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Taking changemaking beyond the classroom

Berkeley Campus Conversations delves into impact and future plans for Berkeley Changemaker initiative

a stock photo of student in a classroom
Thursday’s Campus Conversations delved into impact and future plans for Berkeley Changemaker initiative. (UC Berkeley video)

If universities across the country want to equip their students with the skills to become innovative changemakers, translating knowledge and research from the classroom into practice must be a priority, said a panel of UC Berkeley leaders on Thursday.

But what is changemaking, and how is Berkeley incorporating that ethos into its curriculum?

That’s what Thursday’s virtual panel discussed as part of Berkeley’s first fall Campus Conversations event. During the hourlong discussion, an undergraduate student and deans from the schools of public health and social welfare and from the College of Letters and Science delved into the impact of the campus’s Berkeley Changemaker initiative.

“You can have all the critical thinking skills in the world, but if you can’t collaborate with people, your ideas are not going to go anywhere,” said Interim Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Oliver O’Reilly, who moderated the event. “If you can’t communicate them to people, they’re not even going to be remembered. … Having these skills is critical to changemaking.”

Established last year, the interdisciplinary initiative has educated more than 2,500 incoming students through seven changemaker courses, including the initial Berkeley Changemaker course, a six-week class that helps new students identify their passions and use their leadership traits to transform Berkeley and the world.

Offered through the College of Letters and Science and the Haas School of Business, the class is part of the campuswide initiative led by faculty and administrators and coordinated by Rich Lyons, Berkeley’s chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer, to inspire students to think beyond themselves.

Sophomore Sajel Goel took the Berkeley Changemaker course last summer and said it has shaped every aspect of her college experience. Goel recently launched a startup that helps people interested in volunteering or in donating to social organizations to figure out the impact they’ll have locally and globally.

“The Berkeley changemaker course taught me that you can address world issues with humility and passion,” said Goel. “As long as we have classes that encourage us to think and ask questions, to speak what’s on our minds, we should be on a good path.”

Michael Lu, dean of the School of Public Health, said that he hopes to integrate “changemaking competencies” into the school’s curriculum. That includes an undergraduate connector course in public health, additional graduate level electives and internships, and weekend micro-courses that focus on teaching changemaking skills, such as community organizing and advocacy.

True changemaking is rolling up your sleeves to do the hard work to reimagine a new world, said Lu, a characteristic the initiative aims to foster in its students.

“It’s all about fighting for clean air and water; about fighting for health equity and social justice. It’s about fighting for health as a right and health care for all,” he said. “It’s about fighting for the social conditions in which everyone can be healthy.”

The College of Letters and Science, led by Executive Dean Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, is the largest college on campus, with 800 faculty and 23,000 undergraduates. Johnson-Hanks said the college is reviewing ways to create changemaker cohorts.

This type of intimate learning, she said, could help support a more nuanced method of developing students into real changemakers.

“Often we jump to an answer to the problem immediately before us without stepping back and bringing in all of the relevant issues and the broader structures,” Johnson-Hanks said. “We need to foster an atmosphere where we’re not racing to the end, not assuming we know what changes we need to make. Where we’re asking the right questions and really doing the deep work that needs to be done.”

The current pandemic, along with the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, has highlighted once again the racial disparities that exist in America, said Linda Burton, dean of the social welfare school.

Changemakers are needed now more than ever.

“Be open to disruption,” Burton advised students on Thursday. “Don’t walk into disruptions in a fearful mode. Think about disruptions as an opportunity to rethink, reframe and retool.”