We at Stanford tend to be ambitious. We have high expectations for ourselves and our communities, and we fancy ourselves committed to the advancement of humankind. The intergenerational task of improving our world is a movement beyond borders and across continents. It is an extraordinary affair that requires the efforts of billions worldwide. Because of the immensity of our mission we often strive to become involved in national and international efforts first and foremost.
But rather than validate this commonplace emphasis, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic within the United States proves how wrong-headed such a worldview can be. Among the many lessons that this pandemic, and our response to it, can teach us is the continuing importance of the federalist system, wherein power is not only distributed horizontally among institutions but also vertically across jurisdictions. Where the national government flails, states and localities make up lost ground. But beyond our civilizational response to this virus, the cities, townships and regions of the United States can — and should — do so much more.
Some issues, like climate change and international violence, require bold action within the halls of national and international institutions. I do not in any way dismiss those endeavors. Instead, I offer a message important for our mission to improve the world: We must collectively involve ourselves at every level of government and become individually involved at different places at different times.
Consider California. It is among the wealthiest economies in the world. From its agriculture sector to Hollywood’s entertainment industries to Silicon Valley, California’s economy is among the most productive on Earth. Yet the people of California, through their government, continue to tolerate — and thereby perpetuate — wealth inequality, homelessness and the mistreatment of precious people in the incarceration crisis. California could, but does not, guarantee Californians medical care as a fundamental human right.
These societal shortcomings are areas of immediate concern, and greater involvement at the state and local levels is an important method by which to move the needle toward justice. State capitals, county governments and municipalities should enter our collective consciousness as centers of both justice and injustice, as places where many people — including some elected officials — are already trying to make a difference, and as opportunities for our own involvement in the service and advancement of society.
During high school, I was the student member of the board of trustees of my local high school district. This board of education comprises six people: five adults elected by voters in five geographic areas and one student member elected by a team of students from the district’s high schools. The school district I attended serves over 20,000 teenagers in a community called the Antelope Valley, where Los Angeles County meets the Mojave Desert.
In the middle of my tenure on the school board, three of my colleagues completed their terms, and three newly elected persons began their service to the public as members of the board. Transitions in leadership often mean changes to institutional culture, but the changes enacted by a newly minted majority of three persons — two of whom were new arrivals to the board and one of whom had been serving on it — were devastating to the school district and the wider community. The reason why three of six people constituted a majority is that as the student trustee I had a vote recorded in the minutes but not counted in the result.
As a result of the misconduct of the three-person majority, hundreds of teachers and other district personnel were delayed or denied raises. A long-time public servant and mentor of mine who had been the district’s general counsel for longer than I have been alive was fired because she refused to endorse their misconduct. A $400-an-hour attorney with a pattern of problematic behavior and no expertise in education law was subsequently hired even though the district had already secured the counsel of a law firm specializing in education law. He infamously fell asleep at a meeting during which he cost the district, per hour, more than 26 times Los Angeles County’s minimum wage. A contract worth tens of thousands of dollars to review school safety was awarded to a known friend of a board member who had created the security consultancy company one month before the contract’s conferral. The consultancy firm had no previous clients. And my rights as the student trustee were repeatedly shirked when I publicly opposed my colleagues’ misconduct. A motion I made was ignored, and my right to speak was threatened.
My three colleagues also sought personal websites, paid for by the school district, from a web design company associated with one of the board members. The company wanted to charge $5,000 per website and aimed to charge over $1,000 per month per site to keep the sites up to date. The $400-an-hour attorney even claimed it was legal to pay for personal websites with public funds, a claim the district’s then-still-employed general counsel dismissed as false.
Some of these misdeeds are silly. Others imposed hardship on hardworking professionals who have dedicated their careers to the students of the Antelope Valley Union High School District. All of the wrongdoings, whether large or small, occurred because of a simple reason: Persons not fit for office were elected to office.
Across the United States, and around the world, so many electoral decisions are made by voters with very limited information, especially regarding local candidates like those campaigning to become school board members, city councilors and state legislators. Yet all elected positions matter deeply, because all levels of government involve the public’s funds and the public’s quality of life.
We must think globally and locally, and we must take action at every level. We cannot afford to be complacent with either the State Department or the state capitals. We must leave neither the Congress nor the state legislatures to those more concerned with the perpetuation and proliferation of their wealth than the living conditions of everyday people. It matters who represents us on the city council of our hometown, and it matters who becomes the members of our local boards of education. While it is difficult to become informed voters, we should honor our moral imperative to do what we can to inform ourselves of our society at all its levels — including localities, counties and states.
We should heed how pertinent to progress the federalist system of the United States continues to be. There is no reason why California cannot become a social democracy tomorrow. But such a struggle will require the concerted efforts of millions.
As we at Stanford ponder our future internships and careers, we should consider all venues for public service, including local and regional government. Choosing to serve the public through local and regional government is not tantamount to lowering our ambitions. We must think both globally and locally and take action everywhere. Two Stanford alumni who exemplify this truth are California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez ’93 and Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs ’12, both of whom have enacted bold, society-advancing policies through their service at the provincial and municipal level, respectively.
If we emphasize the long-term improvement of our society and honor the value of consensus, if we think further into the future than the next election and become involved at all levels of government, including when there is less so-called glory, then we may very well accomplish societal advancements so many people deem unlikely today.
Contact Noah Sveiven at nsveiven ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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