On January 29, 2015, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom held a town hall-style meeting at Millennium High School, discussing a broad range of issues facing California, challenging the students to take risks, persevere, and learn from mistakes, and inspiring them to become leaders and improve their communities.
Newsom came to MHS at the invitation of Ken Brown’s Civics class. Brown’s class had been studying the proposed high speed rail project that would run between San Francisco and Los Angeles. His students had done two weeks of research on the project, debated its merits, and then wrote letters to Governor Jerry Brown expressing either support or opposition, and making their informed opinions heard beyond the civics classroom.
Schuyler Fink, a student in the Civics class, suggested that her cousin come to MHS to discuss the high speed rail project. Her cousin, an early supporter of the high speed rail project who has since become a critic as the project increased in cost, is California’s Lt. Governor, Gavin Newsom.
Newsom introduced himself as someone who struggled with a learning disability and speech problems as a student at Redwood High School in Marin. He had very low confidence in his academic and communication skills, and was able to get into college only because he was a baseball player. In college, Newsom was able to work through his academic issues, eventually becoming a life-long learner. He also became interested in leadership.
Although he once thought that being a leader meant having a title such as “Senator” or “President,” Newsom came to believe that some of the most transformative leaders, who had the greatest impact on society, did not have a title or hold elective office. His examples included Mahatma Gandhi (leader of the Indian independence movement in British-controlled India), Ceser Chavez (labor leader and civil rights activist), Mother Teresa (leader in providing charitable health and hospice care in impoverished communities).
Newsom said that elected officials are in some ways more limited in what they can accomplish than unelected leaders. He observed that both Vaclav Havel (the Czech writer and dissident who was elected President) and Nelson Mandela (the anti-apartheid dissident who was elected President of South Africa) achieved more before they became elected officials than after.
Newsom emphasized that a person does not need a title to make a difference — “you do not need to be something to do something.” “Leaders can be found anywhere,” he said. “What is your authentic voice? Figure out who you are, don’t follow others. And use tech tools to engage peer to peer, scale your voice in real time.”
Newsom talked about the importance of having a “growth mindset,” and having the courage to take risks. “The secret to success is failure,” he said. “The point is to learn. Have the courage to try and fail. If you fail, and you will sometimes fail, learn from this.” He again gave examples of famous people who persevered despite early failures, including NBA star Michael Jordan (who was cut from his high school basketball team), music legend Elvis Presley (who did poorly in music classes), comedian Lucille Ball (who was asked to leave a drama class), author Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss, whose work was rejected by 23 book publishers), entrepreneur Henry Ford (who went bankrupt five times before founding the Ford Motor Company), and McDonalds founder Ray Kroc (who bought his first hamburger stand at age 52).
In response to student questions about a range of issues concerning California, Newsom talked about: minimum wage laws; universal health care; universal preschool; funding for higher education; tuition rates for the University of California and California State Universities; funding for vocational training programs in high schools; legalization of marijuana; discriminatory enforcement of drug laws; mandating that police officers wear video cameras; California’s historic drought; comprehensive immigration reform; marriage equality; and of course the high speed rail project.
Returning to the subject of his early struggles as a student, Newsom said, “What matters most is mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, you don’t take risks because you fear exposure. Without a willingness to take risks, there is only failure.”
Newsom also mentioned his private businesses, including wine shops and restaurants. He said being a businessman helps him see what the public education system needs to do to prepare students for the future. He said, “No one cares how much you know, because Google knows more. The world cares only about what you do with what you know.” As an employer, he wants employees who “learn, listen, collaborate, problem solve, and have grit, passion and purpose.”