Did Kamala Harris’ Berkeley childhood shape the presidential hopeful?

A young Kamala Harris (left) and friends at Madame Bovie’s ballet class in Berkeley. Photo: Courtesy Mina Bissell

California Senator Kamala Harris has officially joined the throng of Democrats pursuing the 2020 presidency.

Her long-anticipated announcement came Monday on Good Morning America and in an upbeat video in which Harris invited potential voters to rally with her in Oakland this weekend.

But long before Harris became a presidential contender, she was a resident of the Berkeley flats and a student at Thousand Oaks Elementary School.

Harris, 54, lived in Berkeley until age 12, when she moved with her family to Montreal. She came back to the U.S. after high school, graduating from Howard University and UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, and later worked as an Alameda County prosecutor before getting elected San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general.


Harris’ early years in Berkeley have come up often in her speeches and writings and could figure heavily in her campaign. Did they produce the politician she has become today?

Harris speaks affectionately about her exposure to the civil rights movement and black radical thinkers in Berkeley in the 1960s and ’70s, describing how the counter-culture environment shaped her progressive worldview and thirst for justice. Many local Democrats have cheered on the strong-willed senator, while other Bay Area leftists have questioned Harris’ progressive credentials and long career in law enforcement.

Early years in the Berkeley flatlands

Just a few days before her announcement, Harris posted a photo on social media of a new mural she’s featured in at Thousand Oaks. Berkeley High students painted the senator’s and other influential women’s likenesses in the colorful playground piece.

Harris has often noted that she started kindergarten one year after Berkeley Unified launched its celebrated integration program.

“I only learned later that we were part of a national experiment in desegregation with working-class black children from the flatlands being bused in one direction and wealthier white children from the Berkeley hills bused in the other,” Harris writes in her new memoir “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey.”

 Those were foundational years, Harris told Berkeleyside.

“Growing up, the first question asked of me at the dinner table was, ‘What did you learn at school today?'” Harris said in an emailed statement. “Thanks to my beloved first-grade teacher, Mrs. Frances Wilson at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, I always had an answer I was anxious to share. Mrs. Wilson had a profound effect on all of us and was deeply committed to her students, a diverse group — ranging from kids growing up in housing projects to the children of people working at the university.” 


Harris was bused to the school from a yellow duplex on Bancroft Way, between Browning and Bonar streets.

Combing through old phone books and real estate records, Berkeley historian Steven Finacom deduced that Harris lived in the building that now houses Berkeley International Montessori School. Harris’ spokeswoman confirmed the location. When Harris lived there, beloved family friends Regina and Arthur Shelton ran a preschool out of the bottom unit. Her family had previously lived on Milvia Street as well.

Around that era, redlining forced black Berkeley residents to live west of what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in the flatland neighborhoods like the area Harris grew up in. Finacom described Harris’ neighborhood at the time as “an integrated community with families of various races, both middle class and poorer residents, and both renters and homeowners.”

Harris lived in the Bancroft apartment with her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris and her sister Maya, who later became a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Shyamala, who came to UC Berkeley from India in 1958 to get her Ph.D., met and married a fellow graduate student, Donald Harris, an immigrant from Jamaica. They separated when Harris was young.

As a child, Kamala Harris lived with her mother and sister in the top unit of this West Berkeley Bancroft Way duplex. Photo: Steven Finacom

Anirvan Chatterjee, a historian of Berkeley’s South Asian communities, said many aspects of Harris’ parents’ story were unusual.

“There were relatively few Indian international students at UC Berkeley at that time,” he said in an email to Berkeleyside. “It’s entirely reasonable at the time that Shyamala would have been expected to return home after graduation, and also have an arranged marriage.”


But Shyamala stuck around, becoming a cancer researcher and a civil rights activist.

Harris writes in her book that she spent many childhood days helping clean test tubes in Berkeley labs. Other afternoons were spent at the Rainbow Sign, a black cultural center on Grove Street (now MLK Jr. Way) and Derby Street, which hosted the likes of Alice Walker, Nina Simone and Black Panther leaders.

The Berkeley Revolution project, which has extensively documented the history of the Rainbow Sign, says the center was “somewhere between a Black Nationalist headquarters and middle-class social club.” Writers, intellectuals and artists would gather to sip wine and talk politics.

“It was where I learned that artistic expression, ambition and intelligence were cool,” Harris writes.

Product of beloved Berkeley scientist and single mother

“Growing up in the flatlands of Berkeley, I was raised on stories of activism of the 1960s,” Harris told Berkeleyside. “From my mother, I learned about the civil rights movement, which was of course allied with the anti-war movement and the Free Speech Movement. She would tell us about students picketing Mel’s Drive-In for not hiring black servers and CORE organizing sit-ins to protest the federal government’s inaction to combat discrimination in the South, and Maya Angelou or Fannie Lou Hamer holding forth at the Rainbow Sign.”

Chatterjee noted that Shyamala moved to Berkeley just a decade after India gained independence and that she came from a family of freedom fighters.

“So it’s pretty likely that she would be incredibly comfortable with the idea of mass political and civic engagement, much more so than contemporaries in the U.S.,” he said.

Those in Berkeley who still remember the Harris family typically remember Shyamala, who died in 2009, most clearly. The scientist was described by many of her former colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a force of nature.

“She had an incredible resiliency. I strongly suspect Kamala has inherited those genes,” said senior scientist Judith Campisi.

