In honor of the “150 Years of Women at Berkeley” project, each day until Aug. 18 Berkeley News is hosting a series of Q&As featuring 18 unsung heroines on staff from all corners of the campus. The series will culminate on Aug. 18 with a special edition of Berkeley Campus Conversations, featuring four remarkable female staffers:
- Cruz Grimaldo, assistant vice chancellor and director of the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office
- Sunny Lee, assistant vice chancellor and dean of students
- Mia Settles-Tidwell, assistant vice chancellor in the Division of Equity and Inclusion
- Charmin Smith, head coach of Cal women’s basketball
You were nominated for being a powerful advocate for staff and chairing the Staff Basic Needs Working Group. Over the past two years, the group has worked to provide accessible and equitable basic needs programming and resources to staff while also researching, innovating, advocating and engaging in coalition building to lead systemic change. During the COVID-19 campus closure, this has included raising $110,000 to provide additional food assistance to staff. How have you been such a powerful advocate on campus?
The Staff Basic Needs Working Group consists of 15 inspiring volunteers who came together outside of any existing campus structure to provide food, housing and economic resources for UC Berkeley’s staff, postdocs, and visiting researchers. I founded the working group in 2018 as part of an action plan to address inequities in the campus food system that were identified through the UC Berkeley Foodscape Mapping Project, a multi-year research, education and advocacy project I manage at the Berkeley Food Institute. Because the Staff Basic Needs Working Group had already spent two years providing direct services to Berkeley’s most vulnerable employee populations and building relationships with campus leadership, we were able to nimbly step up to lead frontline food assistance operations when COVID-19 hit. This includes grocery bag distributions and a grocery card program that has served 1,100 staff to date.
Who is a female staff member (non-academic) that you admire on campus and why?
I deeply admire every member of the Staff Basic Needs Working Group for choosing to show up for their colleagues. I would like to shine the spotlight on two women in particular: Nicole McIntyre, associate director of education with the Center for Energy Efficient Electronics Science and Natalia Semeraro, food and outreach coordinator at The Basic Needs Center. Their thought partnership is crucial to all working group activities and I am humbled by their tenacity, creativity, and hard work.
What obstacles have you faced based on your identities and how did you overcome them?
I am unapologetically queer. This isn’t always comfortable on campus. I co-founded the College of Natural Rainbows in 2019 to foster community among the dozen Out staff and faculty at the College of Natural Resources.
Since I joined UC in 2008 I have always worked for research centers, which have a particular academic culture. Since I come from a working class background, I feel imposture syndrome in these spaces. When I joined the just-formed Berkeley Food Institute as the founding program manager in 2014, I made a conscious choice to stop hiding my personal story because it is relevant to our mission to transform food systems to expand access to healthy, affordable food and promote sustainable and equitable food production. In chairing the Staff Basic Needs Working Group I am motivated to honor the memory of my father (a Berkeley alum), who spent his first five years in a refugee camp and the last 30 years of his life struggling with food and housing insecurity and homelessness.
What words of wisdom would you like to share with all genders on campus when it comes to appreciating women’s work contributions at UC Berkeley?
If you recognize an issue on campus that isn’t being addressed, know that you can be the spark. As staff we often feel invisible, since both internal and external university communications focus primarily on students and faculty. Yet, as staff we are vibrant actors of change and innovation with unique skills and insights gained through our work. We keep the university running, often behind the scenes. To each and every Berkeley employee: I see you!
What future aspirations do you have at UC Berkeley?
Needless to say, 2020 has been a profoundly hard year for the UC Berkeley community, the U.S. and the world. The racial health disparities exposed by COVID-19 and the latest rounds of fatal police violence against Black people highlight long standing structural inequalities that permeate every aspect of society. This is not news to the communities most affected, just like the election of a hate-mongering president was not news. But the fact that structural racism is in the public discourse in a new way gives me hope. I aspire to be among the many members of the UC Berkeley community working to hold our campus accountable to making real institutional change toward racial justice. This involves individual and collective learning and unlearning.
In 2019, at the age of 40, I joined the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management as a PhD student while continuing my staff position at the Berkeley Food Institute. My doctoral work is on how universities envision and enact organizational change to improve equity, inclusion and anti-racist outcomes in their food and agriculture education and research. I strive to integrate my studies such that they have a synergistic impact on the work I do through my staff position.