Working on Berkeley City Council has been a longtime dream for Ben Bartlett, who was born in South Berkeley in the 1970s.
Coming from a line of politicians, including two former Oakland mayors, Ron Dellums and Elihu Harris, Bartlett said he’s always been involved in campaigns and politics. But he hasn’t always been a politician. By the time he was elected to City Council in November 2016, he had started a coffee business, wrote and acted in a film that reached international audiences and worked in reality television.
Despite working in a variety of industries, Bartlett said the common thread of his work is using creativity to help those around him. As the District 3 representative for City Council, Bartlett said he has worked to enact pieces of legislation that address longstanding problems in Berkeley in new and different ways.
“All those years studying theatre and writing plays … it causes you to find solutions, thematic and dramatic solutions, too. And it’s all a metaphor for life,” Bartlett said. “That’s why we’ve been able to really pass some groundbreaking legislation — because of that ability to sort of find creative solutions to dilemmas faced by actual people.”
Bartlett has put forth various initiatives, such as Step Up Housing, which aims to aid the city’s low-income and homeless population. The initiative involves the construction of a building made up of 100 stackable modular units, which is set to be privately financed and leased by the city for $1,000 per unit per month. Bartlett, along with two other members of the council, also put forth a proposal to create an anti-displacement public advocate in the city, which the council is set to vote on April 4.
Bartlett’s mother, a Black Panther, got Bartlett interested in activism at a very early age. As a child, he and his mother used to travel around the country doing community organizing. Later, about 2008, he came back to Berkeley as an adult and started a coffee business near Old City Hall, where he served many council members.
Bartlett got to know Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who was then the district representative for the Downtown area. Arreguín later appointed Bartlett to the Zero Waste Commission, allowing him to take a more active role in the city.
“(Bartlett) has been a close friend and an ally. I was one of the people who encouraged him to run for City Council,” Arreguín said. “We’ve already been able to get stuff done. We’re kind of a dynamic duo.”
Bartlett said he didn’t expect to run for council until he was older, but when his mother was having troubles with her landlord in South Berkeley, he decided it was time to get more involved.
Bartlett alleged the developer who bought his mother’s building harassed the senior citizens who lived there by turning off the heat, intentionally losing their rent checks and yelling at them. When Bartlett took his mother and another tenant to the city’s Rent Stabilization Board, Bartlett said the other tenant told him, “It won’t do any good. If they don’t want you here, you can’t stay.”
That’s when he decided he wanted to get involved. Bartlett said he wanted to bring back respect for the people in the city and find a solution to Berkeley’s housing shortage.
In his emphasis of creative solutions, Bartlett said he hopes to ameliorate the housing situation through organizing “win-win scenarios” that will rebuild the trust of the city within the community.
“He has initiated major public policy reforms that are long overdue,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “He’s just tackled some of the biggest issues and really come up with practical, positive reforms. … He’s been here for 10 weeks and he’s already tackled 10 big issues. Every week he brings a positive new change.”
Bartlett believes that the residents of Berkeley need to trust one another, though he said that he knows that trust will come as the council creates solutions to more of the city’s problems.
Despite the successes of his first weeks on the council, Bartlett described his frustration with the speed of city processes. To Bartlett, the pace of change can seem slow, especially when his constituents want answers.
“I just keep trying to tweak it where I can. Try to move the ball forward at all times, never rest,” Bartlett said. “The people can’t wait. … To everyone else outside that manifold of comfort, they can’t wait. So if they can’t wait, then I won’t wait, because I’m for them.”