Berkeley is one of the most distinguished, progressive and diverse communities in the world. This is a legacy of which we residents are very proud: Not only is our city home to what is arguably the best public university in the world, we have a defining history of diversity, activism and progressivism that you don’t find anywhere else. Not every town of 100,000 people shows up in the history books.
But our work is never done. We Berkeleyans do a great job protecting the underrepresented in our society, but there is one community of interest within our city borders that remains underrepresented: students!
Students Are a Community of Interest in Berkeley
Students are a unique case because they have not traditionally been considered a “community of interest.” This isn’t surprising, though, considering that students comprise such a large fraction of the population in only a handful of towns throughout the country that are home to large universities.
However, there’s no reason to think of students in Berkeley as anything other than such a community of interest. As Paul Gackle said in the East Bay Express on July 20, “Getting around Berkeley without encountering signs of student life is nearly impossible. Students study around the clock in cafes like Au Coquelet and Strada, eat Cheese Board pizza on the Shattuck Avenue median and party into the wee hours of the night on college football game days.
In many ways, student culture is deeply embedded within the city’s social fabric. Even Berkeley’s global reputation for being a beacon of liberal activism is rooted in the student protest movements of the Sixties.
The truth is that, despite students’ contribution to our cultural and economic vitality, there has only ever been one student elected to City Council in all of Berkeley’s history. Since the districts were created in 1986, not a single student has been elected to the Council.
That’s because the student community is split up — disenfranchised — over half of those districts: downtown housing is in District 4, north-side housing is in District 6, the Units and Co-ops are in District 7 and the fraternities, sororities and Foothill, Bowles and Stern are in District 8.
We Can All Benefit from Including Students
While the fact that this system is unfair is important, there is an even more relevant issue at stake: without a student perspective in local affairs, Berkeley is not the best community that we could be.
UC Berkeley students are some of the best and brightest in the world. Likewise, we are home to Berkeley City College, one of the best community colleges in the state, which has a higher graduation and transfer rate than most other institutions. If we as a community harness the intellectual energy, power and optimism that our student community represents, we can reach our full potential as a model progressive city.
Why waste the talent that we have right here, especially when the student community is asking for a seat at the table? Would we consider wasting environmental resources like solar power or tidal energy because it’s never been done before? Would we consider wasting our cultural resources by not protecting the diversity of our city because it’s difficult? In the same vein, why should we waste the human capital of some of the brightest minds in the world?
We would all benefit if we took the same attitude toward our intellectual capital as we do toward our environmental and cultural capital.
It is a matter of Berkeley pride that we give all communities a seat at the proverbial table, including the student community.
One of the best ways to do that is through drawing City Council lines in a way that protects the student community of interest. We are fortunate enough to have that opportunity now: every 10 years, our legislative lines are redrawn to ensure fairness, equality and representation for all communities.
Respecting Communities of Interest Is Democratic
But this raises another question: Why are some students of this very university with such an inspiring history arguing for their own disenfranchisement?
On July 25, an opinion piece appeared in the Daily Cal that argued that “creating a district for a specific political purpose does not broaden representation … Gerrymandering a student super-majority with the aim of always having a student on the city council circumvents democracy.”
Did they sleep through History 7B? Have they not been reading the news? I can’t think of any statement regarding redistricting that could be more wrong.
Historians have long recognized that the best way to ensure democracy and fair representation for a minority community is to group them together within political boundaries. It’s the reason why the Voting Rights Act was passed! The VRA states that communities of interest must have equal access to the political process and the “opportunity … to elect representatives of their choice.”
These words are the reason the Voting Rights Act has been interpreted as an imperative to draw boundaries that keep communities together. It’s why leaders are concerned about districts that split up the black community, and the reason why the Citizens’ Redistricting Commission purposely drew extra versions of their maps in order to maximize the number of “Latino districts” in the Los Angeles area. It’s also the reason why leaders of the gay community in San Francisco objected to the proposed Assembly districts that would split up gay-friendly neighborhoods.
The idea that “drawing a student district is undemocratic” is completely and utterly wrong. In fact, drawing a student district is one of the smartest decisions we could make and will bebeneficial to everyone in Berkeley, student and non-student alike. Creating a student district is a critical step for us — a matter of community pride — to continue our leadership along the historical arc toward equality.
This piece was submitted on behalf of:
Chris Alabastro, Class of 2012, Executive Vice President, ASUC
Daniel Osborn, Class of 2011, former President, Cal Berkeley Democrats
Ian Magruder, Class of 2012, former President, California College Democrats
Jeremy Pilaar, Class of 2012, Legislative Liaison, ASUC
Joey Freeman, Class of 2013, External Affairs Vice President, ASUC
Julia Joung, Class of 2013, Academic Affairs Vice President, ASUC
Keith Yetter, Class of 2009, former Political Director, Cal Berkeley Democrats
Kristin Hunziker, Class of 2009, former Coordinator, Students for Barack Obama
Nik Dixit, Class of 2011, former Political Director, California College Democrats
Shahryar Abbasi, Class of 2013, Senator, ASUC
Vishalli Loomba, Class of 2012, President, ASUC