Thursday, September 22, 2011

Interview with Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson played professional basketball for the Phoenix Suns.  He is now the Mayor of Sacramento.  He also works to improve education.  He was really nice and let me interview him.  Thanks, Mr. Mayor!

PMAKid: What are your three favorite books and why?

Mayor Johnson: My three favorite books are A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Wooden by Coach John Wooden.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is about a boy who discovers his purpose in life at a young age and relentlessly pursues his objectives. I aspire to exhibit the passion and diligence of young owen meany.

Martin Luther King, Jr. has always been one of my role models. His ability to show compassion even to his oppressors is admirable.

Before his passing, I considered Coach John Wooden both a friend and a mentor. Wooden is a guide to life. His simple yet provocative lessons teach how to treat people and how to "make each day your masterpiece."

PMAKid: What are your three favorite songs and why?

Mayor Johnson: Eminem's "Lose Yourself" is a song about overcoming defeat, never giving up and doing whatever it takes to reach your goal. I also love Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" for similar reasons. Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" has become a new favorite for all it represented during Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign.

PMAKid: One of my past interviews was with one of the starting pitchers for the Texas Rangers, C.J. Wilson. Mr. Wilson does a lot of charity work with students and is know for being straight edge (not drinking or doing drugs). I hear in the news about professional athletes who have drug or alcohol problems. I also hear about actors and musicians who also have drug and alcohol problems. You used to play professional basketball. Why do you think that people look up to celebrities and athletes who do stupid stuff like drugs or who have problems with alcohol?  

Mayor Johnson: Addictions and abuses exist in all professions and all walks of life, and are not just relegated to athletes and celebrities.  People who admire athletes, actors, doctors, lawyers, etc., admire them first and foremost because those people have worked hard and achieved a level of success that others aspire to attain.  However, many of these people are public figures and what they do away from their profession becomes scrutinized by the media and made front page news.  Unfortunately, sometimes this news is unpleasant, such as drug and alcohol related, or in the case of others, insider trading, ponzi schemes, and fraud.  Anyone who looks up to that type of behavior, and not the hard work and dedication of the public figures, is simply immature and has yet to understand the value of hard work.

PMAKid: I know that education is really important to you and to your new wife, Michelle Rhee (congratulations!). My school is one of the best schools in Sacramento. They are always cutting money, but they are able to do a really good job because the teachers really cool and care. The school is really good at getting parents involved too. I know that some other schools in Sacramento are not doing good. What do you think that people need to do to make sure that kids learn and do better in school.  

Mayor Johnson: You've already hit the nail on the head.  There needs to be a collaborative effort between teachers, parents and students, because we're facing a crisis in Sacramento.  Only 39% of students in our city are currently reading at grade level, and at this rate it will take 20 years before close to 80% of our 3rd graders are on grade level.

I founded my education initiative, Stand Up (, to address these challenges.  Stand Up is a nonprofit organization that is mobilizing the community and Sacramento's five school districts around a common vision for educational equality.  I have no direct oversight or jurisdiction over local school districts in Sacramento's current governance structure.  However, I firmly believe that you cannot have a great city without great schools.  Stand Up is the vehicle through which I can ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend an excellent public school in Sacramento.

At the local level, the Stand Up team is launching my citywide third grade reading campaign, working on bringing city year and Teach for America sites to Sacramento, establishing a city-schools collaborative with local school superintendents and districts, and mobilizing the community around important policy issues such as parent trigger.  At the national level, Stand Up supports my efforts to advocate for much-needed legislation around policies such as Race to the Top, ESEA, and LIFO ("last in, first out") as chair of Secretary Duncan's mayors Advisory Council, the US Conference of Mayors Task Force on Public Education, and the National Conference of Black Mayors.

Stand Up's efforts are supported by some of the nation's top philanthropists and granting organizations, and we are actively pursuing other funders to expand our efforts.  If you're interested in learning more, you are welcome to attend the next Stand Up meeting on Wednesday, September 28th from 5-6:30 pm.  Mike Feinberg, Founder of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools, will be our guest speaker.

PMAKid: I interviewed Aram Arslanian recently. Aram runs React! Records and recently got his Master's degree. Aram said something really cool in his interview:

"I think that school is one of the most important things in life. Although its possible to be very successful without a college education I believe those stories are becoming fewer and further between. My father once told me that when you have a good education that you're no longer at the mercy of business and I definitely agree with that. So, I really encourage people to go to college and go all the way to a masters, or even PhD, level so that they can have more control over how they'll be treated as adults."

What are your thoughts on what Aram said?

Mayor Johnson: I agree that education equals opportunity.  I received an athletic scholarship to attend Cal Berkeley, and the experience strengthened my academic skills, and opened incredible doors for me personally and professionally.  At St. Hope Public Schools, the pre-K - 12 charter school system I founded, we hold high expectations for our students. Our goal is to give them the tools and the opportunity to attend college, earn a degree and/or multiple degrees.  It's ultimately a student's choice to attend college, but data and experience has shown that life outcomes and opportunities are far greater for students who do.

PMAKid: You are the Mayor of Sacramento now. What made you want to be the Mayor and do you like being Mayor? What is the hardest thing about being Mayor?

Mayor Johnson: As a kid, my grandfather always taught me the importance of being an active citizen.  He always said that when you saw something wrong, you couldn't stand on the sidelines, you had to get involved.  I always believed that Sacramento deserved to be a world-class city but didn't see how that could happen with the leadership in place at the time, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring.  I love Sacramento and love my job as mayor.  Being able to make a difference in the lives of everyday people is what gets me out of bed every day.

Even so, being mayor has its challenges.  I used to think that people threw cheap shots in basketball, but nothing is as brutal as politics.  In addition, in the current governance structure makes it difficult to get things done for the city efficiently.  However, I have considered these challenges as opportunities to creatively meet the needs of Sacramento citizens.

PMAKid: You have done a lot of things in your life: playing professional basketball, workign on education and Mayor. I bet there have been some really tough times. How do you keep a Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) when things are hard? 

Mayor Johnson: My faith in God is always my guiding light.  There is so much good in life and so much to look forward to that I just don't let the negative influences affect me.

PMAKid: I recently learned the story behind the annual Red Ribbon Week celebration that happens at the end of October every year. It was started as a way to remember Kiki Camarena. He was tortured and murdered by drug gangs because he was really good at his job as a DEA agent. Something else that Aram Arslanian said was:

"Something that I think is important to consider when talking about SxE is that its completely driven by the HC (hardcore music) community. Governments pour millions of dollars a year into anti-drug programs that at best have pretty weak results. But SxE (Straight Edge) has managed to provide an outlet for thousands of people to choose to live drug free and to have a community of peers to be their support. That's a really amazing thing and speaks to the power that people have when they are united." What do you think that people should do to remember Kiki Camarena and to keep people away from drugs and stuff. 

I think that Red Ribbon Week is a wonderful way in which to remember the contributions made by Mr. Camarena.  Also, as individuals, we should pledge to live drug-free lives and wherever and whenever possible try and expand our area of influence to spread awareness that living a drug-free life is the way to go.

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