Over the course of its history, the ASUC has served as a springboard for students, who have used the institution to become leaders in a variety of fields beyond graduation.
Some former ASUC members have become politicians, including state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who served as the academic affairs vice president and a leader in the anti-apartheid movement on campus during her time as a UC Berkeley student. Others have chosen less traditional careers in organizing and activism, such as Stephen Shames, who was elected to ASUC Senate in the late 1960s, about the same time he began photographing the Black Panther Party.
As students vote for next year’s ASUC representatives, The Daily Californian asked former ASUC leaders to reflect on their time in student government and how it has influenced the work they do today.
Mel Levine: Rising to national politics
When former congressman Mel Levine was ASUC president during the 1963-64 academic year, free speech was at the top of his agenda.
Levine’s tenure came in the midst of the Vietnam War and the Cold War — both national issues that brought debates surrounding free speech to the forefront of UC Berkeley’s campus at the time. He recalls a campus speech by Madame Nhu, the de facto first lady of South Vietnam, as an instance in which he used his power as ASUC president to organize a peaceful protest.
Nhu — a conservative speaker invited to speak on campus during “the early stages of American opposition to the war in Vietnam” — faced violent threats from students across the political spectrum, Levine said. As a result, he and other ASUC members implemented preventative measures.
“We hoped to avoid that (violence) by requesting that the students show their opposition to her by silence,” Levine said. “But it was pulled off. The silent treatment actually worked.”
Also during his presidency, Levine encouraged UC President Clark Kerr to oppose a ban on communist speakers — a lobbying effort that resulted in the UC Board of Regents’ unanimous vote to lift the ban.
Levine is now known for serving as a Democratic c ongressman from California from 1983-93 and has devoted much of his political career to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and environmental protection policies. He worked as an informal Middle East policy adviser for the Obama administration and is now president of the Board of Water and Power Commissioners for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Levine said working in the ASUC sparked his interest in politics by working with a “diverse number of people and interests.”
Reflecting on the role of student government, Levine said student leaders today have more of a responsibility to lobby the governor and state legislature to increase funding for higher education. The state’s underfunding of the UC system, he said, heightens the importance of student government.
Levine said he paid just $61.50 each semester to attend UC Berkeley.
“Students didn’t have the burden economically that they have today,” Levine said. “So to me, there’s an extraordinarily important, even imperative, off-campus role for student advocates, which is to advocate for the funding that is desperately needed.”
Jesse Arreguín: From city lobbyist to city mayor
Jesse Arreguín is currently tackling the same pressing issues in Berkeley that he did more than a decade ago — the difference being that then he was a student, and now he is the city’s mayor.
Arreguín graduated from UC Berkeley in 2007 with a degree in political science. As a student, he was appointed ASUC lobbyist for the city of Berkeley and used this role to address the lack of affordable housing in Berkeley.
“That’s actually what got me involved in the ASUC and working in local politics — seeing my friends who were struggling to find affordable housing and wanting to do something about it,” Arreguín said.
In order to promote student housing development, Arreguín was involved in the campus’s creation of its 2020 Long Range Development Plan, a 15-year land use plan that states the campus’s goal of providing 2,600 additional beds by the year 2020. He said he advocated alongside the Graduate Assembly for the campus to “increase the commitment to student housing.”
Since being elected mayor of Berkeley in 2016, Arreguín said he has been working with the campus to help it reach the goals that he helped devise.
Arreguín attributes his decision to pursue a career in politics to his involvement in the city as an ASUC student lobbyist and his election to the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board as a campus junior. He said he attended City Council, Planning Commission and Housing Advisory Commission meetings at the time and was mentored by Councilmember Kriss Worthington — who is now his colleague.
“I got to work with every government official in Berkeley, and it was through those relationships that I was not only able to fight for students, but I got the motivation to run for public office in the city of Berkeley,” Arreguín said.
Many current ASUC senators have been particularly involved in local politics, Arreguín said. But he added that the degree to which members of the ASUC are engaged in city government affairs varies from year to year as priorities change.
Arreguín said that as a student and city leader, he has learned that students have “a voice and an impact.”
“There’s a special role for Berkeley students to not just learn, but to apply our education for social action,” Arreguín said. “I think that countless students have been able to influence state policy, university policy, city policy. It’s often students who are coming up with cutting-edge ideas.”
Yvette Felarca: Advocating for a movement
Looking back on her three years as an ASUC senator, Berkeley Unified School District teacher and By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, national organizer Yvette Felarca said one particular event stands out: a student and community tribunal on the racist and hostile climate at UC Berkeley.
Felarca, who represented the Defend Affirmative Action Party, or DAAP, said she organized the tribunal in 2004 with the goal of “holding the university accountable for the low number of minority students.” The event featured student testimonies about racism on campus.
The first student who spoke at the tribunal testified about the racist treatment she had experienced from an administrator — a statement that Felarca said prompted Robert Birgeneau, then in his first semester as chancellor, to leave the event.
“It was because it was so successful that he had to get up and leave, because students were being very candid and open,” Felarca said. “They weren’t letting the administration off the hook.”
Felarca said such events aligned with DAAP’s overarching mission to advocate on behalf of minority students, adding that her approach was to transport the BAMN organizing strategy into the ASUC setting. As an ASUC senator, Felarca also garnered student mobilization to oppose SB 209, which banned affirmative action in California.
Unlike Levine and Arreguín, Felarca has opted out of a traditional political career. She has instead turned to teaching and organizing as a means of influencing change.
In light of the current political climate in the United States, Felarca said she has observed “wasted opportunities” on the part of ASUC leaders when they have failed to participate in and encourage protests against conservative speakers, including Milo Yiannopoulos.
“It was a different situation when I was a senator. (President Donald Trump) wasn’t president,” Felarca said. “There was plenty of protesting to be had then, too, but everything is escalated now. The stakes are higher.”