The theme of Code for America Summit 2021 was “designing an equitable government, together.” The prospect of an equitable government is exciting—but it’s not without challenges. Innovation requires change, and change, especially in government, is difficult to navigate. For so many people who work in government, our CEO Amanda Renteria noted, “this idea of innovation and new ideas in government, it seems so hard and so far away.” One recent policy bright spot that illustrates the potential for new ideas to take root in government is Michael Tubbs’ work as mayor of Stockton, California, which led to the first city-wide experiment with universal basic income in the U.S. “You’ve actually brought in a new way of thinking,” she said.
In a fireside chat, Amanda and Michael discussed the potential for government to change for the better and provide individuals and families with the support they need to build stable futures. When talking about their shared upbringing in California’s Central Valley, they also mentioned that government has often been a force of harm in many communities, and considered the work it will take to change that perception and build more collaboration with communities in the future.
They concluded their conversation by talking about how difficult it can be to change entrenched systems—but also how resistance to change isn’t a sign that things are going wrong. “The status quo, no matter how failing, has a lot of friends,” said Michael. “There’s a lot of people who are very okay with the way things are, even if it’s not benefiting them. I say that to say, just know that change means conflict. When you’re making change, don’t be surprised by conflict.”
To see Amanda and Michael’s full conversation, read the transcript or watch the video below.
Amanda: We are so fortunate to have with us one of the true civic innovators of our nation today, former Stockton Mayor, Michael Tubbs. Michael Tubbs is one of the first leaders nationwide to experiment with universal basic income as a way to alleviate poverty and drive economic development. Now, Mayor Tubbs has become an advisor to California Governor Newsom where he will help coordinate economic mobility and opportunities in California with a special focus on where we grew up in the Central Valley. Mayor, thank you for joining us here today.
Michael: I am the biggest Amanda fan and the biggest Code for America fan, so incredibly happy to be here.
Amanda: Well, it’s awesome to have you here. Before even starting this, I just have to take a moment to recognize that this fireside chat must be an unusual one for the government history books. FDR is known for this, but I’m not sure how many chats have had two people like us. The obvious people of color, but also folks who’ve spent really some deep time in government, and from the Central Valley of California, which I rarely run into any of those combinations. It really is just awesome to have this conversation with you.
I wanted to actually start there. You and I grew up in a place that’s often overlooked. I know when I was a kid, I often felt like at best, government didn’t see me, I was invisible, and at worst, it was punitive where I grew up being careful and making sure not to be seen for fear of some sort of punitive efforts. It really has shaped early on, just in general, the potential of government. I’m still trying to figure out my role and how I ended up seeing government in those early days and connecting that. I’d love to hear your story in terms of how it played and shaped in your life being from a place like the Central Valley, and then now how you see government.
Michael: Well, I think my interest in government comes from being in the Central Valley, comes from having a single mother, comes from having an incarcerated father, and comes from a lot of conversations around the table growing up, where it was never about government as a force for good. It was never about waiting for government to even help us or expecting government to solve our issues, but it was stories about the ways and the way that the government actually made our lives more difficult. From the top of the investments government made in my community, which were more law enforcement than opportunity, to the way government had created in, we didn’t have fancy academic language, but there was always this understanding that there had been some targeted things done to create the conditions we lived in, and how government wasn’t necessarily our friend, it wasn’t going to be our savior.
Then, when I went to college and started reading, I recognized that there was absolutely a role for government. For me, government at its basic level has to work for everyone, and government also has to repair when it’s broken. I don’t believe that government is a solution to every problem, but I do think government is at least a solution to the problems that government has caused through government policy. That’s why I became really interested in being in government. I think to your point, oftentimes, folks like us don’t think of governments as some impersonal force that’s not for us as done to us, and I am really driven to democratize access to governing and let people know, I know we are the government, and we have the ability to define for ourselves the type of world and society we want to live in.
