• Renée Watson: Award-winning Author and Activist

  • Outcomes Renee Watson

    When award-winning author Renée Watson (BA Liberal Arts ’08) decided to return to college, she knew she’d need to find a place that would let her explore and build on all of her many interests. She was a writer and a teacher, an activist, a poet, and the founder of a nonprofit arts organization. She wanted to make a greater impact with her art, and knew finishing her degree would help her do just that.

    “I came to The New School in my late twenties to kind of finish what I started,” Watson said. “I had done some undergrad, but I took a leave from college to take care of my mother when she was ill. In that time, I started a nonprofit organization. I was an adult, and I needed a place that was going to understand that I had life experience and value that experience. I still needed to learn some craft and skill, but I wasn’t coming in as this really young, bright eyed, fresh-out-of-high-school student.”

    When she discovered the Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfer Students at The New School, she knew it was the perfect fit. Watson was able to design her own degree, focusing on creative writing, but also take business classes that helped her in the nonprofit sector. She also studied Creative Arts Therapy.

    “With my nonprofit in Portland, I was doing a lot of work in the schools teaching writing as a guest writer, and so many times students would come to me and cry after they read a poem or they shared something really, really personal and emotional,” Watson explained. “I just wanted more training on how to handle these in-school sessions. So that’s what really drew me to The New School. I was able to come and learn more about writing for children and also more about using writing and visual art as therapy for kids.”

    During her time in the Adult Bachelor’s program, Watson had the opportunity to use her studies for good. Over the summer of 2006, she traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, where she worked with survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

    “I went to work with young people whose parents had died or who had been displaced,” Watson explains. Her first picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), came from that experience. “[People in New Orleans] were grieving and trying to build again. It was the direct education and training that I got at The New School that allowed me to go and work with them. My students wrote poems and drew, and we did a lot of drama therapy. My first book was inspired by those young people, and after it was published, I got to go back and present it to them.”

    Today, Watson is a New York Times bestselling author who has published eight books for children and young adults. Her young adult novel Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury, 2017) received a Coretta Scott King Award and Newbery Honor from the American Library Association, while her picture book, Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House Children’s Books, 2012) received an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Her latest young adult novel, Watch Us Rise (Bloomsbury, 2019), was co-written with New School MFA in Creative Writing alumna Ellen Hagan and aims to impact young feminists and budding activists across the nation. 

    Watson’s dedication to social justice spans beyond writing and art therapy. She’s also a community organizer, activist, and social entrepreneur. As the founder of the i, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit organization committed to nurturing voices from underrepresented communities in the creative arts, she brings poetry salons, workshops, and affordable workspace to her Harlem community. Based out of the historic home of poet Langston Hughes, the i, Too Arts Collective provides a space for community members to come together and create their own art while celebrating Hughes’ legacy and Harlem’s rich history.

    During her time at The New School, Watson was given the space and flexibility to explore and grow in each of her passions while receiving the training and the education she needed to continue making an impact on the world.

    “I always knew I wanted to teach, but not only teach. I always knew I wanted to write, but not only write. I wanted to have a nonprofit one day, and at The New School, I was able to put all of that together and create an education that made sense to me,” Watson said. “It was professionalized. It was hands-on and had small class sizes, and I needed that. It was perfect for where I was at in my life in that moment.”

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