AGAINST ALL ODDS

Michael Tubbs’ mother was 16 years old when he was born and his father was behind bars. The one and only time Michael saw his father – at age 12 – he was wearing an orange jumpsuit, looking weak and vulnerable. Michael grew up poor in Stockton, California; he and his mother lived on welfare the first five years of his life. Those three strikes – teen mom, incarcerated dad, poverty – put Michael at a very high risk of ending up in prison himself.

Now 23 years old, he has beaten those odds quite spectacularly – Master’s Degree from Stanford University, Truman Scholar, internships at Google and the White House, adjunct professor at a charter school, youngest ever City Councilman in Stockton. Equally impressive is Michael’s commitment to change the odds for all young African Americans, especially in his hometown, so that they go on to college and not to prison, the graveyard, or a life on the margins.

Michael attributes his own successful trajectory to his mother, grandmother and aunt, who valued education and pushed him to get A’s, to members of his church for giving him books and encouragement, and to government programs that improved his chances. Head Start, he said, helped him learn to read at an early age, the quality magnet programs in his public schools pushed him to achieve academically, and Pell grants enabled him go to college.

Michael credits CDF’s campaign to dismantle the Cradle to Prison Pipeline with shaping his purpose and developing his leadership. In 2009, when he was a freshman at Stanford, he attended a CDF conference on the Pipeline he found “eye-opening and inspiring.” He knew outcomes were different for poor kids but wasn’t sure why more guys he grew up with went to prison than to college.  “The conference was the first place I got statistics and research. It was an ‘aha’ moment of ‘Oh, my intuitions are right. Individual choice plays a role but there are structural reasons too.’”

That summer, Michael was one of 20 young Californians CDF trained in organizing to stop policies that push children into the pipeline and to support programs that help them succeed in school. The training and conference “put a language and structure around my passion for children in poverty. It clarified my goals and sharpened my educational focus.” He majored in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and pursued a simultaneous Master’s degree in policy, organization, and leadership studies from Stanford’s School of Education.

Michael gained organizing expertise from “very empowering” Youth Advocate Leadership Trainings (YALT) at Haley Farm, where he learned skills and strategies and connected with other social change-minded young people from across the nation.  While at Stanford, he founded the Phoenix Project (now Phoenix Scholars) that helps low-income high school students with the college application process, and he organized Save Our Stockton that trained young people to advocate at the City Council for policy changes. 

Michael’s decision to return home and run for office after graduation was sparked by the murder of a cousin during his junior year White House internship, one of 55 murders in Stockton that year. “It really hurt me. I almost felt guilty because there I was at Stanford and the White House and my family at home is dying.”

This year, Michael teaches the college level courses at the Langston Hughes Academy, a charter school, expecting no less of his students than his mother expected of him.  Among his initiatives as a councilman are establishing a Freedom School, developing a mentoring program in the school system, spearheading a re-entry project to employ 50 formerly incarcerated felons, developing a Boys and Men of Color Alliance to look at what local agencies can do, and creating a Black Community Crusade for Children in Stockton, modeled on CDF’s national crusade, to increase outcomes for all children.

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