November 22, 2019

This past week, a family friend of mine introduced me to Esteem Brumfield, a recent University of California (UC), Berkeley graduate with whom I had the pleasure of speaking to last Sunday. Sarah Herbold, a professor of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley and former roommate of my mother’s, knew of my column and my service trip in South Africa this past summer and was thoughtful and generous enough to connect the two of us.

A native of the Bay Area, Esteem spent time at Berkeley City College (BCC) before enrolling at UC Berkeley in 2016. His next undertaking will be in Stellenbosch, a suburb of Cape Town where he will be conducting research on a Fulbright Fellowship pertaining to the incarceration system. Patient and understanding even with a novice young journalist like myself, he began to tell me about his remarkable path to literacy and his upcoming trip.

Esteem’s upbringing was not that of the typical UC Berkeley student. His parents, who are members of an unspecified social justice organization, did not enroll him in primary or secondary schooling.

With respect to his father’s assessment of California schools, Esteem noted, “The curriculum, he felt, was not teaching the history or the values of people of color … that would promote their education and liberation. Living underground didn’t afford you the opportunity to stay in one place, it would have raised red flags if they had enrolled me.”

Esteem, however, wasn’t content with his deprivation of knowledge. His ability to express himself, it turned out, was profoundly affected by his parents’ involvement in social activism.

“I wanted an education more than I have ever wanted anything. When my mother would send me letters when she was in prison, not being able to write back to her was very upsetting for me. [When I became a teenager] I had to change the way I wanted to structure a sentence, change what I was thinking … it ultimately changes how you feel.”

Despite the lack of support from his family, Esteem left his family home at the age of twenty-one and enrolled at BCC. Setting off on his quest for a meaningful educational experience.

“If [my parents] wanted to change who I was, I knew that relationship wasn’t going to last. I was willing to cut ties with my family if it meant I would get an education,” he stated. 

“Balancing having a job, living in a homeless shelter, not telling any of my classmates that I lived in a homeless shelter because I was embarrassed … all of those things were demanding on me but I [was willing] to manage them.”

Rather, the initial difficulty for Esteem at BCC lay in his desire to honor his own academic standards.

“The hardest part was not being able to succeed, and I didn’t realize how much that would weigh on me emotionally … the first year [at BCC] was me learning how to get over this sense of imposter syndrome.”

This is part one of the two part interview with Esteem Brumfield. Stay tuned for more about Esteem and his experiences in the next issue of the Jacket.

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