This article has been updated to reflect that Lythcott-Haims served as dean of freshman and undergraduate advising. A previous version of the article identified her just as a dean of undergraduate advising. The Daily regrets this error.
The year was 1990. The Berlin Wall had fallen a few months before, and now Mikhail Gorbachev was speaking in Memorial Auditorium to 1,700 members of Stanford faculty, staff and students.
Sitting among the crowd was Julie Lythcott-Haims ’89, who had just graduated from Stanford in June the year before.
“[I was] coming of age in a time where systemic systems of oppression were being dismantled, and the world seem[ed] to be remaking itself in accordance with values and ideals that I cherish,” Lythcott-Haims said. “That was the catalyst, that was the cauldron that formed me.”
A lawyer and author, and now one of seven candidates running for three open Palo Alto City Council seats, Lythcott-Haims said her career dedicated to public service is inspired by and intertwined with her time at Stanford. Her campaign for Palo Alto City Council is focused on increasing affordable housing in the city, improving youth mental health and investing in city-level solutions to climate change.
Across three decades, Lythcott-Haims has served the University in various ways including as a senior class president, as a volunteer coordinator at the Haas Center for Public Service and as dean of freshman and undergraduate advising. She also wrote three non-fiction books: “How to Raise an Adult,” on parenting; “Real American”, a memoir; and “Your Turn: How to Be an Adult.”
The Daily spoke with Lythcott-Haims about her life and campaign.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: How do you think your experience at Stanford impacted you?
Julie Lythcott-Haims [JLH]: I learned at Stanford that almost anything is possible. I think the blend of entrepreneurialism and optimism, against the backdrop of great weather, made me feel that the sky’s the limit.
TSD: How did your activism on campus shape your activism later in life?
JLH: I was a kid on campus that got involved in protests; I participated in Jesse Jackson’s [Rainbow Coalition] when he came to campus to help us make our freshman humanities curriculum more inclusive, the protests against Apartheid in South Africa and the march on Sacramento for more funding for higher education in California.
My most recent activism was organizing a caravan to Clint, Texas to draw attention to what was happening to the kids at the border. That’s kind of my style — have an idea, consult with people, make it happen. And, you know, get some tires and drive my Jeep to Texas. By the end of our week, we were delighted to attract national media attention, and presidential candidates for the Democratic nomination, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro, had flown in. It was a small but mighty effort to draw further attention to the plight of the kids. I’ve always been that person who wants to use my voice and my privilege to try to make things better for other people.
TSD: What motivated you to attend Harvard Law School and work in corporate law for a few years?
JLH: Looking back, I was so insecure as a young Black woman. Even though I had gone to law school to be a public interest lawyer to help people, to help improve people’s lives and help America meet its unmet promises, I took a corporate law job based on my own insecurities. Corporate law isn’t about helping humans; it’s about helping corporations. So I was treated well and mentored well and given every opportunity, but I did not love the work. I set out to find my way back to helping people, which is what set me on a course to becoming a Stanford administrator and dean.
TSD: After working at Stanford for 14 years, you went back to school to get a master’s in writing from the California College of the Arts. What inspired your career path?
JLH: I’ve been writing and speaking on the harm of over-parenting, but I felt that I needed to go back to school to further develop my skills and my confidence [so] that I could write a book. It all makes sense looking backwards; all the dots connect. But if you had said [to me], “You’re going to be a lawyer, and then you’re going to become a student dean and then you’re going to go back to school and write books,” then [I] would have not predicted any of it.
TSD: What is your experience with representing communities?
JLH: In 2008, I ran to be an Obama delegate at the [Democratic National Convention] and got that position. So I was an elected delegate on behalf of Stanford, Palo Alto and Anna Eshoo’s congressional district, and was proud to serve my community. That’s when I think I got a taste of how powerful, how humbling, it is when a group of people say, “Yes, you go, you’ll be the one to try to represent all of us there.”
TSD: Why are you running for public office now? What’s your main platform?
JLH: Since the Obama backlash, the rise in hate crimes and creation of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have become refocused on the injustices present in our America, and want to do my part to ensure that we do not roll completely backward.
We have such a housing crisis. We’re creating almost a permanent underclass of people who drive hours to serve our city — to be city workers, to be teachers, to work retail and other businesses, to maintain Palo Alto, to help Palo Alto be an amazing city — but can’t afford to live here. Their kids can’t go to our amazing public schools. I’m not okay with who’s left behind, who’s asked to serve and support the city but [for whom] the city hasn’t made itself affordable. So we need affordable housing as a matter of social justice, housing as a human right. I’m desperately worried that our city is in danger of one day being a shadow of its current magnificent self because if we don’t make it possible for our young families to live here, we become a city without children and young adults. So affordable housing is my main concern.
I’m also running on our youth’s mental health. As a Palo Alto mom and former Stanford dean, I know full well the issues our youth face, and I think we can do something about that. We can narrate a more inclusive definition of success. Whatever your pursuits, they’re valid, whether it’s community college or trade school or college or the workplace.
The final issue is urgent climate action, at the level of our homes. What are we doing in our homes to stop using fossil fuels? What are we doing with our transportation choices? It is well past time that we address the urgency of impending climate catastrophe. We owe it to our children, and I know that that’s partly impacting the mental health challenges they face. Climate catastrophe is a very real existential threat for anybody who’s age 25 or younger right now.
TSD: What do you think about multifamily housing or multi-use zoning in Palo Alto?
JLH: I’m in favor of mixed-use zoning, which means businesses and retail on the bottom floor and apartment style housing on top. I’m also interested in multifamily housing, which is housing that shares walls with other people. I’m interested in the entire city doing its part to respond to the expectations the state has given Palo Alto: building 6,086 units in the next eight years. That can’t all be dumped in one particular area. One hundred years ago, Palo Alto was building neighborhoods with single families next to a duplex next to a set of cottages all living off one driveway. We need to get back to doing more of that to make room in our neighborhoods for multifamily homes.
TSD: Okay, lastly, any advice for current Stanford students?
JLH: Figure out what you’re good at and what you love. Listen to the voice in your head, and stop listening to the voices of others trying to tell you who to be, how to be, what to do for work, who to love. Be the person you know yourself to be.