Both the Insiders and the Outsiders: Talking to Julián Castro

How can political culture most constructively tap the nurturing power of families, without imposing constrictive definitions of family? How to encourage Americans to support the generations that preceded and that will follow them — again as a family member might, but here without appealing to ties of “blood”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Secretary Julián Castro. This present conversation focuses on Castro’s book An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream. Castro served as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 2014 to 2017, and as mayor of San Antonio from 2009 to 2014. He delivered the keynote speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention.

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ANDY FITCH: In terms of this book’s personal testimony speaking to much broader social concerns, I think of you visiting your grandmother’s hospital bedside on her last day. You say: “I felt an obligation toward her, one that wasn’t restrictive like the pressure imposed as a child but a freeing and empowering one to explore all the opportunities that she hadn’t been able to.” If I had to isolate what seems like your one most crucial resource throughout this narrative, I would name that freeing, empowering, intergenerational love in which you and your brother grow up. And if you do consider that particular form of love foundational, and if that love should be embraced by Americans with conservative as much as progressive values, and if families (however we wish to define families) are where that love most often originates, then how can political culture, political institutions, individual political leaders best help to foster and to support families in which this arc of entwined individual empowerment and of collective responsibility can arise?

JULIÁN CASTRO: There’s no question that in my life, as in the lives of so many others, my family made the biggest difference in terms of any future success. And it did matter that I grew up with a grandmother and a mother determined to give my brother and I more opportunity than they were able to have. This book describes, for instance, my mother and my brother and I going to a middle-school orientation, where one school official told us to look around the room right now, because half of these students would no longer be there when it was time to graduate to the ninth grade. And almost immediately my mother took us out of that school and put us someplace else.

So I wouldn’t say that government always should take the primary role in shaping or defining families, but we can and need to support families. We need to invest in programs like universal pre-K. We need to invest in paid sick-leave. We need to invest in initiatives that help get parents more involved in their child’s education. And unfortunately, at the moment, we’ve been moving in the wrong direction on all of these topics.

Yeah, I also find essential for this book’s overall narrative that hospital scene’s very next sentence, in which you say “I believe that, even as she was dying, my grandmother looked at her daughter and grandkids in that room and felt that her life had been a success.” If we think of American politics today as dividing not only along lines of race, gender, class, but also of age, of generation, what strongest case can you make that when people who are 25 right now, people 45, 65, 85 contribute to a society providing formative opportunities for today’s children (children, it’s probably worth noting, who perhaps look quite different than those adults, who perhaps will end up living quite different lives than those adults), these people are also making their own lives more fulfilling, more successful through that very contribution?

Well I do see many, many older Americans investing in our youngest generations. They often volunteer in their communities. They contribute to nonprofits working to improve young people’s lives. Many of them vote to fund better educational opportunities for kids, and so forth. They recognize that no single generation can stand on its own.

The fastest-growing demographic group in the U.S., for instance, is baby boomers now becoming senior citizens. As people in this group turn 65, they start receiving Social Security and Medicare. And for those assistance programs to succeed in the long run, to meet their funding obligations, we’ll need a strong, competitive workforce to support them. So at a very direct level, every person who relies on retirement assistance has an interest in bringing up skilled, well-educated, hardworking generations of young Americans to follow — especially if retirees hope to live out their golden years in a happy and healthy way.

Again in terms of such multigenerational projects, your grandma’s personal realization of an American dream didn’t involve a life free of obstacles, but a life of overcoming obstacles — a life that combined personal resilience and the need for broader civil-rights pushes happening throughout mid-20th-century America. Your mother’s life in many ways exemplifies this combination of personal and political resilience, as she eloquently articulates long-term civic commitments, efforts that stretch far beyond any given election cycle. And you yourself, as a young City Councilman a generation later, still need to re-learn these lessons of resilience, to recognize that no localized victory ever secures one’s political goals, that only a naive operator assumes that one’s rivals will just quietly respect “the democratic process.” Could you talk about why it seemed so important in our present to foreground these examples of fused personal and political resilience, and to try to think through how those two forces can most effectively come together? 

