Who are the people driving change in our communities? What can be learned from their experiences? The Drive is a podcast about personal stories on the road to leadership.
Alana Mathews Arcurio: Standing Alone
Alana Mathews Arcurio is an attorney working on climate change policy for the State of California. After a traumatic experience at Ball State University during her college prep at just 16 years old, Mathews Arcurio went on to join the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office before serving in state government.
On her experience in a college prep program at Ball State University
The campus is beautiful. Lots of greenery. So I decided one day I'd go for a walk. And it was very quiet. I could hear a diesel engine and it sounded like a truck. So I turned and looked over my shoulder and there was a truck full of white guys yelling at me and I'm trying to process what they are yelling. As they get closer, they're saying, ‘N**ger, bitch, go back to Africa.’ And I'm trying to process that because I'm like, ‘OK, this is 1990. Did they just call me the N word?’ They're cursing at me, and they stopped the truck. And this is just processing like, ‘OK, is there going to be like harm to me?’
It was just all these thoughts going through my mind. As soon as the first door opened and the first guy got out, I just took off running. It was a scary moment, but it was a very transformative moment, too.
There were seven African-American girls in the first accepted class. We were the inaugural class for this college prep school and almost all of us had that experience. But we all internalized it because the adults we turned to put the onus on us and we never shared it among each other. And because of some other incidents that occurred recently we started communicating and realized for the first time that this was not an isolated experience. We all had people yelling those sorts of things, hatred out to us.
On how her experience shaped her future
What had happened just reminded me of all these programs I watched during Black History Month. You see the civil rights struggle and you see that hate and it just seems so distant, so foreign and like that was another time, another place. That day brought it to the forefront. I couldn’t have hate define my life.
One of the reasons I turned down Stanford to go to Spelman College, the first African-American, a historically black college and university for women, was to really nurture that part of my identity and that sense of community and responsibility to stand even stronger in those sorts of spaces.
On how it shaped her leadership and career
I started out as a deputy district attorney and then I had an appointment at the California Energy Commission. Now I'm with the legislature, Chief Consultant of the Joint Legislative Committee on Climate Change. I think the common thread between my careers is I’ve always had difficult decisions to make. They are not always popular decisions or the most supported: it’s the road less traveled. Sometimes you take a principled stand, and there’s no glory in that. That moment affected me in that I am uncompromising on pursuing what I think is right.
Katie McCleary interviewed Alana Mathews Arcurio on November 25, 2019.
Basim Elkarra: Rising Above Hate
Basim Elkarra is the Executive Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations for Sacramento and the Central Valley. He grew up in the Bay Area and then moved to Sacramento, where he discovered locals have a wider range of political views. The Muslim civil rights leader speaks on his experience with hate in politics and Islamophobia from the Gulf War, 9/11 and through 2020.
On moving from the Bay Area to Sacramento
I think it was very important for me to move out here because living in a liberal bubble, growing up I thought that all of America was like San Francisco. Coming out here, you see the realities of our country and the challenges and the divisions and also opportunities to build bridges between folks.
I didn't see many George Bush stickers out in the Bay Area. When I first moved out here — this is 2004 — I'm like, ‘Oh, wow, there's people that support Bush out here.’ And then I’ll never forget this. There was a Ford Mustang. It had a big cross on the back window. And then it had a sticker it said, ‘Made with American tools, not chopsticks.’ And I was just like, ‘Wow, I'm no longer in the Bay Area.’ You would have never seen a car like that be bold enough to drive in the Bay Area. But I took on the challenges head-on and just try to build bridges and understand where people are coming from.
On Islamophobia from the ‘90s to now
In some ways, there is more understanding [now]. Some of the polls have shown that our fellow Americans have kind of warmed up slightly to the American Muslim community. It was actually after 9/11. The polling shows that Americans didn't blame Islam or the American Muslims for the 9/11 attacks. But over the years, unfortunately, we saw it get worse. One of the good things that George Bush did after 9/11, he went to a mosque in D.C. with national leaders and said this has nothing to do with Muslims. And that did help prevent a lot of hate incidents against our community.
We're seeing a record number of Muslims run for office. Unfortunately in 2016, we saw that the biggest rise in hate incidents and hate crimes against the Muslim community, mosques being burned down around the country. And unfortunately, 2020, I don't think it's going to be any different. I think the Muslim community is going to be used as a wedge issue and to divide this country and to win votes.
On facing challenges
We have this concept in an Islamic tradition, also in Arabic, the word ‘fitnah.’ If you ask an Arab what does fitnah mean, they will say tribulation. But what's beautiful about Arabic and Hebrew is that there's three letters, the trilateral roots of the word that makes the core of the word. So fitnah, the word literally means is when you get impure gold and you heat it up to remove all impurities, you become stronger. So when you go through hardship, all these impurities are being removed to become pure gold and stronger and get through anything. So every time I face a test, I just take it with ease and just stay cool, calm, and collected. Sometimes there’s higher stress levels. But using this concept and the spiritual foundation I am able to get through every challenge with relative ease.
