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The Advocate: Jim Watkins helps beat the system – any system
By Jason Lesley
When local advocates for children wanted to gather after-school care providers for a seminar last month, they turned to Jim Watkins to be their facilitator. He advised the leaders of about two dozen groups to get to know the people they were seeking to influence.
“The sum total of my life experience,” Watkins said during an interview at his creekside home on Wyndham Road, off the South Causeway, “helps me connect people with the system they seek to influence.”
And Watkins’ life experience is exceptional.
He was a star distance runner at Georgia Tech, good enough to become a member of the university’s athletic hall of fame. He’s been an infantry combat officer, a Presbyterian minister and seminary professor and chief of staff for a U.S. congressman. Occasionally, he will leave retirement and his view of the sun playing on the Pawleys Island creek to teach people how influence works.
Watkins and his wife, Mary, moved to Pawleys Island two years ago after she retired as a chemistry and biology teacher in Atlanta and he left Columbia Presbyterian Seminary in Decatur, Ga., with an option to return. She had developed a marine biology curriculum at the school and had fallen in love with the idea of living near the ocean. They can see the Atlantic from their house’s top balcony, but the ebb and flow of the creek is the main show from their back yard.
The creek puts the world into perspective, Watkins said. “Most folks when they seek to influence things, go charging into the pluff mud of decision-making and wonder what’s happening, the creek is passing me by. Part of what I do is caution people to get the lay of the land before they go charging into the creek. Sitting here reminds me of that. It ain’t about me. Ultimately, life goes on. The most ineffective advocacy I ever ran into is what I call ‘Support Mental Health or I’ll Kill You.’ Those are folks who take themselves too seriously, take their issue too seriously and wind up cutting off their access to decision-makers because they didn’t get the lay of the land.”
Watkins’ background has given him skills at what he calls de-mythologizing systems. All organizations, he said, develop jargon and myths.
“If you never had anything to do with a church and walked in on a Sunday morning, you would immediately be hit by terms that you didn’t know and couldn’t follow,” he said.
“The mythology is either unintentionally or intentionally developed to keep folks in the dark. Part of my calling, wherever I’ve been, has been to de-mythologize those systems so that folks can enter them and be happy and be players.”
Politics, Watkins says, is not the blood sport that plays out in Congress and on competing cable television stations.
“It’s not these folks who are politicians,” he said. “We are politicians. We choose to use our political skills in various settings at various times. One of the other critical definitions is power: the ability to do. Who can get done what I need and how do I access that? Where do you find the switch in the system and how do you flip it on? Power and politics are critical. How do we live together? How do we make our decisions together? What kind of electricity do we have coming into our homes? What kind of pre-K do we want? What kind of police protection? What do we do about immigration? Part of my calling is to help folks see that everybody is an active player in that process. Most folks complain about those folks in Columbia or Georgetown or Washington, but ask them when is the last time you talked to your councilman — or if you really wanted to embarrass them — who is your councilman?”
Watkins said he teaches a seminary class using the letters of the alphabet as reminders of key words. The “R” word is relationship. “Issues come and go,” he said. “That’s why people are so frustrated. When they seek to enter the system, they focus on the issue rather than the relationship. It’s way too late once the issue hits and is coming to a vote in a legislative form. It’s too late to build a relationship with the people who are voting. That’s why certain special interest groups have a leg up oftentimes.”
As a minister working in a congressman’s office, Watkins found that one of the most misunderstood aspects of American politics is the separation of church and state.
“It’s the separation of the church as an institution from the state as an institution,” he said, “so neither controls the other. We don’t have a state church here. Nobody tells me what to preach. Officials of government don’t have to have a certain religious background. Separation of church and state has never meant the separation of religious values from forming public policy. Part of my calling with church groups is to help them see that it is particularly important for them to have input in the public policy process. It’s often the church folks advocating for someone else. Most folks advocating with a public official do it when their own ox is gored, like Don’t Box The Neck. What would it take to get a thousand people at a meeting demanding pre-K for all our children?
“Until you enter into the public arena, you are not going to make systemic changes. We’ve got a lot of volunteers who do good things, and that’s great, but you can mentor one child forever and never change the education system, whereas in Columbia if the budget gives extra money for pre-K you begin to change the system.
“People get frustrated when they volunteer and do good things forever and nothing happens. Sometimes the reason is they haven’t taken some energy and helped form public policy.”