Michael Tubbs: What Does It Take To Transform A Struggling City? Michael Tubbs has been saying "reinvent Stockton" since he was elected. Having grown up in Stockton himself, Tubbs takes a community-oriented approach to creating positive change in the city.
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Michael Tubbs: What Does It Take To Transform A Struggling City?

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Michael Tubbs: What Does It Take To Transform A Struggling City?

Michael Tubbs: What Does It Take To Transform A Struggling City?

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On the show today - stories of reinvention, reinventing the ways that we think, create and interact with each other. But what does reinvention look like for an entire city?

MICHAEL TUBBS: As you know, I've been saying reinvent Stockton, reinvent Stockton for the past eight years. So this is something we talk about every day.

ZOMORODI: This is Michael Tubbs.

TUBBS: I'm the mayor of the city of Stockton, Calif.

ZOMORODI: And before that, he served on the city council, starting when he was just 22 years old.

TUBBS: It's hilarious now because people are still saying, who is this kid, and why does he think we should do things this way?

ZOMORODI: Because Michael, like a lot of Stockton residents, felt that his city needed a big transformation.

TUBBS: I think it's - like every American city, it's had challenges. But our challenges were much more acute and oftentimes the worst. So, for example, when I ran for city council, we were the largest city at the time to declare bankruptcy. At the same year, we had more murders per capita than Chicago.


TUBBS: We were ranked by Forbes magazine as the most miserable city in the United States.

ZOMORODI: Most miserable.

TUBBS: Most miserable city in this entire country for two years in a row. And that's kind of the backdrop in which I, with other members, came back and said, let's fix this - that what we have been doing is not working, and let's put ourself on the path to a brighter future.

ZOMORODI: Reinventing Stockton would mean taking on issues that Michael had experienced when he was growing up there.

TUBBS: So many of the discussions around my dinner table were really around sort of bread-and-butter issues - how are we going to pay the light bill next week? Do we need to borrow money from someone? What are we going to eat tomorrow? How was work, et cetera? And that's because my mom, she had me when she was a teenager. And my father's still incarcerated. He's been incarcerated for most of the last 29 years.

So growing up, a lot of the issues that I care about and I'm passionate about were things I lived first. So when we talk about poverty, when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline and being kicked out of class for things like willful defiance - that was my elementary and high school career. But luckily for me, my mom, my aunt and my grandmother formed what I call a triple wall of mothers.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

TUBBS: And they did everything in their power to make sure I was affirmed and I knew that my voice mattered, and I - and that there was expectation for me. The conversation was always, you are supposed to be great. You're supposed be excellent. You are going to be somebody. And we don't have a lot, but we'll do everything in our power to ensure that you at least have a small foundation on which to build on.


ZOMORODI: And it was that support system that gave Michael the confidence to study hard, which got him into Stanford and an internship at the White House. He thought he was on the right track - the perfect track.

TUBBS: I just felt like I had turned a corner and that something was changing and that life was just going to be optimism and rainbows.

ZOMORODI: But then I think it was late 2010 that you actually got some difficult news that changed everything for you, right?

TUBBS: Yeah. So I remember November 1, being at the White House. And my mom - she was very respectful of the job, so she wouldn't call till after work. But she called, and I picked up the phone. Her voice was really muffled. And my mom doesn't cry that often. In fact, I could count on my hand the amount of times I've seen her cry in my life. So I knew something was wrong.

She said, just call me after work. But I couldn't - so I remember taking the call. And she informed me that my cousin Donnell James II had been murdered. And that was tragic in and of itself, but even more tragic because that year, there was 55 homicides in the city.


TUBBS: And the year after, there were 71. And that was a real tough moment, particularly as a 20-year-old. And then I remember being very angry, being really upset and almost having a - feelings of nihilism creep up in terms of how futile everything was.

And it was in the midst of that pain and that grief that a thought came that maybe all the individual success and kind of the opportunities and the rooms I was able to walk into, given from the unlikely place in which we started, that maybe it wasn't just for me to be successful - that maybe, as a spiritual person, that maybe there was a bigger plan for all of us. And maybe it was to kind of put that pain to purpose.

So the next year, after still doing a lot of soul-searching and thinking, I decided that I would run for city council.

ZOMORODI: That's a big decision (laughter).

TUBBS: Yeah, a huge decision.

ZOMORODI: How did people respond to that? Like, did they think, like, who is this kid? Or was it, like, people were, like, oh, finally, someone who gets what we, the citizens, actually need?

TUBBS: Well, absolutely both. But at first, a lot of people thought it was a joke. I was still a student at the time. I was commuting from home to Stanford every day. I was getting my master's and bachelor's at the same time and campaigning full-time. But I was just driven by so much kind of passion and a sense that this is what I'm supposed to be doing, even if I can't guarantee the outcome.

ZOMORODI: So in 2012, Michael became one of the youngest city council members in the country. And then, four years later...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Michael Tubbs wins Stockton's mayoral race in a landslide. And the 26-year-old becomes one of the youngest mayors in the country.

ZOMORODI: People were watching.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Elected Michael Tubbs as its first African American mayor.

ZOMORODI: How would this young mayor take on all of Stockton's problems?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: His hometown is struggling with one of the highest crime and unemployment rates in the state.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: He's taking a bold approach to address these problems.

ZOMORODI: We'll find out in just a minute. On the show today - ideas about reinvention. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today - stories of reinvention.

