By Seattle Country Day School
When former Gov. Gary Locke finished speaking with the middle-school students at Seattle Country Day School (SCDS), a K–8 school for gifted students, their applause was loud, enthused, and sustained. The former two-term governor of Washington state had kept his young audience’s full attention with his ready answers to their questions, with his warmth and approachability, and with his story—a classic American tale that encompasses sacrifice and risk-taking, belonging and encouragement, and change and immigration.
“With the exception of Native Americans, we’re all foreigners, whether we’re first generation or tenth generation,” Locke told the students. “Each new group is what keeps America so strong and innovative, with new cultures, languages, perspectives, ideas, music, and foods.”
He then embarked on a brief review of the history of Chinese Americans in the U.S., touching upon their nation-building roles in the 1800s, from the gold rush, to the transcontinental railroad, to their work in the fishing and lumber industries.
The governor also told the story of his own family: his grandfather, who worked for a family in Olympia in exchange for English lessons; his father, whose military service included the invasion of Normandy in 1944; and his parents, who owned a restaurant in Pike Place Market and a grocery store on Queen Anne. They worked non-stop, seven days a week, said Locke, “sacrificing so that my siblings and I could have a better life.”
Their sacrifices produced results. Locke, who had grown up in Yesler Terrace, went on to Yale University and Boston University, where he earned a degree in law. He served in the Washington State House of Representatives, as the King County Executive, and as governor from 1997–2005 (the first Asian American on the mainland to do so), and then moved on to become the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and the U.S. ambassador to China during the Obama administration.
This is quite a career path for someone who had intended to study forestry at Yale.
“I never thought I’d be involved in politics,” admits Locke. Coming of age during the civil rights era, he decided that a law degree would serve him well in challenging the system. He then received encouragement—including encouragement from Ruth Woo, political activist—to run for office.
“I was a nobody,” Locke said. “Ruth pushed me, scolded me, motivated me, and encouraged me.”
Locke visited SCDS at an auspicious time. In 2023, the Washington State Legislature declared January “Chinese American/Americans of Chinese Descent History Month,” and Xiaoling Mo, SCDS’s Mandarin teacher for grades 3–8, brought in a number of speakers to celebrate the month with her students. Once Xiaoling and fellow teachers Mary Lowry (social studies) and Krista Barbour (language arts) learned that Locke was also willing to speak, they had the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders study his life in their classes. They then formulated questions for the question-and-answer portion of his visit.
One SCDS student asked what it was like to be the ambassador to China. Locke shared his vivid memories of his time in the country: shopping in the markets, visiting the village where his father and grandfather grew up (“it was like stepping back to the 1800s”), and meeting with dignitaries. He told the students that his children learned to appreciate how fortunate they were to live in America with clean air, clean water, safe food, and their freedoms. While acknowledging that many Chinese people still struggle, he also appreciates the enormous growth that has taken place in the country.
“I marvel at how China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in just a few years,” said Locke.
Another student wondered how to resolve conflicts between the U.S. and China. In response, the governor talked about the major differences and points of contention, friction, and competition between the two countries, and the differing ways in which they manage and support their industries and economies. He also spoke of the countries’ deep interdependence. Millions of manufacturing, technology, and agricultural jobs in the U.S. and China depend on the trade between the two nations. And while the U.S. government and the Chinese government have their disagreements, the governor noted that the two must work together on issues of common concern, such as reducing the spread of nuclear weapons and climate change.
“Americans produce more greenhouse gases per person than any other country,” Locke said. “While China produces more greenhouse gases in total than the U.S., it has four times the population of America.” Unless both countries reduce their emissions, he told the students, the sacrifices made by one side will not save the planet.
“There are so many things in the world today that cannot be solved by America alone or China alone,” the governor said. “We need leadership from both the U.S. and China, working together, to solve the toughest issues facing the world.”
In addition to offering political insight, the governor also offered inspiration, emphasizing the importance of risk-taking and trying new things. When a middle-schooler asked Locke about his most significant accomplishment, he said, “Changing the mindset of government employees.”
Governors and commerce secretaries come and go, he noted, but government employees often stay in their jobs for years, even decades. They have a great deal of accumulated wisdom, and they may also be reluctant to change. To improve government services, the governor and his colleagues would often set unreachable ambitious goals. This gave leadership the opportunity to show how they would react if employees fell short. Locke wanted employees to know that, whether they failed or succeeded, he would support their efforts, a point that resonated with the group.
“It was truly inspiring for me when you told us not to be afraid to take risks and to know that failure is OK, because I can often be a perfectionist,” said one student.
What mattered, Locke said, was that they were working hard, creatively, and ethically to achieve high goals.
This need to stretch boundaries—to know that you’re permitted, even encouraged, to reach, to fail, and to try again—is also central to learning. The governor made sure to point this out to his young listeners.
“If we’re always afraid of failure, we won’t try,” Locke told the middle-schoolers. “Try new things, push yourselves, and as long as you’re trying hard, that’s all that matters.”
It’s possible that Locke’s visit may inspire future public servants.
“I honestly considered pursuing a field of politics more than I ever have after hearing [Locke’s] speech,” said another young listener.