Black students at UC Berkeley spearheaded statewide initiative to restore affirmative action

These students helped convince Assemblymember Shirley Weber to sponsor a bill that would overturn Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in the state. Voters will decide on Proposition 16 Nov. 3.

Group of students at the March 10 press conference held after Assembly Member Shirley Weber introduced a bill, AC5, to repeal Prop. 209. Photo: Kyndall Dowell

If it wasn’t for a handful of students at UC Berkeley, Californians might not be voting to reestablish affirmative action in college decisions in November.

Fed up with the lack of diversity of the student body and frustrated by the thin level of support offered to students of color, a group of student activists called on campus leaders to address significant problems. The activists sought to increase the number of Black students and faculty on campus, increase the offering of courses and to improve the police relations for students who felt over-policed.

But inevitably, administrators would defer to an insurmountable impasse: Proposition 209.

Passed by California voters in 1996, Proposition 209 forced the state to use race and gender-blind criteria in admissions, as well as in contracting or in setting aside resources for identity-based groups.

The impacts of the elimination of affirmative action were felt immediately.

People from underrepresented groups who applied to UC Berkeley after Prop 209 were 31% less likely to get accepted, according to a report issued by the UC Office of the President.

UC Berkeley witnessed a “marked drop in the percentage of Black students” following Prop 209, said Chancellor Carol Christ, who was working as a campus provost when 209 passed.

Berkeley’s Black student enrollment among incoming freshmen fell from roughly 7% to 3% and has hovered around that figure ever since. In the fall of 2019, 2.8%  of admitted first-year students identified as Black. Many say that figure drops significantly lower if athletes are not included.

People from underrepresented groups who applied to UC Berkeley after Prop 209 were 31% less likely to get accepted.

“Despite it being advertised as a civil rights initiative, I think what made it [209] so evil was that it did exactly the opposite,” said Kyndall Dowell, an incoming UC Berkeley junior and a leader at Racial Justice Now, a group that has fought to overturn 209. “Through this colorblind policy, it was a terrible reversal effect, and for over 24 years all of our communities have suffered, not just Black people but all people of color across California.”


Dowell was one of a handful of UC Berkeley students who helped to move the repeal of 209 to the top of the state legislature’s agenda. They managed to do this in part because another student, Maureen Simmons, served as an intern for Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego in the summer of 2019, and was able to convince Weber to hold an Assembly committee meeting on campus climate at UC Berkeley in November. Prop. 209 was discussed, and the conversation eventually led Weber to sponsor a constitutional amendment to try and repeal it.

The Cal students went into action after Weber sponsored the amendment. They traveled to Sacramento to lobby policymakers and explained to them what the repeal of 209 could do.

The repeal initiative was “introduced primarily because of the tireless efforts of Black students on campus,” according to Varsha Sarveshwar, the former external affairs vice president of the ASUC, who was in charge of organizing the logistics for the campus climate hearing.

A two-thirds vote by both the Assembly and the Senate was needed to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot. The Assembly passed the measure on June 10 and the Senate passed it on June 23. The repeal will show up on the Nov. 3  ballot as Proposition 16.

“The request for this interestingly came from the students at Berkeley,” Weber said to her Assembly colleagues on June 17.  “When I went to do my campus climate experience they said, ‘We want to repeal Prop 209. We need to have a diverse student population. We want to have a different kind of faculty. We want to have different kinds of activities. We need support services.”

Berkeleyside talked to some of the students and leaders involved in the effort. Here are their stories.

Maureen Simmons: “It became personal”

Maureen Simmons worked as an executive human resources manager in Chicago for two decades before she decided to get her bachelor’s degree. Shaken by the 2014 death of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old Black teen who was shot by a white police officer, Simmons joined protests that culminated in shutting down Chicago streets on a day known as Black Friday.

“I never protested before at all and being there with leaders like Reverend Jesse Jackson, who led the Civil Rights Movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, being there with those types of leaders, who I only read about, it became personal” Simmons said. “So I decided I wanted to become a legislative attorney.”

