Rigel Robinson, 22
A Berkeley resident by way of Missouri, Rigel Robinson is running to be the Berkeley City Councilmember for District 7, the first student supermajority district in the entire country. Rigel was a key figure in the movement that brought the first UC tuition rollback since 1999 and he is hoping to continue advocating for student needs. He spoke with us about how to build trust between the student community and long-term Berkeley residents.
How do you prepare for a day on the campaign trail? Any hobbies, rituals or music you listen to?
I like jamming on my ukulele. I'm not very good, so I really try not to show it off because there's not a whole lot to show off, but it's a grounding mechanism for me.
What was the best advice you received from anyone before you ran?
When people see young candidates running for office, they see someone that’s moldable, impressionable, and can be used. It’s important that we engage more millennials and young people in these public offices. But we also need to stay grounded in why we ran in the first place and remember that we are our own best advocates and are owned by no one.
What is your favorite spot to hang out in Berkeley?
Probably Musical Offering. It’s this cute little café that has jazz in the afternoons, across the street from the Student Union and right next to a residence hall that we're about to open up this fall.
There’s this baguette they have that’s incredible and it costs so much more than any baguette ever should. It’s a little toasted baguette with brie cheese melted over it, topped with arugula and honey. Arugula being my favorite salad green, it’s truly divine.
If you could get a beer with any politician today, who would it be?
My instinctive answer right now is obviously Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. She’s showing the world a message that a lot of us believe and that we know is popular, and we know turns people out to the polls. A message that we know can bring us to a more equitable place as a country, but we have been told time and time and time again is infeasible, unviable and won’t work. But she said, “I don’t particularly care. It’s the right thing to do, and I’m going to go for it.” And it worked out.
So many people are unaware of what their city council does for them, especially students who only live in the city for a handful of years. In your own words, what does a city council do?
The concern that people don’t vote in local elections because they don’t know what local government does for them is especially true within campus communities. Yet in campus communities, it’s especially important that students be informed, involved and engaged in local politics. There are thousands of students in one place who can make up as much as a third of the population of the city, at least they do in Berkeley. But because they're viewed as a temporary and transient population that turns over so rapidly, they're not considered a legitimate constituency of the city.
“Students are a huge part of what happens here. But unless students step up, they will never be a meaningful part of the conversation…”
I've had people say to me that I’m not a participant of the “real community” of Berkeley. People are more or less implying that the students aren't part of what happens here. Students are a huge part of what happens here. But unless students step up, they will never be a meaningful part of the conversation, such as decisions that affect their access to affordable housing, or their access to safe neighborhoods, or their access to small businesses in the community. These factors will never improve unless students are active in the decisions that affect them.
What are the potholes of Berkeley community? What are the issues that are being neglected, but you want to see addressed? Then again, Berkeley does have a handful of actual potholes.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. We have a couple of immaculate streets with bike lanes and all, then a block or two over, you’ll find a street that feels like hiking a mountain trail. It’s a terrain of sorts.
But that’s the lovely and deeply romantic thing about municipal government and policymaking. You can enact real substantive changes that your neighbors and friends can feel the benefits of quickly. Getting more lighting on South Side to illuminate parts of the neighborhood that are pitch black at night, where students are walking through, trying to get home from the library, worried that they won’t be safe in doing so. That’s tangible and attainable, and something we can take action on to improve part of student life.
It’s little things like that, that can integrate the campus community, into the non-campus community, so residents and neighbors feel like they’re all part of a bigger, more united neighborhood.
You've also worked in the Office of the Secretary at the Department of Education in DC, you were a Congressional Intern with Congressman Lacy Clay in Missouri. Why did you decide to stay in Berkeley, as opposed to working at the federal level?
I really think a lot of the policymaking in places like that would benefit from being carried out by people who have spent time crafting policy at a more hands-on localized level. It's hard to develop useful one-size-fits-all solutions at the state or national level if you don’t understand what policy making really looks like locally.
