‘Community and connection’: City, campus reflect on anti-racism reforms

Photo of a BLM protest
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff
Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the city of Berkeley as well as schools in Berkeley have enacted policies aimed at combating systemic racism.

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On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, sparking worldwide protests against police brutality and racism.

Nearly two years later, the city of Berkeley, the Berkeley Unified School District and UC Berkeley have all enacted changes to promote the success of Black students and residents while combating systemic racism.

For the city, these efforts came in the form of the Reimagining Public Safety initiative, launched in July 2020 with the passage of the George Floyd Community Safety Act. The initiative includes the Specialized Care Unit, or SCU, which is being launched with the goal of shifting responses to noncriminal calls and emergencies away from the Berkeley Police Department.

“The 2020 protests over the brutal murder of George Floyd triggered a multi-year effort to reimagine public safety in Berkeley,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in an email. “Beyond public safety, we are taking steps to correct historical wrongs when it comes to housing, developing a housing preference policy that will establish priorities for new affordable housing in Berkeley.”

Beyond the SCU, the City Council set the framework for the Berkeley Department of Transportation. If implemented, the department would assume traffic enforcement responsibilities from BPD.

In terms of housing efforts, Arreguín said the city’s Housing Preference Policy will prioritize at-risk groups and families for affordable housing units. City Council also committed to ending exclusionary housing last year in an attempt to undo “generations of restrictive zoning” targeting people of color, Arreguín added.

“An exciting project that we are proceeding with, in partnership with the NAACP, Healthy Black Families, and other African American organizations is the creation of an African American Holistic Resource Center,” Arreguín said in the email.

BUSD’s African American Success Framework, which was launched in December 2021, aims to improve the learning environment for Black students, according to BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott.

The framework will also create more family engagement opportunities and identity-based programs to celebrate Black history and culture.

“We know that there have been historical efforts to right the ship and remedy the wrongs that have happened for our students in this district,” said African American Success project manager Kamar O’Guinn during a BUSD board meeting. “There’s a lot that has been done since 1968 when Berkeley High School developed the first Black Studies department in the country.”

Under the framework, the district began the Umoja program at Longfellow Middle School. The program is designed to “support the holistic development” of Black students, along with other programs focusing on STEM and the arts.

Prior to announcing the framework, the school board unanimously passed a resolution in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which also outlined a Black Joy Campaign and initiated renaming processes for multiple schools.

McDermott noted Ruth Acty Elementary School — formerly known as Jefferson Elementary School — was named after the district’s first Black educator, while Washington Elementary School is currently being renamed.

“The resolution calls on everyone in the district to work together to examine and address past injustices; use data wisely to find and fix what is currently unfair; and celebrate the joy, wisdom, and contributions of the Black community in our community,” said BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens in an email.

While the city and school district galvanized reform efforts following the 2020 protests, campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said campus’s African American Initiative and changes in the undergraduate admissions process began much earlier.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ announced in 2020 a three-pronged approach to improve the campus environment and promote a diverse undergraduate population through the Undergraduate Student Diversity Project launched in 2018, Gilmore added.

In the same announcement, Christ said campus will adopt recommendations from the Graduate Student Diversity Task Force to support Black graduate students and make the most of a “moment for reflection and action.”

“Berkeley’s excellence depends on diversity of thought and perspective, both of which are the result of, and profoundly enhanced by, the diversity of our campus community,” Christ said in a statement. “For these and so many other reasons, we are working hard to increase the diversity of our community.”

Associate Vice Provost for the Faculty Sharon Inkelas detailed efforts to promote diversity and inclusion among faculty. These efforts include Faculty Link, a program to create “community and connection” for faculty.

Gilmore said campus offers workshops and trainings to educate about anti-Blackness for faculty and staff to counter microaggressions and implicit bias in classrooms and departments.

Similar to the city’s efforts to redistribute current functions of BPD, campus has also begun implementing its Community Safety Plan, which aims to transition certain tasks away from UCPD. The plan includes developing the Compassionate Crisis Response, a part of University Health Services’ Stepped Care 2.0 program, to provide critical services and support to students.

“I believe that so long as there exist threats to our well-being, our rights, and our property, there is a need for public institutions dedicated to securing our safety,” Christ said in a 2020 campuswide email regarding police accountability. “That, however, does not mean we must accept the status quo. That is not the Berkeley way.”

Gilmore also noted efforts to connect Black students with the University Health Services’ Black Mental Health Team to provide regular group support.

UC Berkeley has also unnamed four campus buildings to address “racist legacies and histories,” according to Gilmore.

“Whether members of the campus community attend a campus event, connect with a colleague or friend, or reflect privately on the Black experience, I hope everyone finds moments of celebration, connection, agency and critical inquiry,” said Dania Matos, campus vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, in a statement.

Contact Aditya Katewa at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @adkatewa1.