On Sunday, May 21st, 2017, Mike Watanabe, MSW, President & CEO of the Asian American Drug Abuse Program, Inc. (AADAP) received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). The University President Dr. Dianne Harrison and Dr. Steven Stepanek, a member of the Board of Trustees, conferred the Honorary Doctorate on Mr. Watanabe at the commencement for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences on the Oviatt Library Lawn.
Mr. Watanabe joins a distinguished group of past honorees which includes the likes of Rev. James Lawson, Michael D. Eisner, Dolores Huerta, and Ann Leiberman to name a few. He and fellow honoree William C. Griffeth, financial journalist and anchor of “Closing Bell” on CNBC, were the two individuals selected by the Board of Trustees of the California State University after a lengthy review process to receive Honorary Doctorates at the 2017 Commencement ceremonies. It is considered the highest degree of honor that can be awarded by the California State Universities.
In his speech, Mr. Watanabe shared his history and what he experienced to get to this great point in his life. CSUN was actually the place where he was introduced to the world of social work. He attended CSUN during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s, during a time when many fought for social justice and many also struggled with drug abuse. The key point of his speech was when he shared his first hand experiences of the activists in the 60’s to social injustice and their efforts to improve different struggles. Those very struggles mirror the same struggles we are facing in 2017. He added that the progress his generation made in the 60’s is being challenged in the same way today. Mr. Watanabe said, “You are on the cusp of another great struggle. The progress we have made in the last forty years in general, and, eight years, in particular, is under attack.” The long range from the right to vote to the rights of poor people was clearly stated. He reinforced that it is our turn to take the baton and lead the way for rights that are under attack. At the end of his speech, Mr. Watanabe left everyone with a truth for the graduates and attendees. He said, “Pick any of these threats to social justice. Put your passion on the line, in the streets, and do your social work. The next two years and maybe, four, may be the most critical time of your future and the future of your children.”
Mike Watanabe was born in Hawaii and grew up in Venice, California. He survived the drug epidemic of the 1960’s and two and a half years in the U.S. Army with a tour in Vietnam as a Helicopter Crew Chief. Upon his return, his growing concern with the impact of drugs on his friends and community guided his return to school. He completed his undergraduate education at California State University, Northridge, in sociology. He entered the MSW program at UCLA with an NIMH scholarship for substance abuse and graduated in 1975. During his field placement, he was introduced to AADAP.
Mike Watanabe began work at AADAP (Asian American Drug Abuse Program) in 1975 and has continued for forty-two (42) years. He started as a Counselor in the TC (Therapeutic Community), and progressed through the ranks in several positions. He has served as President and Chief Executive Officer for the past thirty-five (35) years. During his tenure as the CEO, he has led the growth and development of the agency from a moderate sized agency to a large, comprehensive service agency serving a significant portion of Los Angeles County through ten service sites.
He is past President of Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (A3PCON, est. 1977), a Los Angeles County based consortium of over forty (45) community based agencies serving the Asian Pacific community and chaired its Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Committee for twelve (12) years. He has served as a Commissioner for the Los Angeles County Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Commission for sixteen (16) years. He chaired the Asian and Pacific Islander Constituent Committee, advisory to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs (DADP) for eight years. He is a founding Board member of the National Asian Pacific Families Against Substance Abuse (NAPAFASA, est. 1986), a national organization of Asian Pacific drug and alcohol agencies and representative membership from over 150 organizations serving Asian Pacific communities around the country. In the course of these activities, he has provided workshops, seminars, testimony, and consultation at local jurisdictions through national venue. His work in community service and AADAP’s support of early API community organizations under his leadership has left a lasting impact on the scope and scale of API nonprofits and Asian American services today.
Mr. Watanabe holds a Bachelor of the Arts degree in Sociology/Social Work from California State University Northridge (June ‘73, CSUN) and a Masters in Social Work (MSW) from the School of Social Welfare, University of California, Los Angeles (March ’76, UCLA).
The mission of AADAP is to “change lives and save families.” Mr. Watanabe has continued to provide comprehensive substance abuse and social services for the Asian Pacific Islanders and other diverse communities. Mike Watanabe is a true grassroots pioneer. He has shown genuine leadership and commitment to community & social services.