Hallmarks of UC Berkeley, education and activism have coexisted on campus since the Free Speech Movement.
Campus has been a historic hotspot for activism, pulling on ongoing social struggles while surrounded by a rich history of challenging the status quo, according to Nathaniel Moore, campus archivist in the ethnic studies department. He added that the same causes people fought for nearly 50 years ago are still active today, though modern technology has made activism look and sound a bit different.
“Young people lead the charge and so it is no surprise to me, given that general framework, that colleges and universities would be hotbeds for social change,” Moore said.
The ethnic studies department on campus holds a special kind of fame in campus’s legacy of activism, Moore noted, as it was founded out of protest.
According to The Berkeley Revolution, a digital archive of the East Bay’s changes in the 1960s and 1970s, the Third World Liberation Strike in 1969 demanded the establishment of a college for Black Americans studies, Chicano studies, Asian American studies and Native American studies. This later became known as the department of ethnic studies.
“All these students of ethnic minorities were experiencing a lack of their perspectives, their experiences, people who looked like them and the teachers in their classes,” Moore said. “They were minorities in their classes, and the curriculum didn’t express their histories or where they were coming from.”
Moore added that one major part of this movement was the way different student organizations unified together, understanding that, despite facing different struggles, they were stronger as one collective than as smaller splintered groups.
The tools of activism grew with the times, according to Moore, and social media became part of the repertoire. For many organizations, Moore noted modern activists bridge physical distance with the instantaneous reality of social media.
“When used effectively, social media, as a tool, can be a huge (galvanizing) cause,” Moore said. “You can get your message out to so many people so quickly and really educate those that might not even live where a thing is happening about issues.”
Current activism in Berkeley can come through clubs or engagement with social media groups, according to Grayson Savoie, external affairs director for campus organization Telegraph for People. Savoie said social media is a great way to connect with other activist groups who are fighting for similar causes.
Telegraph for People’s focus is “pedestrian dignity” according to Savoie, who added the organization was founded on a basis of student interest and empowerment. The organization has been able to use social media to draw crowds to big events, like Telegraph for People’s takeover of Telegraph Avenue in spring 2022.
“Even if they don’t know much about transit or are super involved in our values (people) still understand the issues of car-dominant environments and can relate to that,” Savoie said. “That is really shown through the engagement we get on social media.”
Savoie said his organization had tried to honor Berkeley’s history of activism by following in the footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement, during which protests were focused in the Telegraph district.
With Berkeley’s rich legacy of activism, Moore implores current students and activists to study and understand the methods of those who fought before them. He said some issues with modern activism arise when individual causes can be isolated and people get overwhelmed by the plethora of challenges facing society.
“It’s not on any particular person or any particular individual to solve something,” Moore said. “What is on us is to productively contribute to the struggle and to do the best we can to obtain a better world.”
While it is important to engage in activism, Savoie noted students should only join organizations if they truly care about the issues being fought for. He added that joining any organization just for one’s resume will lead to burnout.
Students, Savoie said, need to follow their interests and find people who care about the same issues they do. Moore also stressed the need for students to get involved and fight for progress.
“The largest piece that one can learn is the responsibility of young people and students to be involved,” Moore said. “It is less about what one chooses to do than that one chooses to do something.”