Behind just about any success story in our country (or almost anywhere, really) you can find a story of determination, of resilience in the face of setbacks. Certainly my own family faced plenty of setbacks. In my own life, I faced some setbacks. But the answer has always been to keep up the determination, to learn from your mistakes, to work hard and never give up. And I do think that these same lessons apply at whatever personal or broadly political level. Many folks feel (rightly so) that our country is headed in the wrong direction under this current administration, and want us to fight for an America where opportunity keeps getting expanded to more Americans, instead of contracted and reserved for the privileged few. To confront those present inequalities, my basic advice is to learn from past setbacks, and also to recognize that when you keep up the resilience, then progress will happen — as I’ve seen in my own life.

Another formative lesson learned from your mom involves “how to face something emotionally difficult and not look away.” In fact, this book dwells on personal anxieties much more than the typical political self-presentation does. “By the time I finished law school,” you write, “I had fully experienced the anxiety people often project about moving up to the next level in life. That fear doesn’t have to end in hitting your stomach’s eject button, but it can derail your life if you don’t push through it.” And An Unlikely Journey also tells us that, already by age 16, you had recognized how much of one’s political work gets “based on a vision of investing in and inspiring people.” So how might tracing your own emotionally precarious passage through various rites of class, multicultural, masculine, professional, political identity become its own form of investing in and inspiring your reader — and to what ends?

You’re right that I wanted to be honest, and to contribute a personal perspective that showed both wins and losses, hopes and doubts along the way. I especially wanted younger people reading this book to understand that when they experience self-doubt sometimes, when they don’t always feel so sure that they ever can accomplish something, that this is just a normal part of growing up and moving on to the next level in life.

For me, the best part of writing this book came from thinking about my family relationships and some of those setbacks we faced, and how we got through them. Again I want readers, especially young readers, to see that even with failure you have to face it down and not let it stop you from achieving your goals. We might live in a time when politicians often refuse to admit that they’ve ever done anything wrong, that they’ve ever dealt with failure, that they’ve ever been ignorant and needed to learn from others. I consider that kind of defensiveness unhealthy for our democracy. I’ve definitely seen, at a personal level, how sometimes the most insecure people feel the need to project this impression that they have everything under control — that they never have a bad day, they never need any kind of help from others. At the same time, I’ve observed that the most confident people know who they are, acknowledge both their failures and their successes, learn from mistakes, keep refining how they pursue their goals.

Well I mentioned your own sentimental education in part because An Unlikely Journey foregrounds an educational journey, but often not a journey preoccupied with classroom academics. Stanford and Harvard Law stand out for shaping your social, professional, political maturation as much as for providing some particular curriculum worth implementing nationwide. From first grade onwards, in fact, you seem perhaps most attuned to the life lesson that what mattered was “how the assignments gave me confidence that I was a good student.” And your own classroom teaching likewise addresses broader social conditioning, by pushing students to demand ever more from themselves. So if we identify you as a political leader committed to education as a top priority, could we start to parse a bit more concretely how the abstract concepts of “education” and of “opportunity” come together in this book? Does it ever seem helpful for us to unbundle these two concepts, perhaps so that we can deliver better on both of them? Or can you explain how / why you consider the everyday mechanisms of classroom instruction actually essential to the broader life lessons that this book privileges?

Increased education and increased opportunity often have gone together. But more and more today, we do see how that connection can break down. Plenty of folks who get a solid formal education still end up struggling in our country as rents keep rising, as healthcare costs keep climbing, as automation increases.

I still consider getting a good education, making that bet on yourself, the best way to help ensure that you can avail yourself of good opportunities when they do come your way, especially in a 21st century in which many jobs will continue to demand more and more skill. So I still would advise young people always to educate yourself as much as possible, specifically based on what you feel most passionate about. And I’m sure we both can picture people who didn’t receive the best formal education out there, but who still found their way to a lot of opportunity — maybe because they had a passion, maybe because they ended up in the right place at the right time, maybe because their network helped them. And we also can picture people with a tremendous amount of formal education, with tremendous talent, who just never got that opportunity.

