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A letter to my students: I still have hope because of you — now vote

In disturbing times, with midterm elections near, a UC Berkeley professor of economics tells her students to do what they can to shape the world the way they want it to be

Martha Olney
Martha Olney is a teaching professor of economics at UC Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photo)

Martha Olney, a teaching professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Economics, sent this letter to her students earlier this week:  

In my years as a faculty member, there have been times when I’ve been able to dig down and offer wisdom to you all. Sometimes it is wisdom borne from experience: my brother died suddenly when I was in my early 30s, my wife had breast cancer, I grew up in a different era and have too many experiences of sexual harassment to even remember them all, I vividly remember 9/11. Sometimes it is wisdom derived from my philosophy/theology of life: I truly believe that we are all loved and lovable simply by our existence, I believe you are worthy independent of any external measures, I believe life is about striving to become the person we were created to be.

Martha OlneyAnd sometimes, I feel that I don’t have much to offer. Like now.

So let me see what falls out of my fingers and onto the page. Perhaps I can offer something useful.

Even before yesterday’s horrific shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh PA, the week had left many of us reeling. The dozen or so bombs sent to a former president and others. The targeted shooting of two black individuals at the grocery store in Jeffersontown (outside Louisville, KY), which we later learned was the target location only because the shooter had found the doors of the nearby First Baptist Church locked. And that’s just this week. Parkland. Pulse. Vegas. Charleston. The list has grown too long.

In any moment, each of us needs to decide for ourselves what we can and will do. I’m not talking about those damned “active shooter drills” you all had to do in high school. I mean something larger.

For some of us, we need today to put on emotional blinders, focus on something else, filter out the news, take care of ourselves first and foremost. If that’s where you are today, tomorrow, yesterday, that’s ok. Be sure you know ways to care for yourself. Call home. Don’t call home. Go to Tang, third floor, Counseling & Psych services, talk to someone. Or don’t. Go for a walk with a friend. Go find a dog to pet. Do something else altogether. Whatever methods of self-care are effective for you, practice those.

I keep looking at all the Halloween decorations on the houses between campus and home, so many more than I remember from previous years. I think a lot of us are engaging in escapism right now. Whatever methods of self-care you need to practice, do so. Take care of you.

Be mindful as well of those around you. I took the Pulse shooting very personally. I appreciated that some straight friends reached out because they were aware that the Pulse shooting was particularly hard for those of us who are gay or lesbian. It’s been a hell of a week. Check in on your friends. Be sure they’re doing ok. Offer to walk with them down to Tang if need be. Understand if they simply can’t think about any of it today. Or tomorrow.

For others of us, we need to confront what’s happening directly. Perhaps get involved, do something. I imagine you’re tired of hearing me say it, but you Simply Must Vote. That is how, in our representative democracy, laws are changed. Or not changed, whatever your preference. I don’t presume to know how you would vote. But I do think that we need everyone actively engaged in voting so that the changes that are made are truly a reflection of what we all as society want.

Do you really want climate change policy determined by the votes of people who are going to be dead anyway by 2040 or 2050?

You may want to join a vigil. You may want to get out the vote. You may want to protest. However you want to get involved, do so using the skills and knowledge you are obtaining here. Use critical thinking. Understand the role of assumptions in arguments. Identify key assumptions. Challenge assumptions, not conclusions. The conclusions flow from the assumptions, so start with the assumptions.

And if getting involved is what you want to do, be mindful that not everyone is in that same place. There will be days, weeks, months, years, when even you — activist you — will need a break. If that’s where some others are today, so be it. Make your voice heard, aware that you are speaking for those who, today, cannot.

The times we live in are, to me, disturbing and sometimes scary times. Getting discouraged is easier than I wish. Being optimistic in the moment is sometimes impossible. Many moments in recent days have been hard.

But when I look to the future, I still have hope. I have hope because of you. Because I believe that you will not let our future be taken. Because I believe that you are here, at Berkeley, getting a Berkeley education, becoming a Golden Bear, for a reason. Because I believe that you will use what you learn here to make the world a better place for all. Because I believe in you.


If you need a stamp for your ballot, I’m bringing stamps tomorrow.

The midterm is on election day, so vote early by mail. If you live in Alameda County, you can deposit your signed ballot in the box on Sproul plaza. If you live outside Alameda County, sign the envelope, put stamp(s) on it, and put it in a mailbox. If you need stamps, I am bringing stamps to class tomorrow. To get free stamps from me, ballots must be completed, envelopes signed, and ready to mail. I’ll then give you stamps. You can then drop your signed & stamped ballot in the mailbox near Barrows/Sproul or outside Evans. I can’t legally mail your ballot, but I can give you stamps.

Prof. Olney