‘The insistence of innovation:’ California state Sen. Henry Stern on his experiences at Berkeley Law and his impression of campus politics

The Bridge - A series of interviews linking students to remarkable figures of UC Berkeley and the Bay Area.

senator henry stern
Henry Stern/Courtesy

Berkeley Law alumnus California state Sen. Henry Stern may have gone to Harvard University for his undergraduate degree, but he still considers himself a “West Coast Californian” at heart. Born and raised in Southern California, Sen. Stern ventured to the East Coast while studying in Cambridge and then returned to California to complete his law degree. Upon graduating from the UC Berkeley School of Law as an environmental attorney, he worked on the Hill before going on to represent companies doing clean energy work all over the country. But today, drawn back to his roots, he represents California’s 27th State Senate District, which includes parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

In his undergraduate years at Harvard, Senator Stern focused primarily on history, as well as art and sociology. But he was always “inspired by justice and equality.” During his undergraduate years, this calling manifested itself in his work with the United Service Organizations. Upon graduating, he knew he wanted to continue his work in public service, and he knew Berkeley Law was the best place for him pursue that goal.

Sen. Stern gravitated to Berkeley Law because of his intense interest in activism. While working on campus, he engaged with an eclectic group of people who had a varied set of beliefs and values. It was his time at this school that opened his eyes to the many different ways to engage in activism. Sen. Stern explains that what ultimately drew him to Berkeley Law was the real, critical work being done on the campus and the rich variety of ways he could engage with chief issues of the time. In his own words, “the power of (UC Berkeley) is the breadth.”

His time on this campus was driven by his desire to provoke change, but his experience seems to stand in contrast to traditional representations of political activism often associated with the university. By participating in science, business and law, Senator Stern ultimately found that a multivariable type of activism was the most effective way to implement change.

Today, many students have their eyes set on bettering the world, but they are not all looking through a strictly political lens. By passionately engaging in technology, law, medicine, business and the social sciences, the students at UC Berkeley form a cohort of inspired individuals who want to make a difference.

Sen. Stern spoke about the importance of focusing on this end goal and how there can be many means to that end.

The Daily Californian: Did you always know you wanted to go to law school and then into politics?

Sen. Stern: I knew I was going to either try to solve the climate crisis and/or work on juvenile justice issues through law. And that’s why I went to (Berkeley Law). (UC Berkeley) isn’t a place you go to just wax poetic; it’s a place you go when you want to get things done. For me, I knew that … It was a lot of serious people doing a lot of serious work, and I had to be in the mix.

DC: Knowing that you wanted to go into public service and contribute to shaping society, would you say you gravitated toward Berkeley because of the city’s long legacy of activism?  

SS: UC Berkeley is a school of doers. … It wasn’t as much the city of Berkeley as the insistence of innovation at (UC Berkeley).

I was an activist in a different way. I wasn’t doing a ton of protests. … I changed my kind of activism. I found ways to be a true Berkeley activist, but more using the power of law and politics. I went into the system as opposed to staying outside of it. There are all different ways to effect change, but I decided to go in and work with institutions. … It was the engineering students and the business students I worked with most.

I spent time with dispositionally very conservative people. I did have a small group that would go out and work on elections and knock on doors. … I had that group of pure democrats, doing democratic activism. But really the folks that I did the most revolutionary, or disruptive or innovative work with were pretty conservative people.

You can be just as revolutionary or disruptive by being a good lawyer or engineer or business student as you can with political geography.

DC: What was your impression of the political landscape of campus? UC Berkeley has quite a reputation for being bent toward the left; did you find that you only encountered one type voter or one set of beliefs?

It wasn’t politics first. … Politics weren’t a tension. (My peers and I) all sort of agreed like, “OK, we’re all trying to work on this singular project,” which was averting a climate catastrophe, and we all agreed that “we are all here at the most amazing energy research campus in the world — let’s do something about it,” and we got focused on that.

 It’s kind of ironic –– everyone always says, ‘Oh, Berkeley is so leftist, but I got very excited about being involved on the business side. I practiced with all the private sector and represented a lot of major transportation, major energy companies doing clean energy work all over the country. … I really got drawn into that because of UC Berkeley.

There is real benevolent capital moving through Berkeley; it’s not just a place of good feelings. It has market might. That really has stuck with me to this day. I don’t want to be “anti-business.” … We need corporations, and we need really good people running corporations, and we need some people to make a lot of money doing it.

If it’s just the traditional activist all the time, then it has to expand upon itself to win major change. I spent my time cultivating a different set of relationships instead of just sticking with the political people.

DC: How did your time at Berkeley Law shape your attitude toward politics?

(It was a time when I had an eclectic group of friends) –– one was making innovations in glass optics that were going to make solar panels four times more intensive, and another one was trying to figure out how to solve electric vehicles before that was a thing and is now the top battery scientist in the world, and another one is now a major venture capitalist. But at that time, we were all just sitting around, and it made me so hopeful that everything we needed was right there with us. Like we could solve global challenges with just people.

Berkeley was the time when I (experienced) the depths of those “doing” kinds of relationships, like doing real work together and trying to … make the global economy sustainable. That project really took shape in some of (my friends’) living rooms, just eating pizza and sitting around and talking. It may be optimistic, it may be a little less fatalistic, too.

There (are) just all different ways to change the world, and I got to see a lot of them.

DC: In the political climate of today, what is one issue or topic you feel needs amplified attention?

SS: Student power. Unutilized student power –– you can hear I get excited about energy, but that’s the biggest untapped renewable energy resource in the country.

Eighteen – to 35-year-olds are the largest eligible voting block, and we are the lowest (voter turnout demographic in the country). So, we have the most potential power and we use it the least. We could completely change the entire electoral map if we just voted.

You’re voting in the presidential election even when you’re not voting in the presidential election, just to be clear. … How you vote in this (midterm) election is, essentially, you making a comment to the president … Anyone that thinks that this is unrelated isn’t understanding how those two branches of government interact.

People have choices to make, and by the way, not voting is a choice; and what you’re saying is, “I think you guys are fine. Let’s give this to the next generation to run the country.” … Not voting is a big decision. If we take our hands off the wheel … and just kind of roll the dice, I’m very concerned that we are playing a high-stakes game.

DC: You made it through a rigorous academic career, and now, at a relatively young age,  you are already actively contributing to society in substantial, concrete ways. What is one piece of advice you’d offer to a student who has similar goals?

Don’t overthink it. Don’t try to be perfect with figuring everything you do, like, “Is this a be-all, end-all job? What am I going to be when I grow up? I need to decide right now.” No, you don’t. I haven’t. I still haven’t decided. Politics is a means for me to go help people, but it’s not an end unto itself.

If you have that passion for that thing that’s in front of you, … just do a lot. And (in) that process, you really accumulate a big beautiful mosaic in your life of people and experiences. … We might get paralyzed by all the infinite choices out there. So don’t overthink it, and just start doing. And do new things, … because that’s when you grow, when you stretch beyond your grasp.

Contact Jacqueline Moran at [email protected]