For decades, Berkeley High School (BHS) has been known for its activism. In the ‘60s, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) became one of the first schools in the nation to racially integrate its campuses. Since then, students have consistently fought for social justice, environmental justice, gender equality, and numerous other causes. From walk-outs to sit-ins, BHS students have never been hesitant to speak out for what they believe in. In recent years, many of these demonstrations have been led or supported by clubs and student unions. During the pandemic, student organizations have had to adjust their activism to stay within the unprecedented limits of quarantine. Despite these difficulties, BHS students have upheld the school’s reputation for advocacy and changemaking, an image that has proven to be both inspiring and at times problematic because of its ability to mask performative activism.
Key Club, an international service organization, has had a chapter at BHS for over 50 years. “We do volunteering and fundraising, and focus on a different topic for our service each month,” explained Sada Linn, a freshman at BHS and Service Chair of the BHS Key Club. Before the pandemic, the leadership board organized various volunteer opportunities and fundraising events, like beach clean-ups and bake sales. During quarantine, the club has focused on community building and virtual service events. They’ve used websites like UNICEF’s Math Games for Good and Freerice, which allow participants to answer questions and earn donation funds, as well as Ecosia, a search engine that raises money to plant trees. The club planned a socially-distanced beach clean-up in December of 2020, but had to cancel the event because of the recent COVID-19 spike and reinstated shelter-in-place order. Linn shared, “We plan to continue our virtual volunteering until the pandemic conditions change.”
Tallula Miller-Ross, a junior in Academic Choice (AC), shares this passion for being an active part of the change-making process. Miller-Ross co-founded the BHS Zero Waste Club at the beginning of this year with Anya Draves, another AC junior. “We started the club to increase awareness about waste production, and to help people make changes in their lives to reduce their waste,” Miller-Ross explained. Because the club was started after the pandemic began, Miller-Ross and Draves have had to be creative with their activism. The club has led several successful campaigns to reduce waste in the community, including a petition to local grocery stores asking that they reduce their use of plastic bags. They’ve also published several informational videos and infographics, taking advantage of the increased internet presence of many teens during shelter-in-place.
“I think in Berkeley, especially among people our age, almost everyone is involved in activism somehow,” said Miller-Ross. “So when you’re running an activism club at Berkeley High, there’s definitely this standard, because everyone around you is so engaged.”
Sanga Khan, a junior in AC, faced similar ups and downs with the club she co-founded at the beginning of this school year, the Houseless Support Club. Khan and her friend created the club after witnessing the prevalence of houselessness in Berkeley, and feeling that BHS students had a responsibility to help the surrounding community. The Houseless Support Club, like the Zero Waste Club, has only been active during the pandemic. However, Khan and her Co-President have responded to the challenge with similar creativity. The club has been collecting donations from Berkeley businesses and community members for months, which they funnel into various care-projects. The club assembled packages with warm layers, hygiene products, and food to distribute to the unhoused, in addition to donating leftover materials to shelters and larger camp-out sites. Khan said, “We want to make as big of a difference in our community as possible, and it’s been so great to have already really done something.”
While Khan is deeply inspired and proud of her fellow club members, she does acknowledge that some of the culture surrounding activism at BHS can be toxic. “People are posting random stuff on their Instagram they don’t really care about or understand because they’re afraid of getting called out,” she explained. “The culture with this at Berkeley High, there’s very few people that actually practice what they preach, but those people are amazing,” said Khan.
Neva Zamil, AC junior and Vice President of the Women’s Student Union (WSU), has witnessed similar performative activism, but feels that BHS’ reputation of activism has been an overall positive force. Zamil said, “The reputation has led to some interesting opportunities that wouldn’t have come up if we weren’t a school known for activism.” Zamil explained that several lawyers had reached out to the WSU about helping with Title IX education, and “opportunities like that wouldn’t happen if BHS weren’t known for its activism.”
During the pandemic, Zamil and her co-leaders have experienced many of the same challenges as other clubs, namely member-engagement. “We don’t want projects to be only up to the leaders, but with Zoom it’s definitely become less collaborative and more just ‘leaders and members,’” explained Zamil. In response, the club has focused on community building during recent months. The club also led a tampon drive in October, collecting hygiene products that they then donated to the Homies Empowerment People’s Freedom Stores, which distribute free food and necessities. Zamil explained, “The project ideas ebb and flow, because sometimes it’s so easy to think of things to do across Zoom, and sometimes you’re like, ‘How can we actually make a difference and do things that are engaging for the club?’” Next, Zamil and her co-leaders plan to lead the WSU through a project surrounding consent education.
Despite the complex nature of running an activism club without in-person events, many clubs at BHS have clearly stepped up to meet the challenge. Khan said, “I feel like especially throughout this pandemic, so many people have started activism, and have started to step forward to meet all these prevalent issues.” It appears that being so separated from others can make us want to care for one another even more.