Pando Awards ’24 keynote: Betty Yee

Betty Yee delivers keynote at the 2024 Pando Sustainability Awards addressing the intersection of young people, civic engagement, and hope. Photo credit: Cyndi Bemel.

Pando Awards ’24 keynote: Betty Yee

By   |  May. 15, 2024

Betty Yee is no stranger to navigating the intersection between policy and pragmatism. As the State Controller of California from 2014 to 2023, she has overseen the budget for what would qualify as the fifth largest economy in the world if California were a sovereign nation, and has sat on the California State Lands Commission. She has also served as the Female Vice Chair of the California Democratic Party since 2021.

Emigrating from China in 1956, she helped keep the books at her family’s neighborhood dry-cleaning business, later combining those practical skills with a strong sense of civic engagement. She worked on the boards of the nation’s two largest public pension funds, the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System, towards their adoption of net-zero pledges for their investment portfolios.

Delivering the keynote speech at the 2024 Pando Days Award Ceremony, held at Cal Tech on April 14, she urged the students and faculty gathered there as participants to “Build the future you want to inhabit.”

Identifying the intersecting problems facing the Southland today, she praised the multidisciplinary approach employed by the Pando Days projects on exhibit. 

“In the company of so many who are dedicated to making an impact on the social health and environmental challenges across the Southland, I think we would all agree that being in this space of old ideas and big dreams and new possibilities is the antidote to so many of the ills that we are experiencing and witnessing around us: widening inequality, housing [un]affordability, environmental degradation, systemic racism, division and hatred, political polarization, gun violence, drought, war and so much more. And the social isolation and trauma that has ensued because of these challenges.

“And as these projects that we’re hearing about come to scale, as we see how broad our reach can be with these initiatives that our young people are putting together, there’s nothing that can stop us. Our institutions are being threatened because there has been a fundamental breakdown in trust. How we rebuild that is through initiatives like Pando which are being informed by science, being informed by research, being very much informed by the experiences and backgrounds and histories of the very people right here in the Southland. And no one can take that away from us.

“This really is the brilliance of Pando. It’s in the young developing minds taking by storm so many of the challenges that they are seeing and living every day. But it is also in the fact that we have so many institutions and supports that all are declaring together that we can and will build a better and brighter Los Angeles. And the power of that vision, where everyone can see themselves in it thriving, is really the power of Pando.

“The late John Lewis used to talk fondly about Rosa Parks reminding him to get into ‘good trouble.’ But if we were seeing any injustice or unfairness or just something that wasn’t right – and both of them saw a lot that wasn’t right in their world around them – we had an obligation to speak up, and to act on that. Good governance starts right here in our communities by the very people who are witnessing what is happening around us and have the knowledge and the power and the capacity to create positive change. And with the multi-sectoral support that is here, we know that we will accelerate, we will elevate, we will compass scale, and this will be the model for the rest of the world. California is still looked to as the place where innovation starts.

“How do we deliver positive change? This is our challenge, not just for the century but for today. It is that urgent. We have the tools around us to do, and I think about good governance first and foremost – about how we engage the broadest array of people who have something to say about what we’re trying to solve. And I’m a huge believer of proximate leadership. Those closest to the issues and challenges being felt are probably going to be the best architects of the solutions, and we are meeting so many of you here today.

“I also believe that in an era of finite resources, the one resource that is not finite is all of us. It is our brain trust, our human potential, our human resources. This is what we bring to the table. When I look at the issue of equity and how all of our work now needs to be centered on equity, it is about every single person having an opportunity to improve or maintain their wellbeing. And this will come naturally in terms of the work that you do.”

Less often discussed, but just as critical to the Pando Days approach from her perspective as a lifelong public servant, is how it helps to shape genuine community leadership.

“Frankly,” she said, “I happen to think Pando is onto something even more important, that is going to do wonders for us as a society. It is incubating how to build a healthier democracy.

“You are all going to change up how we govern for the future because governing happens right here on the ground. Governing happens when we can have the broadest engagement among those who are living these challenges.

“We often hear the term, think globally, act locally. I think we’re going to change that up where we’re actually thinking locally, acting locally and knowing, because we are Pando, that our impact will be spreading globally. And this is where I think the power of Pando can’t be understated.”

She pointed out that, in her estimation, the country has reached a critical point of reckoning in how it chooses to govern – a reckoning that is mirrored in societies around the world.

“When I talk about democracy, I think about all of the institutions that have carried us as a democracy. And for me, most importantly, as someone who didn’t speak English until she entered kindergarten, our public education system, how we are learning today is going to matter in terms of how we are going to rebuild this democracy. And when we see so many of our institutions being threatened, we have to be innovative about what these new models of learning are going to be.

“So I’m happy that educational impact is one of the pillars of Pando. It is essential for our democracy to know that our young people are going to be exposed in ways where they can think about their place in our communities and in our society. They can think with discernment about who is actually working in concert with their own interests and looking to better their lot in life.

“And when we see attacks on our democracy, this is not just a political issue. This is very much a global issue that is affecting all of society. Our sustainability plan for Los Angeles County gives us a blueprint to work with, and this gives me great hope, because not only are we looking to incubate democracy, but we really are bettering the world at the same time. We do this work now with tremendous urgency, knowing there is no luxury now of thinking linearly, that everything we do has to have a triple, quadruple bottom line.

“Look, I’ve been a nerd and a geek and a policy monk for 40 years and I will tell you change comes with a lot of difficulty. And so my favorite place is really on the ground. It’s where I grew up and it’s where I am most comfortable. And I hope all of you feel that way too, because that’s where I see changes in governance that really are going to help.

“Something that I really take to heart is that we ought not be afraid of inviting strict accountability for what we do. This is the hallmark of a democracy. There is room for feedback, there’s room for criticism, there’s room for improvement, and there’s always room for constructive dialogue. And when we can put ourselves in this space of where we understand that the work that we do has impact beyond just the communities that we are a part of, there is nothing that can stop us, nothing.

“We’ve talked a lot about interconnectedness today and yes, that is what Pando Days is about, all the many trunks and roots that are interconnected. But as I think about what it means in terms of our daily work and our daily lives, it is the fact and I think it was heightened during the pandemic that it all not stop because we are out of the pandemic and that is each of us is essential to the other.

“What I love about Pando is that everyone in this room is an equal peer. We share power and we share it with a declaration that we will and we must build a better Los Angeles. The reach of Pando will be across the globe and I am so taken by all the young people here today. You will soon see just how impactful your work is.

“Know that you are the architects of how we are going to rebuild our democracy and the world will be watching. Because whether it’s new democracies, broken democracies, those who are at war now, they are going to need to think about what their democracies look like the day after. Thank you so much for all you do to make this such a much more hopeful place, but more importantly for just taking on the responsibility of repairing our role.”

Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.