Senator Kamala Harris has joined seven other Democrats vying for the presidency. Photo: Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr

Another senior scientist at the lab, Mina Bissell, first met Shyamala through her daughter. Harris was taking a multi-generational ballet class in Berkeley with both Bissell and Bissell’s daughter. The two young girls discovered both of their moms were scientists, and a lifelong bond between the adults was seeded.

If it weren’t for that relationship, Harris might instead be running for Canadian prime minister.

Bissell recalled that she and Shyamala were both up for a prestigious professor position at Cal in the 1970s. Instead, the university gave the job to a man, prompting an official investigation and a lawsuit from Shyamala, according to Bissell.

Shyamala ended up taking a position at McGill University in Montreal, moving her dismayed daughters with her. Some years later, when Bissell was director of biology at Berkeley Lab, she pushed to get Shyamala hired back at UC Berkeley.

“I don’t think Kamala quite knows this, but it took quite a bit to bring her back,” Bissell said.

Does Harris embody or betray the “Berkeley values” she was raised on?

Harris’ mother’s presence looms large on many pages of her book. Up until her devastating death, Shyamala was Harris’ caretaker, mentor and guide.

Harris writes about defending her decision to become a prosecutor to her radical Berkeley mother and her “incredulous” community.

Her book, too, often reads as a preemptive defense against criticism of her background in law enforcement.

Harris writes that she wanted to be “sitting at tables where the decisions were being made.” She describes wanting to help victims of sex crimes, and says the dichotomy between pursuing consequences for serious infractions and believing the criminal justice system needs reforming is a “false choice.” 

Harris recounts launching her influential reentry program Back on Track, which was led by Lateefah Simon, then an activist and an unlikely partner for a DA. Simon, now a BART director whose district includes the Ashby station, has remained friends with Harris. She gushed about her former boss to the Guardian, describing a caring and unstoppably hard-working “zealot about public service.”

Harris’ defense of her career choice apparently won over Shyamala. Multiple lab colleagues remembered the scientist had a bumper sticker that said something like: “Back off — my daughters are lawyers.”

When DA Harris refused to seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing a police officer — infuriating the police union, and against the wishes of Senator Dianne Feinstein — her mother sent her a bouquet of flowers and a card that said, “Courage!” Harris writes.

Will local voters similarly embrace their native daughter, or will they feel her record departs from the Berkeley principles she was raised on?

Miriam Stahl, a Berkeley High art teacher who oversaw the creation of the Thousand Oaks mural, said she believes students there selected Harris to be featured because she’s an alumna who “shares values of the greater Berkeley community.”

Of course, the kids won’t get the chance to express that opinion at the polls.

Harris has many supporters, who see in her an assertive, charismatic leader who’s used her prosecutorial skills to make Republicans squirm during confirmation hearings. Harris was the first woman, first black person and first South Asian elected San Francisco DA, and many of her fans want that diversity represented in the White House. In her book, Harris comes across as a daring and dogged politician. She called Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly on his home phone the moment she learned of the executive order banning travel from Muslim countries. She eagerly performed same-sex marriages in San Francisco under Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004. She went after big banks.

But some on the left don’t buy that Harris is anything other than an establishment Democrat and former “top cop” intent on maintaining the status quo.

While Harris identifies as a “progressive prosecutor,” some Bay Area critics consider the phrase a contradiction in terms, arguing that the senator is herself responsible for the police brutality and mass incarceration she pledges in her book to tackle.

While Harris opposed the death penalty in the San Francisco case, she went on to appeal a 2014 federal court ruling that found the death penalty violated California’s constitution.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, University of San Francisco law school professor Laura Bazelon argued that Harris has a troubling history of fighting to uphold wrongful convictions and resisting criminal justice reform.

Another local legal scholar, UC Berkeley law school’s Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, was among the many lawyers who wrote a letter urging a federal investigation into a case that was within Harris’ purview as attorney general. A judge had disqualified the Orange County District Attorney’s office from handling a mass murder case after widespread misconduct allegations arose, shifting responsibility to Harris’ office. Harris, in turn, appealed the judge’s disqualification. Chemerinsky and others argued the case demanded an independent investigation into potentially systemic abuses by the DA’s office.

“Kamala Harris made her career by locking up Black people in the Bay Area,” said Blake Simons, assistant director of UC Berkeley’s Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center and co-creator of the Hella Black Podcast, in a Twitter thread. “Her track record consists of terrorizing Black communities through the prison industrial complex.”

Simons criticized Harris’ response to 2014 orders that California reduce minimum-security prisoners’ sentences in overcrowded prisons. Lawyers for Harris at the time argued that the incarcerated workers, who performed jobs that often paid much less than a dollar an hour, were part of an important labor pool that had to be maintained.

Harris’ record as a senator is less extensive than her history as a prosecutor, as she was only elected in 2016.

But in the Senate, her actions have often been cheered by progressives.

Harris was the first senator to co-sponsor Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All bill. She didn’t shy away from opposing President Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, voting against far more than most of her Democratic colleagues.

She co-sponsored legislation with other black senators to make lynching a federal crime, earning unanimous support in the Senate.

One of the other senators who sponsored that bill, Cory Booker, is also expected to run for president and has spoken highly of Harris.

Harris has joined a likely growing group of eight Democrats who have set their sights on the White House so far. FiveThirtyEight thinks she has a shot at becoming the party’s nominee.

But it’s early — at this point before the 2016 presidential election, Chris Christie was polling the highest among Republican candidates. Trump would not even announce for another five months.

Harris’s rally is Sunday at 12 p.m. at Frank Ogawa Plaza.