Michael Tubbs
1,939,962 views • 17:25

So I know for sure there's at least one thing I have in common with dentists. I absolutely hate the holiday of Halloween. Now, this hatred stems not from a dislike of cavities, nor was it a lifetime in the making. Rather, this hatred stems from a particular incident that happened nine years ago.

Nine years ago, I was even younger, I was 20 years old, and I was an intern in the White House. The other White House. And my job was to work with mayors and councilors nationwide. November 1, 2010 began just like any other day. I turned on the computer, went on Google and prepared to write my news clips. I was met with a call from my mother, which isn't that out the norm, my mom likes to text, call, email, Facebook, Instagram, all that. So I answered the phone expecting to hear maybe some church gossip, or maybe something from WorldStarHipHop she had discovered. But when I answered the phone, I was met with a tone that was unlike anything I had ever heard from my mother. My mother's loud. But she spoke in a hush, still, muffled tone that conveyed a sense of sadness. And as she whispered, she said, "Michael, your cousin Donnell was murdered last night, on Halloween, at a house party in Stockton."

And like far too many people in this country, particularly from communities like mine, particularly that look like me, I spent the better part of the year dealing with anger, rage, nihilism, and I had a choice to make. The choice was one between action and apathy. The choice was what could I do to put purpose to this pain. I spent a year dealing with feelings of survivor's guilt. What was the point of me being at Stanford, what was the point of me being at the White House if I was powerless to help my own family? And my own family was dying, quite literally. I then began to feel a little selfish and say, what's the point of even trying to make the world a better place? Maybe that's just the way it is. Maybe I would be smart to take advantage of all the opportunities given to me and make as much money as possible, so I'm comfortable, and my immediate family is comfortable.

But finally, towards the end of that year, I realized I wanted to do something. So I made the crazy decision, as a senior in college, to run for city council. That decision was unlikely for a couple of reasons, and not just my age. You see, my family is far from a political dynasty. More men in my family have been incarcerated than in college. In fact, as I speak today, my father is still incarcerated. My mother, she had me as a teenager, and government wasn't something we had warm feelings from. You see, it was the government that red-lined the neighborhoods I grew up in. Full of liquor stores and no grocery stores, there was a lack of opportunity and concentrated poverty. It was the government and the politicians that made choices, like the war on drugs and three strikes, that have incarcerated far too many people in our country. It was the government and political actors that made the decisions that created the school funding formulas, that made it so the school I went to receive less per pupil spending than schools in more affluent areas. So there was nothing about that background that made it likely for me to choose to be involved in being a government actor.

And at the same time, Stockton was a very unlikely place. Stockton is my home town, a city of 320,000 people. But historically, it's been a place people run from, rather than come back to. It's a city that's incredibly diverse. Thirty-five percent Latino, 35 percent white, 20 percent Asian, 10 percent African American, the oldest Sikh temple in North America. But at the time I ran for office, we were also the largest city in the country at that time to declare bankruptcy. At the time I decided to run for office, we also had more murders per capita than Chicago. At the time I decided to run for office, we had a 23 percent poverty rate, a 17 percent college attainment rate and a host of challenges and issues beyond the scope of any 21-year-old.

So after I won my election, I did what I usually do when I feel overwhelmed, I realized the problems of Stockton were far bigger than me and that I might need a little divine intervention. So as I prepared for my first council meeting, I went back to some wisdom my grandmother taught me. A parable I think we all know, that really constitutes the governing frame we're using to reinvent Stockton today.

I remember in Sunday school, my grandmother told me that at one time, a guy asked Jesus, "Who was my neighbor? Who was my fellow citizen? Who am I responsible for?" And instead of a short answer, Jesus replied with a parable. He said there was a man on a journey, walking down Jericho Road. As he was walking down the road, he was beat up, left on the side of the road, stripped of all his clothes, had everything stolen from and left to die. And then a priest came by, saw the man on the side of the road, maybe said a silent prayer, hopes and prayers, prayers that he gets better. Maybe saw the man on the side of the road and surmised that it was ordained by God for this particular man, this particular group to be on the side of the road, there's nothing I can do to change it.

