Stockton Mayor and alumnus Michael Tubbs talks tackling wide-scale poverty and the privilege of a Stanford degree

Aug. 18, 2020, 9:09 p.m.

Stockton’s youngest and only African-American mayor in history, Michael Tubbs ’12, recently appeared in the Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series on Aug. 12. Tubbs discussed using his position as mayor to tackle daunting issues like wide-scale poverty, gun violence and racial tension. 

As mayor, Tubbs is known for his unconventional leadership style and his boldness on taking on those large issues. During the talk, he reflected on some of the initiatives he pushed for, and where they originated. 

“One of the first things I did as mayor was identifying the issues of homelessness and poverty,” Tubbs said. “I learned about basic income studying Dr. King at Stanford. We decided to do a pilot, called S.E.E.D. (Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration), for 18 months, and we were able to give 125 randomly selected households $500 a month.”

Tubbs explained that he began to believe in basic income, a periodic unconditional payment to all citizens, when speaking to a Stockton resident, Thomas. Tubbs recalled Thomas telling him that with his first $500 he was able to go to an interview for a job he later landed. Thomas found himself spending more time with his kids and being more “entrepreneurial”-minded.

“[S.E.E.D.] started with a deep design session for a year with community groups,” Tubbs said. “That’s what made me a believer — realizing that folks know how to spend money. I can trust the people who I can trust to vote for me to spend money.”

The process of listening to his constituents and hearing their stories is a key part of his leadership style, Tubbs said.

“There’s a lot of pressure to be the expert,” Tubbs said. “But for me, realizing I don’t know everything has been so freeing because it’s opened the door for me to connect with people who do have the answers.” 

“It’s been great to work on issues like poverty and realize that I have some Stanford [education on that issue] and lived experience — but there are some subject-matter experts who’ve been doing this work in the community for 25 years who know what they are talking about,” he said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Stockton’s median household income is $51,318, and the poverty rate is 22.4%, both under the national average. As a former resident, Tubbs understands that his experience at Stanford isolates himself from the citizens in some ways. 

“With a Stanford degree comes immense privilege,” Tubbs said. At Stanford, he studied race and ethnicity before getting a master’s in policy, leadership and organizational studies. “I tell people all the time, ‘Don’t apologize for your privilege, but put a purpose to it.’”

“A big way to put purpose to it,” he continued, “is to allow other people who may have more experience a seat next to you at the table. I think one of the things I’m conscious of as mayor is bringing as many people as I can with me to the table. I know they are more impacted by these decisions than I’ll be because my privilege insulates me from the insidious effects of the policy.”

Tubbs ended his talk with advice for current Stanford students. 

“I wish I had known more explicitly how much college was about the classes I took, but more importantly the people I met and the relationships I formed and forged,” he said. “I met my wife at Stanford, I met Evan Spiegel, one of my closest friends who’s been a great partner in the work at Stockton. But I had no idea going in that the most important part of college was building relationships with as many people as possible, because in 20, 30 years, these people would be creating the world.”

Contact Devin Gupta at devin.gupta.dg ‘at’

Devin Gupta is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.

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