There’s a quote I like by Howard Gossage. He was an advertising man in San Francisco back in the 50s and 60s, a period of time and a profession that’s inextricably linked with New York City and excess and self-indulgence because of the show Mad Men. But where Don Draper and Roger Sterling and all the other fictional mad men leaned into self-importance and the supposed importance of their work, Gossage had more noble aspirations, and that shows in this quote. Anyway, here it is. “Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man.”
If you know my mom’s personal history, you know that she’s a graduate of Stanford University. When she was there, she was very active in the Chicano student organization, MEChA. She protested, she picketed, she shouted.
My mother was a congressional intern in Washington DC the summer Nixon was to be impeached. After college, she attended the UC Berkeley School of Law. It was her father’s wish that she become a lawyer, something that he really wanted for himself, but that was not right for her.
In DC and in law school, and even amongst the other students at Stanford, my mother saw people who abstracted themselves from the work of serving others. They maintained an intellectual distance between themselves and those who most needed their aid and assistance. And this is not to say that there is not value in being a lawyer or a politician or a professor. Rather, it is only to say that for my mother, the oldest of nine children, the first in her family to receive a college education, a parental figure and a role model to her siblings and to their children and to their children’s children, it was not enough.
My mother has served the county of Alameda and its people for over 25 years now. In that time, she has helped countless children and families get the aid and assistance they need to make the most of their lives. She has been a protector, a counselor, a friend. She wore these titles not just because they were her job, but because to serve has been her vocation, her calling. There is no doubt in my mind that in another life, my mother could have been a lawyer, a representative, a senator, a tenured professor. But in this life, those professions were not active enough, were not hands-on enough. There was too much distance between herself and the people whose worlds needed changing.
The work was never easy. I grew up seeing the wear and tear it placed on my mother physically and spiritually. I don’t doubt that there were times when she questioned if it was worth it, if she could go on doing it, if it made any difference when cycles of abuse and poverty and neglect never resolved no matter how much work was put in. But I know that to her clients, to the people of Alameda county, her work, and the work all of you do, can mean everything. It’s not just the World with a capital W that you change, but many small worlds as well, thousands of them over the course of a career. For you, it was the only fitting work, and success was not measured in bills passed, or students taught, or cases won, but in lives saved.
And so now, as she’s retiring, I would tell her to rest, but I know that she won’t. Not for longer than it takes to recharge her batteries, to do some things for herself that she’s been putting off, and to travel a little bit.
After all, there are still many good years left to her, and there is still good work to be done.