Students Interview John Laird, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources

For many years now, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources, John Laird, has taken time to come to Mount Madonna School and speak with the junior and senior classes. He has given his entire working career to public service: Santa Cruz city council, mayor, assemblyman, and now member of the Governor’s cabinet, to name only a few of the positions he’s held. I keep inviting John back because he represents the best qualities of those who serve in our government. He is authentic, a clear thinker, someone who invests in his relationships with the community, he cares deeply about social justice and the environment, and has the capacity to find principal compromise in most situations. I also like the fact that he has a great sense of humor and seems to delight in the work that he does. He has a very broad knowledge from the work that he’s done of most areas that are important to the people of California. He relates to the students in a way that lets them know that he respects them. John is a natural teacher and storyteller and someone students just like to hang out with. I’m grateful for his friendship and his willingness to talk to the students, in the midst of managing a huge and diverse department with multiple issues and many pieces of legislation in play. – Values program founder and co-teacher Ward Mailliard 

A Student’s Perspective

By Julia Gratton, 12th grade
John Laird knows how to tell a good story. From our first question to the last, the thirty or so of us – juniors, seniors and teachers – did not feel as if we were crammed into the Values classroom in concentric circles of office chairs and backjacks under long florescent lights. Instead, we were going to campaign dinners with Laird and his husband, finding our way to the office blocked by Schwarzenegger’s photo ops, and having a job interview with Governor Jerry Brown. Although our teacher Ward Mailliard tells us constantly that we are going to Washington, D.C. to meet the humans behind the politics, and I know in my mind that he is right, I can never imagine the people we interview as living, feeling, storytelling people until we are gathered in a room together. That, I think, is the beauty of the Washington, D.C. trip.
Even as someone who cares about politics and the decisions made that affect my country, I can’t help but feel a sense of disconnect from the complexity and distance of the federal government. From this coast, it is possible to see the web – a sort of shimmering and somewhat untrustworthy miasma – but not the individual drops of dew on the strands.
The question I had spent the preparation time refining had to do with how he has been so effective in office. It had come up in research and from our teacher’s knowledge that Mr. Laird is extremely good at getting things done. In his time in Assembly, for instance, he authored eighty-two bills that were signed into law. The advice he offered in response was grounded in the simple realities of relationship and commitment, however he brought these truisms to life with personal examples. He explained how he made it a point to schedule a half-hour appointment with each new Republican State Assembly Member when they start their terms. Last time, he said, this took him three months to get through everybody. This truly impressed me.
Mr. Laird has a level of dedication to forming and maintaining relationships for the benefit of all that I have not seen before. By telling his own story with examples like this, he never forced advice upon us, but rather painted a picture of one way of living a meaningful life. Even more than anything he said, I will remember how he spoke with sincerity and respect.
Mr. Laird’s willingness to return to Mount Madonna again and again has been true to his belief in the importance of building and maintaining productive relationships. After his visit, he wrote a beautiful Facebook post that astounded me one last time with the regard he pays to us as youth. He said: “Yesterday I began the day at Mount Madonna School, speaking to Ward Mailliard’s class. I do it every year – and they are an amazingly well-informed group that asks great questions about public policy and how our government system does or doesn’t work. It gives me hope knowing that they will be out in the world with their knowledge and values.”
Photos by Ward Mailliard