Back and Forth: Ben Gould, graduate student candidate for Berkeley mayor

Jessica Gleason/Staff

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for space and clarity.

Every day of his undergraduate experience spent away from his home in Berkeley, he wished he was back. He considers his neighbors to be the homeless and his voice to be that of every marginalized resident in the city. Living in the hills as a child and now Downtown, Ben Gould wishes to finally give back to the city that has become an inseparable part of his identity, even if that means tackling a task that seems daunting — running for mayor as a campus graduate student.

With an interdisciplinary background in environmental engineering and public policy, Gould hopes to integrate economic prosperity, environmental protection and social justice into city policy while maintaining Berkeley’s rich identity. Using a collaborative approach, he wants to cultivate transparency between City Council and its people, creating a space for each and every resident of Berkeley to have their opinions acknowledged. In fact, he is one of few public figures whose private email address is freely available.

“If you have ideas or issues, or simply want to chat, I’m here,” he says. “I’m not looking to start fights or make enemies. I think everyone wants a better Berkeley, a better world and we think we can work together to achieve that.”

The Daily Californian: You said, “I’m running for mayor to fight for every voice in Berkeley.” Please elaborate.

Ben Gould: All too often, most of City Council represents the interests of affluent homeowners who are well-established in Berkeley. I understand Berkeley much more intimately than any of the other candidates. I appreciate and recognize the value of each person and want everyone to be able to live here. I don’t want it to be just for the homeowners. I want to represent every single person’s interests on council and I want to create a Berkeley that works for everybody in an individual and unique way — not a Berkeley that works for everyone on average.

DC: You stated, “We can continue bringing innovation and small businesses to our Downtown while simultaneously helping our city’s most vulnerable, without criminalizing them.” Can you define “our city’s most vulnerable?”

BG:  I mean the homeless people who live Downtown. They are my neighbors. When I walk out the door in the morning, they are the first people I see on the street.

DC: How are they “criminalized” systematically?

BG: Berkeley, among cities nationwide, is great in that it provides services and support for the homeless people. That doesn’t mean necessarily that it doesn’t also criminalize them. For example, there are lots of organizations, ordinances and regulations in place that have been asserted by City Council, like banning sleeping on the sidewalks, or banning panhandling and loitering, banning having possessions of more than a 2-square-foot area. These are various stages of enforcement, and although Berkeley police are relatively generous in that they don’t enforce all this all the time, this is still an issue. We treat homeless people as people who are committing criminal acts instead of residents who are the most vulnerable. I would like to try to change the approach of City Council to that and instead recognize that homeless people are residents, just like every other voice in Berkeley. They deserve the same kind of equal treatment. If they need more help, then we give it to them.

DC: There’s a lot of stigma surrounding homeless people from people who aren’t native. What would you say to people to change their minds (about this)?

BG: A lot of the stigma around homelessness stems from America’s desire to ignore poverty and ignore the real issues of our country. What makes people most uncomfortable is that they don’t feel safe themselves. I think that ensuring Berkeley as a safe haven for all people, homeless or not, is a crucial first step. This way, no one will feel threatened by homeless people, and at the same time, they don’t feel like they physically have to displace homeless people either. By and large, the almost-lifetime residents who are homeless in Berkeley are not dangerous or threatening. I think that they can be treated as neighbors who are on the street a lot.

“I mean the homeless people who live Downtown. They are my neighbors. When I walk out the door in the morning, they are the first people I see on the street.”

DC: What is your vision for LGBT-inclusive healthcare for students?

BG: A resolution recently passed to provide input on the UC (Student Health Insurance Plan) selection processes. The UC SHIP asked (the Graduate Assembly) what kind of transgender care should be included. There are so called “optional” or “cosmetic” benefits that are questionable under the Affordable Care Act, and they are not required for insurance. We were asked, should these be included? I said, yes, they are absolutely important for male-to-female transitioning. It’s not cosmetic or optional, it’s just a legacy of cis-centric policies that have happened and qualified in this way. No one else is speaking out about it, so  (when) I was in the Graduate Assembly, I added the language that talks about transgender benefits. This is when we have to stand up and speak about what is important to us for all students, not just cis ones.

DC: When you’re the only one that has the courage to speak out about a potentially controversial issue, do you ever feel intimidated?

