Berkeley offers plenty of pathways to activism and service

UC Berkeley’s deep history of social and political activism is alive and well. Though it has taken different forms over the past 50 years, this legacy has always been about taking action. Only the direct experience of practicing democracy in the messiness of the real world can offer fuel for self-reflection and deeper self-knowledge.

Each year, nearly 10,000 Berkeley undergraduate and graduate students partake in some form of off-campus service — engaging in public-interest internships, community-based research, policy analysis, lobbying and philanthropy. Students are not merely spectators of the most pressing issues of the day, though they might appear to be if camouflaged against an understanding of short-term protest as the only form of activism.

I arrived on campus just seven weeks after Hurricane Katrina’s storms and floods devastated New Orleans’ working-class communities of color. In response, students organized the Magnolia Project — a UC Berkeley Public Service Center program through which nearly 550 students contributed more than 70,000 hours of service to off-campus communities in the past year. Many alumni have also committed years of post-graduate service working to rebuild the Gulf Coast.

Despite differences of race, age, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation and class, students and alumni have managed to sustain close relationships with community members. Students have come to deeper understanding of privilege and how it is enjoyed by certain social identities–and how these identities show striking patterns across pressing social issues, such as wealth inequality and rates of poverty, food insecurity, education achievement, and incarceration. Some view this work as the Third Reconstruction after the Second Reconstruction or southern freedom movement of the 1960s.

Studying how conditions 50 years ago birthed resistance in the leadership of Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, and how Mississippi Freedom Summer fueled the Free Speech Movement, is an important academic undertaking. Reflecting on the history of the many powerful lessons of the Free Speech Movement can help calibrate one’s personal ethical compass. But with no direct experience against which to weigh such a heavily intellectual and perhaps even solipsistic perspective, our well intentioned acts can have an adverse impact, especially when collaborating with off-campus communities.

In deep collaboration with the City of Berkeley and Berkeley Unified School District, Berkeley United in Literacy Development (BUILD) represents the university’s commitment to 2020 Vision: a program that aims to end the racial achievement gap. BUILD’s site directors and mentors — many of whom are first-generation college students — work weekly with 900 young scholars in every Berkeley elementary school. This form of action, a constant and committed sense of activism, sharply contrasts with mere theoretical discussions of education inequity and the commonly held practices of protests or online petitions.

Many of these committed mentors come to view their direct experience teaching a younger generation to read as a deeply empowering act. Such an experiential learning model fosters a lifelong personal commitment to service and leads most students to clarify their career and academic pathways.

As members of an academic institution, our research and teachings reflect a concern for advancing knowledge and student learning. When performed in alignment with our mission as a university, it serves its public character by serving the public good. While the Bay Area may have many pressing problems, it also has a rich tradition of freedom movements.

Both Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and the American Cultures Engaged Scholarship program promote research and teaching while working with our East Bayneighbors — some of whom are veterans of previous freedom struggles and many of whom have much to offer our common investigation into pressing social problems and possible solutions. The institute and the program advance community-engaged scholarship. With its community-based component and critical perspective, the institute offers both academic and practical benefits while acknowledging power dynamics in university-community partnerships. Berkeley’s graduate students are producing scholarships at the intersection of knowing and doing, particularly in the School of Public Health, College of Natural Resources and College of Environmental Design.

There is much more to be done. As the world’s leading public research university, we must recognize the pathways to activism and scholarship. We must acknowledge the various forms of action and knowledge — including community wisdom — that strengthen our democracy. We must continue to build on the dozens of powerful examples of students and faculty advancing knowledge while building real, healthy communities. As we build the capacity of the state and nation for community building, we must interrogate the predominant researcher-activist-charity paradigm that often maintains power in the hands of those investigating, protesting and helping.

Most importantly, we do not need a finely polished abstract definition or personal vision for a healthy community before taking action, should we encounter a manifest injustice. While philosophical inquiry and self-reflection are vital ingredients for generating useful knowledge, we cannot expect our democracy to be vibrant and responsive to the challenges we face today if we do not directly practice democracy.

Mike Bishop is the interim director for the UC Berkeley Public Service Center.

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