Student panelists who spoke at the Assembly campus climate conference at UC Berkeley in November. Assembly member Shirley Weber is in the patterned coat. Maureen Simmons is fourth from left. Photo: Maureen Simmons

After moving to California to attend community college, Simmons transferred to UC Berkeley in 2018 as an undergraduate student in political science. Simmons, a first-generation college student, said she was looking forward to the campus experience her parents never had.

“I didn’t realize when I went on campus what the climate for Black students was like. It was so very disheartening. I often felt like I didn’t belong. Sitting in classrooms where I was one of maybe two or three Black students, always feeling that I had to speak for the entire Black race. It was just a really eye-opening experience right away, like my first semester.”

Simmons soon found that many of her Black peers felt over-policed or profiled by the UC Police Department. As a student government leader, she started to work for police reform. In February, Simmons headed a team negotiating with the UC Berkeley administration to move UCPD vehicles away from Sproul Hall, near the south entrance of campus on Bancroft Avenue. The cars made Black students uncomfortable, promoting an “us versus them” feeling, Simmons told the Daily Cal.

The meetings Simmons helped arrange led to a loose commitment to make the public face of the police department more welcoming. On June 18, following national unrest in response to instances of racist police brutality, Christ announced plans to relocate UCPD all together from Sproul Hall.

“Because I moved from Chicago back to California, I wasn’t as well versed on 209 until I heard about it over and over and over from the chancellor and other student leaders,” said Simmons. “I said why are we all talking about 209, what can we do about 209? We were all talking about it. Let’s just tackle it and figure out what to do. I didn’t know it would be a ballot measure until I researched it.”

Kyndall Dowell: “Black students don’t get to be students”

When Kyndall Dowell first arrived at UC Berkeley, she expected to be immersed in a bastion of social justice. She soon found out that, as a Black student, her experience would be drastically different than that of her non-Black counterparts.

“Black students don’t get to be students and it breaks my heart to say something like that,” Dowell said. “When I got to Cal, I really had to work. A lot of my time as a student has been advocating for resources. Black students struggle so much with getting in and maneuvering space on campus.”

Kyndall Dowell at the the Oakland Black Women’s Pride march in 2019. She spoke there about her work on repealing Proposition 209. Photo: Sabrina Sellers

Dowell was one of the first recipients of the African American Initiative Scholarship, an outcome of 10 demands made by the Black Student Union in 2015 to address low rates of representation and institutional support. The scholarship is managed by the San Francisco Foundation in order to work around the limits of 209.

Dowell credited Assembly Constitution Amendment 5 — before it was assigned the title Proposition 16 — as the result of cumulative efforts from the Black community on campus, especially her predecessors. Her scholarship, for example, is “passing on the baton.”

When a 2018 study found that UC Berkeley ranked lowest out of all UC campuses for the inclusion of Black students, activists called for meetings with campus administrators to address the causes. The USC study’s findings showed that UC Berkeley had one of the lowest rates of Black student representation out of any college in the state and had significant discrepancies in graduation rates between Black students and their counterparts. Dowell says that Black students who asked administrators to address the discrepancies were returned with the familiar response of Proposition 209, which stops resources from being targeted toward specific identity categories.

By the summer of 2019, a group of Black students on campus decided to turn discussions of repeal into action. Dowell, who is double majoring in African American Studies and Legal Studies, saw the opportunity to put the issue before the UC Student Association at a conference held in Pasadena. During a breakout session for a campaign she led called Racial Justice Now, students from across UC campuses — including Simmons — decided to make repealing Prop 209 a priority. The UCSA board backed the repeal effort, giving it additional momentum.

Then Simmons started her internship with Assemblymember Weber, a former professor of African American Studies at UCLA known for championing civil rights legislation.  Simmons helped convince Weber to choose Berkeley for that next hearing location, held in November. The committee discussed challenges with increases in hate crime, the anemic acceptance rate for Black students and police relations, according to the Daily Cal. During a student panel that included other students from the Black and Muslim community, Prop 209 once again came to the forefront.

