Over the past few decades, the city of Berkeley has garnered a reputation for its progressive political change, and city officials have noted its significance on a national scale.
Despite being a relatively small city, Berkeley has played a prominent role in national politics that has been spurred on by both city politicians and residents, according to Berkeley City Councilmember Sophie Hahn. Within the city, UC Berkeley students and faculty have often been at the forefront of these national debates and political movements, said ASUC External Affairs Vice President and UC Student Association President Varsha Sarveshwar.
“The core of what makes Berkeley great is our people,” Hahn said in an email. “Our robust mix of backgrounds, including people of diverse ethnicities, religions, ages, gender identities, occupations, and abilities, makes Berkeley one of the most uniquely desirable and impactful small cities in America.”
Sarveshwar said the city’s political influence primarily comes from city policies and the “strong movement culture.”
The city has been a trailblazer for many new policies over the past few decades. In 1971, for instance, the city installed curb cuts — small inclines in the sidewalk that serve as ramps — to make sidewalks more accessible to those in wheelchairs, according to City Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email.
That same year, Berkeley became the first sanctuary city in the nation, meaning that the city protects undocumented immigrants from deportation or prosecution regardless of federal law. Since then, hundreds of other cities and counties in the U.S. have classified themselves as sanctuaries.
More recently, the city became the first to ban discrimination based on religious headwear, Robinson, who introduced the proposal, said in the email.
“Every single one of these policy initiatives has spurred further action from jurisdictions near and far,” Robinson said in the email. “The compassion of Berkeleyans knows no bounds, and it should surprise nobody that our principles of equity and inclusion are reflected in our policymaking as well.”
The city has a particularly long history in environmental sustainability, according to Hahn, who recently authored legislation aimed at replacing single-use plastic foodware with more environmentally friendly compostable alternatives. The city was also the first to establish a curbside recycling program and a styrofoam foodware ban, Hahn added. This year, Berkeley became the first city to ban natural gas infrastructure in new construction, Robinson said in the email.
UC Berkeley’s campus also plays a prominent role in Berkeley’s nationwide political influence, as students and faculty often lead political efforts within the campus and city, Sarveshwar said.
The “movement culture” could be seen in the 1960s, when campus student groups took part in the Third World Liberation Front strikes that originated at San Francisco State University, according to Sarveshwar. These protests resulted in the creation of the ethnic studies program at UC Berkeley and similar programs across the nation.
“The city and the campus are really intertwined,” Sarveshwar said. “It’s hard to imagine a UC Berkeley campus that’s not surrounded by this, you know, quirky little city, and it’s hard to imagine the city of Berkeley being what it is without the campus.”
Reflecting on her undergraduate career, Sarveshwar said not all the political influence in the city brings about positive change, adding that Berkeley has turned into “battlegrounds for members of the alt-right to come to our city and inflict a lot of harm.”
“When you’re out there really challenging what a city and what a community can do, I think you attract a lot of attention and sometimes that attention can be really negative and really harmful,” Sarveshwar said. “Certainly you’ve seen both sides of that in my time at Cal.”