Story by Adam Andrzejewski • Monday
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D-CA) wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is an advocate-entrepreneur running a nonprofit film production company. From this position, she has obliterated any line between her nonprofit group, her film production company, and the Newsom administration.
First, she laid the groundwork for her social vision through her private nonprofit group, the Representation Project, releasing a series of documentaries that schools license for classroom screenings. Miss Representation (2011), The Mask You Live In (2015), The Great American Lie (2020), and Fair Play (2022) address liberal touchstones such as “gender equity,” gender identity, and discussions on racial and social “privilege.”
Then, she advanced and implemented public policy through a new “Office of First Partner” — a subdivision of the governor’s office. Since 2019, her office has received nearly $5 million and employed nine staffers.
As her husband gained political influence and then the governorship, Siebel Newsom’s films and curricula became institutionalized in state policy.
In May 2019, shortly after Newsom’s inauguration, the State Board of Education adopted a policy recommending Siebel Newsom’s films in the classroom. The guidance was tucked inside California’s Health Education Framework and meant to help instructors navigate state health education standards for children’s mental health. “Screening a documentary, such as Miss Representation (2011) or The Mask You Live In (2015), can help facilitate a discussion about the impact of mass media and gender socialization on self-image and relationships with others,” the California guidelines state.
Siebel Newsom’s films fit state standards, despite including poorly blurred and still very graphic clips from pornographic films and even URLs for major pornographic websites. Ironically, these are included as part of a completely unnecessary “explanation” that many students receive “unwanted pornographic exposure.” This has led to parents complaining, as 100% of the students who watch these movies receive “unwanted pornographic exposure.” Depending on how you define the term, that even includes the ones watching the supposedly “age-appropriate” version of Miss Representation for younger students, in which middle school children are served images of upside-down strippers, and little is left to the imagination.
By 2019, either Newsom or his predecessor Jerry Brown (Newsom was lieutenant governor during Brown’s governorship) had appointed the entire state education board. The California state superintendent of public instruction, then freshly elected Democrat Tony Thurmond, was the board’s executive officer and secretary.
In 2020, Siebel Newsom, Thurmond, and board President Linda Darling-Hammond (another Newsom appointee) launched the “Advance Social Emotional Learning in California” campaign culminating in a presentation and report on how “Social Emotional Learning with a clear racial and social justice focus” could be implemented in schools following COVID lockdowns and George Floyd’s death.
Among the suggested resources? The Representation Project. Its films Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In and accompanying curricula are recommended in the state’s health education framework.
A month later, Siebel Newsom released The Great American Lie, which suggests problems in society can be solved through liberal policies. Gov. Newsom and Darling-Hammond appear several times, delivering talking points. A New York Times Review called the documentary “run-of-the-mill,” remarking it felt “disingenuous” for not disclosing the director’s marriage to Gov. Newsom.
Useful alliances based on shared goals and beliefs are the whole point of politics. But the case of the Newsoms adds new layers of complexity and personal profit.
Siebel Newsom’s films and curricula promote radical ideologies and raise her husband’s political profile, while her nonprofit group pays both her salary and her for-profit production company. Funds are raised from state vendors, the governor’s political supporters, and via licensing fees for screenings — lots of which come from taxpayer-funded schools. Later, the nonprofit group’s work gets cited in policy documents and adopted or sponsored by her husband’s administration.
Siebel Newsom-led initiatives can generate concrete, billion-dollar policy changes. For example, the state adopted several policies recommended by the Advance Social Emotional Learning in California campaign, including “Transformative SEL Competencies,” which are now “woven throughout the teaching and learning experience.” The Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative spent part of its five-year, $4.4 billion budget to deliver mental health resources to students. The Master Plan for Kids’ Mental Health, released last August, added another $4.7 billion for 10,000 more school counselors, among other activities.
Siebel Newsom is certainly not the only force behind these initiatives. However, as the first partner, she has a platform and network to promote her work within the administration and in public. Her films are legitimized, and her issue-expert profile is likewise cemented.
No wonder, then, that Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors, celebrated more school counselor funding by saying, “There will be an even greater need to access films and curriculum support material such as Siebel Newsom’s documentary series. [We] would love to work with her and support her efforts.”
Siebel Newsom creates content addressing K-12 education policy and children’s mental health, advocates complementary government action, and makes herself a thought leader.
Intentionally or not, when public spending flows toward these priorities, it also likely flows back to her.
Adam Andrzejewski is the founder and CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, the largest private database of U.S. public-sector expenditures.