Even before an initiative was publicly announced, Black students from across the UC system headed to the capitol building on a Monday in mid-February to rally support for repealing 209. Black Lobby day, organized by Dowell, had students rushing to give practiced elevator pitches and memorized stats for Bay Area assembly member staffers. It served as a good initial temperature check, Dowell says, before the repeal initiative was announced less than a month later.

“Getting Weber to carry it was difficult. Not because she was against it but because it is very controversial,” said Dowell. “Prop 209 is one of those conversations that can be very misinformed, and it can be very racially charged or loaded, because it’s about who has access to schools, to the UC.”

Eva Paterson: A leader in the fight against Proposition 209

At every step of how student advocacy turned into Prop 16, those working on the campaign cite previous classes for laying the groundwork. Nowhere is that lineage more apparent than Eva Paterson’s guidance with the campaign.

Paterson was accepted into the UC Berkeley School of Law in 1972 alongside 29 other Black students. As Paterson went on to build a career defending civil rights, the passage of 209 had Paterson witness the erosion of programs like those that helped her gain entry into the law school. The year following 209’s passage, the incoming law school class had one Black student, Eric Brooks, who was actually admitted before the vote and had deferred.

Paterson had been protesting since the beginning against efforts to bar affirmative action in public institutions. During the 1995 Regents meeting to pass an earlier ban of affirmative action, Paterson shared comments with then-governor Pete Wilson who pushed for the policy.

“I don’t mean to be petty, but a lot of good people had to take the bar. Governor Wilson had to take it five times,” Paterson said. “I only had to take it once. I made sure to send that message across.”

Paterson was a leading spokeswoman against the 1996 campaign for Proposition 209 and has been unrelentingly critical of its deleterious effects since then.

Simmons connected with Paterson as students began preparing for the repeal pitch after coming across lawsuits Paterson co-authored defending affirmative action. Backed with 2016 polling data suggesting a newfound willingness to repeal 209 among voters, Paterson started helping to build the political coalition to push the initiative through the legislature.

On March 10, backed with the support of the NAACP and other major groups, Weber publicly announced ACA5 — which would later turn into Prop 16. Many of the same students who attended the campus climate hearing stood with Weber at the capitol during the announcement. The outlook for the initiative’s approval in the state legislature — where it would have to be approved in order to make it to the ballot — began to look even more optimistic as the Urban League and Women’s Business Coalition backed the initiative.

Then, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, bursting open national seams and revealing deep-set structural racism.

“I was so grateful I didn’t have to convince you racism is real because George Floyd did that,” Weber said to fellow assembly members, asking them to approve the initiative and pass it through its first hurdle. “We have to admit it is real, and it is there and it is present and it impacts the lives of everyone in this country.”

The 209 repeal was soon approved by the assembly on June 11. On June 15, the UC Board of Regents unanimously voted in support of repeal as well, with some Regents giving emotional, and at times deeply personal anecdotes about the need to address past decisions the body made in favor of rolling back race-conscious admissions.

Simmons said the resounding, unanimous vote called in at a special meeting was a complete surprise. She even filmed her reaction as the vote came in

“It was students that said, ‘you know, we need to repeal this law,’ and it was students who fought against it initially and it was the Regents that actually supported it initially,” Simmons said. “So for them to come back 24 years later and support the repeal, I’m still dreaming about that”

On Wednesday, June 24, the initiative passed through the state senate, guaranteeing Prop 16 a spot on the November ballot where it will need a simple majority of approval by California voters to repeal Proposition 209. According to Simmons, the campaign trail will easily require upwards of $10 million in order to have messaging that reached out.

Dowell hoped that the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted following the death of Floyd have laid bare the systemic racism that she says Black students had been facing as a fact of daily life, holding on to optimism that such a cultural shift could carry to the ballot in November.

“Even though they had to watch a video of George Floyd dying on the street to really understand that, that’s terrible. But they finally understand that, you know what, something’s going on,” Simmons said “And for me, I’m, I’m here going, it’s been going on. So in terms of barriers, I think that as tragic as it is, it will help us. November’s not that far down the road, people will not have forgotten.”