How more Black representation can change campus climate for the better

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“What we say we value needs to match what we do,” said Takiyah Jackson, UC Berkeley’s African American student development director. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

While the values of diversity, equity and inclusion have become priorities that UC Berkeley has come to promote over the years, Black students on campus — who make up just 3% of the student population — still feel excluded.

More representation of  Black students, staff and faculty at Berkeley would help remedy that unwelcoming campus climate, said Berkeley’s African American student development director, Takiyah Jackson. Most importantly, it would show Black people, and the entire campus, that Black lives matter at Berkeley. 

Takiyah Jackson smiling

UC Berkeley African American Student Development Director Takiyah Jackson. (UC Berkeley photo)

“What we say we value needs to match what we do,” said Jackson. “Do our deeds fully match our will right now? I think that’s inconclusive.”

That reality was reflected in the results of a 2019 campuswide survey conducted at Berkeley that showed Black people reported the highest rate — 68% — of experiencing exclusionary acts on campus; up from 53% in 2013.

Originally from Seattle, Washington, Jackson came to Berkeley in 2017 and has over 18 years of experience working in education, government and athletics. She has been working to combat the structural patterns that have perpetuated those negative Black student experiences through her work with the African American Initiative, a program that aims to improve outreach, recruitment and retention of Black students, staff and faculty at Berkeley.

Jackson spoke with Berkeley News recently about how Berkeley can bring transformative change for Black people on campus, and why that effort should not be the sole responsibility of Black people, but of the entire campus.


Berkeley News: This past fall, Berkeley’s incoming class was the most ethnically diverse in 30 years. Over 730 Black students were admitted, an increase of 37%, compared to the previous year. But Black students still only make up a small percentage of the overall student population. Why is it important for Berkeley to continue to address that disparity?

Takiyah Jackson: When you walk on any college campus, it’s very clear what a university values and who they value based on the students you see walking around, the faculty you see teaching in the classrooms, and the people you see leading the campus.

And as it stands now at Berkeley, one could be very confused as to what our values are. We are building our support for the Black community and have started to implement strategies to increase the population of Black people on our campus, but it has not yet translated into a large growth of Black students, staff and faculty on campus.

I do have hope that it will translate soon.

When you’re the marginalized group, and you’re the person who has to experience isolation in the spaces you occupy, you have to think about these things often. But if you’re not, you might not think about it at all, and that’s privilege in itself.

The fact that there are some groups that have the privilege of always being surrounded by their community members in various spaces, but some groups don’t, is an equity and justice issue. It also explains why different groups get to experience belonging more than others.

Diversity is important, and it is also important for people to see and interact with people who they have shared experiences with. Black people are not a monolith, but most of us have experienced micro- and macro-aggressions in most non-Black spaces we occupy. This is why building community and having a community space with community resources specific to our needs is so important.

people pose for a selfie

Participants at Berkeley’s 2016 Black2Cal Weekend took a photo to commemorate their experience. Jackson said this is one of many events created to make Berkeley more accessible for the Black community. (UC Berkeley photo)

What are some things that you think the campus can do more of to combat that isolation Black people experience at Berkeley?

The current leadership on campus has been listening, reflecting and reassessing what needs to change on this campus. I work with a lot of people around campus who are really working toward bringing transformative change.

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An easy way to start changing culture is with the incoming student classes, and thinking about ways we can incorporate anti-racist values through orientation and transition programs. And then to continue to build on that through their college journey.

Although the urgency for change has always been there for the Black community, hence the ongoing activism from the time we stepped foot on campus, a lot of institutions don’t engage in change until Black trauma goes viral, or a major anti-Black event happens.

This summer, we saw evidence of that with the ongoing killings of many of our Black brothers and sisters. Although anti-Blackness has always been threaded through our institutions, all of a sudden, we saw campuses and organizations jumping on board to support the Black community, like anti-Blackness was a new thing.

While change can be fueled by emotions, it can only be sustained through an immortal commitment to our true values and actions. And those have to lead to the liberation of Black people. The weight of this work often lands on the backs of Black people in these spaces, and that has to change.

Berkeley’s campus leadership is looking at this differently: How do we make this all of our jobs? It’s our job as a university to uplift the value of belonging for everyone, and that should be threaded through every aspect of our work: All lives need to fight for Black lives.

Eldridge Cleaver walking on campus in 1968

Eldridge Cleaver, middle, an early leader of the Black Panther Party, gave a lecture at UC Berkeley in October 1968. “The weight of this work often lands on the backs of Black people in these spaces,” Takiyah Jackson said. “And that has to change.” (Bancroft Library photo via the San Francisco Examiner Photograph Archive)

While the work is being done campuswide, and in collaboration, what is the African American Initiative prioritizing?

We’re focusing on how to support the Black community in different ways. We’re continuing to promote and raise funds around our African American Initiative Scholarship — we’ve raised about $5.7 million to date — and are finding ways to make our community and the campus more attractive and accessible to prospective Black students.

There are a lot of students who live in the Bay Area who never get access to our campus, and for that reason, don’t think to apply to UC Berkeley. So, we’re trying to create more access, to even the playing field for those students by creating opportunities for them to participate in Cal Day and other large community events.

