To campus’s town-gown envoy, bridges are for building, not for burning

The window of Julie Sinai’s Center Street office looks out onto a parking lot. Worse, her workstation is oriented the opposite way, so even this humble view is typically at her back.

Julie Sinai

Julie Sinai (Peg Skorpinski photo)

A cluster of empty moving boxes, and the minimalist décor of a dorm room, signify that she’s still settling in to her new job. Sinai, though, has already mitigated her spatial issues, hanging a horizontal mirror at a height that affords her, when she’s seated at her computer, a reflected view not of cars and asphalt, but of the sky and trees in the distance.

It’s a solution born of adaptability, ingenuity and practicality, traits likely to prove useful in her role, now in its second month, as UC Berkeley’s director of local government and community relations. To Sinai, who recently ended a nine-year stint as Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates’ chief of staff, getting things done takes a constructive blend of strategic vision and clear-eyed pragmatism.

“My area of expertise is not in CEQA, in what needs to be done as far as crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s in the process,” she says, referring to the California Environmental Quality Act, a locus of town-gown tensions over the years. “But I can help identify the minefields, how to work with city councils, deal with the processes of local government and be as transparent, communicative and problem-solving as possible. Versus, you know, having everything blow up.”

As a key adviser to Bates, Sinai witnessed her share of crossfire, including high-profile skirmishes over the campus’s Long Range Development Plan and Student Athlete High Performance Center. But she has also observed steadily improving ties between City Hall and California Hall.

“I would assess the relationship as very positive,” she says. “While they may not agree with each other all the time — they don’t — there’s a level of trust and communication between university leadership and staff and the city of Berkeley that didn’t exist 15 years ago. When there’s disagreement, people articulate it respectfully. The quality of dialogue and communication is phenomenally different.”

Despite her years in the mayor’s office, Sinai insists she’s a “policy junkie,” not a political one. Her father graduated from Berkeley, as did her great uncle, a ’27 alum who supported Bears football as a season-ticket holder until he was 98. (What ended that relationship, she says, was discomfort due to the aging stadium’s wooden benches.) Sinai herself headed north to the University of Oregon for a degree in community service and public affairs, then worked in early-childhood education before “veering off toward international issues” during the Reagan era, organizing humanitarian aid to Central America.

After returning to childhood education she had kids of her own — a son and a daughter, now sophomores, respectively, in college and high school — and was soon working as a consultant on such issues as welfare reform and family-support services.

“I was traveling a lot, and I had two young children, and I had this realization: I was leading a children, youth and families program, and I had to leave my two little kids at home,” she recalls. That’s when she took a job with the Berkeley Unified School District, where she helped create the precursor to what’s now known as 2020 Vision, a collaborative effort — in which the district, city and campus are among the partners — to close the “academic achievement and health gaps” in Berkeley’s public schools by the year 2020.

She was still with the BUSD when she met Bates, the Berkeley alum (and member of Cal’s 1959 Rose Bowl team) who’d retired from the state Assembly in 1996. Bates, who would run successfully for mayor in 2002, was then working to ensure healthier foods in the Oakland and Berkeley school districts.

“When Tom won his first election as mayor, he asked me if I would come over and help bridge the relationship between the school district and the city, and help forge better ties,” Sinai says, a mission she means to continue, and expand, at UC Berkeley.

‘Moving east’

“I like to say I keep moving east,” she says, describing her long, slow journey from Martin Luther King Jr. Way to Milvia Street to her new digs in a former movie house just above Shattuck Avenue. “My ‘jumping across the street’ was really to help forge those partnerships.”

“After 13, 14 years of doing work that’s very dedicated to the city of Berkeley,” she explains, “I was at a point in my life of wanting to look at a bigger landscape again.

“What I really wanted to do was retool my efforts into the field of education, largely because I feel education is under siege right now, and I think it really is the lifeblood of our state, and our future,” she says. “And if I can’t be part of the solution of getting people to recognize that value, I’d just feel like I’m not putting my energy in the right place.”

She sees her new job as “a hodgepodge” focusing, among other goals, on working with East Bay cities “to basically break down the barriers for the researchers and scientists and entrepreneurs here on campus” who want to develop their ideas — and hopefully, in time, their growing companies — in nearby communities.

Another focus is working with high schools and community colleges to articulate “educational pathways,” a way to ensure that “young people know what they need to do to get into careers they want,” especially in the critically important STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“There’s a lot of work to be done around providing support, particularly to the underrepresented community,” she says. “How does the university play in that field? I don’t have the answer to that, but my gut tells me there’s a role there for the university to be at the table.”

Still another part of her portfolio includes what Sinai calls “city-centric efforts,” a broad swath taking in Southside student behavior and the myriad other ways the campus community engages with local governments and neighborhoods.

“To me,” she says, “it’s not a question of what hat you’re wearing, it’s a question of what solution and outcome do you want to get, and how do you get it?”

Before joining the campus, Sinai recalls, she was asked about the challenge of moving from town to gown. How would she handle a situation where the city objected to something the university might do, or plan to do?

“Well, I’m going to talk to people about it,” she says, her tone making it perfectly clear she’s stating the obvious. “I’ll talk to the people at the university to understand the rationale for why something’s happening, and I’ll talk to the city to find out what their issues are. It’s a question of dialogue, of whether people are being as transparent as is reasonable to be able to communicate.

“You need to know where the minefields are,” she repeats — returning, more or less, to where she began — “in order not to explode them.”