Impressive First Impressions: John Trasviña

March 10, 2020

We’re excited to announce that Generation Citizen has a brand new California Executive Director: John Trasviña!  

John is a former appointee of President Obama (as Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), former dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, and an accomplished civil rights attorney. He brings unparalleled experience from the public sector, and as a native Californian, is dedicated to promoting effective Action Civics across the state. Learn more about John in his own words below, including his advice for the next generation, what he’s reading, and what keeps him inspired.

Tell us about your new role as Generation Citizen’s California Executive Director and your vision for the role. 

I’m excited to lead Generation Citizen’s dynamic staff in California. I’m proud to be a native San Franciscan. In my years in public service and civil rights, I’ve seen California be a leader in diversity and democracy. Some of the most empowering and society-changing movements have started here. I’m ready to help train the next generation of leaders through our work at Generation Citizen in classrooms, communities and centers of Power.

Tell us more about your background and how you arrived at this point in your career. 

I grew up in an era of activism and breakthroughs.  My father was very active in his union and my mother was one of the first bilingual teachers in our public junior high schools.  So, I walked on my first picket line with her at age 10 and my sister and I regularly volunteered for political campaigns. While I spent most of my career in Washington DC as counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee and as a Justice Department appointee of President Clinton and HUD assistant secretary in the Obama Administration, I have stayed close to my roots advocating for immigrant rights and mentoring students and young professionals. Generation Citizen provides all of us the opportunity to share our insights, experiences and strategies so that we expand on and extend the progress and promise of our democracy.  

What does Action Civics mean to you?

To me, Action Civics means purposeful political participation to build upon our shared national values as a democracy. While many emphasize change, the past few years demonstrate how fragile our existing democratic institutions and assumptions may be if we do not teach about them and protect them.  Too many schools have abandoned the traditional role of public schools to train good citizens and community members. In taking up that mantle, Generation Citizen equips new voices to fulfill their responsibilities as the next generation of leaders.   

What is something new you learned in the last week?

In my first week on the job, I’ve learned the joys and benefits of communal workspace.  I’ve gotten to know many new colleagues who bring a wealth of perspectives and levels of expertise to Generation Citizen’s important mission.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

There are so many possibilities!  Like King Henry VIII but only for the menu! I would like to have met Wong Kim Ark. He was born in San Francisco in the 1870s and, on his return to SF from a trip to China in the 1890s, was denied entry.  He had to go all the way to the US Supreme Court and his victory for the constitutional proposition of birthright citizenship (if you’re born here, you’re a US citizen) has benefitted millions of people since.  It took tremendous courage for a young person like Wong Kim Ark to overcome the intense discrimination against Chinese Americans without anyone who looked like them in any positions of power. It would be fascinating to hear from him directly, learn from his life story and share with him the changes since then. 

Ten years ago, where did you think you would be now?

I thought I would be finished with my public career in government and law and giving back to young people through education. Generation Citizen enables me to fulfill this part of my career aspirations. 

What is the best piece of career advice you have received? 

Have a five-year plan. Otherwise, five years will go by fast and you might find yourself in a rut or not advancing for yourself or your company.  At the same time, leave some room in that five-year plan for surprises and opportunities on personal and professional levels. 

What advice might you give to Generation Citizen students who are interested in a similar career path?

Focus on what you want to “do” rather than what you want to “be.” There are many paths to public service that may or may not require a law license or advanced degree. For studies, I put a high premium on oral and written communication skills. And wherever you are, respecting every person in the room whatever role they may have is essential. 

Have you read any excellent books or articles lately? 

Andrew Yang’s War on Normal People is an important guide to how artificial intelligence will change our lives and is already doing so. Particularly as we train young people for a lifetime of active citizenship, they must be aware of the real impact of AI not only on our workplaces and economic well-being but on our system of democracy. For example, the rise of digital news and social media can greatly benefit social movements here and around the world but can have decidedly negative impacts on our elections as well. It is up to all of us to channel that enormous capacity positively.   

If you could choose anyone to be your mentor, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I would learn so much from Jimmy Carter — why he thought he could go from former governor of Georgia to run and win for president; how he brought Middle East leaders together; and how he has lived his post-presidential life with purpose, grace and giving. 

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