All posts by Lakshmi Sarah

Bill Maher: UC Berkeley Invites Yet Another White Man as Graduation Keynote

This article originally appeared in The Berkeley Graduate.

Despite protests from students, talk show host Bill Maher is slated to speak at UC Berkeley’s December graduation.

A student group involved in inviting Maher rescinded the invitation, however, on Wednesday, the administration announced they “cannot and will not accept this decision.”

The choice of author and host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, should serve as no surprise. In this century, the University has featured a man speaking at the December graduation 80% of the time and only twice did a person of color deliver the keynote address: entrepreneur Christopher Gardner in 2009, and Olympic gold medalist Johnny Moseley in 2002. Students almost had non-white men on two other occasions. Both Danny Glover, who was slated to speak in 2006, and California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez in 2007 refused to cross union picket lines to serve as December graduation speakers.

In a Medium post, author Nisa Dang outlines ten reasons students are against Bill Maher as December graduation speaker.

In an Op-Ed in the Daily Cal, Marium Navid writes that Maher “routinely makes incendiary, Islamophobic statements mischaracterizing Muslims and Islam.” She believes that “such preachers of hate should not be given the privilege of speaking at our commencement.”

Sara ElShafie, a doctoral student in Integrative Biology suggests the administration should ensure that students have a fair say in the selection process for speakers, and the administration should also invite more speakers who represent minority groups. According to a 2012 UC Berkeley census, the majority of the student body did not identify as white. ElShafie believes speakers should “reflect our campus demographics.”

Tamila Gresham, a third-year Berkeley Law student involved in choosing a speaker for the law school’s commencement explained, “you have to be intentional about it. You have to go about it with diversity in mind.” Gresham also noted the importance of diversity among the people selecting the speaker.

“Bill Maher can say whatever he likes, and I support his right to say those things, but that doesn’t mean we have to give him a podium at our celebration,” Gresham opined. The School of Law invited Preet Bharara, rumored to be on president Obama’s shortlist for replacing the outgoing attorney general.

The protest against Maher follows a long tradition of protests on campus, notably falling on the 50th Anniversary of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. It also carries a dose of irony, as some in favor of Maher accuse protesters of an attempt to limit free speech.

In retrospect, the absence of protest over certain past speakers seems to be curious. Eric Schmidt (2012) stepped down from his position as Google CEO after an allegedly racist argument. Political theorist Benjamin Barber (2005) published criticisms of feminism with arguments that it denigrates motherhood and marriage. Leon Panetta (2003) is a former Secretary of Defense, CIA director, and oversaw Bin Ladin’s assassination.

Over the weekend, Bill Maher responded to protesters saying: “My reputation isn’t on the line, yours is.” Indeed, when a university selects a graduation speaker, the reputation of both school and students is at stake.

For Gresham, commencement is about the graduates, using the analogy of a birthday party she comments, “I’m not obligated to invite someone to my birthday party if they have offended me in the past.”

Forum Gives Graduate Students of Color a Place to Collaborate and Discuss

This article originally appeared in The Berkeley Graduate.

Over 30 students from a variety of departments attended the dinner and dialogue for graduate students of color tonight.

Ethnic Studies PhD student Melanie Z. Plasencia organized the Graduate Assembly event, which featured introductions from administrators working to recruit and retain students of color, as well as comments and concerns from graduate students.

Alberto Ledesma, Diversity Director for Arts and Humanities in the College of Letters and Sciences, explains, “My task is to expand the narrative.” Ledesma earned a doctorate in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley in 1996.


Students from underrepresented backgrounds make up about 12 percent of the graduate student body. Students attending came from a range of departments, including public policy, sociology, ethnic studies, education, mechanical engineering, business, and the energy and resource group. Some graduate programs, such as the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, have established diversity councils, while other departments are still figuring out how best to organize.

Issues under discussion ranged from fostering community to dealing with ingrained tradition in departments that are not open to new forms of research theory and practice. One graduate brought up the commonalities between students of color and queers of color, while another noted the importance of a recent resolution the graduate assembly passed, placing diversity as a major advocacy plan for the next year. Some of the challenges facing grad students of color include certain labs’ hiring (or not) practices, and a lack of faculty of color. Students raised questions about how to conduct postcolonial research within the institution and how to address biases and micro-aggressions. Brief notes on the topics and questions marked a dry-erase board.


In response to hiring more faculty members of color, Ledesma remarked, “I think it is going to take sustained public dialogue.” Colette Patt, the Diversity Director in the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences in Education reminded those in attendance that, “collectively, students have enormous power.” Patt holds a doctorate in social and cultural studies from UC Berkeley (Class of 1995).

Administrators reminded students of the history of “diversity” and “diversity inclusion” in relation to Proposition 209. The 1996 passage of Proposition 209 banned considering race, sex, or ethnicity in public education admissions decisions. After Proposition 209, the number of underrepresented minorities at UC Berkeley decreased significantly. “We’re just now recovering some of the perspectives and impact from 209,” Ledesma explained, “we had an exodus of progressives from this campus. We’re still coming back to a critical dialogue.”

