Over 50 years ago, Berkeley students went to Mississippi to fight for voting rights. Today, the right to vote is still at risk. This past summer Public Service Center students traveled to North Carolina, a state at the epicenter of the current fight for the franchise, to work with community organizations on voter education and outreach. Here one student shares her story about this transformational experience.
OZICHI EMEZIEM, Class of 2017, Major in Comparative Literature and Ethnic Studies, Hometown: Antioch
I remember the first time that I took to the streets of Oakland in protest, the night that the officer was found not guilty for the murder of Michael Brown, and I had my twin brother on my mind... I was at my intern seminar for the Multicultural Community Center where everybody was pacing around and waiting for the anti-blackness workshop that two of our peers were going to lead, but first we had to know: guilty or not guilty? We listened to it amidst an eerie silence and upon hearing “not guilty”, there were sounds of cries, some muffled, while others were loud particularly from the black identifying interns who held each other for support. I stepped outside to call my twin brother with tears rolling down my face. He told me that he was going to Oakland and I begged him not to go. I said, “It’s not worth it” — not because Michael Brown or the numerous black and brown lives that are robbed each year are not worth it, but because I did not want my brother, my twin, someone I spent my whole life with including nine months in the womb, to be another person that was deemed by an outsider to be unworthy. Yet, he went and so had to go as well because I had to protect him just like the smaller versions of ourselves when we would hide as I tied his shoelaces so the other kids on the playground would not know his secret. I have always looked over my shoulder to make sure that my other half is there, present, alive, and well. Now we were older and there was this sudden realization as I marched through the streets, holding my friend’s hand, chanting along with the crowd, disregarding the police, covering our mouths and nose just in case, yet searching anxiously, that he might not be there, present, alive, and well.
My final protest was during the takeover of the Golden Bear Cafe in order to visibilize black lives as well as honor Michael Brown. I have never felt such camaraderie in my black community at Cal in all my years in college. It was a special moment and I proudly wore the “Black Power” sweater, not to antagonize violence, but to remind people of resilience. I stood by my twin as he gave his speech about his experiences as a black man and once again felt like his protector, but I did not consider myself an activist for social justice then or anytime before that because I knew myself as a coward. I am too anxious for protests, at a loss for words in certain arguments, not radical enough in my beliefs, do not speak out enough, and therefore, according to certain standards, not “down”. So, I pulled back to save myself the embarrassment, shame, and discomfort, but I too have the same dreams of liberation. I did not stop caring, in fact, I think the problem was that I cared too much and resorted to numbness to push out any pain. I dissociated myself from social justice because I am more in tune with healing instead of fighting, and there never seems to be any room for that or a genuine understanding of the deeper connection.
I went to North Carolina because it was a big point of interest at my internship with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in D.C. I saw the state appear again on a flyer for ‘Freedom Summer’ and remember studying this pivotal moment in Professor Ula Taylor’s class on African American Women’s History. It seemed too good to be true and the perfect opportunity to engage in a project with freetime during the summer, however, I did not expect it to feel like a reconnection between my spirit and my body. I did not expect to redefine social activism and to directly engage with it. I did not actively seek a moment in my life that would shake the depths of my being, sending vibrations throughout my whole body, my heart beating rapidly with feelings of passion, rage, humility, pride, a newfound energy pulsing within, and ushering me to do something. It was a swirl of learning, observing, and listening, mixed in with great company, new friends, as well as pride. Yet, the most beneficial aspect of the trip was its healing nature. In Berkeley, I felt that the constant need to fight, to be on the defense, which came at an expense to myself. I forgot that if there is a fight for the social body, there needs to be a fight for the self, and this trip to North Carolina returned a piece, of the many several, to myself.
I believe that as Berkeley students, it is easy to get sucked into quick action and rapid responses, but to be placed in a position to listen and serve was a humbling experience. Within these past four years that I have had conscious discussions with peers, read more, and lived through killings, my politics have changed. Yet, for someone who speaks of the liberation of black people, I had not served my larger community as a college student in a direct way until I came to North Carolina and set foot on compacted projects to get people to register to vote. I never thought I would be the person going from door to door, trying to get people to open it, feeling a little hurt and defeated each time there would be no answer. Yet, there I was in North Carolina, walking in the humid, hot air, the sun glaring down, and of course that day I would wear all black to protect myself from its rays at the expense of absorbing all of them. There was sweat dripping on every known part of my body, but each time I would step to a door, I would wipe it from my forehead and place a smile just in case someone was willing to hear me out. It was then that I understood that social activism is not just the protest, but also the work that is being done within our communities. What might it mean to actually serve the community instead of rallying when we hear that another undeserving person has been killed? Or what might it look like to build a community voice not because we have taken over a freeway, but because we have marched to the polls to vote on a bill that disproportionately impacts people of color? Hence, I would consider myself a freedom fighter- committed to the liberation of all peoples and myself.
