Zibby is joined by the former mayor of Stockton, CA, Michael Tubbs, to discuss his debut memoir, The Deeper the Roots. Michael shares how his mother’s approach to life helped propel him to become the youngest mayor of a major city in American history, why it is so important for authority figures to encourage students in their various pursuits, and what prompted him to file a lawsuit with the NAACP against a former teacher. Michael and Zibby also talk about what the experience was like for Michael to meet his father who is incarcerated and how he and his wife, Anna Malaika Tubbs, are the only married coupled to have both been on Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Michael. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Deeper the Roots: A Memoir of Hope and Home. Amazing.

Michael Tubbs: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I know we were just saying your wife was on this podcast. Anna Malaika Tubbs was on this podcast about a year ago. I feel like maybe you’re the only two people who have been married who have both been on the show. I’m going to rack my brain and see if I’m wrong, but I think you win that award.

Michael: That’s incredible. We were talking about this last night. I don’t know if they’ve had any other husband-wife duos come on.

Zibby: I guess you win a double date with my husband and me if you ever want it.

Michael: We’re so in. We’re so in.

Zibby: We’re always up for that. Would you mind telling listeners about your beautiful memoir? I was so moved by so much of this. Why don’t you start? Discuss how you decided to even write a memoir. I really want to hear more about your essay for Alice Walker and how that was the first time that you shared your feelings publicly, for this essay contest, and how that really got you to write for the rest of your life, essentially.

Michael: Growing up, I was such a bookworm. I particularly loved two genres of books. One was coming-of-age memoirs, folks who were adolescents coming to adults, and oftentimes about black men. I also loved Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I just loved reading about people growing up as I was growing up. I found that to be fascinating. Then I also was interested in political biographies or biographies of leaders or memoirs about leaders, about the choices they made, about the messiness of making change happen, about what it means to lead. Those two things have always been north stars. I remember thinking, like people do when they read books, oh, one day, it would be cool if I had something to say that could be like this for somebody else. Then when I became mayor, I was elected on the same day that President Trump was elected, so a lot of people thought there was an interesting commentary on America, the fact that the country could do both things on the same night. What does that mean? What does that suggest? How do we move forward? I was busy being mayor. I said, okay, I’ll do it. I just took a long time.

Then finally with the birth of our son, Malakai, I realized we needed money for childcare. I wrote this book. I could, meanwhile, have a little bit of money for childcare. In writing it, it just became so apparent that the moment we were in was so unique that I wanted to have a timestamp to mark it so that it’s not colored by ambition of a grander office. Sometimes as you get older, you become more jaded and more cynical. I just wanted, in this moment, let’s write it. That’s the long answer to why the book. Literally, the outline of the book, I wrote in high school for Alice Walker’s essay contest. I literally did that. You could tell I’m very pragmatic. I did that essay contest not because I wanted to be Alice Walker, but because I wanted to get an A in drama. It was extra credit. I needed the extra credit to get the A, so I said, okay, I’ll write this essay. The essay prompt was, how did you change your own life building on the themes of The Color Purple? I knew it was college admissions time as well. I was like, maybe I could workshop this, and this could be my college essay. Let me just knock it out now, get some feedback. I wrote about both my mother and my father. Everyone knew my mom was young because she looks young, but no one knew she was literally in high school, the age I wrote the essay, when she had me. Then people would always ask me about my dad, but I hear them. I would make up lies. It was the first time I told, oh, my father’s actually been incarcerated. This is what drives me. This is what I’ve learned from both of them.

I won the essay contest. I was just shocked with how moved people were by the story, the essay. I was like, it’s just life. Who cares? Also, growing up, my mom was very adamant about, you don’t need to tell people our business. No one cares. It’s not important. You just do a good job. I was shocked. Literally, people were sending me scholarship checks in the mail, individuals. People were asking me to come talk to their juvenile — it was just crazy. I was like, all because I wrote this essay? That was a marker or a spark to your point around the importance of storytelling, the importance of narrative, and also, now that I have a little bit of a platform, and you do this so beautifully, the story of using your platform to lift other people up and give other voices a chance. Alice Walker is Alice Walker. Not only was it a good essay, but the fact that Alice Walker said, this essay embodies the themes of my book, it really just changed the trajectory of — not to be hyperbolic, but the rest of my life was changed from that high school essay contest.