Amanda: Here you are, you are 22 years old when you decide you’re going to run, you’re going to run for office, how did you get there? What was like, “I am going to do this, I need to do this”? What made you do that?
Michael: The first thought of running happened when I was a junior in college, and I was interning in the Obama White House, and my job was in intergovernmental affairs. I worked with mayors and councilors across the country. In doing so, I saw that mayors and councilors actually moving things even quicker than federal government could. Then, I thought, “Okay, I need to support good people in Stockton.” While there, one of my cousins end up being murdered, a victim of a homicide in Stockton. That made me think about how it wasn’t enough to just talk or intern or to write papers, but I had to get involved. I had to figure out what could I do to make things better.
Not thinking I had a magic wand, not thinking I even had any of the answers, but figuring out for myself to feel peace, I need to be involved in the actual messy mechanics of doing things versus talking about what should be done. My senior year in college, I was 21 actually when I ran and won the primary, I was 22 by the time we had the November election. I really got involved, because again, I just understand that government was something that touches everyone at scale.
I believe in pilots, I believe in programs, but I also truly believe in policy. The fact that there were scales, and also the fact that folks like my community, my family, et cetera, don’t have the resources to opt-out of government. We can’t afford private schools, we can’t afford private security, we can’t afford private resources, we depend on the public good and what taxpayers are paying for. I’ve been driven to make sure that government works for the folks who absolutely can’t opt-out.
Amanda: I thought about how many times I got asked in college and graduate school like, “Well, why didn’t you go to private school when you were younger?” [laughs] Then you go like, “Completely impossible in my life, in my world.” There was one maybe 45 minutes away. Those kinds of questions are really interesting when you come up from a place in the Central Valley. Another question I had, and I know so many of folks who are tuned in today and watching the Summit, this idea of innovation and new ideas in government, it seems so hard and so far away, but man, you’ve done this. You’ve actually brought in a new way of thinking around universal basic income. It’s a thing at the beginning, people were like, “What is that thing?” But you helped create now what people know UBI to be, how did that come about? How did you go, “Let’s try this.”
Michael: Well, I think at first, it came from understanding my role was not to be something in terms of title, but to do something. From the time I was a city council person for four years, the time was mayor, I was obsessed and maybe it was survivor’s guilt, but I was obsessed with actually making a difference. People should know that the government was different because Michael Tubbs was in government. That was the charge I gave myself for my staff each and every day. I think part of it just came from an understanding that the status quo is untenable.
I think, doing new things or being innovative, particularly in government where the stakes are so high can be very, very scary. I don’t want to minimize the fear is real, but for me, it was more scary to think about what if nothing changes. What if we just have a fell in status quo, and it doesn’t matter who’s in charge, the status quo is the status quo. That was dystopian very scary for me. I told my team to research. The first thing about innovation is it’s not just make-up something. It’s a research and look at best practices and learn, spend some time learning.
They came about poverty. I thought the root cause issue all the issues in Stockton that we were fighting is poverty, scarcity, generational structural. They came back with a guaranteed income. When they first came back with that, I was like, “Well, why has no one in the United States tested this? No political figure tested this.” It’s like, I don’t think I’m that, I’m not that smart, so what am I missing? Then they came back, it was being tested across the world, and then I realized that the issue was that folks were scared. There was a fear of being first. I said, “Well, I’m scared of poverty. Let’s test this, let’s try it, and let’s go in, not thinking this is the solution, but understanding that poverty is a problem.”
I think part of it was also having my team oriented, not to having all the solutions, but to be very clear about what the problems are and to give them the courage and the latitude to iterate and think about, how can we solve these problems? The only rule and the only structure I had in my crazy office was if the status quo is fine, don’t touch it. If the status quo is untenable, we have to fix it. That was just the governing frame we used for basic income from our gun violence work, et cetera.
