Know your council: District 5 Councilmember Sophie Hahn looks to build community

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This article is part of a series on the newest Berkeley City Councilmembers.

Sophie Hahn is now a District 5 Berkeley City Council member. But she’s also a mother, a former lawyer, a whistleblower and an activist.

In every aspect of her life, Hahn has tried to foster community and promote justice. Now in her fourth month as a council member, she looks to carry on the progressive traditions of the city in which she was raised.

In her new position, she wants to bring down walls that separate the Berkeley community, whether they be between city government and residents, or council members and city staff.

So far during her term, Hahn said she is most proud of the December council response to the homelessness crisis. With the new council, she helped pass an item instituting the Emergency Operations Center. Some members of city staff worked through the holidays — taking only two days off — to address the crisis, doubling shelter beds and increasing outreach, according to Hahn.

“I think that (the homeless crisis is) going to be costly, and we’ll have to find additional funds,”  Hahn said. “But I also feel … people understand that it’s a humanitarian crisis and that we just have to do more.”

She added that she believes in “breaking bread” and fostering a sense of unity in the city — something she felt when she attended Berkeley schools in the 1970s.

Hahn was one of the first students to attend school in Berkeley Unified School District after it voluntarily desegregated in 1968.

“Even as a child, I was aware that we were part of something important,” Hahn said. “There was a lot of hope and aspiration that was pinned on the ability of schools to counteract … the racist past.”

But, after Hahn graduated from Berkeley High School, she said she was shocked by the lack of progressivism outside of the school district.

When she attended UC Berkeley, its population was much less diverse than her previous educational experience. At Stanford Law School, she identified the same issue and was also told that she and other women didn’t belong in the program.

When she later worked for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, she played a whistleblowing role in identifying higher-ups who had allegedly committed sexual assault.

Later, she moved back to Berkeley and re-invested herself in the city where she had once felt a strong part of the community.

“I really feel that this community made me who I am in very profound ways,” Hahn said. “I feel that we’re much better than many communities, probably most, but I also think we have so far to go.”

In Berkeley, she served on the Zoning Adjustments Board, the board of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, and was the chair of the city’s Commission on the Status of Women.

“She stands out as one of the people that is most prepared for council from day one on the job,” said Igor Tregub, chair of the Zoning Adjustments Board. “That is a testament to the many hours she has spent prior to being elected as both a community activist and a public servant.”

Tregub thinks Hahn has done an exceptional job in her three months on council, partly because she’s taken time to make herself available to community stakeholders.

Diane Davenport, secretary for the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, praised Hahn’s efforts in leading the North Branch Library in their mission to raise money for refurbishment.

“She believes in civic involvement and she does her best to encourage others to be involved and dedicated to whatever their passions are, just as dedicated as she is to her own,” Davenport said. “I think we can count on Sophie being involved in the city and our civic duty in one way or another for quite some time.”

Sophie Hahn also holds a law degree from Stanford, which she believes to be a useful asset to the council. Hahn has pored over the city’s zoning code and how it applies to medical cannabis cultivation and short-term rental regulations. She said some think she’s “a little crazy” for the amount of time she’s spent looking at the items, but she believes she’s significantly improved some city agenda items.

Though Hahn feels that she brings unique qualities to the City Council, she also emphasized that everyone has a role to play in their community.

“I really believe in very simple things like friendships,” Hahn said. “I really do believe that, in knowing each other across all our differences, we can make the world a better place. It’s not that complicated.”

Edward Booth covers city government. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Edward_E_Booth.