Zibby: If anybody sends you a check after listening to this podcast —

Michael: — I’ll split it. I know.

Zibby: We’ll split it. I’m kidding. You can have it. It’s fine. Wow. There were so many moments in your story that I can’t stop thinking about. One of them was when you went to visit your father in prison for the first time. You saw him for the first time. You had an idea in your head of what he would look like. When you met him, you were like, he didn’t really look like that. Looked a little bit younger, older, whatever, but he looked a little like me. I feel like in a movie, there would’ve been a screen. It would’ve faded to black when you said that line. For me, I had to take a pause. You looking at him, it was such a poignant moment. I didn’t do it justice here by the way I described it, but just the reckoning. When you had been tutoring, that was also crazy. When you were tutoring the prison guard’s son, of your dad, that was so nuts. Then knowing that and you meeting him, oh, my gosh. Tell me a little bit more.

Michael: I actually had forgot about that prison guard moment until I was writing. His son was one of my best friends. I hung out with this kid all the time. We were always together. We played basketball together. I would go support him on his traveling basketball team. His mom loved me. I was at their house literally every weekend. His mom really loved me. His dad was cool, but he was always just looking at me. Particularly, being one of the few black students at my all-white school, I was kind of used to people looking at me. I was just like, “Did I do something? What’s wrong?” Finally, my friend asked his dad. His dad was like, “There’s a Michael Tubbs on the block that I police. I keep looking at him like, this kid that’s tutoring my son, and so well-mannered, how can he be related to someone inside the prison?” My friend told me this. He was like, “There’s some dude, Michael Tubbs, in his prison. He’s trying to figure out, is he related to you?” I remember feeling like my breath was taken away. I’m twelve, thirteen years old. It was like, huh? I remember feeling very proud but also very sad. Wow, my friend’s dad knows my dad better than me, but also, wow, I’m tutoring his son in math. I felt really good about that.

Then later, I end up visiting my father. When you’re young, you have a vivid imagination, particularly if something’s gone. That gives you the space to dream. I just dreamed my dad was like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s in prison, so he’s super buff. He’s strong. I never thought about what he looked like physically. I just thought he was this big, strong, intimidating dude. When I saw him, he was about my age now, thirty-one years old. He looked really young. Looked a little bit tired. The biggest thing, I was like, oh, my gosh, he looks like me, which is dumb. Of course, you look like your parents. You came from somewhere. Because he wasn’t there, there was no constant reflection on that. When I saw him, I was just like, oh, my gosh, he looks like me. One of the things I took away from that meeting was, this could be me. It’s not some abstract notion. Literally, there’s a mirror image of you in a place like this. How do you make sure that doesn’t happen? That became a huge motivation, a great strength, but also a great weakness in terms of being just laser-focused, hyper-determined, pit bull locked jaws, doing everything possible to make sure I was successful, make sure I did everything right, make sure I was able to do better than my parents.

Zibby: I also feel like you had your mother there making sure that that was going to happen.

Michael: Oh, yeah. The determination, if not innate, it was definitely a learned survival defense because you can’t live with my mom and not do well and not do something.

Zibby: I got that vibe.

Michael: Either you’re born determined or she’s going to make you determined.

Zibby: I think I need to parent a little bit more like your mom, I swear.

Michael: Me too.

Zibby: I also loved how you always said how wherever you were, even when you were in the temporary housing and all you had was a block of cheese from the state, or something, to eat, your mother was so classy. She was always just like, this is where we are now. This is not where we’re meant to be. This is not where you’re going to be. Don’t make this about who you are. This is just where we happen to be. I feel like there’s such a huge distinction there. You isolated yourselves against the neighborhood and did your thing and knew you were just passing through.

