SAN FRANCISCO — City Hall oozed UC Davis blue and gold last Thursday (Aug. 8).
First, Chancellor Gary S. May and other UC Davis officials visited our alumna mayor, London Breed, in her second-floor office. Then, in the South Light Room on the first floor, the chancellor and the mayor discussed their UC Davis experiences — hers dating back to 1992; his going back two years — in the inaugural event of the Aggie Leadership Series sponsored by the Office of Development and Alumni Relations.
More than 125 other invited alumni and friends of the university attended a reception and the program, breaking into applause at the chancellor’s mention of UC Davis’ high rankings and his description of Breed as “a shining example of what can be accomplished through hard work and determination” and a role model for UC Davis students.
Afterward, the mayor showed her Aggie Pride by lighting City Hall’s exterior in the UC Davis colors from the walls to the top of the dome, 307 feet high.
Breed, born and raised in San Francisco, took office in that building as a newly elected member of the Board of Supervisors in 2013. She rose to president of the board, and, as such, in December 2017 succeeded Ed Lee as mayor upon his death. Six months later she won a special election to complete his term, which runs until January 2020. She’ll be running again in November of this year, for a full, four-year term.
As for being the city’s first female African American mayor, she cautioned, “It’s not just about being the first, it’s also remembering that ... I can’t be the last.” She’s also cognizant of the fact she is only the second woman to serve as mayor, after now-Sen. Dianne Feinstein more than 30 years ago. “With that comes an incredible amount of responsibility, to make sure that we are doing a better job of cultivating leadership, cultivating the next generation of young people so that they can be ... empowered to know that no matter their circumstances, no matter where they’ve come from, they can do whatever they want to do.”
Agents of change
Her own entry into public service came about when she decided at UC Davis that chemistry was not for her, she told the audience. She had also been taking political science classes — and eventually decided to major in that, with an emphasis in public service.
“We studied a lot about Sacramento and what was going on there, and term limits and how they were created ... and Willie Brown became mayor of San Francisco, and all this stuff started happening in the world of politics,” she said.
“I really wanted to do something that would change my community, because I grew up in poverty, and I grew up where there was really a lot of violence and a lot of challenges. And, I thought, ‘Well, this could help me change my community.’”
She talked about having professors who asked a lot of questions that “forced you to think about things in the world and why they came to be, and that really was an incredible experience for me because I didn’t really, before that, think about things in that way. I just did things and didn’t really think about it.
“And now I was forced to think about it, and the decisions, and how it impacts people’s lives as a way to really change things, and that really set me, I think, on the course to this role that I have now.”
In a similar vein, Chancellor May talked about his pride in UC Davis students’ awareness of social challenges and “willingness to go out and be a part of the solution to those challenges.”
“And our students, whether they’re in engineering or political science, or in law or medicine, they really have a strong sense of community engagement,” he said.
“I don’t know what we did ... to make that happen, but I want to make sure I don’t ruin it and mess it up, because it’s really I think a distinguishing characteristic of the university,” he concluded, earning a hearty round of applause.
‘Where are the people?’
Besides switching majors, Mayor Breed said she had another big adjustment to make at UC Davis, recalling how quiet the campus was. Upon arriving by Greyhound bus (it was an affordable option for her travels between home and school), she wondered, “Where are the people?”
She eventually found them, including those with whom she developed close friendships. She studied late nights with them and had fun with them, and that’s what ultimately “made me feel good about being an Aggie.”
Moderator Dan Brown ’92, a Bay Area sportswriter and author, asked what the mayor might have learned about collaboration at UC Davis, noting how this trait is useful to politicians.
Without hesitation, the mayor looked at her college girlfriends in the front row. “The collaboration was, ‘You cook the cornbread, you cook the Rice Krispie Treats’, and then we would spread all our stuff out and talk about things,” she said. “We’d talk about things but we also had to stay focused.
“And my friend Monica is so funny, we always called her Mama Monica, because Mama Monica made us study. We didn’t want to study. But to me that was the collaborative approach” — and it extended into pushing one another and collaborating “on how we are going to get the best out of one another.”