Historically, of course, women and people of color might have gotten an excellent education without receiving the same opportunities as others. My grandmother and her generation in the Latino community often faced a real limit for how far they could go. My brother and I have gone far beyond that limit, because the United States has made tremendous progress in improving both the education we could get and the opportunities we could find. Our whole country needs much more of that.

Here I did note a broader tension, hinted at in that sentence about “moving up to the next level in life.” I see how helpful it can be for many Americans (both underprivileged and overprivileged Americans) to hear this aspirational story you tell. But when you put students at Fox Tech High School in touch with Harvard Law students, when you say of the Fox kids “They needed to know that they could be here if they put in the work and if they understood the pathway, the structure, that would get them here,” it stands out to me that, by definition, most people, the overwhelming majority of people, in fact cannot get accepted into elite institutions, no matter how many innovative programs like Pre-K 4 SA or Café College our most innovative leaders can think up. So could you place your laudable efforts to outline a blueprint for collective upward mobility within our real-life capitalist context that does provide perhaps unprecedented opportunities for certain individuals with supportive backgrounds and socially desirable talents to move up — but that seems to require, again by definition, somebody else to stay behind, or to drop below, if you yourself are going to keep “climbing”? Or how to combine this narrative of personal advancement with a positive-sum vision in which everybody moves up to that next level?

First, at the most foundational level, we need to make investments to ensure that our people have what they need to thrive in the 21st century: universal healthcare, universal pre-K, high-quality affordable housing for the middle class and for low-income families. We’ve strayed too far from those basic building blocks of success over the last few generations. Even back when the U.S. excluded so many of its people, you still saw a stronger commitment to some of these basic supports.

And today I do think we need to develop an updated blueprint that ensures that all of our people achieve a life of dignity, that all of us receive the opportunities befitting a human being living in the world’s wealthiest nation. It shouldn’t be such a stretch in the United States to follow the example of many countries around the world and provide comprehensive healthcare, to invest in early education, to ensure that folks can go to college and study hard and not graduate with a $100,000 debt. Everybody prospers, everybody’s dignity is enhanced, when we make those basic commitments to our people.

And then again on a more autobiographical level, your book’s success story fits a “politics of respectability” tradition in which somebody who has progressed from marginalized social status to a more elite position needs to navigate providing a (no-doubt necessary, no-doubt empowering) moral example for how one can overcome obstacles imposed by our unequal society, but without providing a moralizing account that assigns socio-economic status solely to how individuals have conducted their personal lives (as if impersonal discriminatory forces played no part). So in what ways can we consider the testimonial narrative you offer less an instruction-manual outlining the specific steps that every smart yet disadvantaged student should take, and more a metaphor that readers will need to apply creatively as they face down their own challenging circumstances?

I definitely would want to emphasize that everybody faces their own individual challenges, based on where they live, and what kind of support they get, and so many other factors that can make their experience far different from mine. But I do hope that this book’s readers can draw on a determination to overcome these challenges — even while acknowledging, like you said, that many of these challenges are not of our own making, that they’re systemic, that they’re deep-rooted.

I take pride in my family playing its part in pushing back both at a personal level and at a societal level, trying to make change to improve things. And this book’s subtitle “Waking Up from My American Dream” comes out of the realization that for this dream to remain possible, every generation has the responsibility to push this nation in the right direction. That idea inspired my mom as a Chicana activist, and that idea inspired my brother and I to build our lives around public service. So as you said, not everybody will go to Stanford and Harvard. And going to Stanford or Harvard doesn’t make you any better than anybody else. But I do hope for this book to hint at a broader vision of this country, in which each person can reach his or her dreams, whatever those dreams are.

The journey in An Unlikely Journey also consistently navigates what you describe as “insider” and “outsider” political dynamics. Your early public work in San Antonio shows you how effective government can transform a community for the better. And on the next page, you’ll describe your enhanced appreciation for how both of your parents “had worked so hard to increase political participation among the people who were most often left behind.” How / where have you seen the “insider” dynamics of governmental leaders (and bureaucrats) and the “outsider” dynamics of activists (and ordinary voters) best come together to achieve this perhaps most vital goal of a diversified citizenry feeling democratically enfranchised and empowered?

