Public-service efforts honored, and a gift announced, at upbeat campus event

Ways to serve the common good are limited only by the imagination. That was a takeaway from Monday’s public-service awards ceremony in Sibley Auditorium, honoring members of the extended campus community who have contributed their talents and time to myriad common concerns — from the integrity of our voting system to sex trafficking of children to dental care in the developing world.

Joseph Myers

Joseph Myers, winner of the Haas Public Service Award

“You have a duty to take care of your people,” said honoree Joseph Myers, citing a lesson imparted by his grandfather — who taught him how, as a small child, to catch salmon to help feed his Pomo Indian community. The executive director of the National Indian Justice Center and a founder of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, Myers — who earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from Berkeley in the 1970s — was bestowed the prestigious Peter E. Haas Public Service Award for longtime efforts to improve justice and quality of life in Indian country.

Public service — a core mission of the University of California — is a vibrant and living tradition at Berkeley, said Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, citing the more than 8,000 campus students who volunteer locally each year and the campus’s stellar record of volunteerism through the Peace Corps, since the program’s inception 50 years ago.

Birgeneau announced a “generous gift” from the Shinnyo-en Foundation that will help keep the tradition of public service alive at Berkeley. The donation will be used fund two student fellowships in the coming year and launch a year-long leadership development program for students committed to public service, he said.

Undergraduates and graduate-student honorees included Lily Cheng, a graduating senior in history and a Bonner Leader with the Cal Corps Public Service Center. Cheng accepted the 2011 Mather Good Citizen Award, which comes with $1,000, in recognition of her work to launch not one but two programs — one offering free tax preparation to local low-income residents, the other offering a comprehensive health curriculum, taught by college students, to East Bay high schoolers.

Three received the Undergraduate Award for Civic Engagement. Rhetoric major Joe Gerson was cited for his role president of the Sage Mentorship Project, a one-on-one mentoring program that fosters personal growth and academic success for local elementary students. Sabrina Hamm, a senior in Peace and Conflict Studies, was honored for three years at the helm of Spread the Word, a team of 20 Berkeley students who provide mentorship in the Richmond, Calif. high schools — where few student volunteers typically venture, noted Megan Voorhees, director of Cal Corps and assistant dean of students. Jay Garg, who graduated in December, was honored for various leadership roles, including as president of Cal Habitat for Humanity.

Berkeley Law students involved in the California Asylum Representation Clinic accepted a group award for their work in providing legal assistance to low-income asylum seekers. Another student organization, Teach in Prison DeCal, received the Campus-Community Partnership Award; its 70 student volunteers teach English, math, vocational, and life skills to prisoners at San Quentin.

Sociology PhD student Dmitri Seals was lauded for helping to start the Bay Area Urban Debate league, which has brought debate to more than 700 underserved Bay Area youth. In accepting the award, Seals threw out a challenge to fellow grad students: to marry civic engagement with serious scholarship. “Let’s use our theoretical wisdom to solve the social problems that we analyze,” he urged.

Minh Dang and Kevin Hufferd

Minh Dang and Kevin Hufferd, recipients of staff awards for civic engagement

Staff member Minh Dang, program coordinator of the Bonner Leaders Program at Cal Corps, was honored for a personally courageous campaign to raise awareness of sexual abuse. “Minh, we thank you for being so open with your own story and your commitment to ending trafficking,” Voorhees said with emotion. Kevin Hufferd, whose day job is to direct property development for the campus, was recognized for distributing thousands of free books to children in Richmond and San Pablo, through the West County Reads program.

More civic engagement awards went to two faculty members. Professor Karen Sokal-Gutierrez of the School of Public Health was honored for her efforts to bring dental care first to El Salvador and then other countries in Central America and beyond. Statistics professor Philip Stark accepted an award for research in the public interest: developing a statistical method for detecting and correcting human error, machine failures, and fraud in elections.

“It doesn’t matter who votes, it matters who counts the votes,” Stark said, quoting Joseph Stalin. “We’re trying to restore us to a situation” where what matters is who actually votes, he added.

Two Faculty Service-Learning Leadership Awards were bestowed. One went to chemistry professor Robert Bergman, for the Community in the Classroom program, which brings engaging science-learning activities to local K-6 students. Professor of Education Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, cheered on by an enthusiastic student fan base, accepted a service-learning for her work fostering new understandings of race and equity in education.

“I can’t tell you how many students have walked into my center and said ‘I have been inspired by a class with Professor Seyer-Ochi, and I’m ready to do more,’” Voorhees said, in announcing the award.