Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, had known of the Mario Savio Young Activist Award for some time but never knew someone he thought could win it until Howard Watts III came along.
The award, named for a 1960s activist at the University of California, Berkeley, goes each year to one or more recipients between the ages of 18 and 26 who demonstrate a “deep commitment to human rights and social justice and a proven ability to transform this commitment into effective action.”
Fulkerson, who nominated Watts for the award, said he was first struck by Watts’ longevity, first as a volunteer and later a field organizer for PLAN, an organization that develops coalitions to support progressive policies and addresses issues such as immigration, racial equality, environmental conservation and tax policy.
Watts is 24 years old and has been working with PLAN in some capacity since his freshman year in college. Unlike interns that come and go, Watts has been a mainstay in the PLAN Las Vegas office for the past six years, during which he received his degree in political science from UNLV.
Watts has worked on mobilizing young voters; advocating for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community; and opposing the Southern Nevada Water Authority groundwater pipeline, among other issues.
“I look for people who show a kind of brilliant light for taking risks, a flame of yearning and risk-taking that’s going to make a difference,” Fulkerson said. “We come up against some seemingly intractable forces, like the mining industry that has hundreds of millions of dollars versus our little budget. We need people like Howard who have an incredible amount of personal power, deep intelligence and a burning for justice.”
Watts was one of two 2012 recipients of the Mario Savio Youth Activist Award and attended an award ceremony Nov. 28 in Berkeley. As an award recipient, Watts will split a $6,000 stipend with PLAN. He intends to spend his half on fixing up a home he recently purchased near downtown Las Vegas, where he was born and raised.
When the award committee called Brian Fadie, executive director of ProgressNow, a reference for Watts, they asked how Fadie thought winning the award might change Watts.
“I told them that Howard would probably celebrate on the day he found out about the award and at the ceremony, and then he would get back to work,” Fadie said. “Howard is not in this for personal gain or money — not that there is much money in this line of work, anyways. Howard truly cares about making a positive impact on the lives of Nevadans.”
Savio took a leadership role in Cal’s free speech movement, which led to revision of university rules to permit political speech and organizing. The movement influenced countless campuses across the country. Savio later taught mathematics, physics and philosophy at Sonoma State University and organized support for immigrant rights and affirmative action and opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America. After his death in 1996, the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture Fund and Young Activist Award were established.
Sitting in his nook in the open floor space of the PLAN office, Watts is surrounded by various pieces of inspiration. There is a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. and a framed piece of paper that is covered in a rainbow of signatures by teenagers he counseled at Camp Anytown, a three-day camp for high school students that addresses leadership skills, human relations and diversity. On his bulletin board he has a few pieces of hate mail posted, most of which are off-color, or down right offensive, remarks referring to his advocacy for equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“Throwing it away won’t make it go away,” Watts said of the hate mail. “It’s a good reminder of the opposition out there and how radical some people can be. Instead of letting it get to me, I choose to poke fun at it and embrace it as a sign of the work that needs to be done.”
In 2011, Watts worked on the campaign in Nevada to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. He made calls to people in every state Senate and Assembly district and worked to show that even in the most conservative regions of the state, at least 50 percent of the residents supported employment equality for all groups. In the end, several laws passed that banned discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
Fadie and Fulkerson both pointed to Watts’ ability to build bridges between seemingly disparate groups as one of his best traits as an organizer.
In working on the groundwater pipeline, called the “water grab” by opponents, Watts formed a coalition of ranchers, Native American groups, environmentalists and progressives.
“We had conservative ranchers, Native tribes and progressives concerned about water conservation, a wide-ranging group,” Watts said. “But organizing is all about coalition-building, being able to find ways to put aside differences and getting people to unify around common goals.”
Lynn Hollander Savio, Mario Savio’s widow and member of the lecture fund’s board, said Watts was chosen for the award in part because of his strong track record of producing results at a young age.
“Howard has created a really strong record for himself in terms of getting things accomplished and getting different people together,” Lynn Savio said. “We are particularly impressed by how many new groups and people who tend to be marginalized that he has brought into the political process.”
Watts may be exhibiting the signs of a promising future in organizing, but he already is thinking of the big picture and what happens beyond his work.
“One thing I said in my speech at the awards ceremony was, ‘If we’re not passing the torch, we are dropping the ball,’” Watts said. “We need to look outside for new leaders, and we need to spend more time training and developing the next leaders.”