There’s a new kind of campaign at Berkeley City Hall. It aims to tap Berkeley’s best and brightest young minds to solve problems in the city.
Spearheaded by District 7 Councilmember Kriss Worthington, this effort to get more student commissioners on board first began in 2005.
Outreach to college students started anew last week when two forums were held at UC Berkeley by Worthington’s office in collaboration with the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC).
“It’s about promoting diversity, racial, age and gender,” Worthington told the Planet in an interview at his fifth floor City Hall office Monday.
“Students are not the only group that are left out. Asians and Latinos are also drastically underrepresented in who gets appointed, elected and hired.”
Worthington said that the 2005 study had revealed that some politicians in Berkeley had never appointed any students, Asians, Latinos or African Americans.
“The study played an educational role to alert politicians and communities of the lack of representation,” he said.
“As a result of the study, commissioners who had never appointed any students, African Americans or Latinos began appointing students, African Americans and Latinos. We haven’t progressed to where things ought to be, but it’s less dreadful than it was before the study.”
Worthington, who has appointed more student commissioners than any other councilmember since being elected in 1996, has ten of the city’s current 22 student commissioners as his appointees.
Mayor Tom Bates—with five student appointees—boasts the second best record.
The 2005 study revealed that there were three times as many Asians and two times as many Latinos in Berkeley as there were on commissions. College students had only 8 percent representation on commissions.
“Once it’s clear to students what commissions do, it doesn’t seem as daunting as before,” Worthington said. “That’s why we encourage them to attend commission meetings and get an idea about how the process works. I am looking for people who have volunteered in the community and who will study up on the issues that will affect real world policy.”
Under the Fair Representation Ordinance, each councilmember gets one appointee in each commission.
On Monday morning, Worthington’s office was a flurry of activity as he discussed student appointment strategies with ASUC external affairs officer Dionne Jirachaikitti and legislative aide Denise Velez.
Jirachaikitti and Velez are both working on getting students to join commissions. Velez is also responsible for updating the 2005 study.
“Are there any students on DAPAC?” Worthington asked, scanning a page filled with pi charts and graphs.
‘No, not anymore,” replied his aide Jesse Arreguin, who until his recent graduation was the only student on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Commission (DAPAC).
Arreguin, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Political Science and City Planning in May, first got involved in Berkeley politics when he started working with ASUC.
After serving on the Housing Advisory Commission, Arreguin was elected chair of the Rent Stabilization Board in his senior year.
Worthington also appointed him to the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) in 2006 to replace Andy Katz, the first student to serve on the board.
Juggling sixteen units at school with commission meetings was not easy for Arreguin, but he took it up as a challenge.
“The more involved I got the more demanding it got,” he said. “But I definitely learned time management skills. Realistically, with the exception of the rent board and ZAB, the other commissions are not as demanding, but I still felt I had an obligation to be involved.”
Arreguin said that a big problem was that people often didn’t take him seriously.
“They think that since I am twenty-two years old I don’t have as much to offer as someone who is three times my age,” he said.
“Just like any other city, racism is also alive in Berkeley. The only way to combat that is to work harder. You should be judged on your qualifications and abilities and not on your race, gender and age.”
Arreguin, who wants to “serve on more commissions than any human being,” also has an active social life.
His interests on Facebook include Coldplay and the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou among other myriad activities.
“It’s possible to enjoy yourself and be on a commission as well,” he said. “It’s not all about hiding your face behind the Zoning Ordinance.”
“Being involved with commissions sometimes helps with homework,” said recent UC Berkeley graduate Nick Smith who was the first African American student to chair the Commission on Labor.
“Some assignments require students to study public policy or government and as a commissioner you are already intimately involved.”
Smith, like most of the other student commissioners, agreed that diversity was hugely lacking on commissions.
“Diversity includes more than being a student,” he said.
“However, I didn’t serve as an African American, but as someone who ensured equal representation to all residents, including students and other underrepresented parties. The solution is simple: Councilmembers need to ensure that they reach out to appoint commissioners from diverse points of view. I give Kriss extensive credit here. He appointed the most students over his 10-year-plus council career.”
Although Worthington said that the main problem with student commissioners was that they often graduated and went their own way, some complain that student appointees miss meetings, don’t read their packets or make site visits necessary for decision making.
However, students also end up taking credit for some of the best work ever done on city commissions.
Smith helped co-author the “Sweatshop-Free Berkeley” initiative which was passed in September 2006 and a consumer protection “Right-to-Know Ordinance” which was passed in February 2007.
Mike Sheen, a recent UC graduate who was on the Planning Commission from 2005 to 2007 and also chaired the Police Review Commission, initiated valuable conversations about the process of civilian review and represented students on various issues such as housing and zoning changes to the Telegraph Avenue commercial district.
“Councilmembers need to make a better effort to engage students,” said Sheen, who also served as Worthington’s legislative aide.
“Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, whose district has more than 40 percent students, claims that he just doesn’t work with students or isn’t able to meet them, but I think one would argue that it’s the same with everyone else without initiative. There are plenty of students who do apply to become commissioners through the city clerk, but most councilmembers don’t keep the applications, don’t read them, or don’t pick up the phone regardless of whether or not they have a vacancy. That has to change.”
The next generation of local leaders don’t want to take “no” for an answer. They are confident, determined and ready to take charge. Arreguin wants to revise the city’s housing inclusionary ordinance; labor commission chair Igor Tregub plans to update the decades-old Labor Commission Bill of Rights.
Tregub, who is majoring in Mechanical Engineering and Political Science, has even laid out a five-point plan for 2008.
As for the city’s youngest commissioner Rio Bauce (a Daily Planet Planet intern), next week signals the dawn of a new responsibility.
Bauce, a senior at Berkeley High, was appointed by Worthington to the city’s Youth and Planning commissions. He was recently elected as the Berkeley Unified School District’s new student director.
“I am excited,” Bauce told the Planet before leaving for a summer program in France last week. “I can’t wait to work on stuff that will help my fellow students. I want to make sure that all their voices get heard.”
Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee. Councilmember Kriss Worthington discusses future student commissioner appointments with legislative aides Denise Velez, Jesse Arreguin, ASUC external affairs officer Dionne Jirachaikitti and student intern Adriana Ramirez at his office Monday.