After the priest walked by, maybe a politician walked by. A 28-year-old politician, for example. Saw the man on the side of the road and saw how beat up the man was, saw that the man was a victim of violence, or fleeing violence. And the politician decided, "You know what? Instead of welcoming this man in, let's build a wall. Maybe the politician said, "Maybe this man chose to be on the side of the road." That if he just pulled himself up by his bootstraps, despite his boots being stolen, and got himself back on the horse, he could be successful, and there's nothing I could do." And then finally, my grandmother said, a good Samaritan came by, saw the man on the side of the road and looked and saw not centuries of hatred between Jews and Samaritans, looked and saw not his fears reflected, not economic anxiety, not "what's going to happen to me because things are changing." But looked and saw a reflection of himself. He saw his neighbor, he saw his common humanity. He didn't just see it, he did something about it, my grandmother said. He got down on one knee, he made sure the man was OK, and I heard, even gave him a room at that nice Fairmont, the Pan Pacific one.


And as I prepared to govern, I realized that given the diversity of Stockton, the first step to making change will be to again answer the same question: Who is our neighbor? And realizing that our destiny as a city was tied up in everyone. Particularly those who are left on the side of the road. But then I realized that charity isn't justice, that acts of empathy isn't justice, that being a good neighbor is necessary but not sufficient, and there was more that had to be done. So looking at the story, I realized that the road, Jericho Road, has a nickname. It's known as the Bloody Pass, the Ascent of Red, because the road is structured for violence. This Jericho Road is narrow, it's conducive for ambushing. Meaning, a man on the side of the road wasn't abnormal. Wasn't strange. And in fact, it was something that was structured to happen, it was supposed to happen.

And Johan Galtung, a peace theorist, talks about structural violence in our society. He says, "Structural violence is the avoidable impairment of basic human needs." Dr. Paul Farmer talks about structural violence and talks about how it's the way our institutions, our policies, our culture creates outcomes that advantage some people and disadvantage others. And then I realized, much like the road in Jericho, in many ways, Stockton, our society, has been structured for the outcomes we complain about. That we should not be surprised when we see that kids in poverty don't do well in school, that we should not be surprised to see wealth gaps by race and ethnicity. We should not be surprised to see income pay disparities between genders, because that's what our society, historically, has been structured to do, and it's working accordingly.


So taking this wisdom, I rolled up my sleeves and began to work. And there's three quick stories I want to share, that point to not that we figured everything out, not that we have arrived, but we're trending in the right direction. The first story, about the neighbor. When I was a city council member, I was working with one of the most conservative members in our community on opening a health clinic for undocumented people in the south part of the city, and I loved it. And as we opened the clinic, we had a resolution to sign, he presented me a gift. It was an O'Reilly Factor lifetime membership pin.


Mind you, I didn't ask what he did to get such a gift. What blood oath — I had no idea how he got it. But I looked at him and I said, "Well, how are we working together to open a health clinic, to provide free health care for undocumented people, and you're an O'Reilly Factor member?" He looked at me and said, "Councilman Tubbs, this is for my neighbors." And he's a great example of what it means to be a good neighbor, at least in that instance.

The robbers. So after four years on city council, I decided to run for mayor, realizing that being a part-time councilman wasn't enough to enact the structural changes we need to see in Stockton, and I came to that conclusion by looking at the data. So my old council district, where I grew up, is 10 minutes away from a more affluent district. And 10 minutes away in the same city, the difference between zip code 95205 and 95219 in life expectancy is 10 years. Ten minutes away, 4.5 miles, 10 years life expectancy difference, and not because of the choices people are making. Because no one chose to live in an unsafe community where they can't exercise. No one chose to put more liquor stores than grocery stores in the community. No one chose these things, but that's the reality. I realized, as a councilman, to enact a structural change I wanted to see, where between the same zip codes there's a 30 percent difference in the rate of unemployment, there's a 75,000 dollars a year difference in income, that being a councilman was not going to cut it. So that's when I decided to run for mayor.

And as mayor, we've been focused on the robbers and the road. So in Stockton, as I mentioned, we have historically had problems with violent crime. In fact, that's why I decided to run for office in the first place. And my first job as mayor was helping our community to see ourselves, our neighbors, not just in the people victimized by violence but also in the perpetrators. We realized that those who enact pain in our society, those who are committing homicides and contributing to gun violence, are oftentimes victims themselves. They have high rates of trauma, they have been shot at, they've known people who have been shot. That doesn't excuse their behavior, but it helps explain it, and as a community, we have to see these folks as us, too. That they too are our neighbors. So for the past three years —


So for the past three years, we've been working on two strategies: Ceasefire and Advance Peace, where we give these guys as much attention, as much love from social services, from opportunities, from tattoo removals, in some cases even cash, as a gift from law enforcement. And last year, we saw a 40 percent reduction in homicides and a 30 percent reduction in violent crime.


