Welcome to TEACH Talks, Featuring Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
Welcome to our second installment of TEACH Talks, launched in fall 2020. This series features one-on-one interviews with some of Texas’s most influential leaders—many of whom are shaping the future of education for the approximately 209,000 children attending Houston’s public schools.
In partnership with the Houston and Aldine Independent School Districts, TEACH supports educators through proven coaching and training programs to create engaging, student-centered classroom environments for thousands of children each year.
We are pleased to be joined by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for our second TEACH Talks. Click the video above to watch Part 1 of Executive Director Alvin Abraham’s interview with Mayor Turner. In this episode, Mayor Turner gets personal about his journey to becoming Mayor of the City of Houston.
You may also read the full transcript of the interview below. Don’t forget to tune in next month for Part 2 of our conversation with Mayor Turner. Our series will be distributed on toeducateallchildren.org, via social media channels, and to our email subscribers. If you are not already a subscriber, join today so you don’t miss a new episode.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner
Elected in December 2015 and overwhelmingly reelected in December 2019, Sylvester Turner is serving his second four-year term as Houston’s 62nd mayor. Since taking office, Mayor Turner has expertly managed significant challenges facing the nation’s fourth-largest city, including budget deficits, homelessness and natural disasters, and is currently leading Houston’s response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
As an advocate of education and a champion of young people, Mayor Turner created the Hire Houston Youth program to provide jobs and internship opportunities for thousands of young people each year. Additionally, his signature priorities include Complete Communities, an initiative designed to revitalize and improve Houston’s most under-served neighborhoods by partnering with local stakeholders to leverage resources to create a more equitable and prosperous city for all Houstonians. He also forged public-private partnerships to improve neighborhood parks and expand Houston’s technology and innovation footprint.
As a life-long resident of Houston, Mayor Turner is passionate about his city and continues to live in the Acres Homes community where he grew up. He is a graduate of the University of Houston and earned a law degree from Harvard University. He began his law practice at Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. and later founded Barnes & Turner Law Firm.
Read Mayor Turner’s full bio here.
Alvin Abraham: Hello. My name is Alvin Abraham, Executive Director of To Educate All Children, but you may know us around the Houston community as TEACH. Thank you for joining us for our series called TEACH Talks, which features one-on-one interviews with some of Texas’s most influential leaders, many of whom are shaping the future of education for Houston’s approximately 209,000 children attending our public schools. TEACH is a Houston-based nonprofit. Through our partnership with the Houston Independent School District, TEACH supports educators through proven programs to create safe, calm classroom environments, enhancing learning by providing intensive training to teachers and administrators.
AA: Today, we are pleased to have Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner join us for part one of TEACH Talks, where he gets personal and shares his journey to becoming the mayor of Houston. Mayor Turner has been in office since 2016 and is currently serving his 2nd term. He served 27 years as the representative for Texas House District 139, worked on the House Appropriations Committee for 21 years and served as Speaker ProTem for 3 terms. That’s quite an accomplished public service career, but it’s important to note that Mayor Turner’s political path was sparked during his high school years.
AA: He served as Senior Class President and Valedictorian at Klein High School and Speaker of the Student Senate at the University of Houston, from which he graduated magna cum laude with a BA degree in Political Science. Following, he obtained a law degree from Harvard University. One of nine children and a lifelong Houstonian, our 62nd mayor was raised in the Acres Homes community by parents who knew hard work. His mother was a maid at the Rice Hotel and his father, a commercial painter. Today, Mayor Turner will share with us how his childhood shaped his views on education and his political career, some fun facts about the mayor, his thoughts on navigating Houston through a very trying year and how he likes to spend his free time.
AA: We hope you enjoy getting to know Mayor Turner a bit better, and we thank you for joining TEACH Talks. So Mayor Turner, your background is quite notable. You’ve referred to yourself as a kid with very limited means in the 1960s. Can you tell me a little bit about how you rose above those circumstances to become CEO of the nation’s fourth-largest city?
Mayor Sylvester Turner: You know, that could take a while.
AA: I imagine so.
Mayor Turner: Like a native Houstonian, I grew up in this city. Parents moved to Houston in 1954, which was the year in which I was born.
Mayor Turner: Both parents have raised nine kids. Neither one of them graduated from high school, but I don’t say it in a negative sense because they took good care of their kids.
Mayor Turner: And then, of course, matriculated through the public school system. Was bused from Acres Homes to Klein High School, 36 miles a day, 18 miles one-way. But graduated from Klein High School and then went on to the University of Houston and from the University of Houston to Harvard. Came back to the city of Houston and started working for a tour with a major law firm, at that time, for Fulbright & Jaworski. Then eventually, ran for the State House of Representatives in Texas, won there, served there for some 27 years, continued to be a part of that law firm. Taught for a while at Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern.
AA: Okay, wonderful.
Mayor Turner: And then eventually, became Mayor of the City of Houston, but not without running three times. So fell short the first two, won the third time.
AA: So it’s evident that you were an extremely motivated and determined student. Who would you say encouraged you to excel through your education?
Mayor Turner: Let me give the initial credit to my parents. Okay? Look, they didn’t graduate from high school, but they wanted better for all nine of their kids. So education, education, education. My dad died early of cancer when I was 13. My mom took over, but again, for her, education, education, education. Both of them wanted our lives, in a sense, to be better than theirs. And then I give a great deal of credit to the 13 teachers that I had, neighborhood school, Garden City Elementary, in junior high. There were 13 teachers and they were very, very, very committed to all of their kids and they too, education, education, and so they helped quite a bit.
