By Gwyneth K. Shaw
Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph has enjoyed a storied career in show business — and, this television season, a new audience as a key character on the hit show “Abbot Elementary.” She’s also been involved in politics since running for office in grade school, and a passionate advocate for the idea that everyone should jump in to be heard in our democracy.
So when Ralph beamed down, via Zoom, at students from Berkeley Law and the Goldman School of Public Policy on a recent afternoon, her message was no surprise.
“Run, children,” she said. “Run for office.”
Ralph was the keynote speaker for Democracy Summit 2022, the first in what student organizers from Berkeley Law’s Election Law @ Berkeley Law and Goldman’s Democracy Project at Berkeley plan to be an annual event. Her speech, and two other sessions, drew in-person and virtual participants to discuss the state of American democracy — and highlight the work needed to make change.
Election Law @ Berkeley Law’s co-president Sara Clark ’23 highlighted two goals for the event: Empowering students to advocate for democracy, as citizens, candidates, or activists, and building a cross-campus collaboration with the Democracy Project at Berkeley (known until recently as Policy Students for Equitable Democracy). .
“We wanted to give students the tools and inspiration to continue fighting for a more just and equal American political system, even in difficult times,” she says. “Doing the event in tandem allowed us to draw on the resources, expertise, and knowledge of our friends in the policy space and have an event as interdisciplinary as democracy-saving work needs to be.”
Ralph talked about the importance of voting in every election, something she learned when her parents took her along to cast their own ballots. It’s also critical to organize, she said, to make sure every voice is heard.
“There’s something more powerful than money, and that is people. And it’s not easy to bring people together, trust me,” said Ralph, who also recounted her experiences as a leader in the Los Angeles local chapter of the Screen Actors Guild. “There are a lot of folks really working really hard to keep us apart right now.”
Shelby Wayment ’23, the other co-president of Election Law @ Berkeley Law, says organizers chose Ralph because she’s a great example.
“As a celebrity who uses her platform to encourage civic engagement and the importance of voting, her experiences demonstrated to the audience that any person in any career path can, and has an obligation, to use their voice to protect the rights of others,” Wayment says.
Political office and past lessons
The second panel featured alumni who have either run for public office or are currently serving: Berkeley Law alumni Xavier Johnson ’16 (elected to the Berkeley Rent Board in 2020) and Janani Ramachandran ’20 (running for the Oakland City Council), along with Goldman alumni Aaron Tiedemann (a member of the Albany City Council) and San Francisco City Administrator Carmen Chu.
They talked about how their Berkeley educations helped shape them and what they needed to learn after leaving the school. All four encouraged current students to take the leap themselves.
Wayment says organizers wanted to highlight how a UC Berkeley degree could help prepare students to become key catalysts in their future communities, as well as the different paths the panelists took into politics.
“We also wanted to have an honest conversation about what running for office takes, and the difficulties and challenges in doing so,” Wayment says.
The final panel featured veterans of the civil rights movement who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as young people and continue to work with the SNCC Legacy Project and other organizations today. Courtland Cox, Judy Richardson, and Jennifer Lawson told dramatic old stories, detailed their work in the decades since the fight for the Voting Rights Act, and urged today’s students to take up their banner.
When the SNCC began, Cox said, there were no Black mayors or governors. Now, there are Black political officials around the country; a Black man has served as president, and the vice president is a Black woman. He described how the ability to gain and hold political and economic power was a result of the civil rights and Black Power movements, and how there’s plenty more to do.
“We have gotten ourselves to a certain point, but now we need others to carry on,” he said. “And so it is our responsibility to not only talk about what we did, but to encourage others to go much farther than we did.”
The road ahead
To that end, Clark and Wayment are working with their Goldman counterparts to secure funding for next year’s summit, as they get ready to hand off to new leadership. Election Law @ Berkeley Law has also launched its Voter Protection Committee for the 2022 midterm elections, and is working with partner nonprofit organizations and undergraduate student groups to increase civic engagement across campus and provide pro bono election-related opportunities for students.
Anyone interested can sign up for the organization’s listserv to hear about upcoming events and opportunities to get involved.
Ralph also emphasized the need for students to become activists. As the pandemic drags on, war rages in Ukraine, and a significant number of U.S. states pass laws narrowing voting rights and suppressing school curricula around race and sexuality, she said it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “you got the short end of the stick.”
“Trust me, this has all happened before. It’s not the first time, it’s just your first time,” she said. “You did not draw the short straw. It was rough 40 years ago and it’s rough now — and my parents would say it was rough when they were young too.”
Still, Ralph expressed faith in today’s young people to save democracy.
“It is you, you, you,” she said. “Do not look outside of you. Because you are the strength, the hope, and everything you have been waiting for. It is you.”