Amanda: It reminds me of there’s this theory about courage that folks who have gone into battle, et cetera, it’s actually the idea that doing nothing is worse than doing something, but you only have that perspective if you see the world in a way of doing nothing is more harmful. I’m reminded of that as I hear you speak about it, which is that wasn’t even an option. I had to do something, that’s why I was there. It gives me chills to think about why it is so important that we have lived experiences and we have different perspectives that really are reflective of what people’s lives are like.
In that vein, as we think about, we wanted to make equitable government, really something we can talk about and something we can do something about, and I’d love to hear your definition, having been in office, being where you are today now in California and leading the economic mobility portfolio, what is equitable government to you?
Michael: Equitable government to me is, at its basic level, the government working well for everyone, in addition to the government actively correcting harms it has created, plus the government targeting people for good things, the same way they targeted said people for bad things. If certain groups were disinvested in by government, certain groups have to be invested in by the government. That’s what equity is to me.
Then, part of it also gets to the point you raised from the beginning and throughout this conversation, which is really around who’s doing the governing. I don’t care how well-intentioned you are. An equitable government is not a government of all white men, or a government of all white people, or a government of all wealthy people, or a government of all people who own their homes.
An equitable government is a government where folks are just represented in terms of their representative, but folks, actually, there’s as many perspectives are at the table in positions of authority to actually decide, because I agree with you 100% that a lot of the risk we took when I was the mayor of Stockton didn’t seem risky for me because these weren’t removed issues. The people we were fighting for weren’t people who were foreign to me, or weren’t people who I was scared of, or weren’t people that I had the mass media educate me about. These were my people, my family, my neighbors, my community.
I think having folks like that at the table gives a certain urgency, but also a certain nuance. For example, with the basic income, I tell people all the time now when they ask, is that part of it was the design question. For me, the issue wasn’t what’s wrong with people that they’re struggling? Because I didn’t think the issue was with the people, because with the issues with the people, the solutions are going to come about the deficiencies in people. My frame was, what’s wrong with the economy that’s not working for the people? Because of that, we focused all of our responses on structural policy things in terms of not the issue being with people, but issue being with our systems or with our government.
Amanda: This is why I am so excited to see you where you are today. The idea of pushing economic mobility in a state that is innovative, forward-thinking, and can lead the way in doing it. There’s no better person than having you in that role to think through it. We are excited to be partnering with you as you do that. I know the entire civic ecosystem that we’re talking with today does, too. In our final minutes, I want to ask you if you have any final thoughts, advice for folks out there who really are, whether it’s looking to make a change by running for office and being that voice, or looking to make a change because they are now in government and they want to make real policy changes or systems change, what’s the piece of advice that you have for them?
Michael: I would say, and this comes from eight years of work and from losing reelection, and it’s this. The status quo, no matter how failing, has a lot of friends. There’s a lot of people who are very okay with the way things are, even if it’s not benefiting them. I say that to say, just know that change means conflict. When you’re making change, don’t be surprised by conflict. That’s literally the definition of change, it’s conflict and it’s a battle.
I would also say, part of the reason why the world is the way it is, and that’s why I appreciate you and your leadership, Amanda, because people like us get titles, or anyone get titles, get positions, they get real comfortable, and it becomes about being something versus doing something. We just need more people in this world who are committed to doing something. I say that because if I only wanted to be mayor, once I either lost reelection or was turned down, I would be lost, but I was more interested in doing something, and increasing opportunity, and fighting poverty, and creating equality. Now, I’m just more busy, and there’s always going to be work to do. If you focus on what you want to do, you’ll always have a job. Your title has become a means to an end, not the end in and of itself.
Amanda: Thank you for that. The next time we do this, we have to do it either in my hometown or yours and maybe around a real fire pit, after a hometown football game.
Michael: With blankets.
Amanda: Yes. It’s awesome to see you, and I just want to thank you so much for being here today. We’re with you every step of the way in terms of changing the world. Thank you, Mayor.
Michael: Thank you, guys.