Katie McCleary interviewed Basim Elkarra on November 6, 2019.
Jim Tabuchi: Making An Impact
Jim Tabuchi left his successful career with Hewlett Packard at just 42 to pursue a different goal: to make more deposits into his “social bank account.” In his current role as volunteer CEO and Executive Director of the Sacramento Mandarins, he’s focused on helping youth gain life skills through musical performance. Tabuchi discusses his Japanese heritage, his first job at his parents’ department store in Stockton and making the jump from the corporate world to public service.
On making the jump from a lucrative corporate career to public service
While I was working at Hewlett-Packard, I felt like I was getting paid in two different ways. One way was through my salary, but that was merely a number in my bank account. Of course, it allowed us to live and so forth and fairly well. The other half that I was getting paid was helping people to develop. So I started mentoring people, training people. I soon realized that that's what I wanted to do in my life.
I know that I'm not going to remember in Q3 of 1997 that my quota was 130 percent. That doesn’t matter anymore. It really comes down to people’s lives you’ve been able to change and how have you’ve been able to do that. I retired for 12 hours. When people asked what I’m going to do, I said, ‘At 6:00 a.m. I'm getting on a flight to Atlanta and I'm going to go teach trumpets for the Mandarins.’ And it was joyous. It was wonderful.
On remembering family hardship
My grandparents were born in Japan and they immigrated over during World War II. On my father's side, they had a very flourishing business. They had their business stripped from them, their store stripped from them, their household, and then ultimately their freedom was stripped from them and being sent into these internment camps where they suffered from the indignation of being locked up having barbed wire all around them and guns pointing at them.
My aunt was in Japan during the war in our family's hometown, Hiroshima, when the atomic bomb blast hit. Miraculously, she survived, a 16-year-old girl who was working as kind of a nurse's aide. One of the stories is that she came out of the rubble she found a little girl who was very sick and needing help. The girl died in her arms.
I have this feeling that almost anything could happen to me, but it wouldn't be as bad as what my relatives had gone through. It makes me very willing to try new things and pursue things that others might view as risky.
On helping youth transform their lives with the Sacramento Mandarins
I can think of one individual who came to the Mandarins, who was not the best musician, not the best marcher. He actually brought his instrument to me and said, ‘Jim, I'm going to quit.’ And he told me the reasons why I said, ‘no, you're not.’ And he says, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I'm not going to quit on you. We're not going to quit on you. You may try to quit on us, but we're not going to quit on you.’
He ended up staying because we wouldn't take his instrument back. I remember, though, speaking with him saying, ‘You will make good choices in your life.’ I’ve taught you all these values, now you have to go out and apply them in your life. And I said, ‘Every time I see you, I'm going to ask you that same question: Are you making good choices in your life?’
So today, whenever I see him, he proactively runs up to me. He says, ‘Jim, I'm making good choices in my life.’ And he is holding a steady job. He's married. He's got a family. That really is the dream. And it's the impact that we can make. It's taking somebody who maybe would not have made it, and seeing that he has made it. To me, that's everything. That's a life that has been changed.
Katie McCleary interviewed Jim Tabuchi on September 23, 2019.
Lial Jones: Leading Quietly
As the Mort and Marcy Friedman Director and CEO of the Crocker Art Museum, Lial Jones helps people find meaning for themselves through art. Jones has been a collector since her childhood, which was unpredictable at times. But it was her early exposure to museums that helped forge her path as a leader in the arts world. Jones speaks on her work in museums and the relationship between art and society.
On combating the assumption that museums are for the upper class
Art and museums aren’t for the wealthy. In North America, 30 percent of all art museum attendees are kids. The majority of young adults have had very little or no arts education in the schools. We talk about in this day and age how we are becoming less and less news literate as a society. It’s very frightening what’s going to happen as we divorce ourselves from paying attention. And we’re stopping paying attention because many times we don’t have the skills to pay attention anymore.
One of the things art can do is help you slow down and look. Learn how things come together. We’ve begun siloing students into certain tracks of curriculum, and innovation doesn’t happen in a single track. Innovation happens on the edges and when you learn how to put different things together. The more interdisciplinary you can be in a child's education, the more likely it is they will come up with something new and innovate and help save this world.
On her early life as a collector
My mother worked in the fashion industry and retail, but on the side wholesaled antiques my entire life. I went to my first antique auction when I was still in arms, the only child of a single working mother. A lot of time in my childhood was spent around stuff. If you are raised around things, often, you want to possess them. I particularly want to possess them because my mother sold them. So every time you get something and you really cared about this object, it was very dear to you, there was a good chance the next day it would be gone.
