When I walked into G-108A, I was greeted — as I usually am when I walk into my fourth-period drawing class — by Malcolm X and Public Enemy posters, graffiti murals, and a long-haired man jamming out to Bob Marley: Mr. Norberg. Although his spirited classroom antics might suggest a rather animated teacher, Mr. Norberg, otherwise known as Mr. E, for Eric, is remarkably soft-spoken.
He often intersperses drawing lessons with history lectures and news updates, whether they be on Huey Newton’s work in the ’70s or Greta Thunberg’s recent speech at the United Nations climate conference. After reading my first column aloud to the class near the beginning of the year, Mr. E has been kind enough to personally inform me of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa and the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Last Friday, I sat down to speak with him about his life, his art, and his work in social justice.
“Painting spreads awareness,” Mr. E began after I asked how art can be used to promote change. “It’s like the newspaper for those out in the public, in the streets, [it’s] the free art for the people. If it’s that line or design that catches people’s attention, great — but it can’t stop there. It’s gotta propel people to think and investigate, like, ‘why is that, what’s that all about?’ That’s what fuels my particular take on art.”
In any of my previous art classes, I certainly have never received — or have expected to receive — lessons on the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panthers. Why I wondered, does he choose to bring the world of social justice to drawing students?
“Freedom is a constant struggle,” Mr. E told me. “Artists do their part to contribute to that recognition. That’s why it’s important to bring up issues that impact the community, whether it be the murder of Fred Hampton fifty years ago or — it’s coming up on ten years now — [the murder of] Oscar Grant. Art is a vehicle for coming up with ideas that shed light on new ways to move forward. The artist themself is a version of the truth.”
After I asked Mr. E how he had gotten involved in community activism, he told me his parents had met by helping people resist the draft during the Vietnam War. Although he was raised in San Francisco, Mr. E has almost always had an affinity for the school he has now taught at for nineteen years.
“The first time I ever heard of Berkeley, I was sitting in jail from a nuclear weapons protest with a whole bunch of Berkeley High kids — I was a middle schooler! I spent all day in that little jail cell. Pretty fun, those kids from BHS. Berkeley High is known around the world as a place of consciousness, a place of activism, of speaking up for people’s rights,” he said.
Mr. E, in his fervent activism and unwavering kindness, represents what is right about Berkeley High School, and indeed, what I have tried to achieve with this column. After searching for the perfect Franz Fanon quote, Mr. E left me with one final thought.
“‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.’ It’s the youth that are going to lead the change,” he said, “not the powers that be.”