And now, the road. I mentioned that my community has a 23 percent poverty rate. As someone who comes from poverty, it's a personal issue for me. So I decided that we wouldn't just do a program, or we wouldn't just do something to go around the edges, but we would call into question the very structure that produces poverty in the first place. So starting in February, we launched a basic income demonstration, where for the next 18 months, as a pilot, 130 families, randomly selected, who live in zip codes at or below the median income of the city, are given 500 dollars a month. And we're doing this for a couple of reasons. We're doing it because we realize that something is structurally wrong in America, when one in two Americans can't afford one 400-dollar emergency. We're doing it because we realize that something is structurally wrong when wages have only increased six percent between 1979 and 2013. We're doing it because we realize something is structurally wrong when people working two and three jobs, doing all the jobs no one in here wants to do, can't pay for necessities, like rent, like lights, like health care, like childcare.


So I would say, Stockton again, we have real issues. I have constituent emails in my phone now, about the homelessness issue, about some of the violent crime we're still experiencing. But I would say, I think as a society, we would be wise to go back to those old Bible stories we were taught growing up, and understand that number one, we have to begin to see each other as neighbors, that when we see someone different from us, they should not reflect our fears, our anxieties, our insecurities, the prejudices we've been taught, our biases — but we should see ourselves. We should see our common humanity. Because I think once we do that, we can do the more important work of restructuring the road.

Because again, I understand some listening are saying, "Well, Mayor Tubbs, you're talking about structural violence and structural this, but you're on the stage. That the structures can't be too bad if you could come up from poverty, have a father in jail, go to Stanford, work in the White House and become mayor." And I would respond by saying the term for that is exceptionalism. Meaning that we recognize it's exceptional for people to escape the structures. Meaning by our very language, we understand that the things we're seeing in our world are by design. And I think that task for us, as TEDsters, and as good people, just people, moral people, is really do the hard work necessary of not just joining hands as neighbors, but using our hands to restructure our road, a road that in this country has been rooted in things like white supremacy. A road like in this country has been rooted in things like misogyny. A road that's not working for far too many people. And I think today, tomorrow and 2020 we have a chance to change that.

So as I prepare to close, I started with a story from nine years ago and I'll end with one. So after my cousin was murdered, I was lucky enough to go on the Freedom Rides with some of the original freedom riders. And they taught me a lot about restructuring the road. And one guy in particular, Bob Singleton, asked me a question I'm going to leave with us today. We were going to Anniston, Alabama, and he said, "Michael," and I said, "Yes, sir."

He said, "I was arrested on August 4, 1961. Now why is that day important?"

And I said, "Well, you were arrested, if you weren't arrested, we wouldn't be on this bus. if we weren't on this bus, we wouldn't have the rights we enjoy."

He rolled his eyes and said, "No, son." He said, "On that day, Barack Obama was born." And then he said he had no idea that the choice he made to restructure the road would pave the way, so a child born as a second class citizen, who wouldn't be able to even get a cup of water at a counter, would have the chance, 50 years later, to be president.

Then he looked at me and he said, "What are you prepared to do today so that 50 years from now a child born has a chance to be president?" And I think, TED, that's the question before us today. We know things are jacked up. I think what we've seen recently isn't abnormal but a reflection of a system that's been structured to produce such crazy outcomes. But I think it's also an opportunity. Because these structures we inherit aren't acts of God but acts of men and women, they're policy choices, they're by politicians like me, approved by voters like you. And we have the chance and the awesome opportunity to do something about it.

So my question is: What are we prepared to do today, so that a child born today, 50 years from now isn't born in a society rooted in white supremacy; isn't born into a society riddled with misogyny; isn't born into a society riddled with homophobia and transphobia and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and ableism, and all the phobias and -isms? What are we prepared to do today, so that 50 years from now we have a road in our society that's structured to reflect what we hold to be self-evident? That all men, that all women, that even all trans people are created equal and are endowed by your Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thank you.