Celebrating 35 years of ‘Breaking Barriers, Building Community’

“Social change is painful,” observed Troy Duster, the founding director of what is now UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. And so, he added, is scholarship on the topic, which tends to elicit the following question, both here on campus and throughout academia: “Is this the study of social change, or are you trying to effect social change?”

Troy Duster

Troy Duster: “a bias… that value-free, neutral investigation is not about change.” (Photo by Barry Bergman)

Yet that dichotomy is “a huge, huge fiction,” insisted Duster, who delivered the keynote address at what was equal parts celebration, reunion and rejoinder to that fiction, a daylong ISSI conference titled “Breaking Barriers, Building Community: 35 Years of Training Social Change Scholars.”

“There’s a bias… that value-free, neutral investigation is not about change,” explained Duster, a sociologist, Chancellor’s Professor and senior fellow at Berkeley’s Warren Institute on Law and Policy. “But that bias is mainly placed upon the social sciences, not upon the natural sciences, not upon the physical sciences.”

A biologist, for example, might be working to transform medical treatments for diabetes, Duster said, without being criticized for going beyond disinterested, academic study of the disease. But if a sociologist chooses to investigate why Pima Indians have unusually high rates of diabetes, and visits their communities to better understand the role of social relationships, nutritional practices and other factors, “there is some notion that you’re interested in the outcome of social change, as opposed to understanding its neutrality.”

“It is a transparent fiction,” Duster declared, “that somehow you can pull these two things apart.”

Helping students to ‘find their voice’

And, more to the point, it’s a fiction ISSI has struggled to change — that word again — in significant measure through its Graduate Fellows Program, guided for its entire 35 years by David Minkus, “a genius with grad students,” Duster said, who helped students to “find their voice.” The program, created with an eye to making the academy better reflect the diversity of U.S. society, provides each grad student with mentoring, financial support and the opportunity to do field work with leading Berkeley scholars from a variety of academic disciplines.

Many of those Ph.D.s have gone on to successful careers as researchers and teachers, and a number were reunited with Berkeley faculty on Friday for the anniversary event at Anna Head Alumnae Hall. Program alums came from as far as Toronto — and as near as the CSUC and UC systems — to engage in a series of presentations and panel discussions. Among other issues, speakers touched on race-, gender- and class-related challenges facing community organizers and activists seeking to tear down barriers to fuller, more equitable participation.

Introducing the day’s proceedings, Claude Steele — Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost, and one of America’s best-known sociologists — cited the historic role of his new academic home as an engine of change.

“Berkeley really does have the idea that society can and should change as part of its DNA, part of its core identity,” observed Steele. And ISSI, he added, is “an institutionalization of that dimension of Berkeley’s character.”