Reclaiming a safe space: Person of Color co-op to open this fall

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Tracy Lam/Staff

The Berkeley Student Cooperative will convert the existing Andres Castro Arms co-op at 2310 Prospect Street into a Person of Color theme house in fall 2016. With approximately 56 bed spaces slated for next semester, the BSC intends to increase inclusivity for low-income students and students of color.

Since 1933, the BSC has provided affordable housing to university students who cannot afford student housing or market-rate apartments. In lieu of hiring a staff, members collaboratively buy food in bulk, cook, clean and garden in order to maintain the co-op’s affordable rent.

As the largest student housing cooperative in the U.S., the BSC currently houses over 1300 post-secondary students, primarily from UC-Berkeley, in three different residence styles: undergraduate apartments with no board provisions, undergraduate room and board houses, and graduate student apartments.

Although the BSC was originally created to provide affordable campus housing to low-income students, its 2012 membership census revealed that the undergraduate room and board houses contained mostly upper-class white students and the undergraduate apartments tended to house low-income students of color.

In May 2014, the BSC Board of Directors established the Demographic Inclusion Task Force in order to propose ways that the BSC could better meet the needs of low-income students and students of color. The DITF conducted another membership census in the 2014-2015 school year that revealed socio-demographic issues like those found in the 2012 census. The DITF also led a series of focus groups last October, with the goal of identifying the root causes of the socio-demographic barriers.

“The task force concluded that the best way to meet the needs of students of color and low income students’ needs was to create the Person of Color theme house,” said Austin Pritzkat, BSC president.

According to Skye Ontiveros, DITF chair, some of the focus groups revealed that certain students of color did not feel welcome in the undergraduate houses. In the focus group, some students of color reported that they felt like they could not cook traditional dishes in the kitchen because it did not stock the food that they needed or felt that their cultures’ music was not accepted in the common room. She explained that these situations create a hostile environment for students of color by stifling their right to cultural expression.

The DITF hopes that the Person of Color theme house will foster a safe space where students of color feel comfortable expressing themselves and their cultures, according to Ontiveros. White students and higher-income students can legally live in the Person of Color theme house, but Ontiveros hopes that they will choose to live in a different house and reserve this space for people of color.

“It’s meant for people of color,” Ontiveros said. “It’s not meant for folks who … want to be an ally or … want to learn about different cultures.”

The Person of Color theme house will be founded on three pillars: cross-cultural exchange, academic and professional support, and anti-oppression and allyship. In order to achieve these goals, members will need to dedicate five hours to the community per semester by holding or attending workshops dedicated to these pillars. Possible workshops include traditional cooking or music lessons and inclusivity training.

To provide academic and professional support, the BSC will utilize donations and a $250,000 grant from The Eucalyptus Foundation to convert certain rooms into study spaces. The donations and grant will also be used for seismic retrofitting, but the retrofitting will not be completed by fall 2016.

Emma Soldon covers schools and communities. Contact her at [email protected].