I think that's part of the reason why I work at a museum. Museums are not about getting rid of things. They're about acquiring. And I'm very, very acquisitive. But the purpose of museums is really to share them with a broad, diverse audience and help people find meaning for themselves within those objects. And that's really what I've done all my life.
On museums exhibiting a variety of points of view
We know that with the 24-hour news cycle social media that more and more people believe they have an absolute say and need to promote their point of view. Often museums are trying to show a variety of points of view, including those that some people think shouldn't be exhibited. What do you do when you come in conflict with a segment of your audience who doesn't like what you're showing? I’ve always believed that as long as you're showing good work, people should give you a benefit of a doubt that it's worthy and that they should stop and look at it and try to understand what's worthy about it. But instead, often what happens is ‘I don't like something, so nobody should like it’ becomes the rallying cry. We have to figure that out societally. I think that one of the places we're going to have that early testing ground is through art, because artists are really good at poking at us when there are issues that need to be poked at.
April Javist: Facing Conflict
From her rebellious childhood ripping political signs out of front yards to her current role as Executive Director of the Sacramento Public Library Foundation, April Javist has never been afraid to stand up for what she believes in. Javist was raised in a Republican household during the Nixon era, an experience that fueled her politically curious nature. She moved from working in politics to now working to improve childhood literacy rates.
On watching the Nixon impeachment hearings as an 11-year-old
I became very distressed about the proceedings because what I was thinking in my head was that the government was, “of the people, by the people.” And what I saw was a bunch of white men in suits yelling at each other.
I was put off by them yelling at each other. And so I went around tearing up political signs. My grandma finally said, “what are you doing?” You know, because I wasn't a bad kid. I wasn't like this. And I said, “Well, you've lied to me. And this whole thing about ‘the government run by the people’ isn't true. And this guy, Nixon, he's a liar and he's yelling at people. And this is all wrong.” I think I was always politically curious.
On childhood literacy in America
One of the things that isn't too popular to be said now is that we have failed our kids at reading at this juncture. We've always failed our kids. People don't want to talk about those failures.
Schools have failed to some extent. Libraries have failed. Our institutions to get people reading have failed. So how do we then bring that forward without insulting anybody? I mean, I sure hope we are. A society that can read will change everything. I think people are surprised to find out that literacy rates are as low as they are in our country. I think in America, we're taught that we're the best at everything. I once watched a little thing about America versus all these other countries and we ranked third, fourth, fifth every time. But somehow in the end, we were ranked first. I think America does that. I think America lies to its people about who it is. We're not the greatest in education.
Katie McCleary interviewed April Javist on October 29, 2019.
Rev. Kevin Ross: Self-Worth
Reverend Kevin Ross has almost always had a sense of worthiness, his confidence shining from his days at Sunday school to his youth motivational speaking duo, the ‘Brothers of Thunder.’ But the Sacramento spiritual leader experienced a hard-learned lesson in love when a college break up sent him spiraling into depression. He tells Host Katie McCleary it was his community that helped him redefine his self-image.
On if others walk around with the same level of self-worth
I think this is the primary cause for our suffering, that we have forgotten that we’re not just the bodies that were brought here, but that we are spiritual, that we are more than the bodies that we brought here and that we have intrinsic worth. But we live in a society in a time where the messaging about who we are is oriented constantly toward having us feel that we’re not enough. And quite frankly, the church plays a big part in that as well, because in many doctrines, this conversation that you’re not worthy is reinforced over and over and over again.
On a relationship ideal that ended a college romance
I was living in a wrong paradigm about what a relationship should look like because I was borrowing that paradigm from my grandparents. My grand papa, who was the ideal man to me, was the provider. My grandmother, who provided him with 10 children, held down the house, never worked a day outside of the home. And so here we are on a college campus and I’m spewing these ideas to [my girlfriend at the time]: 'you will not have to work outside the home. I will provide for you. I’ll be rich anyway.’ And she’s at Spelman [College], which creates astronauts and Marian Wright Edelman and all of these iconic women. And so that became a bit much for her, and she broke up with me.
On post-breakup blues
It was when she broke up with me that my whole everything came crashing down. I entered this really deep depression, that kind that you wouldn’t have been able to recognize me. I was tore up. And my sense of identity. Who am I? Apart from her, I was another thing. I just couldn’t see, and I’m a visionary, so that was really dangerous for someone like me. I didn’t want to be happy, I wanted to stew in it. I did an open letter of apology in the Spelman Spotlight, the newspaper, because she wouldn’t talk to me. And subsequently, that was picked up by a national magazine. Nothing would have made me happier than to be reunited with this woman. That was all I wanted because I had made her mean so much and outsourced my own worth. It was my community, my peeps, they came in and pulled me out of the abyss. And I changed courses from that point forward, recognizing, reclaiming my self-worth.
Katie McCleary interviewed Kevin Ross on November 5, 2019.