, is managing personal affairs. And I still carry that message to my students, that I discovered very early on that it was going to be critical for me to manage my personal life, so that I could give my academic pursuit the time and the energy that it actually deserved in order for me to do well. That was the first challenge.

The second one was, and it was also more of an internal challenge than an external challenge, and that is having the confidence to confront squarely the challenges that I face. Going in and looking around, and even before I got there, thinking that these people are going to be a lot smarter than I am. They most certainly don’t look like me. I could count the African American males on one hand. I think I was in the room with, maybe three or four hundred people, and there might have been, it might have been 15 males in there. One of the guys that was in my class is now the executive director of DHS [Department of Health Services]. Now, Mark, I forget his last name, but he was one.

But they told us, “Look around because the person next to you, they probably won’t make it.” And in the class, I was in classes with people that had high-ranking positions already. They already had high-ranking positions and I perceived them as being extremely intelligent and most of them were a lot younger than I was. I think I was about 45 when I started the program. Was I 45? Let me see. 48? Yeah, I was 45. I was probably the oldest person in the class. And I’m like, geeze, all these young people, they’re savvy with technology… But the bottom line is those are the challenges that I faced. How I dealt with them is, I remembered something that a brother told me, years ago. His name was Conrad Worrill, by the way. The late, great Conrad Worrill. And I had been knowing Conrad since I was like 13. He followed me from a kid and was mentoring me, even when I was in the streets. He used to always say, “If you want to get something, you have to work hard.” And so, if I wasn’t smart enough, I was gonna outwork. That that’s how I overcame. I just confronted those fears head on. And it turned out very well for me.

Aisha El-Amin 17:41
Wow, wow. That’s pretty powerful. As we close out this interview and I give you my gratitude, can you leave us with some words of advice for students that are currently at UIC going through the same things that you went through? Those same challenges? What advice can you offer them?

Jerry Watson 18:02
Yeah, and I don’t want to make this real complicated but it’s going to be rather redundant, if you will. First of all, you have to do well with managing your personal life, and setting up what’s going to be priorities. If you’re having relationship problems, if you’re having economic problems, you’ve got to somehow settle that. And a lot of it is, is delayed gratification. You have to decide what’s more, most important for you right now. And if you’re going to complete a degree and complete it well, then you’ve got to get that personal life together.

The other one is, that it is critically important to build relationships with your instructors, your professors, as well as your administrators. I am still closely associated with dean Creasie Finney Harriston. To this day, I am still very closely associated with her. Relationships are critical.

I don’t want to give too much, because I’ve learned when you give people too much they can’t hold on to it. So those. Building relationships. Managing your personal affairs. And I’ll say one more thing. You have to understand that social work is a small profession and, as a result of which, you have to maintain your integrity, always. Because, people, you will meet people that know you, that know somebody you know, wherever you go. And it’s really all you have is your integrity. And as long as you have that…

So now I’ve been at seven to eight schools and I can say this: I’ve always been there in good stead and I left in good stead. I wasn’t at seven to eight schools because I was messing up every place I went. I’ve been able to manage, because I do good work, to make decisions about where I go. And so you have to understand that you buildin’ your reputation even while you’re in school. Because Dr. Bennett wasn’t the only professor that offered me opportunities, professional opportunities. There were others that were offering me professional opportunities and that’s where it starts with those relationships. Those professors are key.

Aisha El-Amin 20:46
I think that is very sage advice. I thank you for being part of UIC’s legacy of Black Excellence and I thank you for being part of our Black History Month series, Dr. Watson.

Tariq El-Amin 20:58
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.

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