For my generation, I believe that we have got the function of the protest down. However, if the protest is the point, I am afraid that we might find ourselves on the streets until we burn ourselves out because there is an innumerable amount of offenses and an incalculable number of lives that have been lost. If it is change we are seeking, there needs to be an addition to our strategy. While this is not an attempt to discredit the work that is being done or a lack of support for the protests that are largely centered around the reckless killing of black lives, it is a call to pay attention to a missing component. I take myself back to North Carolina to remember the visit to the Franklinton Center, a slave plantation that was renovated into a colored college but now serves as a social justice retreat center, and what it felt like to step on land that holds a dark past. The sight of the whipping post, a magnolia tree, that was still sturdy and present, a living witness to death. Or images of hanging bodies surrounded by laughing crowds or of the unrecognizable Emmett Till at the end of the Hall of Shame in the Greensboro Civil Rights Museum. It could even be the story of the Greensboro Four, young black men my age, who set the national trend of the sit-ins. I think to myself as I reflect on all of these moments that we are absolutely correct to protest as it is our duty to fight as Assata told us. However, she also shared that it is our duty to win and we cannot win if we forget the fight of the past and its relevance in our present, but most definitely in our future. It ensures me that my vote, one of the descendants of the voices who for hundreds of years had been told had no right to participate, is an act of radicalism.
AMBER PERKINS ELLIS, Class of 2016, Major in American Studies and Minor in Education. Hometown: Sacramento
Amber Perkins Ellis is fascinated by the forces that shape public education in the United States. Her ultimate goal is to create a learning center for elementary age youth. To that end, she is exploring the types of curricula that inspire students to think critically about the world that they live in. “There are so many organizations that exist within the umbrella of the Public Service Center; I was able to find work that mirrors my values by interning with SOUL, the School of Unity and Liberation.” SOUL creates and implements curriculum for youth activists, so they can effect change in their communities. Amber learned practical leadership and pedagogical skills that she will carry with her as she pursues her career in education.
“The relationships I established through the Public Service Center have supported and impacted my experience at Cal in a remarkable way. There are so many brilliant people that contribute to the essence of the center. My peers are some of the most passionate and genuine people that I have had the pleasure of learning and growing with.” In addition to the inspiration her peers provided, through the Public Service Center Amber also had the opportunity to make meaningful connections that transcended and complemented her academic courses. Of these opportunities, Amber said, “I am grateful for the donors who support the Public Service Center. The center’s impact is felt by many passionate students who seek to engage in meaningful work that contributes to the betterment of society.”
For Amber, the Public Service Center provided that same inspiring environment that taught her to think critically about the world that she wants to help create for others. “The opportunities for growth by working with the Public Service Center are limitless. I learned by collaborating with my peers on projects. I learned by meeting new people and hearing their stories. I was in a constant state of learning.”
ALEJANDRA LOPEZ, Class of 2015, Double Major in Sociology and Social Welfare
As the daughter of farmworkers in California's Central Valley, I know firsthand of the many barriers that low-income people and their children face. My experiences have motivated me to pursue an education that I can use to serve my community after I graduate.
I participated in Alternative Breaks, which gave me experience in local community building. I received a scholarship, which afforded me the opportunity to participate in the program without taking out loans that would have increased my debt. Due to the generous support of Public Service Center (PSC) donors, this scholarship took a huge financial burden off of my shoulders.
Participating in the PSC has allowed me to always make sure that the work I do is centered on people. Policies look different on paper than in communities that are affected by them. I learned how to truly listen to understand versus listening to respond. I now know for sure that regardless of what professional and academic paths I navigate, I want to provide people with resources and tools for self-empowerment and self-liberation.
Something that the PSC has really emphasized to me is self care. Prior to being told by many PSC staff members that I needed to engage in self care, I would get easily burnt out and I wasn’t able to give my all to anything. Now I know more about how to balance helping others with taking care of myself.
I never imagined a space like the PSC. It taught me that community wisdom is perhaps the most important type of wisdom. There’s only so much we can learn from books. It’s given me an alternative way of learning.
MARTIN PEREZ, Class of 2010, Major in Social Welfare and Minor in Education, Education Advocacy Fellow and Co-Founder of Arizona2030, Hometown: Compton
As an English Language Learner in elementary school, Martin Perez had fallen behind, and his insecurities resulted in poor behavior. “Dedicated teachers recognized my potential and pushed me to strive. This is why I joined BUILD as a literacy mentor.” A program of the Public Service Center, BUILD (Berkeley United in Literacy Development) matches elementary school students with reading mentors. As a UC Berkeley student, Martin co-directed a BUILD literacy team and started a BUILD mentoring program at a new school. He also participated in another PSC program, Alternative Breaks, addressing immigration and social justice issues along the US/Mexico border, during a spring break. “My experiences with PSC prepared me to assume a leadership role in any situation. They taught me to assess a challenge, measure my abilities, and take action.”
