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.AG Bonta Talks ‘People Power’ in Oakland

California Attorney General discusses activism, action and unity at Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture

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On Feb. 8, Rob Bonta gave the keynote speech at the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture held at Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland. During his speech, Bonta shared his journey from being a “brown boy born in the Philippines” to his appointment as the 34th Attorney General of California by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021.

Before becoming the first Filipino and second Asian-American to occupy the position, Bonta moved from the Philippines as an infant with his family; first to Los Angeles, then to Bakersfield, where his working-class parents earned $5 a week setting up healthcare clinics and organizing protests as members of the United Farm Workers of America. 

Eventually relocating to Sacramento, Bonta recalled riding in the family car past the Capitol building, wondering how a person gained entry into its hallowed halls and why no one inside resembled the people in his family or the communities in which they lived.

“I still can’t believe it,” he told an East Bay audience during the Q&A following his presentation. The event, co-produced by the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center and Peralta Community College District—a church—caused Bonita to add a confession, apropos the location. He sometimes goes to the State of California Department of Justice website to make sure his name is still listed and, finding it is, is only partially reassured.

As an elected official, Bonta is reminded his term in office is limited, which lends urgency to him achieving his goals: to do good, address injustice, cause change and more than anything else, to listen well in order to improve people’s lives and workplaces.

Bonta attributes his aspirations to lessons learned during his upbringing as the second child of a Filipino mother who emigrated to the United States, and of his father, who grew up in Ventura County. The couple met in Berkeley in 1965 and throughout his youth, Bonta observed his parent’s devotion to civil rights and civic activism. From them, he absorbed critical, foundational, “people power” beliefs.

“We have agency. We don’t have to accept the unacceptable,” he said. “If something’s unjust, we can change it. If there’s pain, we can ease it. If there’s a wrong, we can right it.” Later, he added, “Our power is even more potent when we do it together.”

It’s fair to say his core principles mirror those of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center, which community leaders founded in 1995 in East Oakland. With a mission to educate and empower the next generation of leaders, the nonprofit center offers a multitude of programs, classes and boots-on-the-ground experiences which seek to promote ethical practices, personal responsibility, non-violent activism, broad social knowledge and understanding, and highly engaged civil rights awareness.

The community lecture series launched by Congresswoman Barbara Lee and former Oakland mayor Elihu Harris draws its theme from the title of a 1967 book written by Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

Before introducing Bonta, Rev. Antoine Shyne established the tone of the evening, providing a warm welcome, but also quoting poet William E. Stafford by saying, “The darkness around us is deep.” Rev. Shyne paired the line with “No one person can achieve victory by themselves,” a 1967 quote from Martin Luther King Jr., in which the civil rights leader reminded people that fighting fascism demanded unified action.

Harris subsequently took the pulpit and assumed the role of challenger. “You gotta get your minds straight and your ears open because we are in a dilemma that requires all of our attention and all of our efforts,” he said. “Tonight we want to make sure we are focused on not only our history but our present and our future.”

Bonta acknowledged the people who attended the lecture series in-person or virtually on a YouTube livestream with the words, “because you believe in ‘we’ and in ‘us,’ instead of ‘I’ and ‘me.’ You believe in our shared community and common future and how we build it together.”

Crediting Congresswoman Lee as the East Bay’s “warrior in Washington” and “conscience in Congress,” Bonta thanked Harris for the many times the elder statesman had provided wise counsel and support. Bonta’s boldest expressions of appreciation went to the Freedom Center for “believing in young people,” including members of his immediate family.

Bonta is married to Mia Bonta, a California State Representative representing the 18th Assembly District since 2021. Together they are the parents of two daughters and a son: Reina, Iliana and Andres. His daughters participated in MLKFC activities, and Bonta told the crowd he and his wife are encouraging their son to get involved.

Blending personal stories and professional messages throughout the evening, Bonta’s words pointed like dual arrows at the audience’s hearts and intellects. He said eight years in the state legislature required he travel all over California, a “gift” that taught him the importance of listening.

Witnessing statewide talent and spirit unfold over real-time left him convinced Oakland and the East Bay have a unique energy and are committed to identifying broken systems and working to make them more fair and just. Key to that drive to preserve democracy, according to Bonta, is its application to everyone; “no matter who we are, where we’re from, how we look, how we pray, who we love, what our zip code is, or how much money we have.”

His appeal to the minds of people is a skill that could be attributed to his years spent at Yale. He graduated with honors from the university before attending Yale Law School and eventually becoming Deputy City Attorney for the city and county of San Francisco.

Bonta said the Department of Justice, where he currently works, “was for too long a community of people in suits who didn’t know and weren’t known by the community they serve.” He named bureaus he created as attorney general to work on issues such as environmental degradation, gun violence and more. Listening to the people is critical, he emphasized, suggesting the atmosphere in Congress and on social media is “a cacophony” of falsities, fallacies and divisive discourse.

“So many folks are wanting to point their finger and blame,” Bonta said. “In the meantime, the solutions aren’t being crafted and the problem persists. We see that a lot in Congress. There’s more interest in a thousand ‘likes’ and social posts than there is in delivering a real resolution. [Legislative bodies] are designed and supposed to be places where people come from different perspectives, locations and values, and [have] different views on how to solve problems. The whole idea is that the collective body is stronger than the individual. That requires listening.”

Turning from bleak to emboldened, Bonta said, “We don’t need the cavalry to save us. The people experiencing a problem are most often closest to the solution.” Asked by members of the audience to describe the elements of de-siloing and working effectively together, his answers included “choose not to believe in the zero-sum fallacy that says you must fall or fail for me to rise up,” and that with an attitude of “your success is my success” and with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences at the table, the best solutions can be discovered.

Offering practical advice, Bonta supported “feet on the street” activism including more demonstrations, rallies and marches; pushing the levers of legislative power by voting for leaders committed to democracy and demanding action and accountability; and increased community conversations patterned on the evening’s discussion that fostered deliberation, dialogue, and people coming together in good faith to move deliberately and peacefully to find solutions leading to long-term change.


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