 You do need both the insiders and the outsiders to make progress. You need folks marching in the streets, and picketing, protesting — and you need the right people sitting around the dais at city hall, or at the company’s boardroom table, or in the halls of Congress. When you look at our country’s most memorable breakthrough legislation (whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or the Americans with Disabilities Act, or any number of legislative accomplishments), these all came about thanks to activism on the outside and to the courage of some folks on the inside to take that momentum and run with it. And of course change often happens much more slowly than we would like, but it happens because of this commitment from people on the outside to keep pushing forward. Eventually that takes hold with enough people in seats of power, and you can see the difference in our politics.

 San Antonio has faced a tremendous concern over the years, in terms of our educational achievements not measuring up to a lot of big cities’. I grew up in a school district at the heart of Supreme Court discussions about equitable funding for lower-income students. And then as mayor, to be able to get a sales-tax increase to fund pre-K education much more broadly meant building off the momentum of so much activism over the years. But it also meant having that seat at the table, as the mayor, and working with people in the business community willing to invest in our young people and to draw on the talents of our whole city.

Still at Stanford, questions of voter disenfranchisement help spark your political interests, though they don’t show up so explicitly later in the book. And I know you recently spoke at the Brennan Center. What else might you have said here, given additional time and space, specifically about voter suppression?

Again the enormous efforts that went into electoral reform are one of the fundamental differences between my mom running for City Council and failing to win at age 23, and me winning a seat 30 years later at age 26. We needed the federal government to extend Voting Rights Act protections to Latinos in 1975. We needed the creation of localized electoral districts in San Antonio in 1977. And even before all of that we’d needed the elimination of the Texas poll tax in 1966, which over time had enfranchised many more people. Each of these reforms made a tremendous difference in the ability of the Latino community to participate in elections. Each of these reforms ultimately led to increased political decision-making by Latino City Council members, state representatives, Congressional representatives. So I’ve been a personal beneficiary (both as a voter and as somebody in public service) of the electoral reforms achieved over many years by so many people, and I consider it my personal and my public responsibility to honor those efforts with my own commitment to our community and to our country.

We have much less of that blunt and blatant voter suppression today. But we do see in the U.S. many clever newer ways to discriminate against voters of color — and all claiming to prevent “voter fraud” that doesn’t even exist. We’ve seen so many examples of this in my home state of Texas. Or most recently, in Georgia, the secretary of state has held up 53,000 registrations (70% of them from African Americans), right before his election contest against Stacey Abrams, a historic candidate. So the first order of business for Democrats as they take back state legislatures and governorships in 2018 should be to make it easier and more convenient for eligible voters to go out and vote, and for those not registered to get registered to vote. We need to peel back all of these terrible and unnecessary regulations that have created a wall against voting.

And from your own most insider position to date, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, deploying a budget of $46 billion to fulfill your mandate of stimulating city neighborhoods, fostering job growth, improving citizens’ quality of life, could you outline some lessons you’ve learned that we might extend to an even broader national context including increasingly distressed ex-urban, small-town, and rural communities? Where do we still fail to see how challenges facing all of these respective communities overlap, and how they differ?

As HUD Secretary I traveled to more than 100 different communities in 39 states over two and a half years. And I found many similar challenges that communities big and small face. Again this boils down to shared human needs: the need for affordable housing, the need for transportation infrastructure to connect people to good jobs, the need for economic opportunity (whether you come from a small town or a Native American reservation or grow up in a big city). The most successful communities out there connect the dots among all of these issues — connecting education with housing with transportation with environmental concerns. So I advise leaders of local communities of almost any size to think through these issues holistically, to connect these dots. And at this present moment, as the federal government keeps scaling back its commitments, say on housing opportunity, local communities need to be the ones to put their foot on the gas. 

These local communities can issue bonds to provide revenue for affordable-housing creation. They can focus on eliminating homelessness. During the Obama administration, as part of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, for example, we had more than 30 communities reach functional zero on veteran homelessness. I just wish more communities were committing resources to local efforts in this way, because right now the federal government is not committing to the mission of improving opportunities in these local communities.

