Do Something

There’s No Better Test for Millennials than the American City

Michael Tubbs, a 23-year-old councilmember in Stockton, California, and the star of the Tribeca Film Festival documentary True Son, says that now is the time for young people to engineer social change.

“What are you going to do after you graduate?” was a question I grew to loathe during my senior at Stanford University. The pressure was immense as I was fully expected to add another prestigious institution to my resume, whether a high-profile company, a top graduate school, or a renowned fellowship. For months, I struggled with the decision and after being rejected as a finalist from a fellowship I found myself at a crossroads. Until that point, public service was the thread that tied my extracurricular and academic pursuits in college together, but it wasn’t something that I saw as a viable full-time pursuit. I struggled to make a decision, until I reflected on a traumatic experience from the year before.

During the fall of my junior year, I interned in Intergovernmental Affairs in The White House with a focus on outreach to local elected officials. Although I hated the menial tasks the job required, it gave me a window into the power of local government. During my internship, my cousin was murdered in Stockton, one of 50 homicides that year. In the midst of grieving, I began to feel that I had a special responsibility to use the resources I had been given to make the world a better place, although in which capacity was still unclear. It wasn’t until a year later that I achieved clarity when I decided to run for city council in Stockton—with no money or political experience. The impetus behind this decision was a desire to change the odds for children like my cousin and me.

I was born and raised in the south side of Stockton, California, to a mother still in high school and a father in a juvenile detention facility. I grew up in poverty and went to middle and high school with countless friends that are now either dead, in jail, or working dead-end jobs. This history and the fact that I was still finishing up my studies in college, made me an unlikely political candidate and my victory was far from assured. As the documentary True Son illustrates, my campaign for city council started really small—with eight mostly political neophytes in my living room, and with young people knocking on doors. This grew into a campaign that secured high-profile support and amassed the highest vote total of all council campaigns in the 2012 elections. On the campaign trail I learned many lessons, most prominently the enthusiasm with which voters reacted when told my age. Almost unanimously they would exclaim, “We need young people and fresh ideas in government!”

This exclamation made me realize that the same skills that are required for success as an entrepreneur, iBanker or consultant—analytic thinking, initiative, and problem solving—are the same skills needed for success as an elected official. Furthermore, the problems that loom ahead for our generation such as education reform, the criminal justice system, or widening social inequality, are going to require creativity and out of the box thinking; traits that millennial have in abundance. There is no greater challenge to test one’s intelligence and mettle, than the American city. And there is no greater opportunity for scalable impact than at the local level.

I harbor no illusion that government and elected office is a panacea for all of society’s ills. I am intimately aware of the challenges and limitations of local office and understand that I cannot solve every problem that is facing my city from my city council purview. Still, as the film illustrates, local government and the political process are places ripe and ready for milllenials to assert themselves as stakeholders. We must use the same qualities that produce billions of dollars in wealth or disruptive platforms like Facebook or Snap Chat, to engineer social change.

History reminds us that great strides in our country have been made when young people step up and assume leadership—whether it’s a shepherd boy killing a giant in ancient Israel, a 26-year-old preacher leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, elementary and high school students marching in Birmingham, or high school and college students riding buses for freedom. Though nowhere near these lofty feats, my role as a 23-year-old councilmember in Stockton, California, enables me to champion similar issues. These include anti-recidivism, co-creating coalitions such as the San Joaquin Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, introducing policy changes such as “Ban the Box” and raising awareness of community needs for grocery stores and a health clinics.

Finally, the words of my favorite rapper Kendrick Lamar’s mother in Real speak to the real influence of my role as a councilmember:

“I hope you come back, tell your story to these black and brown kids in [Stockton]. Let ‘em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back, with your words of encouragement, and that’s the best way to give back to your city.”

Tubbs' documentary, True Son, which follows Tubbs as he runs for City Council Member in Stockton, CA, will premiere on April 20 at the Tribeca Film Festival.