Winning innovation projects to improve campus climate

A program to raise awareness about student veterans and another to bring Muslim and Jewish students together for a meal and frank conversation are among 13 projects selected at the University of California, Berkeley, to receive the campus’s first Innovation Grants.

The grants, announced today (Thursday, Jan. 27), are part of an ambitious plan at UC Berkeley to engage the entire campus community in creating a more welcoming climate for all students, faculty and staff. This unprecedented, five-year UC Berkeley effort, the Initiative for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, was established last year and is fueled in part by a $16 million grant from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

The initiative will bring five new faculty members to the Haas Diversity Research Center, create 30 new or revised American Cultures classes with an emphasis on community engagement, develop extensive faculty mentoring and multicultural education programs, and launch a host of efforts intended to permeate the campus and provide a national model for equity and inclusion.

The 13 Innovation Grant projects were selected from among more than 30 proposals submitted to the Division of Equity & Inclusion last fall by students, faculty and staff. The winners, chosen by a committee of staff members, students and Vice Chancellor Gibor Basri, will share $125,000 in grant money. Innovation grants will be offered for the next four years.

In the selected “Bears Baking Bread” project to be launched in February, a dozen Muslim students and a dozen Jewish students from UC Berkeley will prepare a meal together on campus and hold a moderated discussion about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The same project will host dinners and discussions for students from different political parties and from the Greek fraternity and sorority system.

“We want members of different communities to realize that, at the core, they are very similar and then help them to realize that although they may differ in opinion, they can still coexist to make the Cal community a more healthy one,” said Hassan Shah, a UC Berkeley sophomore and project organizer.

“Berkeley is known for generating brilliant ideas,” said Basri, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for equity and inclusion. “With these Innovation Grants, our brilliant ideas are addressing how we can improve this campus for every community member.”

Since his inauguration in 2005, Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau has made equity and inclusion a priority for the campus and stressed the importance of “intercultural competence” for students to be successful in the 21st century.

Birgeneau believes UC Berkeley is the perfect place to examine diversity – including socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, religion, abilities and disabilities, and sexual orientation – because California is among the most diverse states in the nation. The gift from the Haas, Jr. Fund and UC Berkeley’s initiative, he has said, will “allow us to remain a beacon of access and excellence for students of all backgrounds and to become a national model in this growing area of research that is of such importance to society.”

The success of the Innovation Grants will be measured by how the projects can be sustained on campus and eventually shared – not only with other UC Berkeley departments, but with other universities, said Basri.

Another winner is a multimedia project that will showcase art from first-generation, low-income UC Berkeley students.

“It’s a real testament to our commitment to recognize and support the talents of our students, faculty and staff members who go out of their way to find innovative ways of serving the entire Berkeley community,” said project co-sponsor Cruz Grimaldo, UC Berkeley associate director of financial aid.

Grimaldo, who grew up in southeast Los Angeles and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1998, said she knows firsthand that art has the power to transform people’s lives. “I personally came from a rough environment, and art really saved me and put me on the right track,” she said.

Pepper Black, program director of University Village Family Housing, said she is thrilled that an Innovation Grant will enable a campus team to create a multicultural video about intimate partner violence education and prevention for use in UC Berkeley’s largest family housing community. It is a project she had contemplated for years, but shelved due to funding constraints.

“This is a microcosm of the world,” said Black about University Village, a 58-acre complex with 969 apartments. “The stresses you see in society are magnified here by lack of support systems, great academic pressures, compromised finances, and you see these pressures on families escalating over time.”

Two of the Innovation Grants will directly support projects related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) community. One project will develop, record and share the stories of queer people of color on the UC Berkeley campus through photography and video. Another project called “A Place at the Table – an interactive LGBT exhibit” will be a multimedia exhibition in 2012 that highlights the sexuality and gender resources available to the campus at The Bancroft Library.

Other grants will use campus and community forums to raise awareness about the experiences of students at UC Berkeley who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; launch a restorative justice center that builds a dialogue-based approach to conflict prevention and resolution; and develop a so-called “green dot” strategy that encourages people to be outspoken against violence and bigotry.