History of campus activism
A hallmark of UC Berkeley, education and activism have coexisted on campus since the Free Speech Movement.
The campus has been a historic hotbed of activism, leveraging 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, although modern technology has made activism a little different.
“Young people are leading the charge, and so it’s not surprising to me, given that general framework, that colleges and universities are hotbeds of social change,” Moore said.
The on-campus ethnic studies department holds special notoriety in the campus activism legacy, Moore noted, because it was founded in the wake of protests.
According to The Berkeley Revolution, a digital archive of East Bay changes in the 1960s and 1970s, the Third World Liberation Strike in 1969 demanded the establishment of a college of Black American studies, Chicano studies, Asian American Studies and Native American Studies. This later became known as the Department of Ethnic Studies.
“All of these ethnic minority students were experiencing a lack of their perspectives, their experiences, the people who looked like them, and the teachers in their classes,” Moore said. “They were minorities in their classes, and the curriculum did not express their history or where they came from.”
Moore added that an important part of this movement was how different student organizations came together, understanding that, despite different struggles, they were stronger as a collective than as small, fragmented groups.
The tools of activism have developed over time, according to Moore, and social media has become part of the repertoire. For many organizations, Moore noted that modern activists are bridging the physical distance with the instantaneous reality of social media.
“When used effectively, social media as a tool can be a huge (energizing) cause,” Moore said. “You can get your message out to so many people so quickly and really educate those who maybe don’t even live where there’s something going on about issues.”
According to Grayson Savoie, director of external affairs for the university organization Telegraph for People, current activism at Berkeley may stem from clubs or engagements with social media groups. Savoie said social media is a great way to connect with other activist groups fighting for similar causes.
Telegraph for People’s goal is “pedestrian dignity” according to Savoie, who added that the organization was founded on the interest and empowerment of students. 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 the spring of 2022.
“Even if they don’t know much about transit or are very committed to our values (the people) still understand the issues of automotive-dominated environments and can relate to them,” Savoie said. “It really shows through the engagement we get on social media.”
Savoie said his organization tried to honor Berkeley’s history of activism by following in the footsteps of the civil rights movement, during which protests were centered in the Telegraph District.
With Berkeley’s rich heritage of activism, Moore implores today’s students and activists to study and understand the methods of those who fought before them. He said some problems with modern activism arise when individual causes can be isolated and people become overwhelmed by the plethora of challenges facing society.
“It’s not up to any particular person or particular individual to solve something,” Moore said. “What is incumbent on us is to contribute productively to the struggle and do our best to achieve a better world.”
While it’s important to engage in activism, Savoie noted that students should only join organizations if they really care about the issues they’re fighting for. He added that joining any organization just for your resume would lead to burnout.
Students, Savoie said, need to follow their interests and find people who care about the same issues as them. Moore also stressed the need for students to get involved and fight for progress.
“The biggest piece you can learn is the responsibility of young people and students to get involved,” Moore said. “It’s less about what you choose to do than what you choose to do something about.”
Contact Rae Wymer at [email protected].