Election day 2014 is a big day for Williams College. In Massachusetts, Martha Coakley ’71 is running for governor. In Virginia, a pair of Ephs are battling each other for a spot in the US House of Representatives. And in San Francisco, twenty-nine-year-old Stevon Cook is making his first bid for elected office as a candidate for the city’s School Board.
In many ways Cook’s story is the most remarkable. Born and raised in public housing in San Francisco’s Bay View region, Cook struggled to find his way in a world set against him. He was educated in failing public schools, saw drugs and alcohol break apart families of friends and loved ones, and watched as many of his childhood peers lost hope for a better future.
After stints in banking and politics, Cook found his calling working in the same schools that failed so many of his peers. He overcame numerous challenges along the way, including a period where he took odd jobs off Craigslist and maxed out credit cards in order to pay the bills. I met Cook near his home in San Francisco in July to learn about the ups and downs of his remarkable journey.
What has your journey looked like after Williams?
Spring of my senior year, I got an offer from City Hall Fellows in San Francisco – a program similar to Teach For America, where graduates from top schools are put in positions in local government.
I felt this sense of prestige because I got selected to this position that was difficult to get. When I started, however it was just like any entry-level job. I spent the first part of that year struggling. It’s a common transition issue that college graduates have – you go from a place where things are always new and exciting to something that is repetitive and ongoing. On the surface, I was working on these big issues, but I didn’t feel like I had an entry point to have an impact on those issues.
While I was there, I got compelled by a lot of the issues that were effecting the communities that I grew up in. I was looking for a way to address those issues. At first I thought that would be wealth creation, so I decided to take a job at a bank. I thought I’d be able to meet people coming through the door and help them finance buying their homes and starting businesses. It ended up being entirely a sales job. It wasn’t about helping real people.
By chance, I went back and played basketball with one of my teachers from my old high school I told him about where I was at, and he encouraged me to come back and take a job as an academic advisor at the school. I’ve never worked harder in my life, but I felt like I was doing good work. I ran a Saturday school program, I helped out at after school programs, I was calling parents every night – I felt like we were making some real inroads.
At the same time, I started to see how students got disengaged, why teachers were frustrated with new ideas, and how important it is to get all the stakeholders aligned. I decided that this was going to be my life’s work.
After Thurgood Marshall, I went to the San Francisco Education Fund and started to work with schools around the city, coordinating services for schools, bringing in new resources to partner with schools, and taking on more leadership roles across the city. I’ve been there since 2010. I realized that there was no one in the educational policy world in San Francisco who came from my lived experience – born into poverty, broken home by drugs and alcohol, went to public schools that were all considered underperforming. People really embraced that and wanted to put me in a place to get more exposure.
If our institutions are really going to do all they can to lift people out of poverty, we need to focus on doing the basics well. I got to Williams because at some point along the line, I had people reach out and love me and support me and believe in me. The work has to be rooted in that. Those issues led me to run for San Francisco School Board.
How is the campaign going so far?
It’s crazy how well it’s going. I’m the youngest candidate in the race. We just raised over $45,000, which is unheard of for a first-time candidate. I think I’m in a great position to win, but anything can happen.
What do you see as the big problems facing the school system?
We want to send kids to compete in a 21st century economy. We want the public school system to compensate for issues in home lives to get people there. We want to see the achievement gap close. I want to create an institution that will create better life options for young people no matter who you are or where you come from.
When you were at Williams, did you think about other paths that you might go on and what motivated you to come back to San Francisco?
The people who would be most surprised that I’m running for public office would be the people I went to college with because I was not that type of person at Williams. When I thought about life after college, I mostly thought about going more conventional paths. There were people in my class getting huge signing bonuses, and I got caught up wanting to do that. A friend convinced me to apply to law school – I applied to 9 schools and got rejected from all of them. I was open to anything that sounded like it would be important.
Do you ever wish that you had gotten one of the more standard, higher paying jobs?
I have absolutely no regrets. That’s why I’m ok talking about getting rejected from law school – I used to not tell anyone about that.
Before I got to Williams, I pictured myself getting into politics after graduation. Once I got there, I felt challenged and intimidated academically early on. I started to grow into my own as time went by. What I got from Williams more than anything was the ability to think critically and figure out ways that I can have an impact on an issue. It was instilled in me that I could take on big projects and be ok with failure and still bounce back.
How were you able to establish yourself and learn about different fields?
When I left college, I had a sit down with a mentor who asked me what my most valuable asset was. I said, ‘I own some stocks, I can speak in public.’ He said, ‘no, your most valuable asset is your Williams degree. That gives you currency in a lot of places. I want you to write an email to 200 alumni. Out of those, maybe 100 will get back to you, maybe you’ll build meaningful relationships with 3 or 4. Those are relationships you wouldn’t have access to without Williams.’ So I did that. It got into my mind to start building relationships. I wanted to hear about how they got where there were and to bounce my ideas off of them. People took an interest in helping me grow professionally and guide me along.
How have you come to define success for yourself?
Initially I wanted a home before I was 25, to be able to retire if I wanted by the time I was 35, to have a home in another country. I had all of these material associations with success. I feel like I have found my purpose in life now. I’m trying to put myself in a position to do that work. I know that I’m most happy when I am in a place where I can have a meaningful impact on a complex, challenging space – that’s education for me. When we do the work well, people can go on to have meaningful lives.
Ultimately, I think finding what you love and doing that is the best way. You hear that from a lot of successful people – Warren Buffet, Bill Gates. It’s easy for them to say because they’re making hella billion dollars. But, as someone who doesn’t make that much, I think that is the one true way. I know people who follow money with a more calculated decision, and they tell me that they are envious of the way I’m able to make a difference.
What advice would you give to Williams students who are preparing to go into the real world?
When I was first starting out, a Williams alum told me to go wherever there’s the greatest need. Whenever you’re thinking about what to do, ask yourself where can I go that is the greatest need – that can be within a company or within a particular issue that you care about. You will learn the most from those places. You should go there with the mindset that you are going to learn more than you will at first be able to give. You are smart, but there is a lot of learning you need to do, and you have to be committed to that.
I especially want to speak to the middle of the road students. For me, it was easy to feel beat down because I wasn’t the top of the class. You don’t need another degree to validate your success. Don’t do something you’re not comfortable with just to follow this idea of prestige. If you do great work, people will recognize you for that and you’ll be in a position to help people.
For people who are a few years out and haven’t found something they love, it’s important to stay encouraged and keep looking. People are much more willing to talk to you and help you out than you might think. You’re still early in your career and people want to help you along the way. Send an email, do a cold call – the worst that can happen is they say no. The communities that I work with didn’t come easily, it took a lot of trial and error to find one that fit. Now that I’m locked into a place where I work with people who share my ambitions, I’m grateful for the time that it took for me to get there. It was not failed time.