Michael: I credit her for a vision that was different and refusing to be defined by very adverse circumstances and never being comfortable. Even if it was like, this is good enough for me, this won’t be good enough for you. She sent so many signals. You don’t belong here. There’s more for you. Also, just because these things are happening, we’re still going to live with dignity. Yes, we could be upset. Rightfully so. Yes, we could be angry, and we should be, but you’re not just going to sit in there. Living in the projects but going to the best private school, the things she did, she just made sure that I had worth and I had value. You don’t recognize that when you’re a kid. It wasn’t until I really sat down and wrote this book and thought about, wow Mom, and my grandma and aunt, you guys were brilliant in making sure we did not internalize our environment and that we did not internalize the things that were bad. You just kept telling us, no, this is where we are, but where you’re going is dependent on other — you have some agency in how that goes. Even though now in my current work I’m always talking about policy, policy, policy, I’m so thankful that as a child, that I had no say over policy. My mom really instilled in me, agency. Until you can make the change, how do we navigate and get through it?

Zibby: Interesting. That was one thing you said your father didn’t — he was a victim of the system. At home, it was all about agency. Here, it was resignation. As I was reading your book, obviously, there’s a spoiler, which is, we all know you become the mayor, which is amazing, but I tried not to think about it while I was reading and being like, what’s going to happen to this guy? Who knows? I’m watching you grow up. Obviously, you’re so bright. It was so interesting how you sort of straddled the two different social circles when you were in the International Baccalaureate program, how you had to make friends across both lines. I was like, okay, great, he’s super smart. I totally get it. No matter what, this bookworm, really smart. Then when you filed some sort of civil rights lawsuit against your teacher, I was like, okay, here’s where this guy differs from anyone else. It would never in a million years occur to me to file a lawsuit or to take things to that level. That seemed to me, the moment that really set you apart. Tell that story.

Michael: I did well in school in spite of most of my teachers, not because of. Again, now as a thirty-one-year-old, as an educator, spent years teaching students, I get how I could’ve been annoying. I was very energetic. All the things people like about me now, I was the same way at thirteen years old, but I wasn’t the mayor. I had so much energy. I always wanted to do group projects. If I was done, I wanted to walk and talk to my classmates. If I disagreed, I would raise my hand. I get why I was annoying for some teachers, but I don’t agree with kicking me out every day. Literally, that’s no exaggeration. Every single day, I was kicked out of at least one class. Luckily, I liked school. I think about what message that sends. Every day, you show up excited for classes. Get out. You don’t belong here. I’m glad I had those other messages from home and from church that were like, no, no, no, you’re fine. We’ll figure out how to make this work. Then one teacher in particular — it was my high school biology teacher who was a former officer. It was because the IB program had this haughtiness to it where we were better, smarter, more worthy of resources and support than all the other kids in the school. That always bothered me. He would say things like, every class, “Those kids outside –” There was noise outside. “Those kids are going to pump your gas one day. Those kids are on the highway to prison.” It’s things like that. He was a bully. He had this helmet called the retard helmet where if you asked a question he thought was dumb or said a statement he thought was dumb, you would have to write the quote and put it on the helmet. As a fifteen-year-old, sixteen-year-old, you think it’s funny. Now as an adult, that’s abuse.

Zibby: It is. It’s abusive.

Michael: You’re making the classroom an unsafe environment for inquiry. You would be terrified to ask a question about the college-level biology we were learning because you didn’t want to be on the retard helmet. You would have to wear it in class. He would take a picture of you. It says “retard.” Think about how violent that is.

Zibby: I was shy enough to begin with. If that was one of the risks, you would not know what my voice even sounded like, ever.

Michael: It’s crazy. Then I noticed things would be normal, but every quarter around the end of the quarter, all of a sudden, there’d be zeros. I’m like, no, I did that. It got to the point where I would literally photocopy my work before I turned it in. If it was a zero, I’d be like, no, it’s right here. That’s how crazy it got. A lot of our tests were based on drawing. I can’t draw. I don’t know if there’s a learning difference or something. I literally have never been able to draw well at all. I would draw things and label it correctly. It’d be half the test. He would give, “Zero, looks nothing like the heart.” I’m like, it’s not an art class. Why not give us the heart so we could just label the things if that’s what you want us to get to? It was literally about the quality of my drawings. He was really upset when I got into Stanford. He told everyone that would listen to him that I played my black card to get into Stanford. I won a Coca-Cola scholarship. He said, “Michael gets scholarships because he’s the color of the drink.” He would say that to my classmates who didn’t get into Stanford, building resentment and anger and vitriol towards me. Longer story short, towards the end, my grade went from a B to a D. You can get rescinded from Stanford for that. To your point, I had to think about, what could I do to make sure that I wasn’t rescinded and to also signal to Stanford I’m not making this up? This is not some senioritis. This is real craziness. I was like, you know what? I have to file a formal complaint. I wrote the complaint. I gave to the NAACP. We met. We met with the superintendent. They did an investigation.

