External affairs vice president candidates aim to unify students across backgrounds

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Although the three candidates running for the position of ASUC external affairs vice president each draw their experiences from highly different backgrounds — including student advocacy, legislation and mobilization — they all share a common goal: to unify students.

The EAVP works to foster relationships between students and legislators inside and outside of campus, representing the ASUC to city, state and federal levels of government as well to the UC Student Association and UC Office of the President. This year’s candidates include Raj Bhargava, running with the Student Action Party; Rigel Robinson, running with the CalSERVE Party; and Gabriela Takahashi, running with the Defend Affirmative Action Party.

For Bhargava, who attended the only low-income high school located in an otherwise wealthy district, income inequality was an issue he was already familiar with and knew he wanted to address when he came to UC Berkeley. After learning about the Student Advocate’s Office on Sproul Plaza, he joined the office in fall 2014 of his freshman year, working as a financial aid caseworker for two years and becoming its external chief of staff in the summer of 2016.

During his time in the SAO, Bhargava worked closely with students to help create the Winter Break Housing project to provide affordable housing for students living  in the dorms who could not afford to go home during winter break. By connecting with students directly through the Student Advocate’s Office, Bhargava said he has learned how to bridge the gap between learning about issues students face and implementing changes to solve these issues.

“Through my work at SAO, I think I’ve gained a lot of insight on policy with respect to the UC,” Bhargava said. “There’s a lot of different administration and committees you can have a relationship with, but at the end of the day … to be able to implement effective policy is important.”

Kelly Archer, a senior who worked with Bhargava to co-create the Basic Needs Coalition, which helps students experiencing food and housing insecurity, said throughout the project’s development, Bhargava demonstrated the ability to connect different groups — including the Homeless Student Union and the EAVP office.

“He had a good understanding of how this institution works and what works when we’re talking about food security and housing security,” Archer said. “Having that understanding in the ASUC is hard to come by… I was always surprised and appreciative when Raj knew who to talk to. He would figure out strategies that were effective and not a waste of anyone’s time.”

Whereas most of Bhargava’s experience revolves around working in the Student Advocate’s Office, Robinson comes from the EAVP office, where he has spent much of his time fostering relationships with local and state politicians. Robinson said that growing up, his parents got him involved in many religious organizations, including a Hindu Center, a Jewish preschool and mass held at a church down the road. He has since always tried to better connect people who come from different backgrounds, Robinson said.

Robinson and a group of four other students met with UC Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Singh Bachher to discuss divestment from the university’s investments in companies that own part of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In March, Bachher announced that the university was reducing its investments.

Robinson said that through such experiences, he has gained knowledge regarding how to influence lawmakers to respond to student voices, a skill that Robinson added he believes is necessary for the EAVP to have.

“EAVP —  it is more than a position,” Robinson said. “It’s an organization, and one that is deeply connected to a network of other spaces and people off campus. My work in external affairs and then a lot of my work as a senator, being external has been that I’ve been constantly building deep personal relationships with people.”

Ben Ellsworth, a freshman and one of Robinson’s campaign managers, first met Robinson through joining campus organization Cal Dems. He recalled how, during the night Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, Robinson tried to lift students’ spirits, reminding them during the live broadcast on Sproul Plaza that they were still united despite the results of the election.

“I can attest to his character — innate drive to help others, be humble about his accomplishments and look toward what he can do for the student body,” Ellsworth said.

Takahashi’s platforms, which revolve around mobilizing students and taking an active stance against Trump, stem largely from her experiences growing up with a Japanese mother and a Puerto Rican father. She said because of her background, she is educated about the effects colonization has had on marginalized communities. Before coming to UC Berkeley she attended Sierra College, working as a senator to help open spaces including a Cross Cultural Resource Center, Pride Center and a Women and Gender Resource Center.
She recalls that she became inspired to come to UC Berkeley after watching the Occupy protests on television and seeing how the police interacted with student protesters. She said that her experience helping to mobilize protests, including her participation with BAMN in the Milo Yiannopoulos protests, makes her more engaged with students than in a way that other candidates cannot be.

“I just think it’s best to advocate for students even if your radical opinions are going to set you aside from other student advocates and administrators,” Takahashi said.

Ernesto Aguilera, who was the president of the Associated Students of Sierra College, said professors would typically request Takahashi’s participation in committees aimed at improving the campus climate, despite those positions typically going to executives.

The 2017-18 ASUC elections will take place April 10, 11 and 12.

Cassandra Vogel is the university news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cass_vogxz.