Mayor Turner: Another person I would give a lot of credit to was a senior citizen by the name of Evelina Muldrew. We were all members of the same church. And so when I was at, let’s say, the University of Houston, coming back from Harvard, coming in at the end of every church service, Evelina Muldrew, she was in her late 70s, early 80s, would find me, come up to me, hug me and said, “Sylvester, wishing you the very, very best.” And then when she pulled away, she would leave in the palm of my hand a folded $5 bill. And every time I saw her, come up to me, hug me, said, “Sylvester, wish you the very, very best.” And she would say, “Sister Evelina doesn’t have much, but I want to share what I have with you. And son, I’m praying for you.” $5 bills in the palm of my hand.
Mayor Turner: It wasn’t enough to pay for shoes, shirt, pants, none of that, airplane ticket, but it served as a constant reminder that there was someone who was investing in me, who believed in me. And so when times did get challenging, I remembered Evelina Muldrew, that senior citizen. I remember those 13 teachers who really preached education. And then, of course, I remember mom and dad, they sacrificed quite a bit for all of their kids.
AA: What’s part of your drive to never give in and never give up? I imagine you would not be here today if you didn’t experience that?
Mayor Turner: Giving up is not a part of my DNA. Throwing in the towel is not a part of my DNA. I did run for Harris County Commissioner’s Court in 1984, and not only did I lose, I lost badly. I think there may have been seven candidates in the race and I think I came in number six, so I lost badly. But continued to move forward and of course, ran for mayor several times and lost the very first two. What do I credit that to? In growing up, my dad was a painter at Continental Ensco for some 30, 31 years. But on the weekends, my dad would load his boys up on the back of a pickup truck and we would go across town to cut other people’s yards, landscapers, however you want to call it. And that’s what we did on the weekends.
Mayor Turner: So, I credit that to the way he lived and the way he chose to die. My dad didn’t leave his kids with any large life insurance. In fact, there was no life insurance policy at all. There was no big fancy house of any kind, no fancy car, but what he did leave, he left with all of his children—that value system that said irrespective of what life throws at you, even if it’s a good punch, and even if it knocks you to your knees, you will find a way to reach deep and you will pull yourself right back up. And if we do that, we’ll be okay.
AA: Thank you. And finally, it wouldn’t be a TEACH Talk session without praising educators. Our nonprofit believes every child deserves a great teacher. Who was that educator for you? And how did that person inspire you?
Mayor Turner: Can I cheat a little bit and name two?
AA: Please, please.
Mayor Turner: One is Miss Dora Hall, who was my second grade teacher, and every morning Miss Dora Hall would stand outside of her classroom and she would hug everybody, all the students, as they would come in, every single morning. And I would tell you, I acted like I didn’t like it—”I ain’t going to”—when she would hug me, but I really did. And then one morning she was preoccupied, she was talking to somebody else, and I slowed up and she didn’t hug me. And I went and sat at my desk and I had an attitude. Okay?
Mayor Turner: And then she would call on each one of the students, this one, and read, you start off, Alvin you start, then you stop and somebody else. And so when she got to me, I wasn’t very cooperative. Okay? And that’s because Miss Hall didn’t hug me that morning, but she didn’t know. But she kept at me, she kept at me, she kept at me and she found a way to unlock the door. Okay? Because number one, I knew she cared, and number two, she never gave up on me. And from that moment, when you look at my grades and stuff, they just took off. So I give a lot of credit to Dora Hall.
Mayor Turner: The other one was Freddy Jennings, my physics and chemistry teacher. When the school in Acres Homes, Garden City Junior High merged, they integrated with Klein Independent School District. He followed as a teacher into the Klein Independent School District. And Mr. Jennings would always say to me, he would say—I’ll walk down the hall and he would say, “Sylvester, how are your grades?” I said, “Mr. Jennings, they’re okay.” And he said, “Keep your grades up.”
Mayor Turner: And every year I would see him, he’d say, “Sylvester, how are your grades?” I’d say, “Mr. Jennings, they’re okay.” He’d say, “Let me see your report card.” And I showed it to him and Mr. Jennings says, “Sylvester, son, you have the potential of graduating valedictorian of this school.” And he said to me, “All of you all are coming out of Acres Homes, you’re bused here, but son, keep your grades up.”
Mayor Turner: “You’re representing so many of us.” So he stayed very close to me. This was after my dad died, he stayed very close. When it did happen, it was Mr. Jennings who came to me and said, “Son, I told you.”
Mayor Turner: Okay. So those two, Dora Hall, the second-grade teacher, Mr. Jennings, that chemistry and physics instructor. But more than that, he was that coach for me, that kept saying, “You can do this. Keep at it, keep at it, keep at it.” He believed more in me at that time, than I believed in myself. Those two.
AA: Well, Mayor Turner, we are so grateful for your time today. Listening to some of the things you shared today, the thing that’s going to resonate with me most is the story of your father and him continually getting up, despite the challenges that he faced, and how that’s impacted you so much. So thank you for sharing that and being so open with us today. We really appreciate the time.
Mayor Turner: Thanks, Alvin. And it’s good to be with you.
AA: Thank you.
Mayor Turner: And let me thank TEACH because TEACH has done some incredible work, continues to do some incredible work. And then when you see Susan Sarofim, you tell her I said “Hello.”
AA: I will do that, absolutely. Thank you very much. Good to see you.
AA: Mayor Turner, thank you so much for taking time from your hugely busy schedule to chat with us today. We truly appreciate your critical advocacy for both educators and students in the Houston community. And thank you for joining us for TEACH Talks.
AA: We’d appreciate it if you would share our video through email or social media. As well, we’d like to hear your thoughts and suggestions for future TEACH Talks. Just email us at the email below. To learn more about TEACH and how our proven programs help create safe, calm learning environments for thousands of children in the Houston community, please go to ToEducateAllChildren.org. Thank you again, and we hope to see you for another edition of TEACH Talks soon.