Zale Lecture and Award 2022

By Spencer Segal, 2022

On April 26, 2022, the Stanford Public Policy Program had the distinct honor of hosting the President pro Tempore of the California State Senate, Toni G. Atkins, for the 2022 Zale Lecture. Since 1980, the Morris B. and Edna Zale Lectureship has sought to bring a variety of committed leaders, policymakers, and change-makers from a broad spectrum of public and private life to campus. The Zale Lecture is open to the Stanford Public Policy community and has been delivered by such distinguished speakers as George Shultz, Willie Brown, Tino Cuéllar and Sara Cody. 

Ms. Atkins began the lecture by discussing how her upbringing as the daughter of a miner and a seamstress in rural Virginia have impacted her personality and political career. She talked about the grit and empathy that she developed as she watched her family and the families of those around her struggle with housing and food insecurity. She told us that not long after her arrival at Emory & Henry College as an undergraduate, a political science professor opened her eyes to the profound impact that politics and policy can have on the lives of everyday people. From then on, she was dedicated to finding ways of employing the political system to benefit those who had been excluded or marginalized. 

Ms. Atkins told us about how not long after she moved out west to San Diego, California she had the opportunity to work as an aide to Christine Kehoe, an LGBTQ trailblazer and member of the San Diego City Council. As a member of the LGBTQ community herself, Ms. Atkins was inspired by that mentorship, and as Ms. Atkins continued to make a name for herself throughout the state through her own political career, first in San Diego and then in Sacramento, she always sought out opportunities to encourage others to get involved, especially women. 

One of the things that Ms. Atkins emphasize as a point of pride for her is the level of policy detail with which she strives to familiarize herself as she engages with political issues. She discussed some of her proudest achievements, including the passage of SB 2, which creates a permanent source of funding for affordable housing throughout the state. Ms. Atkins encouraged us to study issues that we are deeply passionate about, and to take care to discuss issues with those that are personally impacted. She recounted to us how she had learned a lot about gender identify through talking to various members of the LGBTQ community throughout the state, and that these conversations have fundamentally shaped the ways that she approaches the policy on these issues. 

During a question and answer period after the lecture, the President pro Tempore discussed her perspectives on some of the most important issues facing the state of California, including education, the housing crisis, and environmental issues associated with climate change. She commended those in attendance for their engagement with these important issues, as well as for the level of nuance and knowledge that she felt shone through in the questions asked by students. At the conclusion of the lecture, Ms. Atkins was awarded the 2022 Zale Award for her commitment to California, including the housing crisis. The Public Policy Program thanks Ms. Atkins for her continued commitment to the public good, laud her for the many ways that she has been a trailblazer, and express our heartfelt appreciation for her willingness to share her wisdom and ideas with us here at Stanford.