As graduation looms, I look back and laugh at the thought that the PG&E rolling blackouts in 2019 were the start of the end.
To say that the 2020-21 academic school year was unprecedented is an understatement. On top of being students, our world was consumed by the pandemic, 2020 presidential election, continued civil unrest and the effects of climate change turning our skies orange. This past year has challenged our sense of community and who we are as individuals.
In May 2020, I stepped into the role of ASUC president — a role that has historically been seen as a figurehead of the ASUC and a voice for the student body. After serving for a year, this role and our current circumstances have been a crash course in leadership for me; there is not really a handbook on representing more than 30,000 students at a top-tier university amid a pandemic. During my time, I have honed my leadership skills and learned the deep intricacies of what it means to be a leader.
Leadership is more than just a title — it is a decision one makes to make a change. There are leaders everywhere. They are our custodial staff, the faculty, the administrators, community organizers, residents of Berkeley, our peers and many more. In addition, change itself is varied and can look different at all organizational levels.
When deciding to run for ASUC president, my sister told me that if I wanted to run, I needed to be explicit with my goals and intentions. I was considering entering spaces, such as the ASUC, that continually excluded me; interacting with administrators who were so disconnected from the realities of current students; operating in a campus that dared to increase fees on the student body, defund critical student services and never faced accountability for their actions.
If I was going to put myself out there, I needed a message. My sister told me on the phone, “Hold their feet to fire.”
During the 2020-21 academic year, among current circumstances, campus was also in conversations surrounding the budget, academic accommodations, campus climate, our Long Range Development Plan and so much more. Within these conversations, sometimes I would be the only student and person of color in the room. I would feel the anxiety creep into my body and my heart start racing before I would click to unmute myself and speak. I had to navigate the uncharted waters of virtual advocacy. When I would speak, I would either be met with silent disapproval from campus administrators or open-mindedness and collaboration from them. No matter what, I kept reminding myself that if I did not challenge our administrators and the institution as a whole, then I would be doing my constituents, my peers, a disservice.
I ran on the principles of affordability, accessibility and accountability, and my understanding of these concepts was shaped by the strong women and community leaders that raised me. Their teachings instilled in me a sense of humility and resilience. These intergenerational teachings were passed down through pain, hustle and hope for liberation. Whenever I enter a new space, I do not enter alone. I enter with my community and those that have built and supported me. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and who have continued the advocacy and fight for equity, inclusion and liberation.
It is rare that as students we see the change we have been advocating for occurring while we are still students. We are here for roughly four years, and change can take generations.
During my time at Berkeley, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of the Chancellor’s Building Name Review Committee and the fight to dename buildings on our campus. As a student, I have been able to see four buildings be unnamed. This change did not occur overnight. Generations of students have been advocating for the campus to be more inclusive and reflect on its own history. It was only just now that their advocacy has come to fruition. It was students such as Bradley Afroilan and Anthony Williams who did research into David Prescott Barrows. It was groups of faculty, staff and students that led to the creation of the proposal to dename John Boalt off of the law school. It was student groups such as the Black Student Union that demanded change and action from the campus in 2015.
A majority of these students have since graduated from UC Berkeley, but their work and their legacy do not end when their terms do. Advocacy is a generational activity. As UC Berkeley students, we need to understand that the work we do now is actually laying down the roots for future generations of student leaders to continue to carry the torch of change. That we need to actively develop compassionate students to look out for each other even when this institution and these administrators do not. That we as a community have an active role in crafting and shaping how history is preserved on this campus and how it is understood.
During my time as a student leader, I have seen students take on leadership roles in order to build their resumes and to get clout. But actual work and change are not always popular. We need change-makers. Change itself is about rattling that institution, challenging the status quo and dismantling current power structures.
More than ever, we need dynamic leaders who can step up, step back and uplift. We need student leaders who are willing to engage in tough but necessary conversations surrounding campus climate, space and resources for students, budget constraints and to challenge the core principles and priorities of our campus. The pandemic exacerbated inequities within the institution in a way current campus leadership could not fathom, and it was the challenge of student leaders to be thought partners in the evolution of higher education.
That leadership, in itself, is not stagnant and our vision of it should not be either.
I pass the torch to you.
Victoria Vera was the 2020-21 ASUC president and previously served as the chair of the ASUC Diversity Affairs Commission from 2018-20. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science.