By Robert Price
You've heard the shorthand description: Brain drain. It refers to the tendency of this (or any) town's best and brightest to get out of Dodge at the first opportunity and make a life far from the backward provinces of their youth.
As a result, provinces like this one theoretically remain ever backward because all of the smart ones have deserted. And the situation is reinforced every time someone points out that a famous entertainer, or athlete, or giant of industry or government, is an expatriate of these shores.
Thankfully some young brains choose not to abandon their hometowns. We've just elected the latest example. Willie Rivera, all of 22 years old, won a seat on the Bakersfield City Council last week, and won it rather decisively.
His five opponents in the special election to replace Rudy Salas pilloried him as a carpetbagger in part because he has lived for the past two years in Sacramento. But last I checked, we don't strip anyone of their residency card when they go away to college.
Rivera attended Cal State Bakersfield for two years and transferred to Cal State Sacramento after then-state Sen. Michael Rubio offered him a job in the 16th District office at the Capitol. In that role, he found himself working on issues for the people of Ward 1 more than occasionally, and his role only increased after Rubio abruptly resigned in February. The 16th District still doesn't have a state senator and won't until late July.
Since Rivera, like all City Council members, intends to keep his day job after he is sworn in, he might be regarded, for now, as his district's de facto state senator.
Some of Rivera's classmates from Bakersfield Christian High School (class of, um, '08) left for fame and fortune elsewhere, but Rivera says he never seriously considered doing so himself.
"I may have entertained the thought at one time," he said. "When I was younger, the dream was to go to some place like Cornell. But I only ended up applying to CSUB."
He suspects the whole brain drain problem is a bit overstated. Sure, some young scholars go off to universities in other states, never to return for any meaningful length of time, but plenty stay here.
"I don't know if it's any more serious here than other places," he said. "I'm not going to say that the people who leave and never come back are the best and brightest, either. It may just be that they didn't have the connections that allowed them to get involved here, like I did when I went to work for Mike (Rubio). The talent is still here in Bakersfield. Not every promising person left."
Because, among other reasons, he has to wait for the Elections Division to certify the results of the June 4 election, Rivera won't be sworn in as a councilman until July 17.
But he is already working for Ward 1, identifying potholes that must be plugged (does any councilman's work ever get more important than that?) and huddling with city staff over assorted needs.
"I'll spend the next 100 days meeting with some folks, putting together an economic plan for Ward 1, since we really haven't had one," Rivera said. "We'll look at ways to incentivize businesses to move in."
Then he invoked the sort of big dream that only someone as young as 22 would dare invoke:
"Why not become the next Silicon Valley?"
Lack of a trained workforce comes to mind. So does the apparent lack of big, local investment dollars.
But let us not shortchange the exuberance and optimism of youth. If we care enough about this perceived brain drain to try to head it off, we've also got to be willing to let those young brains toss aside old assumptions and see where they can take us.
Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@ bakersfield.com.