BG:  It’s scary, but I do just bite the bullet. I’ve learned that most people, if they are not speaking up, are probably more scared than I am.

DC: You mentioned the intersection of social justice, economic prosperity and environmental protection. Can you explain how you integrate this in the context of one of your plans?

BG: Housing is the biggest example in my opinion. There is not enough housing for everyone who wants to live here, and the rich are mostly the ones who can afford to buy new housing. This is a social justice issue in that if we don’t build enough housing, we will end up passively displacing lower-income residents. This can happen through active displacement, such as tearing down old buildings and building new ones. Passive displacement is when new buildings are built next door and the neighborhood changes, such as through gentrification. Then residents don’t feel comfortable living there anymore. The prices go up, they are forced out of their homes because they increase in value, and they move to even further into the East Bay. We want to prevent this passive displacement by building new houses for the wealthy in places where there’s already new housing for the wealthy. That’s the intersection of social justice and economic prosperity. Environmental protection comes into this as well because we want to build new housing in such a way to minimize its impacts, such as climate impacts. Ways to do this involve building edifices near transit and no parking requirements. This way, residents don’t need a car and can take alternative methods to work. There is some short-term pain for long-term residents who are used to driving everywhere, but new people in the community won’t be driving. Transit demand will increase and the quality of transit will increase. We have bigger bus services, and that will, in the long run, lead to structurally reduced carbon emissions.

DC: You focus on how we can “restore Berkeley’s leadership in environmental protection.” How do you think we have slipped behind?

BG: Over the last 10 or 15 years, a lot of other cities have been doing innovative environmental issue things that Berkeley hasn’t been doing. One example that is happening now is community transport aggregation — it happened in Marin County before it happened here in the East Bay, and Berkeley could have led on that sooner. Another example is our bike infrastructure. Berkeley could have the world’s leading bike infrastructure 20, 30 or 40 years ago, but now it has got nothing but a couple of lines in the ground. In San Francisco, they’ve got really dedicated bike lanes with physical barriers from cars and here at Berkeley we are still talking about completing our original master plan or finishing building out bike lanes that connect up all over the place to end Fulton (Street) and Bancroft (Way).

DC: There is also the cigarette butt waste cleanup movement the Community Environmental Advisory Commission is supporting, which involves asking the city manager to enact a program to place receptacles for cigarette disposal between Bancroft (Way) and University (Avenue) on Shattuck (Avenue), promote enforcement of punishment for violations and explore storm drain collection for discarded cigarette butts. What are the hardships on successfully carrying out these kinds of tedious plans?

As a commission, we want to protect the environment. We also have to recognize that Berkeley staff are limited in time with what they can accomplish and we have a lot of things to do. Instead of proposing that we do a full expensive setup, we want to suggest an initial pilot project where we put up more filter receptacles around Downtown. Before we get to the storm drain issue, we need to see the impact of putting more receptacles around town. It costs a few tens of thousands of dollars and should not take too long to implement. We need to find an approach that works in the current budget and fiscal limitations, while still having a positive impact and seeing if that initial approach will lead to something that has a bigger difference.

“I said, yes, they are absolutely important for male-to-female transitioning. It’s not cosmetic or optional, it’s just a legacy of cis-centric policies that have happened and qualified in this way.”

DC: Several students at UC Berkeley smoke — do you ever fear that gaining support from those populations is not feasible?

BG: It’s tricky. You are not supposed to smoke Downtown, and we want to find a good balance between saying don’t smoke and also putting out your butts on the receptacles instead of on the ground. So “leave your cigarette here” signs could be useful to create reminders for people and structure their behavior. We don’t expect pushback from the community, but I would expect smokers to have receptacles to throw their filters would be appreciated. No one wants to litter on the ground. The biggest issue I expect will be financial. Time costs for staff, example.

DC: If you are elected mayor, what legacy do you see yourself leaving?

BG: Really fundamental environmental work, I hope to expand upon that. Some of the things I would like to see are expanding Berkeley bike lanes, expanding Berkeley’s public transit systems, helping to finalize how Berkeley can go 50 percent solar or use 100 percent renewable energy within a reasonable timeframe. Basically, I want to bring these great ideas into the public sphere and implement them.


Contact Sindhu Ravuri at [email protected]