Colorful renderings of pre-colonial maps, postcards haphazardly pinned to corkboard, and permanent coffee rings on the wood laminate desk surface make my cubicle at the Blum Center for Developing Economies stand out from its grey surroundings. This cubicle serves as a useful space to illustrate facets of my time at Berkeley that may not be adequately articulated elsewhere; it is my autobiography.
A small gold pendant of the UC Berkeley seal hanging from the desk drawer is a reminder that my path to Berkeley began at the turn of the last century when my great grandmother studied here before leaving to marry my great grandfather. My 97 year old grandmother, still testywhen I wear anything “Stanford red,” began her studies in architecture at Berkeley before leaving to take a job at the Lawrence Lab. My mother, born and raised in Berkeley, started her studies here before decamping for a job in the city. Perhaps this is why UC Berkeley felt like it belonged to my predecessors; I never seriously considered it as a place to continue my studies after high school. Growing up in the progressive corridors of Los Angeles, I witnessed the ways that cooperative natural resources management could positively empower people to engage with community decision-making processes through my participation in local stream restoration events and later acting as a student liaison on the Environmental Commission of city council. Collaborating with my community over water resources management resonated with me on a personal level and I planned to dedicate my career to restore waterways as an environmental scientist. However, during my second year of college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I went to Guatemala to develop water treatment projects with a rural community as part of an Appropriate Technology course. While I saw the improved health outcomes that clean drinking water could deliver, through conversations with community members I also learned that scientific approaches alone would not be enough to comprehensively address the complex social and political barriers faced by the two billion people without access to safe water and sanitation. I applied to transfer to UC Berkeley to seek an education that would better prepare me to confront the lingering questions I encountered while in Guatemala, including how I might acquire the interdisciplinary skills to effectbroader social change.
Sitting upright alongside Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and Chomsky’s Power Systems, a copy of my reader from Professor Ananya Roy’s class on poverty and inequality theory is a memento of the course that first encouraged me to learn from dialogue with people living in poverty just as I would be expected to learn from class lectures and textbooks. It was in Global Poverty and Practice 115 that I came to process the feeling of being caught between the hubris of benevolence and the paralysis of cynicism. During my first semester at Berkeley, my approach to water issues evolved to a broader interdisciplinary perspective rooted in environmental social sciences and critical development theory, which enabled me to understand the ways that access to and control of water resources is inherently politicized while making sense of my own privilege, experiences, and aspirations through the Global Poverty minor.I became passionate about global water policy as way to build management norms for a resource essential to sustaining life and building healthy economies.
A colorful poster for an upcoming Berkeley Water Group meeting adorns the back cubicle wall. My first semester at Berkeley, I was disappointed to find that there were few opportunities for undergraduates to collaborate on water issues. I worked diligently to revive this discussion group by applying for funding, organizing weekly meetings, and uniting the minds of undergraduates, graduate students, professors, practitioners, and community members. Leading the Berkeley Water Group and transforming it into a respected think tank for research and activism on campus is a legacy of opportunity for other Cal students going forward. Through my fieldwork, research, and advocacy with the Berkeley Water Group, I am constantly reminded that meaningful transnational change must begin with respect for local conditions in order to simultaneously redress poverty and inequity through both policy and direct action. In the Group, I learned that stakeholders in water issues are often unified by an understanding that we are working toward common goals of equitable access to natural resources, reduced water borne illness, and achieving social justice.
Peeking out from the top of the desk drawer is a draft of the Fall 2014 syllabus for the Water and International Human Rights DeCal course that I started and have facilitated for the past five semesters, educating over 120 students. Although a significant amount of my work has been focused internationally, I also love sharing my experiences and engaging other students close to home while learning from them in exchange. Now that I am passing on leadership totwo former students to continue the course once I graduate, I recall how my peers at Berkeley inspire me every day with their creative brilliance, thoughtful innovations, and deep compassion. The meaningful friendships cultivated over long nights pouring over obscure human rights documents in Doe Library or having lively conversations by the fire place at Free House connect to my roots at Berkeley, which instilled in me a deep sense of history and appreciation for my academic and personal experiences here.