Starting that next year, he hasn’t taught at that high school since. He’s not allowed to teach in our high schools. He still teaches community college. My admissions officer called me. This is all the day before graduation too. All this is happening the day before graduation. You’re supposed to be so excited. I’m nervous as hell. Am going to go to college? Is everyone going to think I’m a failure? Is he going to win? My admissions officer called me crying and was like, “Thank you for this. I’m so sorry you went through this.” She said, “I’m glad you did this because I needed proof or evidence this is not just a case of senioritis. I’m glad you had the mind to do this.” With all that said, and I should’ve mentioned this in the book, I started Stanford on academic probation because of that class. I started Stanford. It was like, you have to get a 3.0 in your first quarter because of that. The last thing I’ll say, because I’m waxing poetic now, is that it was so frustrating because even in talking with the superintendent who agreed with my claims, he said, “I can’t make him change your grade.” I was like, “Wait, what?” He was like, “I legally cannot tell him or make him change your grade.” For me, it was just an example of how power operates and how we have all types of people with all types of control over people’s futures with unchecked power, veto power. To your point, I became really interested in, how do we change that? How do we at least change some of the people who have the power so it operates in a way that’s in everyone’s best interest? That was longer than the book. You’re the first one to ask me about that episode. I’ve done like twenty interviews.

Zibby: I loved it. That’s why I’m talking to you. I love hearing this. I like the backstory. I read the book. I like the extra stuff. This is the bonus material. I’ve made it through the movie, and now I get the extra clip or something. Hats off to you. Obviously, you’re brilliant, but that took real brilliance to go that route. It just makes me so depressed to think about all the teachers who do this with no checks and balances, ever, and the kids who have been affected by teachers like that. Even right this second, somebody’s sitting in a classroom and there’s some guy who’s just belittling a student. As I’ve done all these podcasts, honestly, the most important thing to becoming a writer, I’ve found, one of them is if somebody acknowledges your talent. Look at you and Alice Walker. You just need one person. You need one adult to say, hey, you’re a good writer, you have talent. Then that’s enough. If you don’t have anyone…

Michael: There’s all this research about how students in particular rise to the expectations of those in authority, whether it’s a parent, whether it’s a teacher. There was this study done with teachers. All the students came in at an equal level. Teachers were told before the year that this half of the class was advanced, this half of the class was not advanced. At the end of the year, that side of the class that the teacher was told was advanced actually became advanced. The side of the class that was average became below average because they were told they were below average. It is because the expectations, the way they were challenged, the way they taught. It’s wild. There’s so much authority adults have. I think a big part of the book illustrates your point about Alice Walker. The women at my church would give me books.

Zibby: That was so nice.

Michael: While we work to change the system, how one adult can make a world of difference and that we all have a role to play in identifying, mentoring, and supporting the young people in our communities. We have no idea who they can be with just a little bit of love and a little bit of support.

Zibby: Wow. I don’t want you to have to go into your whole political philosophy and all of that, but what are you doing for education, then, with all of this background?