But more importantly, this is a space I care about. The students, the neighbors, the campus, the people here are deeply meaningful to me. Every year I watch student initiatives and campaigns blossom and fizzle because part of the institutional memory that's necessary for projects to be carried forward across generations of students is lost. I hope by sticking around, I can try to guide the conversation a little bit and utilize the four years that I spent organizing on campus to make sure that the next four years on city council will be mutually beneficial for students and the city at-large.
What past experience has best prepared you for a role on city council?
Being on a legislative body is a unique experience. The ASUC Senate at UC Berkeley is a fascinating space. While most of the work that happens there, of course, has relatively few parallels to the sort of work that happens in city hall, many of the experiences in negotiating and navigating competing constituencies are deeply, deeply applicable.
Sometimes you have to make a choice, you have to cast a vote that you know is necessary, even if it isn't always what looks right or necessary, for factors and reasons that may not apparent to everyone. There are difficult choices that need to be made and as members of the student government body, we had to do that. Learning how to operate as a team while also staying true to your values was as important in the ASUC as it will be in city hall.
When did you hear the call? When was the moment you realize I need to run for office?
Well, the call kept on ringing for a really long time. I had been being asked to do this for months before I even really came to a place where I was comfortable with the idea. I think around mid-fall last year, I became convinced that someone needed to do it. We have a unique district here, a district that four years ago was redistricted to create the first student supermajority district in the entire country. I came to a place where I believe that it’s important that in this election cycle, that we fulfill the vision and mission of that seat. It would be another few months before people would convince me that maybe that person was me.
What finally convinced you that you were the right person?
Trust with the community is an interesting thing that really can't be quantified in obvious ways. But over this year as the External Affairs Vice President for UC Berkeley, I believe I earned that trust. We had a consistent presence in the halls of power that won some really meaningful victories for students.
“We went to war with the state legislature, fighting the campus tuition hike for increased funding in the system, and were ultimately successful in winning the first actual tuition rollback that we’ve seen in almost 20 years.”
We turned out dozens of people to the planning commission to fight for more student housing now. We fought the UC Regents until a sitting regent who had been accused of sexual harassment resigned from the board. We went to war with the state legislature, fighting the campus tuition hike for increased funding in the system, and were ultimately successful in winning the first actual tuition rollback that we’ve seen in almost 20 years.
These victories required the support of a broad and involved community. I know what works, and I'm not done yet.
Throughout your political career, who have been your mentors and support network?
I owe so much to my girlfriend, she's been a rock through it all, and I can't thank her enough of that. Friends and family have been nothing but supportive. Our campaign team is all students, and many of my closest friends, so that’s lovely. And of course, there’s a number of city officials and people from the university, who would probably prefer that they not be named, who have been deeply encouraging from the beginning and who were excited to see a student voice represent this district.
If you could wave a magic wand and get universal support for anything on city council, what would you change?
The City of Berkeley really requires a deep philosophical shift right now. The progressive movement in the city has led the way in fighting to support organized labor, to support health care access, to support the de-militarization of our police. It’s made incredible strides, but simultaneously, there is a strong force among much of that same progressive movement that has a tendency to push back on just about any meaningful housing development. It is not inconsistent to be progressive and to be pro-housing.
“We need to be fighting for solutions for our at-risk tenants right now. But we also need to be preparing for the housing crisis of the future.”
We have a housing crisis in the area and we have a student housing crisis in Berkeley. We have 1,000 homeless neighbors in a city that is only about 120,000 people. 10% of Berkeley students experience housing insecurity at some point during their time here. And none of that is acceptable. We need to be fighting for solutions for our at-risk tenants right now. But we also need to be preparing for the housing crisis of the future. There are students living in their cars or on the couches of friends right now. Berkeley is a beautiful place, but if we let preserving the city the way it is become more important than helping those in need, we can’t call ourselves progressive anymore.
What doubts do you think people have about you as a candidate? What do you say to people who think you're too young to run?
That’s just about everyone. I am running to represent a unique district. Saying that we need more young people to get involved in politics isn't a matter of saying we should elect people just because they're young. It’s a conversation of representation, not identity politics. When there are young people who are qualified, driven and grounded in the communities they are running to represent, maybe we should give them a chance.
So what advice would you give to another young person who is considering running for office?
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.