Q&A with ‘Humans of Berkeley’ founder, Yidi Li

Emile, pictured in one of the photos from the Humans of Berkeley Facebook page.
Humans of Berkeley/Courtesy
Emile, pictured in one of the photos from the Humans of Berkeley Facebook page.

Meet Yidi Li. She’s a second-year media students and environmental economics and policy major. She’s originally from China and, later, Seattle. She got four hours of sleep last night. And oh yeah, she started “Humans of Berkeley,” a photography project that is quickly gaining popularity. She talked with us about the inspirations and foundations of her idea.

The Daily Californian: What inspired you to start “Humans of Berkeley”?

Li: There are two main inspirations but on different levels. First would be the “Humans of New York” blog. I’d been following it since September of 2013, and I really loved the simplistic style, someone going out and taking pictures of average, everyday people on the street  you know, not celebrities or politicians. The way it was before that, only those people would get the publicity. But everyone has a story to tell, and I think that’s really great. It’s so human-centric and on a more personal level; after I had followed it for a while, I was thinking, “Wow, Berkeley is such a cool place, too.” There are so many interesting people, so many stories happening all the time, so many things going on. And I would love to learn more about my classmates, the people that I walk past every day, and I thought that would be a great idea to apply to Berkeley.

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DC: Why did you think that would be important here, specific to Berkeley?

YL: Many people may argue that Berkeley is an elitist institution academically and that there isn’t so much variety to the pool of students at Berkeley, and I just felt this would be a great way to (show what we are and aren’t). Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind “Humans of New York,” started that to map out the demographics of New York City, so I guess this is kind of the same thing, to provide a glimpse into the lives of the students here — who goes here. When I first came here, I felt extremely overwhelmed by how accomplished everyone is, and it’s just that feeling of inadequacy. It might sound kind of shallow and superficial, but as a person whose identity kind of built on how well I did in school, in high school classes, after coming here, that key chunk of my identity completely shattered. And I felt like I don’t really know who I am anymore. I know a lot of my friends and myself are so stressed out all the time, like how to compete, be on par with other students here and how to be the best out of the best like we were in high school. It’s just that many people, when they get here, it hits them. That’s the realization  that their A’s, or the grades they used to get  and I know, myself, I wasn’t happy. I was suffering at the time period, and I was suffering mentally and physically; my health was deteriorating as a result of not dealing with my stress in a proper way.

DC: What about you personally drove you to start this project?

YL: I took Media Studies 10 last semester and learned about phenomena of “othering” in the media, as in segregating or depicting people as “others” and how that has been perpetuated. One of the ways to avoid othering or raise attention to the others is through a multicultural approach, which is the portrayal of diversity within one group rather than across the spectrum. We do not necessarily completely represent everyone in proportion of how we are as a whole student body, but even if we are taking a small segment racially, ethnically or socio-economicially, even if we are just taking a section of that, we want to show how diverse that group is. When any group is labeled by one characteristic, it is unfair to the diversity within it. So even if we’re just focusing on UC Berkeley, there is still so much diversity, even if we are just focusing on one group for example, the Asian American students and the model minority myth. And that is something that’s been plaguing the community. So an example of us trying to break that would be just focusing on Asian American students and see what kind of variety there is to that kind of community. My background also inspired me to do this as well. Where I came from I hate to reinforce the stereotype, but in my case it was true  my childhood was basically obliterated by the fact that there was so much academic pressure on me and on students in China as a whole. So I’m trying to humanize Berkeley as a whole, like if people see us as superhumans, because we’re supposedly good at everything, as that stereotype, that’s something we’re trying to if not eliminate, definitely alleviate and have everyone see how human we actually are.

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DC: So what do you hope to see grow out of Humans of Berkeley”?

YLI thought it would be a really cool idea to have everyone tell their stories, no matter who you are, no matter how well you’re doing in your classes … People may emphasize, “Oh, you’re a superstar because you’re on the Dean’s List, Regents, involved in some prestigious organizations.” It seems like only those people receive the recognition from publications, like Caliber Magazine, who put those types of people on the front page. So what happens to stories about other students, you know?  I wanted this to be a really cool way to have everyone tell their story: really basic, really simple, even though we have all these ideas. We phrase our goal to be a multiculturalist approach to understanding diversity, but what it comes down to, it’s really simple, just about storytelling and having everyone be able to share their experiences with each other — eventual goal for everyone to understand where everyone is coming from and to not label anyone by just how they look or what kind of group they belong to and focus on the story aspect.

DC: How does the process of finding a subject and a story work, exactly?

YL: Our main demographic are Berkeley students and professors and faculty members, and technically we don’t really choose which people we interview, like whoever is sitting there chilling, looking like they have time on their hands, or anyone who’s doing something interesting. Like when people are just sitting down on the grass, enjoying the sunshine, we go up to them and we ask them, “Would you want to be featured on our page?” And people are really nice. When I was interviewing, everyone was really nice, everyone agrees to be interviewed  they’re eager to participate in something like this. However, in some cases, people feel like we’re not representing the whole diversity of Berkeley students, which I understand where they’re coming from, but if people are also willing to reach out to us, we’re willing to tell their stories, as well.

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DC: What does social media offer you in this project?

YL: We feel that this provides the platform where people would be able to (share their stories). We’re trying to do our best as a liaison between the students and the rest of the UC Berkeley community and really trying to provide that community. I’m really grateful that people are able to see our message and support it, as we’re doing our best to help people realize the common interest. Know that for one thing, because we are a social media project, and in order to better serve our mission, we do need a large base audience, especially UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff. And today, we have over 3,300 likes in a little over one month, and even though likes are a measure of how well we’re doing, they are in no way the only measure to what we’re doing. So I guess we’re really happy that people see and agree with our mission by liking our page, and we can see that they’re engaging with the content that we are publishing.

DC:  How did you form your team?

YL: I had this idea toward the very end of the school year in December, right before finals week, so that was crazy because I was trying to procrastinate, and all of a sudden all these ideas come into your head, and you’re like, “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if I did this?” But I waited ’til winter break because I thought I wasn’t ready to take on something so big, and always in the back of my mind there was this, “Oh my god, I can’t do this, like how is it possible that I can be able to essentially form a team to work on such a big project?”, and I was intimidated because I was scared I was going to go out of my comfort zone. But when school started, I realized I might not have much time left to do what I want to do, and I was like, “You know, you only live once. So just take advantage of things as much as you can.” … We are a project, so we have a team of currently 16 … I have photographers and editors and interviewers and finance people who deal with applying for budgeting so we can better spread the word out to promote our mission. And we have outreach and all sorts of things that help promote the common goal of the project. We are currently trying to work towards a philanthropy aspect; we are trying to organize a 5K, charity run, where all proceeds would go to an organization. We haven’t determined which one  something about education, hopefully, one that can maybe help homeless people.

So be sure to check out the Facebook page, Humans of Berkeley, for some great stories, thanks to Li and her team.

Contact Holly Secon at [email protected].