It’s a rare occasion that Rigel Robinson can walk into Tap Haus with his girlfriend without someone asking him about the ASUC.
This is not surprising, given that for the past year, Robinson has worked virtually full time as external affairs vice president, or EAVP, to represent student voices in our state’s and nation’s capitals. For the upcoming November 2018 elections, however, he’s planning to focus his efforts a little more locally.
Robinson, a campus senior studying political economy, announced Thursday that he is running for a seat on Berkeley City Council. Robinson said he hopes to represent District 7, or “the student district,” which encompasses UC Berkeley’s campus, Southside and several student residence halls. In a city that is home to thousands of students, Robinson said an emphasis must be placed on student representation.
“We have so much more to do. One of the biggest barriers to student involvement in these issues is institutional memory. We get deeply involved working on these challenges, and then we leave,” Robinson said. “Maybe I could have a unique role in helping carrying that work just a few inches further, if I stick around just a little longer.”
Old City Hall is not a foreign place to Robinson, who, as EAVP, has either attended or sent another student from his office to speak on various city agenda items concerning UC Berkeley’s student body. Whether it is City Council meetings or city commission meetings, Robinson has made sure to keep up on a local level, pushing for more housing density around campus. According to Robinson, tall, dense buildings should have been built around campus “like yesterday.”
In the ideal world that Robinson is fighting for, every student would have a roof over their head, access to three meals a day and a safe space to rise to their full potential as students — this is a priority for Robinson, but not one that every city official focuses on, he said.
“It is so frequently, flagrantly obvious that a lot of our most influential changemakers either a) don’t understand the campus and how it operates, or b) truly, deeply believe that the campus and the campus community are an inconvenience to the rest of the city,” Robinson said.
Currently rounding off his term in the ASUC, Robinson has fervently advocated in the past year for more affordable student housing — a fight that he is not ready to leave just yet. Within the immediate vicinity of campus, Robinson said he believes there are numerous lots and sites for UC Berkeley to build student housing on, such as a lot on University Avenue, a lot next to Amoeba Music and the space that is People’s Park.
“The university is a deeply gentrifying force that can have a displacing effect on any of our neighbors — that’s why it’s so important we build densely close to campus, instead of suburban sprawling into the rest of Berkeley,” Robinson said.
Specifically with People’s Park, for example, Robinson said a compromise can be made, citing the campus’s considerations to split the park into three sections: student housing, housing for recently displaced homeless and a preserved section of People’s Park. Construction on People’s Park has been extremely contentious, as the park is a hub for Berkeley’s homeless, serving as a sanctuary to many for the last 49 years.
“Everything we do in Sacramento and D.C. is important, but so high-level,” Robinson said. “When you pass meaningful policy at the local level, you’re doing it because you want to improve the day-to-day life of your neighbors … who might actually see a result of that in the time that they’re still here as students.”
Robinson’s campaign for District 7 raises the question of whether Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who currently represents District 7, will run again. Worthington has represented this “student district” since 1996, and Worthington said he has not decided whether he will run again. He added that he has always advocated for student representation in City Council, but the 21-year-long incumbent expressed that he will only step down if he knows that the other candidate has the “right kind of ideas,” policy-wise.
“I have an open mind about what I’m going to do. … If there’s a student that has a strong agenda and they can make it happen, then it will be an easy decision for me,” Worthington said. “If the District 7 person isn’t fighting for more student housing, then we’re going to lose a lot of momentum.”
The pair — Worthington and Robinson — recalled each other with respect, tipping their hats off to the work they have done together to fight for student housing, among many other issues in the past year. Robinson noted that he hopes for Worthington’s support, as Robinson’s EAVP office has spent a lot of the past year fighting for items that Worthington has put forth to the council. Worthington did express his excitement for Robinson’s campaign, but he said he wonders what Robinson will accomplish as a council member.
Looking forward, Robinson has no idea how this campaign fits into his career plans — all he knows is that he’s graduating in two weeks, and he cares about Berkeley and its students too much to leave already.
“This work is my passion. I never could’ve predicted I would be in a place where I’m being asked by so many people to put myself on the ballot now,” Robinson said. “It’s surreal in a lot of ways, but at the same time, it’s right. It’s a natural extension of what I have been doing, and I know that I could be doing the job justice.”