At the age of 23, Grand Rapids native Leighton Watson is striving to leave a legacy that matters, and he is confident that his life path is on target to achieve that goal.
Watson was in Grand Rapids Sept. 26 to share with Grand Valley State University students the importance of finding solutions to social injustice within each community. The former student body president of Howard University was the keynote speaker for a presentation called ‘The Power of Student Voices,’ a component of GVSU’s Student Assembly Week. The purpose of the assembly was to encourage students to actively engage in conversation about social and political issues and have their voices heard.
Although he is active in addressing the issues of Civil Rights and social injustice, Watson says he doesn’t think of himself as an ‘activist.’
“I’d rather be called a human being,” he said. “Everyone wants to put you in a box and label you. I’m an American.”
Watson’s current life path crystallized during his senior year of college, around the time of the Ferguson riots. Deeply disturbed by the increasing civil unrest and injustice, he gathered fellow students for a photo, ‘Hands Up’ (as in ‘don’t shoot’). He also traveled to Ferguson to see the situation firsthand.
“You can’t prescribe a remedy for a situation you don’t know about,” Watson said.
Meanwhile, the ‘Hands Up’ image rapidly went viral on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and CNN took notice. The station invited him to the studio to share his views and possible remedies for civic unrest.
“We don’t have to wait until we get to the point of Ferguson,” he said. “A lot of the same symptoms are happening now in other cities, but people don’t realize it until things blow up. If America was what it’s supposed to be, what it says on paper, you’d never have the movement, women’s rights, etc. I still think that there is a gap and that means there’s work for me and us to close that gap.”
After seeing Watson’s CNN appearance — and impressed with his proactive approach to identifying solutions (rather than simply pointing out the problems) — the White House invited him to Washington to be a part of a task force on policing.
“The President asked me what I wanted him to do about Ferguson,” said Watson. “There is no national solution to this issue. It’s something that must be addressed state by state, local government by local government — it has to happen on a local level.”
Since then, Watson has kept busy visiting communities across the country to talk to school children and organizations, discussng concerns and organizing movements. He stresses the importance of preparation and solution-finding, even at the middle school level.
“And I say to middle-schoolers, ‘You have to be prepared to answer the question. Preparation is an ongoing process; you must be prepared to meet the president in that moment.'”
Watson learned the importance of legacy from his grandfather, who started the Section 8 Housing Authority in South Bend, Indiana. Years after his death, people remember and speak very highly of him.
“I was about four years old when he died,” said Watson. “My grandpa taught me that achievement is not a resting place, it’s a trampoline.
“Fifty years from now, history will have written about this time, that these police shootings happened. The question I’ll have to answer my grandchildren is, ‘Grandpa, where were you when this happened?’ And I’ll want to answer that question confidently, that I did do something about it.
“Legacy is important. What you do with your time is important,” said Watson. “I want to look back on my life and be confident about what I did with my time.”