On the bookshelf, Pachamama, the goddess of good harvest in the Andes, stands at attention in the form of a small statuette from my first water projects in Bolivia.As a transfer student to Berkeley, I was delighted to learn that “undergraduate research” was not a contradictionbut in fact something eagerly supported. My partnership with the Foundation for Sustainable Development, supported by the Institute for International Studies Scholarship and the Blum Poverty Fellowship, to improve water availability in twelve rural schools in Cochabamba, Bolivia from May to August 2012 prompted me to return over summer 2013 to begin a year long collaborative water access and gender equality project focused on improving girl’s school attendance. With a BigIdeas grant, Strauss Scholarship, and Human Rights Fellowship supporting the project, I hoped that my usual patient tenacity would be sufficient to overcome the immense doubts I felt about my presence in a setting where I had little accountability to the communities I hoped to serve. As indigenous Australian visual artist Lilla Watson expressed, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time.But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” My fieldwork demands engagement with contradiction and discomfort; such applied scholarship is crucial to keep me embedded in the interactions that constitute meaningful relationships, improved health, and community building and inform the abstract academic theories behind the water security policy making processes that I hope to be a part of in the future. However, I remain self-reflective and critical about my privileged position as an advocate, academic, and public service leader. This has allowed me to embrace the sense of humor necessary to grow as an academic-activist, and take every obstacle as an opportunity to learn.
A framed image of a drawing of the Campanile by a local Berkeley artist sits juxtaposed with a small piece of hand woven cloth from a women’s textile cooperative in Colombia.The multiple worlds and identities that I occupy – Cal student, activist, academic, live jazz music devotee, craft beer connoisseur – fall somewhere between the neoclassical, rigid logic of the bell tower and the cultural memory of the worn fabric. In Marx’s critique of Feuerbach, he writes that thus far, “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” While Berkeley has taught me the importance of theory, I have also learned that I do not want to be an arm-chair academic or a weekend activist; as a Berkeley student, I believe that the mandate of my public education is to engage in the broader global community and share my work.Working with local schools, government, and non-profits in Mexico and Bolivia to address the barriers that a lack of water access and high poverty create for girls’ health and education taught me that creative partnerships and an ability to listen are required to overcomehierarchies in development practice. Whether I am discussing water rights with migrant farm workers over coffee in a dusty gas station in Salinas, or tripping over my words while practicing Quechua, an indigenous language spoken in the Andes, or debating the impacts of US trade policy in Mexico with Zapatistas in rural Chiapas, it is humbling to be reminded that even with a degree from Berkeley, I will still be forced to constantly re-examine the basic assumptions behind my work.
Crests from both the University of Oxford and Manchester that adorn a torn out page from my day planner are relics of inspiration needed to push through the arduous Marshall Scholarship application and remind me of the challenges ahead as a graduate student. They also serve as reminders of the long hours spent in a dimly lit internet café in rural Bolivia, writing drafts of an application I had very little optimism for and the interview during which I was so flustered I spilled tea on my white blouse. Although I have a sense of what the next two years hold for me in graduate school, I know that I cannot contribute to making positive change without strong allies and I must seek leadership at the institutional level to engage meaningfully with the underlying problems of poverty, climate change, and political instability that drive water insecurity. After completing my graduate studies in England, I hope to return to Berkeley for a PhD before seeking to shape United States foreign policy related to issues of water access. I will apply the critical academic background I found at Berkeleyin environmental social sciences to contribute to policies that improve sustainable access to safe water. I aspire to address inequitable water consumption practices in tandem with supporting the improvement of strong civil societies able to hold their government representatives accountable to the social, economic, and cultural demands of water. By designing policies that empower governments to fulfill their obligation to provide water to their people, I hope to make access to and control of water resources a more inclusive, transparent, and equitable process.
My desk space is an unexpected microcosm for the sense of wonder I experience in the world that I inhabit in Berkeley as a Cal student. It also often forces me to consider who “the public” is that I hope to serve as a future public servant and product of the world’s finest public university. My education at UC Berkeley teaches me a specific lexicon to understand and explain the world; as a student, I learn about the ways problems are identified and how to create awareness and dialogue about solutions. By integrating legal, economic, political, and scientific dimensions, the rigor of my course of study at Berkeley allowed me to exceed the traditional physical systems approach to water security that predominates at other institutions, demonstrating that water is a field worthy of academic thought to ensure future peace, health, and international stability. If advancing social justice is the highest ideal of a university education, then only by considering the tensions between seeing Berkeley as it is and what it could be, can I establish who I am and what I stand for, including the awe, excitement, anxiety, and intimidation of being a Berkeley graduate. Being a student at Berkeley has beenthe best preparation for my life’s work in water security and poverty action, both at home and abroad. My pursuit of integrity, diplomacy, and insight in my academic research and career path reflects the zeitgeist at Berkeley: a collaborative and forward-thinking approach to engaged scholarship and global problem solving. Recognizing the profound, yet not insurmountable, gulf between myself and those I hope to serve has solidified my commitment to dedicate my post-Berkeley life to working at the intersection of public service, water security, and poverty action.