Take action he did. The first in his family to graduate from college, Martin went on to become a fifth-grade teacher. He continued to dedicate himself to his two passions: social justice and education. He served on the Committee on Juvenile Courts for the Arizona Supreme Court, and the Educator Retention and Recruitment Task Force for the Arizona Department of Education. He also founded a nonprofit, Arizona2030. Martin’s accolades include being named Alhambra School District’s Teacher of the Year 2014 and Arizona’s 40 Under 40 Hispanic Leaders. “I couldn't have done this work without the support of PSC donors. Their generosity enabled me to make an impact and, at the same time, discover my career path in education.” About his chosen career, Martin reflects, “I love my job because it is more than a job. It is an avenue to make my community a better place. I have the opportunity to empower children to know there is no barrier to their success.”
PARAS SHAH, Class of 2015, B.A. in History and Political Science, with honors, and John Gardner Fellow
My involvement with the Public Service Center (PSC) began relatively late in my college career, but had a tremendous impact on me. As co-director for Cal in the Capital, I helped manage a prestigious program that has provided Berkeley students with high-quality internships for 50 years.
This experience was invaluable to me, giving me the opportunity to build leadership skills and be a mentor to other students. I co-taught a DeCal course, which is a student-initiated class in cooperation with UC Berkeley faculty, to prepare our interns for life and work in Washington. We covered essential skills such as resumes and cover letters, and also discussed what to do on the weekends and how to build lasting networks.
I had the pleasure of individually mentoring 25 interns. This was the most rewarding aspect of being a director. Over the course of a semester I saw students who came into the program unsure and unconfident, transform into young professionals ready to take on challenging and important work in their areas of interest.
The opportunity I had to impact, inspire, and empower is what the PSC — and public service — is all about. It is about what we can accomplish together and how we can help each other grow. We are challenged to consider the purpose and consequences of our work. This active intentionality is a mindset I carry with me as a John Gardner Public Service Fellow at Human Rights Watch in New York.
BRIAN ROGERS, Class of 1995, B.S. in Business Administration, Chief Executive Officer of the Rogers Family Foundation, Hometown: Oakland
(Photo: BUILD mentor Karla De La Torre, photo courtesy of Reading Partners)
The Rogers Family Foundation seeks to transform the educational experience of Oakland’s students, and a key strategy is to ensure students are proficient in reading by the end of the third grade. The foundation has chosen to support the Public Service Center and BUILD (Berkeley United in Literacy Development) because, as Brian Rogers, the foundation’s CEO, has noted, the BUILD model is “consistent, reliable, accountable, and effective.” BUILD mentors work one-to-one, twice a week, with the same student for at least a semester, and sometimes for more than a year. The Rogers Family Foundation supports UC Berkeley students to receive pay through Work-Study for their mentoring time. “Being a Cal alumnus, I take great pride in the spirit and intellectual capacity of some of the brightest students in the world. It is truly valuable that the Cal students are able to connect with elementary school students who have similar experiences and come from similar neighborhoods. The BUILD participants are more than mentors, they are role models and inspirational to the students they tutor.”
Brian’s appreciation of literacy mentoring grew out of his observations in high school and college. He noticed the different opportunities his friends had when it came to accessing a high-quality education. These observations inspired him to teach high school English and English as a Second Language in Oakland schools. Brian always knew he wanted to give back to his hometown and chose to focus his foundation’s work on providing high-quality education to all of Oakland’s children. “I’ve been put in a fortunate position in my life where I can support the work of BUILD. The true heroes are the Public Service Center staff and students who are providing mentorship to students who desperately need it.”
PATRICIA CONTRERAS FLORES, Community Organizer, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy
As a community organizer for the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, my job is to work directly with community members to develop strategic alliances among labor, people of faith, and the community. Our partnership with the Public Service Center and its program, East Bay Community Builders, has been beneficial in many ways. Working with Cal students enables us to achieve more. Most importantly, the students share their enthusiasm, ideas, and insights, and provide our organization with a youthful perspective.
The students who support our organization are amazing, passionate, smart, and refreshing. A favorite memory of mine happened last fall, during a precinct walk. I had the pleasure of watching a student grow into a community organizer. First, observing that initial apprehension and nervousness when she first knocked on someone’s door. Then, hearing the excitement in her voice and watching the expression on her face after talking to folks at their doorsteps. It was amazing.