Giving voice to the powerless, students find their own

At the age of 14, Steve Fisher spent a summer picking vegetables alongside migrant workers, the only people he knew outside his Amish Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. Now a student in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Fisher spent the summer of 2013 in Tucson, Ariz., reporting on Operation Streamline, a federal program under which hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have gotten a dose of assembly-line U.S. “justice”— and jail terms of up to 180 days — before being deported with criminal records.

Steve Fisher

Steve Fisher (Barry Bergman photos)

Susan Fang, a San Francisco native studying to become a physician in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, worked this summer to help organize low-income Chinese immigrants to defend San Francisco’s Health Care Security Ordinance. The 2007 law, she says, makes health care accessible to residents who are not eligible for the federal Affordable Care Act, or who would continue to have difficulty obtaining coverage — such as undocumented immigrants — but has come under renewed attack from business interests.

And Leah Jacobs, a doctoral student in social work at Berkeley, conducted in-depth interviews with people with mental illnesses who have been in and out of San Francisco County Jail, intending to add their voices, and stories, to the quantitative research on what she calls “this dually stigmatized population.”

Fisher, Fang and Jacobs are three of 17 students from six UC campuses who fanned out across the globe this summer under the auspices of Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, which every year sponsors UC students to work with human-rights organizations around the world and, increasingly, here in the United States.

Human Rights conference

The UC Human Rights Fellowship Conference, “Human Rights Lessons from the Frontlines,” is set for Friday, Nov. 8, from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. at International House.

For information, see the Human Rights Center website or call (510) 642-0965.

Friday, on the eve of the center’s 20th anniversary, the cohort will report on their experiences at the UC Human Rights Fellowship Conference, which this year — the 19th of the center’s flagship program — will combine short presentations with panel discussions throughout the afternoon. The center, now part of Berkeley Law, receives major support for the program from biotech pioneer Thomas White, a Peace Corps veteran who earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry at Berkeley in 1976.

“One intention of the program,” explains the center’s Andrea Lampros, “is to tap the energy and expertise of our amazing students at UC Berkeley, and now also across the UC system, to support human-rights organizations around the world.”

Since 1994, when the program began, 244 fellows have researched, witnessed and reported on human-rights issues in 65 different countries. This year alone, students deployed to Canada, Uganda, India, Malaysia, Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia — among other places in need — to address problems facing such populations as First Nations (Canada), child refugees (Malaysia), orphans and HIV-positive youth (Uganda) and transgender youth and adolescents (San Francisco).

Susan Fang

Susan Fang

Seven of Berkeley’s 2013 fellows worked in the United States, a reflection of not only their own interests — personal, academic and professional — but of a pressing need on the part of largely powerless communities, even in progressive San Francisco.

“I’m an activist. That’s how I see myself,” says Fang. “And however I can be an activist, wherever I am, I’m going to do that.”

Fang has worked before with the Chinese Progressive Association, sometimes going door-to-door to talk with immigrants. This summer she helped the organization by spreading the word about the importance of the local health ordinance. She also helped mobilize community members to attend hearings on the law, which, ironically, now faces an existential threat from the less inclusive Obamacare.

“What’s happening now is that business interests are saying healthcare reform is coming around, so we don’t need the local law,” explains Fang, who provided care to her father, a Medi-Cal patient who died of cancer, when she was younger.

The obstacles to adequate health care in the city’s low-income Chinese-immigrant community, she says, “are very real for me. Those stories could be me.”

Jacobs, too, had a personal as well as professional stake in her fellowship project, an effort to flesh out the literature on individuals with mental illness and involvement in the correctional system by gathering human, first-person narratives. In collaboration with Citywide Forensic Case Management, a UCSF-affiliated service provider to that population in San Francisco, Jacobs conducted 19 interviews — with more to come — to capture their own perceptions and experiences, with an eye to easing the stresses and strains of community re-entry.

Leah Jacobs

Leah Jacobs

“I initially became interested in this project, and working with Citywide, because I’m the child of an incarcerated person,” she says. As a scholar, she adds, “I’m interested in the disproportionate representation of people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons,” whose numbers are estimated at up to 1 million nationwide.

“If I were a quantitative researcher and just looked at this person’s arrest, it wouldn’t look like anything that’s connected to their mental illness,” she says. “But the fact that this person has been institutionalized and disconnected from things that help keep us out of jail — like being able to have a family, having a support network and being able to handle average life stressors — that is connected to their mental illness.”

Fisher, an immigration reporter who first learned about Operation Streamline on a visit to Tucson, returned as a Human Rights Center fellow —  in partnership with the ACLU of Arizona — to delve deeper into the program, observing court proceedings and speaking with people picked up by the Border Patrol near Nogales, Mexico.

“They’re exhausted, they’ve just got off the desert, some of the most dangerous territory on the entire border. Days without water and food,” Fisher says. “And they’re in a courtroom with chains on their hands and feet.” Brought before a judge in groups of seven — for hearings that last only a few minutes — the defendants face near-certain jail time and, once they’re released, deportation.

One construction worker he met, Fisher says, had come to the United States when he was 12. Now 24 and supporting a wife and child, he was caught attempting to cross the U.S. border after being deported from Nevada.

“Instead,” Fisher says, “he’s sucked into this vacuum which is Operation Streamline, and given a criminal record.” And notwithstanding supporters’ claims that the program effectively deters illegal immigration, Fisher says having a record gives migrant workers “no alternative but to return as undocumented.”

For Fang, who believes “access to health care is a human right,” her summer experience has “reaffirmed my commitment to social justice,” a commitment she plans to continue after she gets her medical degree.

“It’s easy, in a big institution like Berkeley, to become tunnel-visioned,” she says. “The fellowship helped reopen the windows and the doors to who I am.”

“All these people change you,” adds Jacobs, describing not just her own experience but likely those of hundreds of UC students who have taken part in the fellowship program over the past two decades.

“It’s almost like they gave me a voice,” she says, referring to people she met who, in many cases, remain in jail only because the city has no place for them to go. “Now I just have to do my best to honor their voices.”