We had the good fortune of connecting with Mike Van Gorder and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mike, what matters most to you?
If you’re asking me as a creative and a parent, the value that matters most is joy. Art, storytelling, filmmaking, punk rock, or hell, telling a joke – it’s all about celebrating the moment, connecting to that joyfulness that we need to find meaning in ourselves and purpose to our lives. I write stuff and play stuff and perform because I love it, because it brings me joy, and if I can share that with other people it multiplies that joy. And with regards to my family, let me tell you, hearing my toddler sing a song I wrote for her – hearing her demand “Daddy’s song! Daddy’s song!” in the car – that is joy. She’s got perfect pitch and she’s two years old. If you’re asking me as an activist and a professional, that value is equity. I’m the child of the suburban middle class, and yet all the tools that previous generations used to build their wealth and independence have basically disintegrated – I can’t ‘work my way through college’, and I can’t buy a house on just one income, and I (or my wife) can’t stay home and raise the kids, and joining a union is harder than ever, and the only boom economy is the short-term gig economy, and there’s no retirement, and unemployment is now a limited resource. Then you take a step back and consider that Black Americans and Americans of color and Native Americans have all at some point been denied some of all those opportunities – and, hell, poor white Americans have as well. And you realize that the only way that we’re going to build a future that’s going to improve our climate and our country and our children’s chances is to acknowledge the extreme lopsidedness in our country’s decisionmaking – that white wealth was more important than literally every other consideration, like the environment, or the dignity of people of color, or even the long-term survivability of that lopsided system. I want to take pride in being American. That means I have to take responsibility for pushing our institutions, from the inside and the outside, toward real equity.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Man, i didn’t realize this interview would be this in-depth, and you caught me in finals week. Pardon any odd tonal shifts or shorter responses, because i gotta get this out in shorter bursts. In the beginning of 2017, when it became obvious that no one who shared my progressive values was willing to make the attempt, I ran as a 32-year-old working class renter for Glendale City Council. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, giving me peek at the complexity of the city as an ecosystem. It also hammered home the woefully homogenous perspectives of the lawyers and businessmen who can afford successful runs for office, and consequently, that money-as-speech dampens democracy. It taught me that anyone can run, and everyone should run. Rather than quietly fading away after “losing” the election (and being outspent by a quarter million dollars), I founded the Glendale Tenants Union. The shared identity of “Working Class Renter” transcends language, immigration status, age, and even political party affiliation, and organizing this incredibly diverse group of people has shown me the value of consistency and the uniting power of a shared crisis. I led a small team that drafted, legally scrutinized, and campaigned for a municipal ordinance on rent control to force a municipal conversation on the housing affordability crisis. After my daughter was born, I had to figure out how to turn this ethos into a stable job – Urban Planning was introduced to me as an “aspirational career”. Lucky again, I got into the UCLA Masters of Urban Planning program, and I want to use that degree to help turn that intergenerational rising tide of economic ruin. Being a punk rocker meant that I’m comfortable in the spotlight. I know how to talk to people, and I know how to talk to a lot of people all at once, and according to the great Sara Benincasa, real artists have dayjobs. We haven’t seen any high-profile civil servants who are also competent punk rockers, and I hope to be the first.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
We’re assuming universal vaccination, right? Anything less would be downright irresponsible. And bringing this up right now is just going to make me sad, because human beings were not meant to live like this. But sure, let’s pine for a better time: Alright, look. I’m a nerd, and I have to assume that such a friend would share my interests, yes? So we start things off at the Gamehaus in Glendale – a board game cafe with solid hot chocolate and a vast library of board games. My wife and I have started a decent collection and until recently we were always able to test drive new games at the Gamehaus. Best date spot in the valley, bar none. The Glendale Tap just up the road from there is a tip-top beer bar, kind of place that offers peanuts along with a sizeable stout menu. Head from there to Mexicali, north of downtown, for the kind of Mexican food that feels like Jonathan Gold would approve. I’m a cyclist, so from there we’d pedal the twelve miles or so to Eataly on the west side, an Italian grocery chain with pizza fit to break your heart and every kind of swanky imported cheese and deli meats and whatnot. Stop by my beloved UCLA to see the most beautiful and important public school in America, swing through the botanical gardens thereupon, pedal back home, clean up, and then hit the Hi-Hat for a rockshow. This is an extremely depressing exercise. The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Family. My incredible wife keeps me centered; my daughter sharpened my focus and gave me a reason to fight.