Then returning to the perennial need for personal and political resilience (to your recognition, say after Hillary Clinton picked Tim Kaine over you for vice-presidential candidate, that “in life, the road turns… And you don’t know how things are going to work out, and…oftentimes things can work out for the better”), and amid the sense of recent losses that many Democrats might feel, that many Americans of whatever political affiliation might feel, could you point to some potential turns in the road still hard to envision, but that you would recommend us taking (and please note: defeating Donald Trump in 2020 does not count as a potential turn hard to envision)?

Well if you think about an issue like marriage equality, in the mid-2000s, states were falling all over themselves to pass ballot initiatives banning marriage equality. But 10 years later marriage equality became the law of the land. Supposedly unlikely victories can happen when people keep working hard and pressing our society to change. Marriage-equality advocates kept on pushing, kept using every available means: the ballot box, the courtroom, public-opinion shaping. With all of those tireless efforts, something that might have seemed impossible actually came about quite quickly. And so right now we have a president who is so erratic, so destructive in many ways, so divisive. And in addition to voting him out of office in 2020, we need to continue laying the foundation for more people to participate in the democratic process and to press for change on issues that we all care about. Especially with our younger voters, you can just see that they’re fundamentally on the side of more tolerance, of government playing an active role in promoting equality and opportunity. That’s what makes me hopeful about the years to come.

In terms of specific issues I’d anticipate people talking about for the 2020 election, I think we’re going to hear strong support for universal healthcare. I think we’ll start having a much broader conversation about legalizing marijuana in this country. And I want us to talk through much more how to structure our response to an economy more dependent on automation than ever. Several months ago, when someone asked the Treasury Secretary about automation’s impact, the Secretary said: “Oh, that’s something we’ll need to concern ourselves with in the next 50 to 100 years” [Laughter]. But we’ll have driverless cars and trucks on the road within the next 5 to 10 years, if not sooner. A lot of drivers will get displaced from their jobs. And again, we’ll need policy that speaks to where we’re going, not just where we’ve been, and that can envision a secure place for all of us within that future.

Still on the topic of addressing broader national concerns, your introduction’s and epilogue’s response to the Trump administration’s immigration-detention policies offers this compelling formulation: “The country may be deeply divided along partisan lines, but…. If the highest officeholder in the land was going to implement a policy so flagrantly un-American, then Americans were going to push back.” I do, however, sense a slight rhetorical snag here. People pushing back in these ways should be able to consider themselves as American as anybody else in this country. But that doesn’t mean “Americans” as a general category have felt the need to push back. So could we take your incisive political observation that “People want to know how you can improve life not just for them but for their neighbors as well,” and can we assume that tens of millions of voters supporting Trump’s immigration policies actually think they’re working to improve life for their neighbors and to build a prosperous community, and can we pick up your former professor Luis Fraga’s challenge “So you have a policy that is obviously good for one group… But how do you articulate and convey that message to multiple groups in a way that would appeal to their own self-interest,” and could you make the case for why truly all Americans should push back against Trump’s detention policies?

Sure. First I’d say that when we allow the government to treat some people in a problematic way, we set a precedent that those in power will continue to expand on. And already today, we don’t only see abuses of power with regard to these children at the border — we see local law-enforcement abusing that power in a variety of related contexts.

I also would point to how it keeps becoming clearer and clearer that we need immigrants as a vital part of our workforce. You’ll see these spectacular examples of countries like Japan basically begging for a younger workforce. And the United States itself is aging. So we’re going to be asking people to come in and work. We’ll need them more than ever to come in and fill a lot of these jobs, especially over the next 10, 20, 30 years. So if you’re on Medicare, if you’re on Social Security, you have every interest in us cultivating a workforce and an economy that can fill these gaps. We can’t do that by walling ourselves off. We can’t do that by engaging in state-sponsored child abuse, like this current family-separation policy. That approach hurts you personally. That approach hurts your family. That approach hurts and will continue to hurt our economy. Everybody has an interest in our country treating people humanely. And everybody should recognize that forging a compromise on immigration, allowing for the workforce that the United States needs in a number of industries, will help ensure that older generations of Americans, now and in the future, can live out their years in a good fashion.

Photo of Julián Castro by Beowulf Sheehan
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