Dirks, Richmonders get down to business on global campus

Chancellor Dirks

Chancellor Dirks in Richmond, speaking about the Berkeley Global Campus: “This has to bring prosperity for the community.” (UC Berkeley photos by Barry Bergman)

Some six weeks after unveiling plans for an ambitious new Berkeley Global Campus in Richmond,  Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks met with civic leaders and city residents to hear their perspectives, and to reiterate — and reinforce — the campus’s long-term commitment to the community.

He also vowed to keep the discussion going and to work closely with city stakeholders as the project, still in its infancy, moves forward.

The lively lunchtime session took place on a stormy Thursday at the Richmond Field Station, at the edge of what campus and city leaders envision as a vibrant international hub for global education and research, and a catalyst for development of Richmond’s south shoreline.

“What we’re trying to do is to optimize the economic benefits of the Berkeley Global Campus,” City Manager Bill Lindsay said, speaking to a cross-section of city residents from the neighborhood level to the realms of politics, religion and labor. He described long-term plans for “a complete waterfront community” that would integrate new development with existing neighborhoods and businesses, with the global campus as the keystone.

“I think that the Berkeley Global Campus, in connection with planning for the southern shoreline, is the biggest economic development event since the shipyards in Richmond,” Lindsay said, a stretch that goes back to World War II. “And we want to make sure that it takes us literally through the next hundred years of good, positive growth for our community.”

Richmond resident Tamisha Walker

Richmond resident Tamisha Walker made a plea for greater educational opportunities for the city’s youth, and for an ongoing conversation with the chancellor about the new campus.

Dirks, who came to Berkeley from Columbia University, recalled how leaders of that institution turned around a “terrible” relationship with its New York City neighbors, and how the school’s expansion generated new centers for neuroscience and the arts, short- and long-term local jobs and “a sense of celebration.” That experience, he suggested, can serve as a template for building the Berkeley Global Campus.

“The way in which we are going to proceed in this project,” Dirks said, “is going to be collaborative. It’s going to be a partnership.”

That spirit of cooperation set the tone for Thursday’s meeting, even as some Richmonders voiced concerns about displacement and gentrification once the new campus gets off the ground, and students and researchers come from around the world to work and live in the city.

Tamisha Walker, a longtime Richmond resident affiliated with the Safe Return Project, spoke of the need to provide Richmond’s youth — people like her 17-year-old son, “who didn’t apply to Berkeley,” and her 7-year-old, who shows a strong interest in science — with better access to college and the opportunities it can provide.

When she asked Dirks for a commitment to come back and “continue this conversation with the community,” the chancellor readily agreed.

Edith Pastrano, a Richmond native who graduated from UC Santa Cruz, described how she’d once been embarrassed by her city’s negative associations with high crime and poverty, and her pride in “how far Richmond has come.”

When Richmond was chosen to be the site of a second campus for Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “I was overcome with joy,” she said. “But I was also overcome with the feeling of fear that this project could possibly displace me, my family and the community that I’m in.”

Donnell “Ricky” Jones, pastor and founder of New Direction Ministries, said his wife is a Berkeley graduate, and that the couple have a 10-year-old who hopes to attend. But “the low-income families of Richmond, and people of color, have been promised a lot of things that have never come to fruition,” he observed. “We just don’t want another one.”

“We feel that if Richmond is going to be better,” said Jones, “the question is: For whom?”

Dirks assured the speakers that he heard their concerns, and shared them.

“We have to be very concerned and careful not to do anything that would in any way displace the residents,” said the chancellor. “We want to create opportunities for residents, not move anybody away. And the pride with which you speak about the city, especially now, is important for us, because we want to share in that same pride.”

“This has to bring prosperity for the community,” Dirks said. “And if it doesn’t, we will have failed.”