Every year BOSS hosts one or more student interns from UC Berkeley as part of the university’s Public Service Center community partnerships. During the just-completed school year, an intern participated in the Community Organizing Team (COT). Following is the story she shared with us about her experience.
Thank you, Rebecca, for your amazing energy, compassion, and dedication!
“My name is Rebecca, and I’m a fourth-year philosophy major at UC Berkeley and an intern with BOSS’s Community Organizing Team (COT). When I arrived in Berkeley four years ago, I immediately knew I wanted to extend my Cal experience beyond the UC Berkeley campus. I was shocked and disturbed by the juxtaposition between the privilege so prevalent throughout UC Berkeley and the evident lack of basic resources for so many individuals in the community. The irony was not lost on me as I walked past homeless people on Shattuck on my way to learn about income inequality from a world-renowned professor and politician. Feeling increasingly restless talking about poverty in the classroom and compelled to translate my knowledge into action, I turned to the UC Berkeley Public Service Center, where I learned about BOSS’s numerous service programs and COT’s advocacy work.
COT appealed to me immediately. I admired the diverse backgrounds and experiences of COT members and appreciated the feeling of community that arose from our common mission to eradicate homelessness. Rather than constricting its membership to those with academic or political expertise, COT welcomed individuals who themselves had personally experienced homelessness, mental illness, or incarceration. As a member of the COT team, I was able to work with this inspiring group of individuals to develop a blend of service-based and preventative solutions for homelessness.
One of my favorite experiences with COT was co-facilitating social justice classes at the Ursula Sherman Village, a BOSS shelter and transitional housing program for the homeless. Classes ranged from educating homeless students about their legal rights to encouraging a dialogue among class participants about the interconnectedness of poverty and race. In addition to providing a platform for the homeless to develop their own leadership and communication skills, the classes helped me learn about the structural factors so deeply intertwined with homelessness. Women who participated in classroom discussions taught me about the sexual abuse faced by homeless women both on the streets and in shelters, while stories of police harassment taught me about the criminalization of homelessness and helped me understand bias against the homeless and low-income populations as a form of discrimination.
Angry and frustrated by these injustices, I decided to take on my own leadership roles as a COT member. In November, I joined my supervisor and fellow COT member Gwen Austin at Berkeley High School to speak to a student leadership class about the importance of youth involvement in social justice. I explained to the students what I had learned from COT. I spoke about the importance of critically analyzing the structural rootedness of homelessness and other social issues and of learning from people of different backgrounds from our own. I had learned that opening our minds, and changing our mindsets, was the first step to changing policy.
As I critically analyzed these issues myself, I came to understand housing as the primary need that had to be addressed in reducing homelessness. Throughout my time with COT, I had learned about the deficiency in the number of homeless shelters and transitional housing facilities and, even more problematically, about the profound lack of affordable housing for the very low income. I wanted not only to provide programs and services to currently homeless individuals but also to effect changes in housing policy that would prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place. My work with COT culminated in my lobbying for affordable housing in Sacramento with the Corporation for Supportive Housing and Housing California. In collaboration with advocates from BOSS and likeminded organizations, I spoke with California legislators about supporting bills and budget proposals that would fund rapid re-housing and supportive housing programs for homeless families and their children.
Because of these experiences, I’ve loved being part of a social justice organization. I’ve loved learning about the political side of grassroots organizing, listening to the stories of COT members and BOSS program participants, and being part of a generation of youth who I hope will join me in shaping a better world.
I often hear that social justice organizing is not easy—and I agree. Social change is slow. It requires a certain patience and resilience that many of us, including myself, struggle to maintain. Advocacy, people often say, is not for everyone.
This latter point, I think, is wrong. Being an advocate is hard work, but it is hard work that we all can—and should—do. If there is one thing I learned from COT, it is that advocacy is, at root, a matter of treating our fellow human beings with compassion and respect. We all have a responsibility to contribute in this way—whether it be by seeking out the opinions of people with different backgrounds from our own, by attending local rallies and standing up for people who are treated unfairly, or by critically examining our own opinions before making judgments.
Now, as I graduate from UC Berkeley, I also am leaving COT. I very much will miss being part of organized social justice activism, but I certainly will not cease to be an advocate. Though my path post-graduation is uncertain, I will continue to guide my decision-making by the ways my own choices and behavior affect the wellbeing of others. I am so grateful to COT for supporting my passion for advocacy and for helping me refine my own perceptions of homelessness and poverty, and I hope you’ll join us on this journey toward social change.