To get to the new office of the Berkeley Alliance, make your way to the second floor of the Berkeley Adult School, turn right at the old computer key boards and monitors – piled up against a wall like so many dislodged boulders at the base of a cliff – and then right again, into the windowless, L-shaped room at the end of the hallway.
In may look like the ideal spot for a Xerox machine and recycling bins, but if Berkeley Alliance Executive Director Toni Tullys has her way, it will become one of the most important meeting rooms in the city.
After years of hearing remarks like, “If only the university and the city could work together on this;” or, “If only the public schools had more support from the university,” some prominent Berkeley officials decided it was time to create one centralized entity whose mission would be to identify opportunities for collaboration – and make it happen. A little more than four years ago, this discussion resulted in the creation of the Berkeley Alliance.
It has taken time for the Alliance to get off the ground. In its early years it convened task forces and organized public meetings around the issue of the achievement gap at Berkeley High. Some of the research and expert testimony it provided helped to set the tone for public discussion around this issue, which has thrived ever since.
But the Alliance was manifestly not living up to its potential to leverage the resources of its three member institutions to “improve the quality of life for all of Berkeley,” said Tullys and others. So the decision was made to transform the group into an independent nonprofit, with a leadership board made up officials from its three member institutions and respected community leaders.
The nonprofit board has been meeting each month since January, hashing out its “mission statement” and creating a preliminary “to do” list for the years ahead.
“It’s a very action oriented group of people,” Tullys said. “I think it represents just enormous potential for the community.”
Chaired by Father George Crespin, Pastor of St. Joseph the Worker church, the board includes Pamela Doolan, a former school board member; Jabari Mahiri, an associate professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education; Fred Medrano, director of Health and Human Services for Berkeley; Alex Palau, principal of Berkeley’s Alternative High School; and Shirley Richardson-Brower, executive director of Berkeley YMCA South Branch.
Board members said last week it was still too early to discuss any specific initiatives the Alliance plans to tackle, but they and Tullys discussed their broad vision for the Alliance.
While youth education issues will always be a key part of the Alliance focus, board members said they hope to see the group launch innovative collaborative projects in other areas of importance to the Berkeley community as well, including housing, transportation and health services.
The Alliance, they said, will serve as a resource clearinghouse. Too often in the past, said Roberta Brooks, board member and former district director for Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, people have had great ideas but no idea where to turn for help transforming a plan into reality.
“Even in its short life people have said, ‘Oh, gee, that might be a good project for the Alliance,’ because there was no place to go before,” Brooks said.
“Almost any topic that you could mention, there could be better coordination between the university, the city and the school district,” Brooks added. “Sometimes it’s just a question of one part knowing what the other is doing.”
Tullys has spent much of the last year pulling together what she hopes will be the mother of all Berkeley rolodexes.
“That’s what we do. We make connections,” Tullys said. “For me it’s usually two contacts away to find who the contact would be” to get something done.
The Alliance has already played this role in some important ways. When Berkeley High needed a “Guide to Student Life” that would list phone numbers and extracurricular activities and give helpful advice about maintaining good grades and getting into college, it was the Alliance that secured funding from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the project. The Alliance even lent a staffer, Kimberly Willis-Starbuck, to the high school for the monumental task of editing the first few editions.
The Guide to Student Life provides a model for the work the Alliance hopes to do in the future, Tullys said: the work of helping good projects get off the ground and become self-sufficient.
Summing up the Berkeley Alliance message to new school superintendent Michelle Lawrence, who attended an Alliance board meeting last week, Tullys said:
“We’ve put this together. We have resources; we have university experts; we have community contacts. We’re here to support you in any way that we can.”
Julie Sinai, manager of school-linked programs for the school district and vice chair of the Alliance board, said having the Alliance database to draw on has already may it more practical than ever before for her to team up with UC Berkeley experts.
When she thought of turning to the university for help in the past, “there were so many different points of entry I didn’t have any idea where to begin,” Sinai said. But recently, when she approached Tullys looking for someone to brainstorm with her about better ways to evaluate school programs, she found herself sitting down with a UC Berkeley School of Education expert in a matter of weeks.
“It’s one of the most exciting institutional partnerships in the Bay Area, because it’s got all of the players and they’re all willing to be there,” Sinai said of the Alliance.
Now, said Sinai, is the time for the Alliance to prove its value to the larger community by launching some ambitious initiatives and following through with them.
“Now we’re at the point of saying, ‘Okay, we’ve got all this stuff. What do we do?’” Sinai said. “The Alliance has to do something.”
Sitting beneath a flickering fluorescent light in her new office last Friday, Tullys said the movers were supposed to deliver chairs to go around her conference table that morning but hadn’t shown up. She said she was thinking about bringing some chairs from home.
The key, said Tullys, will be bringing “the right people to the right table.”
Photo Caption: Toni Tullys, executive director of a new non-profit that unites the university, city and school district in efforts to tackle tough community problems, is still waiting for chairs to go around her conference table.