For instance, we have a senior weekend where up to 50 Black students can come on campus and are hosted by Black students at Berkeley. We are looking at ways to increase the number of students in that program.

Some pieces of the initiative are related to other work on campus: How do we increase the number of Black faculty and staff? How do we retain them?

I think being in staff and faculty spaces where many people look like you just sends a different message — not only to you, but to everyone else, about what the university values. If you only have a few Black staff and faculty in each department, it is hard to create belonging for those individuals.

While change can be fueled by emotions, it can only be sustained through an immortal commitment to our true values and actions.”

– Takiyah Jackson

I often challenge people by asking if everyone would be as comfortable with leadership bodies across campuses being majority Black as they are with them being a majority white. The fact that this question often makes people uncomfortable is what could hold us back. People can’t even imagine a world where we have the same opportunities as white people, because it has never happened.

I’m not sure people are willing to experience the true discomfort that comes with justice, with equity, with inclusion and true belonging. If diversity is OK with you as long as you don’t have to give up power and privilege, then we have major issues.

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Another big piece that we are focusing on is making the classroom experience better for Black students, because these are the spaces where a lot of microaggressions and gaslighting takes place.

We’re trying to take all those areas and, on a larger scale, find ways to really interrupt some of the cultural patterns of anti-Blackness that our students continue to face.

What are these cultural patterns that have existed on campus?

They are based on the historical pattern of injustice toward and the oppression of Black people. The university was built at a time when it wasn’t for everyone, it definitely was not built with Black people in mind. And when it finally allowed Black students to attend, I don’t think they were ever prepared for the type of culture and climate needed to welcome us. So, Black students never got the type of college experience that I think they deserve, and many Black students still do not get the experience they deserve.

This is not an issue unique to Berkeley. This has happened on many other campuses, too.

I will say that, as a campus, we have started to identify where the injustice lies and how we can interfere, versus just throwing a resource at it and calling it a day. This is important because resources are often responsive in nature, not preventative.

True transformation will mean preventing and eliminating racism, which will, in turn, determine what kinds of resources are needed.

At Berkeley, it has become less about performative gestures and more about transformative progress.

Three African American members of the campus community stand in front of an entrance to Barrows Hall, which was unnamed by campus officials on Nov. 18. Pictured are Melissa Charles, a staff member, Kyra Abrams, a student, and Blake Simons, a student.

Blake Simons, right, assistant director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center; third-year student Kyra Abrams, middle, chair of the Black Student Union; and Melissa Charles, assistant director of African American student development, stand outside Barrows Hall, which campus officials unnamed on Nov. 18. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Do you think the renaming of buildings around campus helps with improving experiences for Black people on campus? Or is it more performative?

I think it helps. In the current space we are living in, if you’re trying to promote certain values for your university, and you have symbols that don’t align with those values, it’s hard for people to feel that you’re authentic.

We pushed the proposal to unname Barrows Hall, in particular, because Barrows symbolized anti-Blackness in a building that housed most of our Black faculty and students. How ironic, right?

Another reason, in particular, was when (David Prescott) Barrows was the chancellor at UC Berkeley, one of the first Black students at the university was intentionally not allowed to be in the yearbook, essentially because she was black.

So, is this what we value on our campus?

Although that was the past, it still affects everyone who was there at that time and everyone who is here now. If we’re trying to tell people that they belong, then our symbols have to align with that claim.

Do you think Black lives matter at Berkeley today?

For me, the answer is yes. But I can’t speak for everyone on campus. When you come into our Black community spaces, Black lives are celebrated and uplifted the way they should be in every other space.

You can’t help but to feel joy and energy when entering our spaces — physical and virtual — and Black people know right away that their lives matter.

Participants sing at vigal

Students sang at a campus Black Lives Matter vigil in 2016. Berkeley’s Black community has historically created spaces to speak out against racial injustices. (UC Berkeley photo)

I think for Black lives to matter everywhere on our campus, what we say we value needs to match what we do. The question is, do our deeds fully match our will right now? I think that’s inconclusive.

Moving forward, we have to have some uncomfortable discussions around the impact of whiteness and white supremacy on our campus culture, and how it’s threaded through many of our structures and systems.

When we talk about Black lives mattering, we need to talk more about accountability for non-Black people. Denouncing anti-Black racism publicly without actually doing anything different doesn’t help us.

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And I specifically use the term non-Black people because white supremacy has taught not just white people, but many non-Black people, how to be anti-Black, so we experience it from all angles.

I do believe that Chancellor Christ is radical, and that is necessary for what we are trying to do. She is committed to transforming us into an anti-racist campus. And although anti-racism should be a given, I haven’t seen or heard of anyone committing to it the way she has.

The chancellor and our other campus leaders, including Associate Chancellor Khira Griscavage, are in position to do something that has never been done before here, something different, something special.

As an optimistic person, I do believe we can get there. I would not be here if I did not believe that. It may never be to my personal satisfaction, but we are moving the needle in the right direction, and I am committed to continuing to push that needle until we get there.


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