Life was on an upswing for Michael Tubbs in the fall of 2010. He was attending Stanford University on a full scholarship and interning with the White House’s office of intergovernmental affairs, working with mayors and city councils across the country, when he got a call that changed both his perspective and his career path.

His cousin had been murdered on Halloween in Stockton, Calif., the crime-ridden city where Michael was born to a teenage mom and an incarcerated dad.

“I never felt more powerless in my life,” he recalls during a recent phone interview. “I thought, ‘How come all of this great stuff is happening to me while own family was dying back home?’” It made me pause and think about my goals and what I wanted to do.”

Violence was a way of life in Stockton, which Fortune magazine once declared the worst city in America. The city of 300,000 averaged more murders, per-capita, than Chicago or Afghanistan. Determined to make a difference, the 2008 Coca-Cola Scholar decided to one day return home and run for office.

“I just had no idea it would happen so soon,” Tubbs said.

In 2012, while he was still in college, Tubbs ran to represent Stockton’s 6th District on the city council during a year of record homicides and impending bankruptcy. He was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and eventually won, becoming one of the nation’s youngest elected officials. His campaign to reinvent his hometown was captured in a documentary film, True Son, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.

We caught up with the 23-year-old on his way to an afternoon meeting to learn more about his remarkable journey…

Growing up, did you have political aspirations?

When I was young, I wanted to be a three-sport athlete, lead marches and give speeches, and become president one day. I knew I wanted to be successful. The common thread throughout my life is that I’ve always been interested in working with people, being a part of a team and making things happen. Now that I'm older, I'm still unsure as to what exactly I want to do, but I know I want to make an impact.

Michael Tubbs
Speaking at the Coca-Cola Scholars Leadership Summit in 2013.

You interned at Google and the White House while at Stanford. What did those experiences teach you?

A lot! At Google, I learned project management, how to interact with others, and the importance of transparency and communication. At the White House, I did outreach to mayors and councils. It gave me a firsthand look at what people were doing at a local level. It was really inspiring. I thought, “Wow, people are making changes” and realized the importance of local politics. But while I gained a respect and appreciation for local government, I didn’t see myself in that role until my cousin was murdered.

So you ran for city council before graduating college? What did you learn during the campaign?

Yep, January of my senior year. I was finishing up my master’s and writing my honor thesis. It was a crazy time! The campaign taught me a lot about people. I learned that everyone wants to be a part of something. I also learned a lot about myself, including how to deal with rejection. A lot of the lessons I learned at Google came to life during my campaign. This culture of iteration… of trying something and, if you mess up, learning from the experience. Failure is never a destination; it’s part of the journey. I learned a lot about myself and what I was made of. I learned the importance of working as a team, as well as the value of authenticity and being real. When I talked to people, I’d say, “I’m 21 years old.” I never tried to appear or act older. That ended up appealing to a lot of people. We ended up getting 62 percent of the vote.

What gave you an edge with voters?

I think it was a couple of things. The year I ran, Stockton had a record number of homicides and had just declared bankruptcy. It wasn’t a very hopeful time for the city. People were ready to try something new. Secondly, we addressed issues voters cared about. We didn’t focus on the city’s bankruptcy during the campaign, not because it wasn’t an important issue, but because a lot of people had been living with personal bankruptcy for a long time. It didn’t really resonate. But when we talked about violent crime or young people, that resonated.

People would tell me, “I want my kids to go to college like you.” A vote for me was like a vote for the future, for their kids. And because I’m a native, born and raised, a lot of people knew me as Stockton’s son. Finally, I worked hard to educate myself on the issues so I could have a dialogue with voters and substantive answers instead of political talking points.

Has age been an issue since taking office?

It’s been such an asset, actually. I thought it would be a drawback… that I’d have to prove myself and act older. But some of my colleagues take selfies with me! We joke about my age all the time. I think it puts people at ease, and gives me the latitude to iterate a little bit more. I’ve earned the respect of my peers by working hard, studying the issues, asking good questions, making tough decisions and being confrontational when needed.

What progress are you most proud of during your year-and-a-half on the council?

As a community, we’ve reduced homicides by 60 percent from the time I took office. It’s not because I came down from Mount Sinai with the 10 commandments. It’s because, as a community, we really got serious about this issue. I’m working with the police chief to get out ahead of the crime problem. Crime is nothing new in Stockton. For the past 28 years, we’ve been double the state average in homicides. I’m also proud of leading, drafting and passing a policy resolution to give ex-offenders the chance to apply for city jobs they’re qualified for. And I worked with a local nonprofit to co-convene a boys and men of color alliance, which is similar to the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. That’s been really inspiring.

How did the True Son documentary come about?

During the primary in May 2012, a producer I’d gone to school with reached out to me and said, “Hey I’m interested in capturing your story.” We went back and forth, and I talked to my campaign team. We were unsure. I remember thinking, “I’m crazy… what if I say something that could jeopardize my career?” But we decided to do it.

Do you remember your reaction the first time you saw the film?

I was really moved. It was humbling to see how far we’d come and what we accomplished. It’s so true. None of the scenes are perfect, but they’re all real. It’s exactly who we are and who we were during the campaign. We feel so thankful and humbled that the story of Stockton and the story of our team is now national. Good news for Stockton is always welcomed.

What do you hope viewers take away from the film?

First, the idea that everyday people can drive change and can be involved in their community. Second, to be proud of where you’re from and to embrace your true self. Tupac said you don’t have to change the essence of who you are to be successful. I think the film proves that by embracing Stockton for its beauty, not for its flaws. And finally, I hope people understand the obligation we all have to give back and serve our community. Not just teachers and public servants, but everyone.

What will it take for the millennial generation to get more involved in politics and government?

More exposure and more opportunity. Local government is often an insider’s/good-old-boys network. If I hadn’t been exposed to what local officials did in high school or at the White House, I wouldn’t be on the city council. We also need more opportunities to get involved in change and uplift. People don’t trust politicians… more trust will go a long way.

What’s the biggest misconception among your generation about government?

That you can’t get anything done in government. That all bureaucracy is bad. Government exists for a reason. It has a role to play in driving change. And it will be up to millennials to lead that effort… not by trying to work around government, but to work with government.

Who inspires you?

Mostly local people and luminaries from my past. My mom, aunt and grandmother inspire me and continue to inspire me. They’re three single women who are not well educated, yet have done a phenomenal job. Historically, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth have inspired me because they drove change despite facing so many more obstacles than we face today. Marian Wright Edelman inspires me, too, as do the original Freedom Riders inspire me. And finally, people in Stockton who are doing amazing things despite extraordinary challenges inspire me.

You served on the Coca-Cola Scholars Alumni Advisory Board. What does the Coke Scholars experience mean to you?

My Coca-Cola scholarship was an incredible blessing. It was somewhat of an affirmation of the hard work I’d done in high school. It also allowed me to pursue public service in college because I didn’t have to take a work study job. I didn’t have to find a way to pay for books or a laptop. It made college easier by enabling me to focus exclusively on my education. It gave me time to be active in clubs and start the organizations I was able to start. Also, two of my best friends to this day are people I met during Coke Scholars weekend. In fact, I got my first job after high school at a local school because a Coke Scholar had read my application. The network is phenomenal.

What’s next for Michael Tubbs?

I have two more years left in my current term. Then in 2015, it will be time to step back and ask myself if I’m making the kind of impact I want to make in local politics. And if so, then let’s continue with city council or another office if one is available. Or maybe it’s private sector. I’m keeping my options open at this point.