‘Our basic rights’: Underrepresented UC Berkeley student groups continue fight for campus space

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Underrepresented student groups and organizations, including the community of students with disabilities, Indigenous student organizations and the Queer Alliance Resource Center, or QARC, have faced long-standing challenges in their fight for allocated spaces on campus. 

After decades of effort, current advocates for students with disabilities have gained more experience navigating the administrative system, said Alena Morales, chair of the ASUC Disabled Students Committee and a rising campus senior.

Early on, the disabled student community worked to receive an endorsement from UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ through organizing. Although it received the endorsement, the group was later given a new administrative process to follow to receive space, according to Katie Savin, a campus graduate student member of the committee.

“There were all of these processes that seemed official, but nobody was at the receiving end, no one being held accountable for this process,” Savin said. “As disabled students, we all constantly advocate for our basic rights.”

In 2019, the Disabled Student Leaders Coalition, or DSLC, submitted a proposal to create a campus disability cultural center to the Space Assignments and Capital Improvements Committee, or SACI. SACI is a committee of faculty, administrators and students that evaluates campus space requests, said Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Stephen Sutton.

Although SACI approved the creation of a subcommittee based on the proposal, the project “kind of went nowhere,” according to Savin.

The DSLC was then approached by the design firm Sasaki, which has been helping underrepresented groups obtain space on campus as part of campus’s Long Range Development Plan, according to Morales.

The collaboration with Sasaki is separate from space allocation for Registered Student Organizations, which falls under the domain of the ASUC or the Graduate Assembly, Sutton noted in an email.

“We were told in a most recent meeting that the school finally felt enough pressure to respond to it, which was exciting for us,” Savin said. “We’ve been building political power as that happened and becoming a group that they had to acknowledge and respond to.”

The disabled students community now has an office in Hearst Field Annex and will have additional space allocated for its use as well, according to Savin.

The students hope to have a community space with an open floor plan to host events and unwind. Ideally, there will also be a kitchenette area for medical supplies that need to be refrigerated, as well as a service dog station, according to Morales.

The Disabled Students Committee is now working to find a campus staff member to help facilitate events and work with administration.

“It is very important to have that cultural space because it allows them to have that environment where they don’t have to worry about everything else,” said committee member Anna Bernick. “They can have social interactions with people like them who are probably in a similar situation.”

Sasaki has also been helping the Native American Student Development, or NASD, office to receive an allocation for a Native American center on campus, according to Ataya Cesspooch, coordinator with the American Indian Graduate Student Association.

NASD recently learned that administration is temporarily locating it to the fourth floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, which does not meet the group’s “key goals,” according to Cesspooch.

“I understand that we are not the only group who need a dedicated space on campus and don’t in any way want to discount other group’s need for space,” Cesspooch said in an email. “It is just frustrating because NASD has been working on this issue for a very long time and it seems as though little progress is being made.”

According to Cesspooch, kinship is central to Indigenous culture, and having a Native American center is necessary to foster relationships with local tribes and with other Indigenous students, as well as to eradicate feelings of alienation and isolation.

In addition to a central space on campus, NASD expressed interest in creating a space that welcomes local Ohlone people, as well as a space for local tribes to curate items held in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. The proposed space would also have classrooms for Native American studies courses and offices for an Indigenous research center, according to Cesspooch.

“The center would have a large event space to accommodate Native American events on campus as well as a lounge and study space for Native/Indigenous students,” Cesspooch said in the email. “So far, the temporary plans we have been shown do not provide enough space for the majority of these needs.”

In a similar fight for a larger space on campus, in 2016, the QARC and bridges Multicultural Resource Center requested to be relocated from their former spaces in the Eshleman Hall basement. According to Jerry Javier, the then-board director for QARC, the space in the basement was in poor condition and out of sight.

In 2018, the two programs signed three memorandums of understanding with student body officials in the next step of attaining visible spaces for students. The groups also used the Fight4Spaces campaign, involving an occupation of the Cal Student Store and a blockade of Sather Gate, to increase visibility for their organizations, according to Regan Putnam, then-incoming director of QARC. Ultimately, the two organizations were relocated to the fourth floor of the student union until renovations for their new permanent location — Hearst Field Annex — were completed.

The QARC did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

Students can and do exercise their 1st Amendment rights as part of a long tradition on campus, Sutton added. In response to student groups advocating for spaces, UC Berkeley will continue to uplift student perspectives and student voices, he said.

“We have listened to and appreciate the experiences and needs that students in marginalized communities have shared with us,” Sutton said in an email. “In turn, we are in the process of working with student groups to find ways to equitably allocate space.”

Contact Zoe Chen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zoe_chen820