While it can feel like many grown-up politicians behave like children these days, it turns out actual kids do the job pretty well when given the chance. A second-grade class from Malcolm X Elementary visited Berkeley City Hall last week to present a proclamation they crafted declaring support for homeless residents a top priority.
The field trip began with a grand tour, where the kids learned how the city sausage gets made, and culminated in coveted private meetings with Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Kate Harrison. The kids handed over copies of their proclamation, which will be read at the June 13 City Council meeting. Its style mirrors that of a traditional city proclamation.
“We all want to be permanently housed in a home we can afford and be safe,” it reads. The young authors describe the challenges of being unhoused, from catching colds in rainy weather to having trouble at school. It could be “scary and embarrassing” to have to go to the bathroom in public, they note.
“The City of Berkeley shall do everything it can do to address the housing crisis. There are many pieces to this puzzle. One is to create more homes for people in Berkeley that are permanent, safe and affordable. Another piece of the puzzle is to increase the number and quality of temporary shelters,” the proclamation says.
The document is a product of the class’s unit on city politics and opinion writing, which is now part of the second-grade curriculum under the Common Core. Rent Board Commissioner Leah Simon-Weisberg, whose daughter Hannah is in the class, helped teach the lessons with longtime teacher Jennifer Adcock. The students discussed the issues they cared about — from decreasing plastic use to building more schools — and reached a consensus on addressing homelessness.
“It’s getting that bad that kids are aware of it,” Simon-Weisberg said. Recent homeless counts in Berkeley have found 800-1,000 unhoused people living in the city. The most recent count in Alameda County took place in January, but the Berkeley data has not yet been released.
On Friday, the kids marched up the steps to City Hall, proclamation in hand. Before presenting it, they made a pitstop at the City Clerk Mark Numainville’s desk and joined the busy City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley on a walk-and-talk.
Williams-Ridley told them what her job entails and how they could become a city manager too.
“You’ve got to go to school, and really listen to people. You have to be willing to love and honor people,” she said. The kids’ jaws dropped when she told them she has nine different bosses.
“I want to be a city manager,” Beatrix Leonards, 7, told Williams-Ridley. “I also want to be a doctor.”
Squeezing into Harrison’s office, the kids took turns reading their proposed proclamation aloud, bringing tears to the councilwoman’s eyes.
“We are so honored you wrote this for us,” she told the class. “This is what we’re trying to do in the city and it’s a lot of work, so we’re going to need all your help and your parents’ help.”
In Arreguín’s office, the youngsters quickly made themselves at home, several squeezing onto his couch and others opting for the dignified seats at the conference table. They told the mayor why they chose to focus on homelessness.
“How would you keep your food fresh without a fridge? People use their homes for storage!” said one student.
While working on the proclamation, the kids had been startled to learn that the teacher’s aide who helps the special-needs students in their class had been homeless herself when she was a kid, and had to switch schools several times in one year. Arreguín revealed to the students that he too had been homeless for several weeks when he was younger, living with his parents in a car after the family was evicted.
“I want you to know that addressing homelessness is my top priority,” Arreguín told the students. He encouraged them to continue to express their opinions and learn about the goings-on in the city.
“I got involved in political activism when I was your age,” he said. On their way up to the roof for lunch, the students met some other young people — college-aged interns — at work in Councilman Kriss Worthington’s office.
During lunch they reflected on the day, the first taste of municipal government for most of the kids, and a rare look behind the scenes for the adults.
“I wasn’t quite sure what it would be like,” Adcock said. “You sometimes get detached from the people you elect. It’s nice they’re open to field trips.”
Between bites of apples and sandwiches, some of the students talked about what surprised them during the tour.
“I expected that the mayor was gonna be a girl,” mused Issac Benavides, 8.
“City Hall is a nice place. It’s big compared to every building I’ve been in,” said Darin Hendrickson-Sperry, 8.
Some chatted about running for office or working for the city when they grow up. Others said the civic life probably wasn’t for them.
“It’s kind of boring to me,” said Moses Trujillo, 8. “I’d rather sell lemonade.”