December 6, 2019

In the last installment of 2020 Vision, I began recounting my interview with Esteem Brumfield — a thirty-two-year-old UC Berkeley graduate. He spoke to me about his life, from his childhood struggles with illiteracy to his forthcoming venture to Stellenbosch, South Africa.

A Berkeley native, Brumfield wasn’t enrolled in K-12 education — his parents, ardent social activists, believed the public school system didn’t reflect African American values; Brumfield and his brothers were often under the radar. Having only just received a social security number at the age of 21, Brumfield, against his parents’ wishes, chose to pursue an education at Berkeley City College (BCC). Without a rudimentary foundation for his education, Brumfield struggled to meet his own academic expectations at BCC. To compound these difficulties, Brumfield was living in a homeless shelter and was often unable to pay for his textbooks. “The first semester [at BCC] definitely kicked my butt emotionally … I had to adapt,” he told me. Brumfield, however, was unrelenting in his desire for an education. “The quicker I accepted where I was in life, the quicker I could [use] my energy learning the concepts and ideas I wanted to learn. I would never give up on my dream … I had left my family, the only world that I knew; there was no turning back, I was all in. I told myself the first night I moved out that I would do whatever it took to accomplish [my dream.]”

With the support of BCC administration, Brumfield transferred to University of California (UC), Berkeley, where he recently earned a B.A. in both Rhetoric and Political Science.  “UC Berkeley [is able] to take a student who’s never heard of a topic and turn them into a researcher … it provides a space for students to explore their identity,” he began. “UC Berkeley is constantly interrogating, posing new questions … [Cal] wants you to think critically, and be engaged in [your] pursuit.” Now an alumnus of UC Berkeley, Brumfield’s next endeavor will be in South Africa, where he will be researching learning disability accommodations within the incarceration system on a Fulbright Fellowship.

The impetus for this project was personal; when Brumfield was a teenager, his schizophrenic older brother was wrongfully arrested in Downtown Berkeley. “[Incarcerating my brother] was a monumental failure on society’s part … [my brother] had tried medications and they didn’t work; the only other option given to him was incarceration,” he argued. “I began to wonder what disability support systems look[ed] like in South Africa. I found an article [which stated] the South African government was going to help subsidize a class in a prison. It would be a collaborative classroom where those that are incarcerated would research a topic with a university student, discussing it together.” In January, Brumfield will travel to Stellenbosch to research this initiative.

Brumfield was willing to struggle through any obstacle to earn an education, and he prevailed. We, as Berkeley High School students, must uphold his story and remember that we are exceptionally fortunate to be able to attend  this school.

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