The ways that I hold power and privilege include visible exterior qualities; the less visible privileges I hold include the fact that I have a world class public schooling education (and soon, a university degree or two), a US passport that allows me to travel virtually anywhere with security, and that I am from a middle class, English speaking family. These characteristics and traits can be considered privileges and sources of power because I live within a socio-economic structure that values my whiteness, language, nationality, and education (especially when I was “a woman in STEM” – Science, Technology, Engineering, Math at Cal Poly). My youth in the socioeconomically privileged corridors of Los Angeles and San Francisco was characterized by access to great public schools, vast land reserves for hiking and being connected to my natural environment, well maintained roads and infrastructure, low crime, ample options for healthy food including a farmer’s market and an organic garden in my backyard, and a responsive city government. My father has a graduate degree in law and my mother, while not college educated until later in my life, worked for community environmental non-profits. The comfortable financial security of my parents allowed my sisters and me to grow up relatively insulated from the poverty and inequality that surrounded us in the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.
Although my sisters and I could have remained immune to the homelessness and pollution impacting neighboring communities, my parents encouraged us to engage in community service from a young age. Some of my earliest memories are picking trash out of streams with my dad around LA alongside people wearing orange vests (frequently required community service for parolees). The values of community engagement and service to others, along with my specific geographical-socio-cultural-economic background while growing up, gave me the ability and motivation to seek opportunities to participate in public service. Things that determine who lives where in my community include housing pricing, public housing availability and quality, school zoning and districts, and transportation needs (very limited public transport in LA). While the scorecard.org report shows rampant air and water pollution (including 100% of surface water being contaminated) in Los Angeles county, a lot of these problems were not immediately visible or experienced in my solidly middle class community. While I was able to drink tap water and play in the river that ran through my backyard as a kid, I learned about a company “storing” (dumping) jetfuel in neighboring watersheds, which I knew could impact the rivers my friends and I caught tadpoles in. To get involved in trying to hold the company accountable, I joined the Environmental Commission (funded by the available funds from property tax structures) of City Council where I attended middle and high school as a student liaison.
These factors came together and created a platform for me to pursue a career in public service focused on water policy both domestically and abroad. The considerable luxury of deciding to pursue this path builds on a number of existing privileges. The “merit based” scholarships I have been awarded (Truman, Udall, Marshall) that will allow me to go to excellent graduate programs without debt were not based solely on my intellectual prowess but rather the innumerable privileges that allowed me to pursue academics without having to worry too much about paying my tuition or health care, or maintain a full time job, as many lower-income students do. However, these are things I did not think with great care about until I came to Berkeley and heard phrases like “the politics of representation” and was forced to consider the importance of understanding who gets to speak for whom (and why) for the first time. This aligns well with my understanding of what privilege itself is – the luxury of not having to think about things. Traveling to Bolivia for my Global Poverty minor practice experience made me confront one of the greatest privileges and sources of power I have in regards to a lot of the work I do: that I can leave. One important thing about this power includes knowing that it was not earned on some special merit, but rather was facilitated and kept in place by social structures. Going forward in my career, I will strive to be responsible in my actions, surround myself with people who remind me to open spaces for voices that are often not heard, by people who are often not seen. Coming to recognize that that power is not one directional or dimensional, but rather that everyone has some privileges and lacks others is one of the most important lessons I will take away from my time at Berkeley. Developing my personal ethics while acknowledging the relative insignificance of individual good intentions which are miniscule in comparison to much stronger external forces will keep me balanced as I seek to bring less “sexy” issues within the water, sanitation, and hygiene field into discussion.
My education at Cal has given me a specific lexicon to understand and explain the world. I am able to learn about the ways problems are identified and how to create awareness and dialogue about causes. This informs the way I see the world, and allows me to dig through ideas freely and turn off my instincts to fix, instead pausing to acknowledge and analyze the possibilities and limitations of proposed solutions while becoming sympathetic to the complexities of being a decision maker. I often stop to consider who “the public” is that I hope to serve as a public servant – not just tax paying citizens but children, the undocumented immigrants who make my food and keep it cheap, and the formerly incarcerated, among others. Critically analyzing institutionalized racism, sexism, and objectification through American Cultures Engaged Scholarship (ACES) courses confronts the weight and privilege of being a UC Berkeley student in a way that constructively contests the university by asking who gets access to the space of the university, in what ways, and who is heard and valued on campus. If advancing social justice is the highest ideal of education, then only by considering tensions within the university space, and the campus/community as a whole, can I establish who I am and what I stand for, including the awe, excitement, anxiety, and intimidation of my shared task to improve discourse on campus and make the institution accountable to the public.