Put a Cal student on the Berkeley City Council

Students ought to have their voices heard in city government

Kira Walker/Staff

Have you ever wondered how to find more affordable student housing or make a complaint to your elected official in Berkeley? What if you ran into your city council member in Wheeler Auditorium as you headed into class? It would make it much easier to remind the council member about those burned out street lights that make walking home risky.

Right now, we have a unique opportunity to draw the nation’s first ever “student district” through the city’s redistricting process. Of the seven proposals submitted by residents, five of them include a student district. As the Council considers which map to adopt for the next decade, both students and the citywide community should consider the benefits of having a student on the City Council.

A student district will institutionalize the dialogue between the campus and the citywide community. Currently, city-student relations rely on informal communication between student organizations and individual Council members.

Council members do their best to communicate with students, but we deserve someone who is actively and continuously advocating for our issues. The only way that we’re going to create more affordable student housing, bring stores and restaurants that students want to Berkeley and reduce crime near campus is by electing a representative who knows what it’s like to be affected by our issues. A student district, with a current or recent student on the council, will ensure that students have this kind of representation and a voice in city debates. Councilmember Laurie Capitelli was recently quoted in a Daily Cal column stating that “there has not been a venue for students to articulate their concerns.” A student district would ensure that City Hall would be such a venue.

This institutionalization of city-student dialogue will not only benefit students; it’s good for everyone in Berkeley. Mayor Tom Bates often cites the city’s Climate Action Plan goals to help the environment by decreasing our carbon footprint. But students already live in the densest housing and overwhelmingly use public transit to get to class or work! Students already play a major role in helping the city meet our Climate Action Plan goals, and could contribute greatly to increased sustainability in the future if the City taps into their valuable knowledge.

Likewise, the citywide community will also benefit if we reduce our “brain drain” and incentivize more young people (that is, recent Cal graduates) to live in Berkeley after graduation. We should aim to create more projects like the Skydeck, an incubator for startups right in Downtown Berkeley, which provide jobs and an innovation pipeline for Berkeley grads. By creating high-tech and higher-wage jobs, recent graduates can be the engine of a burgeoning, sustainable Berkeley economy. Keeping students here will attract knowledge-based industry and bring more revenue to the city. But once again, the best way to find out what will keep students here after graduation is to ask them. Even better: have a student on Council who can channel that perspective into economic development and housing policies.

Even with these undeniable benefits of having a student on City Council, there have been concerns that a student Councilmember would be politically isolated. (They would be just 1 vote out of 9). However, this fear is not only unfounded — it implies that having zero votes is better than having one. Policy-making at all levels of government requires deal-making and consensus. A sole Councilmember cannot write laws alone; legislating requires building coalitions. The point of having a student representative is not that it will magically solve all our problems, but it will give students a seat at the table and allow our voices to be heard.

Last fall, Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Arreguin and Wozniak all expressed support for a student district. The mayor himself claimed that “if (Measure R) passes, we will actually create a student district. And I’m committed to that campus district … I’m committed not just to talk about it … Let’s have a student on the council. Let’s have a student there voting for their own interest.”

We need to hold our elected officials accountable to that statement, and we need to lobby them to create the student district that we deserve. Student political participation is at an all-time high: The ASUC registered over 8,500 new students to vote last fall. With higher student turnout following those registration drives in student precincts, Berkeley students were a major reason that Measure R passed overwhelmingly and Measure S failed. Students can be a grassroots political force, and we (the students and the City) should work together to craft policy that moves our city forward.

But we can’t do this without the help of every Cal student! There are two ways you can help convince City Council to create a student district. First, attend the CityCouncil redistricting public hearing on May 7 (more info at BerkeleyStudentDistrict.com/events/). Second, like us on Facebook (Facebook.com/BerkeleyStudentDistrict/) to stay informed. Working together with our neighbors in the city, we can create a student district, make our voices heard and bring new and innovative perspectives to city policy.
Shahryar Abbasi is the ASUC external affairs vice president. Noah Efron and Michael Manset are UC Berkeley students who have worked on the redistricting issue with Abbasi.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected].