Instead of working with large-scale political and advocacy organizations, he said, he focuses his energy on writing and on more targeted efforts to help individuals on a personal level.
Through the Baltimore Writers Project, which he founded, Watkins works with high school students in the city, fostering a love of reading and writing by giving them the opportunity to tell their own stories.
He also distributes copies of his first book, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America, to Baltimore public schools in another effort to encourage students to read and to see that books can reflect the realities of their lives.
Watkins cited other individual-focused efforts in Baltimore that he admires, including one that educates residents about financial matters and another that works to show people ways to be healthy while living in “food deserts,” where choices are limited.
No matter who wins the presidential election, he said, these kinds of projects will continue because they aren’t government programs but are run by individuals and small groups determined to help people find opportunities and improve their lives.
“Please go out and vote,” he said. “But also think about what you can do — what you can do as a person — to make a difference.”
In answer to a question about ways to lessen racial divides in America, Watkins advised students to reach out to people who have had different experiences from their own and look for common ground in their shared humanity.
“It’s not that hard,” he said. “If you’re in a city, leave the city [and talk to people]. If you’re on a campus, leave the campus. Get outside your comfort zone.”
Again addressing students in the audience, Watkins said he was “inspired by young people like you who are really going to work to make this country better.”
Top-down solutions that begin with politicians aren’t as effective as individual efforts, he said: “The power lies in you, in what you’re doing.”
Watkins’ newest book, The Cook Up, details the devastation of the crack cocaine epidemic on poor communities in the 1980s and ’90s. In addition to writing books, he is a columnist for Salon, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and other publications.
He has a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Baltimore, and now teaches at both institutions.