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The Mayor on How to Upset the Setup—Stockton on My Mind

If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that radical change is needed, welcomed, and oftentimes, very uncomfortable. So when the Mayor of Stockton, Michael Tubbs told a room full of students, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” you can say that this was timely advice from someone who knows what it takes to be a changemaker, especially in the face of adversity. The new HBO documentary Stockton on My Mind follows Mayor Tubbs, the city’s first Black and youngest mayor (elected at 26-years-old in 2016), as he implements three new radically community-driven initiatives in the city of Stocktonwhich the doc calls “one of the poorest, most violent, least literate cities in the nation.” 

In a conversation about his experiences, the need for community in the U.S., and what everyday people can do to create change, we spoke to the game changer himself, Mayor Tubbs. Read the interview below. 

Born in Stockton, Tubbs’s background is not one you usually hear of from politicians—making his changes to the city all the more personal. Born to a single teenaged mother and a father who has been incarcerated nearly all of the mayor’s life, and dealing with the murder of his cousin, Tubbs has a personal relationship to structural obstacles that feed into individual challenges. From Advance Peace, which aims to reduce community gun violence, to the Stockton Scholars, a scholarship program that aims to boost high school graduation rates and send kids to college, these people-driven programs by Tubbs are some we wish we were seeing more of. Stockton on My Mind gives a special look into Tubbs’s arguably most controversial initiativeuniversal basic income (UBI)giving 125 residents earning less than $46,000 a $500 debit card every month in what he calls Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration or SEED. Filmed pre-pandemic, it’s evident that Tubbs’s initiatives are ones that aim to tackle many of the systemic issues that have been at the forefront of conversation in the midst of Corona. 

Note: Interview has been edited for clarity.

Becoming the youngest and first Black mayor of a U.S. city is no small feat. Can you talk more about your journey and the challenges you faced?

[It] was definitely not easy. I was lucky to have a lot of mentors to really empower me and gave me a vision of the necessity to be a part of making change… I think that’s what really kind of guided me. I was able to go to college. When I went to Stanford, I was exposed to the world but also with the murder of my cousin, I realized that a big part of being successful is what do you do with what you’ve been given. So since I’ve been on city council and since I’ve been mayor, I’ve just been focused on how do you increase opportunity for everyone and how do you also put a special focus on the groups or communities that have had specific harms done against them.

The young men featured in the doc have similar upbringings to your own. And generational trauma and poverty are mentioned as obstaclesespecially for these young men of color. Would you say society’s masculine norms also play a part in the lives of the men you seek to empower?

Well, a million percent. I think [that is seen] particularly given the violence issues we have in Stockton but also the exceptionally high rates of domestic violence we have in our county and our community. Then you point to kind of the intersections of poverty and toxic masculinity and the trauma. In the film, my father talks about how he remembers crying [for the first time] when I was born. So it’s [the issue of not being] fully human… That’s something we are trying to work on as a community in terms of the norms so we’re not upholding the patriarchy that is violent… I try to always be pushed to be more intersectional and feminist in my thinking. And ensuring that when we say “create a good community for everyone” we mean everyone including women who are really the backbones of our community.

What was the motivation behind your community initiatives like the SEED program? How do they tackle systemic inequality? 

I think all those programs are born out of this idea that government at its best should be deeply invested in creating opportunities for all its people, to self-actualize, to be their better selves, and contribute etc.

At one point in the film, you say you’re tired of discussing where we’ve been, you’re more interested in where we’re going. With the current pandemic and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, where do you think America is headed? 

America has to head in a direction that really understands what it means to govern with the idea of human dignity being a universal notion. [It’s] the government’s job is to protect and ensure that is actualized. And folks that live with dignity are able to have wages that pay and are able to take time off when they’re sick, are able to stay home and raise children when they have them, are able to afford rent.

How can everyday people upset the setup?

I think it plays big or small. I think number one, calling out inequity and inequality wherever you see them particularly in conversations with family and friends. Number two, by voting in ways that elevates the status and dignity of all people. Number three, continue to educate on issues and things. And number four, by using the agencies we have to make things better and finding ways to be involved and not expecting one person, one vote, one leader, one idea to change their fate—but be fully immersed in the process to create change.

Take Action! HBO’s Stockton on My Mind is available for FREE for the next six weeks. Stream it now and continue to find ways to “upset the setup!”