And before the break, we were talking with Michael Tubbs about his journey to become the mayor of Stockton, Calif. He was just 26 years old, leading a city with a lot of challenges. Here's Michael Tubbs on the TED stage.


TUBBS: So in Stockton, we've historically have had problems with violent crime. In fact, that's why I decided to run for office in the first place. And my first job as mayor was to be helping our community to see ourselves, our neighbors not just in the people victimized by violence but also by the perpetrators.

We've realized that those who enact pain in our society, those who are committing the homicides and contributing to gun violence, are oftentimes victims themselves. They have high rates of trauma. They've been shot at. They know people who have been shot. It doesn't excuse their behavior, but it helps explain it. And as a community, we have to see these folks as us, too - that they too are our neighbors.

So for the past three years, we've been working on two strategies, cease-fire and advance peace, where we give these guys as much attention and as much love from social services, from opportunities, from tattoo removals, in some cases even cash, as a gift from law enforcement. And last year, we saw a 40% reduction in homicides and a 30% reduction...


TUBBS: ...In violent crime.

So the cease-fire strategy is a group violence reduction strategy where we look at kind of groups where the violence is picking up or there's a potential for retaliation. And they meet with myself, the police chief...

ZOMORODI: So you actually sit down with some of those groups.

TUBBS: Oh, yeah. And the message is simple. From law enforcement, our police chief, Eric Jones - he gives a message of, hey, I'm the police chief. I know you're not used to hearing this from people like me, but I want you to stay alive. I want you to have opportunity. And because violence is a top priority of the city, if you don't stop committing violence, I will have to use all the enforcement tools at my disposal - not because I don't like you but because your mom, your cousins, your community wants to be safe.

And then I speak as the mayor. And I say that, hey, a lot of people look at you guys as the problem, but I think you guys also are a piece of the solution. And then we have a team of folks called peacekeepers who work with the guys who want to change and help them navigate social services, et cetera.

ZOMORODI: So one of your other initiatives as mayor that you're doing - and this one is kind of controversial - is your approach to dealing with poverty in Stockton.

TUBBS: For sure. So the ethos behind this is that, No. 1, I unequivocally hate poverty. I think it's antiquated, and I think it's immoral. So when I became mayor, I said, we have to do something about poverty.


TUBBS: As someone who comes from poverty, it's a personal issue for me. So I decided that we would call into question the very structure that produces poverty in the first place. So starting in February, we launched a basic income demonstration where for the next 18 months, as a pilot, 130 families randomly selected who live in ZIP codes at or below the median income of the city are given $500 a month.

And we're doing this for a couple of reasons. We're doing it because we realize that something is structurally wrong in America when 1 in 2 Americans can't afford one $400 emergency. We're doing it because we realize something is structurally wrong when people are working two and three jobs, doing all the jobs no one in here wants to do and can't pay for necessities like rent, like health care, like child care.


TUBBS: And in the past nine months, we've heard incredible stories. There's a gentleman by the name of Tomas (ph) who told me that the $500 was enough for him to go to an interview. And I was, like, where are you interviewing, LA? Like, are you traveling? And he said, no, mayor. I work an hourly job. So if I ever took time off from an hourly job to interview for a better job, I would forfeit the money for the day because I don't get paid time off.


TUBBS: Right?


TUBBS: And he said $500 a month was enough for him to bet on himself. And he ended up getting the job, so now he works less hours, makes more money, has benefits and is able to spend more time with his kids.

ZOMORODI: So you are working so hard to reinvent your city. And you've really reinvented yourself and what anyone thought a poor kid from Stockton was capable of. But you close your talk with this term exceptionalism - that people might say, look at this guy. He grew up in poverty. His father's in jail, and he's the mayor of a big American city. Anyone can do it. But you don't think that's the case, do you?

TUBBS: Absolutely. And I hate - I abhor exceptionalism for a couple of reasons. No. 1 - agency is definitely real. And I think I proved that structures aren't destiny, that despite all these things, people can make it.

But I think the argument is that it's so noteworthy, it gets so much attention because it's so rare and that we truly have to ask ourself (ph), like, well, why is this so rare? Why is it noteworthy? If talent and intellect are universal, why is it we're shocked that a kid from South Stockton could go to Stanford and be mayor? And why is there only one?

So one of my favorite poems is a poem from the rapper Tupac Shakur. And it's about a rose that grew from concrete.


TUPAC SHAKUR: Just like if you try to plant something in the concrete, you know what I mean? If it grows...

TUBBS: And I think for too often, we get excited about a rose growing from concrete.


SHAKUR: ...Concrete, you're going to be, like, damn, a rose grew from the concrete.

TUBBS: And I just want to see us redirect the energy to really answering the question, why should roses have to grow from concrete in the first place? So yes, we may plant a million seeds, and one rose may grow from concrete. But we're missing out on so much because 999,000 other seeds didn't grow, not because they were bad seeds but because the damn seeds weren't supposed to grow from concrete anyway. And I view kind of my role the same way - to really kind of use my story to highlight kind of what is possible but also say, well, how many Michael Tubbses (ph) are there right now in communities across this country with parents who are incarcerated, with mothers who had them young, who are driven, who are smart? And how are we less than what we could be because we don't give all our kids the same opportunity to reach their potential?

ZOMORODI: That's Michael Tubbs. He is the mayor of Stockton, Calif., and you can hear his full talk at ted.com.

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