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Tumbling the Ivory Tower

At UC Berkeley, one radically engaged academic program could finally force the school to own up to its mission as a public university — if the administration agrees to fund it.



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In addition to directing the AC Center and leading the ACES initiative, Robinson also teaches in Cal's Ethnic Studies department. She's a prolific worker who rarely has a moment to spare, yet when she sits down with you in a meeting she is fully engaged, and emits a palpable sense of caring commitment.

Victoria Robinson (above) is leading the ACES program along with Suzan Akin, but the pair hopes for more staff support in future years. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Victoria Robinson (above) is leading the ACES program along with Suzan Akin, but the pair hopes for more staff support in future years.

ACES formed out of a partnership between the AC Center and the university's Public Service Center, a resource that helps students find internships and volunteer opportunities with local organizations. Suzan Akin, an employee of the Public Service Center, co-leads the ACES program with Robinson. That means managing everything from administrative tasks to holding intimate debriefings with ACES teachers in Robinson's office, huddled around a small table with a copy of UC Berkeley alum Jeff Chang's tome on the shortcomings of cheap multiculturalism, Who We Be: The Colorization of America. Robinson and Akin are the entirety of the ACES administrative staff — and they both only work part-time on the program.

When the ACES initiative kicked off in 2010, the plan was to use the $947,000 donation to develop thirty courses over five years. By the end of that stretch, Robinson and Akin had managed to bring 38 ACES courses to fruition. ACES courses come about in a variety of ways. Sometimes a professor or lecturer wants to incorporate a community partnership into an existing American Cultures course, or they have a brand new idea for a class. Other times, Robinson and Akin have a community partner in mind and approach an instructor to teach the course, or a teacher wants to incorporate a community partner into his or her class, but needs help from Robinson and Akin to find the right partner. In some ACES courses, all the students participate in community partnerships, while in others, the ACES component is an optional supplement to an AC class. Each course receives a small stipend to employ a graduate student teaching assistant to help with the class.

The initial arrangements are flexible, but Robinson and Akin are strict about how each course turns out. Every ACES teacher is required to attend special workshops on engaged scholarship. That education is designed in part to ensure that ACES classes don't consist merely of local organizers and advocates coming in for a guest lecture or UC Berkeley students showing up to a nonprofit organization to do administrative-type jobs. Robinson and Akin also ensure that ACES classes never consist of students entering a community-run space and preaching academic expertise. Rather, ACES partnerships are crafted so that students gain specific skills and experiential knowledge that fit into the course curriculum while also deepening the work of the partner organization by meeting a specific need — such as, finding answers to research questions, developing models, or mentoring youth. Ideally, partnerships are designed to be long-term, so that each class of students contributes to a complex goal that can take up to ten years to accomplish. "[UC Berkeley] is normally pretty faculty-centered and student-need oriented, and we're actually trying to complicate that by looking at reciprocity and mutuality," said Robinson. "And it's hard. That's a harder set of relationships to hold."

Many students arrive at UC Berkeley with a specific image of the university in mind — one that stems from photos of the Free Speech Movement and involves bands of students uniting to fight for the change they believe in. But they often find that the political climate on campus is much less heated and far less informed than they had anticipated. Instead of a campus uprising, "Free Speech Movement" now refers to a campus cafe that sells $10 sandwiches and has a photo of Mario Savio plastered on the wall.

For young idealists, there are relatively few places on campus where they can delve into the history and practice of organizing. But Sean Burns' ACES course, "Social Movements, Urban History, and the Politics of Memory: San Francisco Bay Area, 1769–2015," is one of them. Burns, who is now the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research & Scholarships, has been involved in both teaching and community organizing since he was an undergraduate, and has long been interested in bridging the disconnect between them, so when the opportunity to develop an ACES course arose, he jumped on it.

Burns' class is an abridged history of Bay Area social movements that leans heavily on guest lectures by local activists. The community partner for his course is Found SF, a San Francisco-centric online community history archive that documents marginalized narratives through crowd-sourced research and other projects. By the end of Burns' class, each of his approximately twenty students produces a history project to contribute to the website, adding to the depth of its East Bay coverage with original interviews conducted with community members. When he taught the course last spring, project topics included the history of Oakland's DeFremery Park and the various groups that have used the space for organizing; the history of queer spaces in the East Bay with a focus on the White Horse Inn; and the history of the East Bay punk scene as told through the evolution of the house show.

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