Shirley Weber is the Secretary of State of California. She was previously a member of the California State Assembly for the 79th Assembly District. Before joining us as a panelist for the Zócalo event “Is This What Direct Democracy Looks Like?”—presented in partnership with the Berggruen Institute, the Public Policy Institute of California, and the Pepperdine School of Public Policy—she sat down in our green room to talk about Viola Davis, being a gamer, and growing up with seven siblings.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Those who made it in Arkansas became teachers because it was one of the professions that women could enter. They could be a librarian, they could be a teacher, they could be a nurse. There wasn’t much more in the South. And so that's why you had a lot of folks going into teaching. And so, for me, to aspire to be a teacher was like the highest thing you could really do for women in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I loved to learn, and I loved school. I actually started teaching on my back porch. I got a chalkboard for a gift and kids came by, and we had school after school, and I, like a nut, did everybody's homework.
Did you have a favorite teacher growing up?
I had several really wonderful teachers at different stages in my life. I remember, though, that there was a teacher named Mrs. Johnson, who was a third-grade teacher. And third grade is always really important because you’ve got to learn to read and what have you. And she was stern—she was stern. But everyone learned to read in Mrs. Johnson's class—everyone. I remember her so well because of that. But I remember all of my teachers; they were all amazing.
What’s one way you like to spend your free time?
I love to play games—cards, dominoes, you name it. But I spend a tremendous amount of time on my phone playing games that are language games; I get up every morning, and I have certain games that I do to make sure I'm not going crazy, that I have not gotten Alzheimer's, that I'm still able to function. And so I do Sudoku; I do this thing called Word Match first thing in the morning. Then I know, OK, I don't have Alzheimer's yet. I'm good. I can go forth and do what I gotta do.
Where’s one place you’d like to travel, if you could go anywhere in the world right now?
The only place left is Alaska. I want to see all the stuff before it melts! I was actually scheduled to go in 2020. I understand our tickets are still good till sometime this year, so that's something I want to do. But most of the places that I've really wanted to go, I've gone. I’ve been to Egypt; a lot of the African countries—maybe 15 or 20—that I've wanted to see for various cultural reasons. So I've traveled a lot, and done most of it in the last 20-25 years. And we drove across country a lot as kids and as an adult.
What's the most essential thing for a road trip?
Well, if you're going to drive across country, have a car that works. That helps immensely unless you want to spend your life on a tow truck. It helps to have a car, too, that is an American car that people can fix. I remember driving across country, and we were in our first Volvo, and we got to Texas. This was the mid-‘80s, and there weren’t a lot of places to get them fixed. This guy opened up the hood and says, God dang! What is this? After [I told my husband], we're not going to cross country again with this kind of car. We’re gonna rent a car, and go with a Ford, a Buick, or something that the people in Texas can fix. I didn't need to make a fashion statement about the car that I was driving, I just wanted a good one that would get me there.
What's the last book you read that you loved?
I’m reading Viola Davis’ [memoir Finding Me]; it’s an incredible book. There were so many things about her life that were similar to mine, but also weren't. She was very, very poor. We were poor but we had other elements in our life that were much more stable, like my father worked every day, and he didn't drink or do drugs. But the feeling that she had of being poor and not having access to resources, the teasing of kids at school, those kinds of things. You go through that when you're poor, because kids oftentimes are mean; they say what they’re going to say; they don't have a tendency to filter. The meanest children were quite visible in her book. That's what affected me the most. Society dumps on you. But then the people that you know every day—that you see, that you interact with—can dump on you as well. And oftentimes they do because they feel very insecure themselves. We have to be very, very conscious of kids. And we have to make sure that our kids are conscious of kids; that we raise them to be kind, and we don't just say, oh, that’s just kids being kids. Because the impact is devastating in people's lives.
You’re the sixth of eight kids in your family. What's your best advice for growing up with multiple siblings?
If you pay attention to what happens when you're in a large family, and you really pay close attention to it, you become a much better person as a result of having to live with so many people. And you learn to adapt, you learn what things are important, what things are not. You learn how to survive and how to navigate, you learn how to take care of yourself. I don't freak out over little things. Even when there's a crisis. I'm probably the calmest person in the room. I don't just internalize stuff forever, because if you do that in a family of eight kids, you lose your freaking mind.