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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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I visited Burns' course during the late afternoon of 4/20, a time when, every year, hordes of students skip class to gather on the lawn and smoke pot. But every one of Burns' students was present in their seats that day, eagerly listening to Ed Wolf speak about his influential work in the Eighties with HIV/AIDS victims in San Francisco. Many of these students, Burns later told me, have personal investments in the movements they chose to write about, and are seeking insight into histories and community spaces that can otherwise be difficult to access as an undergrad.

"[My class] is not just about a particular kind of knowledge production, it's also so much about relationship-building," said Burns. "They sort of have access and entry to communities that they yearn to be a part of. ... What's going on there is exposure to other human beings, carving their lives and modeling ways forward that are other than just get the degree and get the J-O-B job."

Because UC Berkeley undergraduates are busy fulfilling demanding coursework, it can be difficult for them to find time to volunteer or do the types of internships that can help them land a job at a nonprofit in the Bay Area. And if a student needs to work throughout college in order to pay his or her rent, that opportunity becomes even more unrealistic. As a result, the chance to do social justice work after college becomes limited if students can't get that experience through their coursework.

So, many of those initially bright-eyed idealists end up being sucked into the career pipeline, which churns them out with a solid skillset, but leaves them without exposure to the Bay Area beyond the Berkeley border.

Conversely, students who are passionate about extracurricular activities, or are passionately involved in a movement, often don't get top grades in school because the university doesn't reward their community work — including the work that Cal students do in ACES. Moreover, ACES courses require a lot of a student's time and energy.

Lappas attempted to alleviate this problem with her summer course because she didn't want her ACES students to be charged for extra units. In summer courses, students must pay per-unit tuition for classes, and a class with an ACES supplement costs extra because it's worth more units (although the units usually don't equal the amount of work the supplements require). So instead of having to pay for those extra units, Lappas allowed her ACES students to skip the two hours of required discussion section each week and go to RYSE instead. Even so, in addition to having to travel all the way to Richmond, her ACES students spent at least twice the amount of time at RYSE as they would have in a discussion section.

Marcel Jones is one of those actively engaged students who has had a difficult time juggling his personal drive to do social justice work and his academic responsibilities. Jones is a fifth-year Political Economy and Anthropology student who works frequently with local organizations, including Berkeley Cop Watch; used to be co-chair of the Black Student Union; and once co-developed an ACES course about the history of Black and Brown student organizing and the ways in which groups have dealt with being both marginalized on a college campus and away from their community.

Marcel Jones, a UC Berkeley undergraduate, finds it important to organize as well as study. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Marcel Jones, a UC Berkeley undergraduate, finds it important to organize as well as study.

"It's always a series of choices," he said recently while studying for a mid-term at a Berkeley cafe. "What do you prioritize? And sadly, it's set so that in order to feel like you're making change and fighting for something you believe in, you're jumping through hoops to get a degree to help you do what you believe in."

Brian Powers teaches an ACES course in the sociology department called "Sociology of Education" that parses the structural ways in which educational institutions reinforce structures of inequality that they claim to eliminate. For their community partnership, Powers' students work as mentors at Oakland International High School, a school specifically designed for refugee youth who are all at varying levels of English proficiency. Powers said his students often need community engagement work in order to not feel helpless and frustrated at the end of a class that implicates them in a dismal system of inequality.

Austin Pritzkat, a fifth-year political science major with a minor in public policy and another minor in city planning, took Powers' class when he was a freshman and has remained involved with the ACES program ever since, in part serving as an undergraduate teaching assistant for Powers. "At the end of the day, when we read about health disparities or education disparities or various other social issues, these are human beings, these are families, these are communities who are living this," said Pritzkat. "ACES is a fundamental part of a larger process that I am engaged in about trying to challenge my understanding of my own social position in the world and in the community."

In spring 2014, administrators in Cal's College of Engineering sought out Khalid Kadir to teach an ACES class. It was clear at the time that the College of Engineering needed to quell the criticism over its lack of racial and gender diversity, and officials figured that a socially engaged course might do the trick. Kadir, a charismatic lecturer who teaches both engineering and political economy, was the rare person for the job. But on his way to meet with administrators, his motorcycle spun out of control and launched him onto the side of the road. He still managed to make it — albeit a bit late and quite bloody. He put off the emergency room until after the meeting. "I guess that gives you a sense of how cool I thought the idea was," Kadir said in an interview.

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