Remembering Gene Bernardi who had a loving and fighting spirit

Gene Bernardi, Dec. 25, 1928-Nov. 16, 2019

Gene Bernardi was born on Christmas Day in 1928 in Berkeley. Her father, Theodore Bernardi, was a well-known local architect largely responsible for the design of Stern Hall at UC Berkeley. Gene’s mother died early and her father remarried Beatrice Boot.

Gene’s loving and fighting spirit goes back a long way. She went to school all the way up through UC Berkeley where she graduated in 1951 with a B.A. in psychology and then a Master’s Degree in sociology in 1964.

From 1964 to 1967, Gene worked as a research associate with the city of Oakland, researching anti-poverty programs.

She then was hired by the U.S. Forest Service in 1968 as a research sociologist for the Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station in Berkeley which specialized in fire prevention. She worked there until 1975.

Gene filed a class-action lawsuit in 1973 against the Department of Agriculture charging sex discrimination for all women under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case was resolved in 1979 when the Forest Service agreed to a consent decree, approved by the district court in 1981, which gave Gene compensation and a raise in classification.

She held the titles of Federal Women’s Program Coordinator and Equal Employment Opportunity counselor. There was a lot of fighting back against letting women into the Forest Service as equals. (See more details at Foresthistory.org).

After leaving the Forest Service in 1976, Gene worked as a social and economic committee consultant to the State Social Welfare Board.

Starting in 1982, Gene worked hard to finalize the adoption of her son, Martin. He was finally allowed to join Gene in Berkeley in 1985. He was 8 years old.

In 1982, the National Tritium Labeling Facility (NTLF) was built in Strawberry Canyon in Berkeley.

By the 1990s, the public was becoming aware of the NTLF. Two employees of the Lawrence Livermore Lab, Dr. Leticia Menchaca and Susan Monheit, tested the groundwater, air and eucalyptus and found much higher levels of tritium than initially believed. They made their information public and in 1996 both women were laid off.

Being aware of all this, in 1996 Gene worked with the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste (CMTW) to shut down the two NTLF tritium stacks which were found to be contaminating the area around the Lawrence Hall of Science where thousands of children come each year. In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency performed a superfund reassessment of LBNL concluding that “Based upon a preliminary Hazard Ranking System score, [the] … EPA has determined that LBNL is eligible for the National SuperFund Priorities List” for cleanup due to tritium in air, soil, groundwater and surface water. In 2001 the facility was shut down.

In 2003, library workers in Berkeley were beginning to feel intimidated for speaking out about the installation of 3M Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) for an automatic check-out system like those used at Home Depot. Concerns centered on health, privacy and the replacement of workers at the library with machines. They were beginning to reach out to the community for support. Gene helped to start Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense (BOLD). BOLD attended many Board of Library Trustees meetings and spoke up about the privacy and health concerns of the RFID tags as well as the cost of the tags and the disposing of thousands of books into locked dumpsters with no record of what had been thrown out.

That struggle went on for years and was finally lost except for the fact that 3M — which couldn’t sign an agreement about nuclear participation required under Berkeley law — was dumped in favor of a Canadian outfit.

In 2004 Gene went to Washington D.C. to the Million Worker March.

In 2006, BOLD morphed into SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Liberty Defense).

The work in BOLD led to the realization that the problems with public comment procedures and the unfair practices of the Board of Library Trustees also applied to the City Council. The City Council was urged to open up public comment and not have people wanting to speak on non-agenda items be made to wait until the very end of meetings, which was sometimes after midnight. SuperBOLD finally threatened a lawsuit, which resulted in improvements to the public comment process at City Council. The organization has remained in existence to the present day.

In 2008, SuperBOLD received the James Madison Freedom of Information Award in the citizen category from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

In 2009, the city of Berkeley honored Gene with an Outstanding Woman of Berkeley Award.

In 2017, Gene joined the steering committee of Berkeley Citizen’s Action where she promoted her concerns with police accountability and militarization and the plight of the homeless.

Gene donated many documents of her work to the Bancroft Library.

Gene worked very hard to interest people in the ramifications of Berkeley signing agreements with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) and Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). UASI is the federal funding source for Urban Shield and the militarization of our local police. NCRIC is the spying arm that sends information to the huge NSA data center at Camp Williams near Bluffdale, Utah. Our three Berkeley Joint Terrorism Task Force Liaison officers within our Berkeley Police Department send their gathered information there. This data center was completed in May 2014 and cost $1.5 billion. Gene’s aim has been to have City Council end the agreements with these two federal programs, and her work and the work of SuperBOLD continues.

Gene loved to dance and create politically savvy art using papier mâché and clay and she loved food.

Even in her late 80s, Gene had incredible energy and she doted on her grandsons. She took them to Costa Rica and to Paris on two different occasions, as well as to Venice. She traveled with her grandson Diego to Spain, first to Jávea and then to Madrid.

Gene is survived by her sister, Joan Breece; her son, Martin Bernardi; her three grandsons, Theodore, Diego and Dominic; her nephews Conrad Breece, Theodore Breece and Timothy Breece; and all the friends who loved her and all the people with whom she worked. Gene will be sorely missed.