Michael: My master’s actually is in education policy. Before I ran for city council, I thought I was going to be a superintendent. I wanted to be a superintendent of a school district. I wanted to open a boarding school in Stockton. That was my dream. I have a lot of time, so maybe eventually that will happen. When I was mayor, I started a project called Stockton Scholars. That’s still going on. I’m still the chair of it. Every single student from our school districts who graduates with just a 2.0 or higher is guaranteed a scholarship to community college, trade school, or a four-year school. Then on top of that, we have a bunch of service learning placements so that when they’re in college, they can come back and serve as reading coaches or math tutors and stuff within our school system. I used to run a book club when I was on city council. I wrote this book as a way to hopefully get students like me who were in IB and also students who weren’t in IB a real flesh-and-blood story of a politician that’s closer to their age, of a politician who may feel more accessible because you’re a local politician, not a senator or a president. I hope that over the next year or two I can have a lot of conversations with schools and groups about the book and about some of the lessons in there. I hope that everyone, but particularly young people, read it and find inspiration, find solace. I think the most important thing for me is for them to read it and find, oh, I’m not crazy. I should be upset about the things that aren’t just. Wow, yeah, this is hard, but it’s possible. Oh, wow, I could do it. That’s my biggest prayer.

Zibby: I think it’s also inspiring because both you and — was it your dad originally? They both called you the mayor of your schools. You held court at the table. You were like, I want everybody to know I’m coo’ even though they’re not my friends. Sorry to even try to say that.

Michael: No, that was beautiful.

Zibby: I was just quoting. Thank you.

Michael: No, it fit. You had the inflection right too. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Okay, good. The crazy, not crazy, but just the magic part of the story is that then you actually do that. For all those people who have this skill, this social skill and the intellectual abilities and all of it, you don’t have to just be the mayor of your seventh grade. You can actually be the mayor. I think that’s also really exciting too because it feels really impossible to make a difference and to be in politics. It gets a bad rap of what you have to sacrifice to be in politics. That’s another thing that I found very inspiring. Last question for you because I feel like I could talk all day, but maybe we’ll do that over dinner with our spouses.

Michael: I’m telling you, we are so down.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Michael: Writing is so hard, particularly for someone who writing is not their — my wife, she has such a discipline about it. We were writing our books at the same time. I actually got my deal two years before her, and her book was still out the year before while doing her PhD and while being pregnant and planning a wedding and all this other — she has a discipline about it where every day she would write for two hours. I’m just not disciplined in that way. I have to be in the mood. I have to have inspiration. I have to be really focused. I have to be facing a tough deadline. I have to need childcare. It has to be very tangible. I would tell authors that, for me, the guiding light was, I think it was a Maya Angelou quote that said — I’m going to mess it up. Basically, it was like, there’s no worse burden than a story that has yet to be untold or to have a story in you that you haven’t told. That was a real guiding light. Even if no one else reads this, this is important for me. I have something to say. Then number two, I would say you have to be authentic. I had really great editors. Even in the editing process, there’s some things that they need overexplained or some things I don’t know. I have to be true and authentic. I think that’s part of it. Then number three, you’re never done. I cringe sometimes when I have to read. I’m like, oh, my gosh, I should’ve added this. Man, I forgot this story. I think that’s the beauty of writing. It’s iterative. Even when your book is finished, it’s only just starting. The best part is when you get to talk to other people about what resonated with them or what they connect with or what they thought. The last thing I’ll say is, I remember in high school, we used to do all this literary analysis. We’d always talk about what the author meant. I always wondered, are authors really that intentional and think of all these themes and all these motifs?

Zibby: That’s exactly what I was thinking in English class. I’m like, I like to write. I don’t put any of this stuff in my writing.

Michael: There’s some themes I did intentionally, but some of the stuff people are coming up with, I’m like, wow, I didn’t think of that, but that’s brilliant. I wish I had because that makes a lot of sense.

Zibby: That’s so funny. I know. I was like, I don’t understand why we’re analyzing things this way. I promise you, the author didn’t mean to do that. That didn’t go over well. No. My teacher’s like, no. I’m delighted to hear you say that. I’m glad. Sometimes it’s easy to just extrapolate after the fact. Anyway, Michael, thank you so much. This has been so fun. Thank you for sharing your story. Oh, my gosh, you’re so young. I’m only forty-five, but I’ll pretend that I’m your older and wiser person.

Michael: You are.

Zibby: I cannot wait to see all the stuff that you do in the world and all the other books that might come out and just the good work you’re going to do. Go forth and conquer.

Michael: Thank you for having me. I can’t wait until our double date.

Zibby: Can’t wait. Buh-bye.

Michael: Bye-bye.



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