Though students of color face numerous issues, the dialogue ended on a positive note, “Let’s embrace what we have and be excited about, being students of color,” Krista Cortes reflected. Cortes is a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education.

Plasencia sees a growing need for events such as tonights, in which graduate students of color are able express their concerns and create community. The GA is planning further events for November.

Measure D, Berkeley’s Soda Tax: What’s the Deal?

This article originally appeared in The Berkeley Graduate.

A measure taxing soda and sugary beverages is on Berkeley’s November 4 election ballot. A citywide tax, known as “Measure D,” could add a 1 penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and earn the City of Berkeley an estimated $1 million to $3 million a year.

Berkeley's "Measure D" would add a one-cent tax for every ounce of soda.

Measure D would include soft drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened teas while exempting diet drinks, milk products, 100 percent juices, baby formula, and alcohol. The tax would impact distributors, rather than consumers as does sales tax.

Advocates believe the tax, by discouraging the consumption of sugary beverages, will help protect children’s health, specifically against diabetes, tooth decay, and heart disease. The NAACP, Berkeley Federation of Teachers, City Council, School Board, food writer and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollen, as well as Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters all endorse the measure.

Those against the measure warn that it is written so the tax revenue goes into the general fund rather than toward health and wellness programs. Opponents believe Measure D has too many loopholes and could hurt small businesses. Some shops will pay the tax, while shops who purchase their beverages outside of Berkeley, will not. Others wonder about the impact on behavior, since people’s consumption habits may be more difficult to change. Arguments against a soda tax range from “anti-paternalistic,” to ideological, advocating consumer choice and a fear of new taxes.

Berkeley mayor Tom Bates anticipates the 1-cent soda tax “will definitely be a turning point” in reducing obesity.

Last week, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $83,000 in support of Berkeley’s soda tax. Bloomberg’s own attempt for a tax on sugary beverages was deemed “arbitrary and capricious,” by a New York judge before it was able to go into effect. The “Yes on D” campaign has also received $15,000 from The Center for Science in the Public Interest and $23,000 from the American Heart Association. While soda tax proponents have raised $257,000, opponents have spent close to $1.7 million combatting the measure.

San Francisco is considering a similar soda tax, Measure E. Political consultant Maureen Erwin running the “Yes on E” campaign, sees big soda as the new “big tobacco.” If the tax passes, it will be the “first loss for the beverage industry, which has emerged undefeated in more than 30 similar fights in states and cities, from Maine to El Monte, California in recent years,” remarks Helena Evich for Politico.

Sales of sugary beverages have been declining over the past decade, according to the New York Times. Marion Nestle, a nutrition scholar (and visiting professor at UC Berkeley, Spring 2015), observes how soda companies “are totally dug in, fighting soda tax initiatives in places like Berkeley and San Francisco.” Stakes are high, since it could be a case of, “as California goes, so goes the nation.”

Why has Mission Peak Become the Thing to Do?

This article originally appeared in Bay Nature.

Apparently, no journey to the 2,000 foot summit is complete without a selfie.

by Lakshmi Sarah on October 16, 2014

As the path continued, a few wild turkeys flapped in the distance as another hiker stopped to take a photo. Trekking higher, after switchbacks and a rocky climb, the view from the top of the peak was worth the two-hour uphill journey.

Apparently other people suddenly think so, too. No one can say exactly why, but hiking to the top of Mission Peak, where a pole anchors the top, has become a thingthese days. And no journey that exhausting (or exhilarating) can apparently be complete in this day and age without sharing the moment on social media.

Mark Ragatz, the interim chief of park operations at the East Bay Regional Park District, believes the numbers have been building for the last three to four years, but really “took off” last year. In December, the park service installed a device to count the number of people, and summed up an average of 22,700 visitors a month, or about 750 a day from December to August 2014. On some days, hikers wait up to 30 minutes to get a picture on the pole.

“You would expect numbers to drop off in the winter,” Ragatz said, but this was not the case for Mission Peak.

Happy hikers celebrate at the top with a photo. Photo: Mallory Pickett.

Normally, park personnel are happy to see people getting out and using their trails. After all, that’s one of the ways the conservation community makes its case for park funding and expansion. And although this cliché has been trotted out repeatedly in the Mission Peak debate, it is true that there can be “too much of a good thing.”

Noise complaints from local residents, illegal parking on neighborhood streets and a desire from the park service to preserve and maintain the area, has led the EBRPD to decrease hours at the park’s Stanford Avenue entrance (one of two main entry points to the park) from 6:30 am to 7:30 pm until the end of October. Curfew hours have been in effect since July, and the park district means to enforce them. In the second half of July, 327 citations were given to those descending the peak after 10pm, and another 200 warnings for people arriving at the park after 10pm.

Young and old hikers ascend to the peak. Photo: Mallory Pickett

Local media may blame the “Selfie Generation” for the Peak’s rise in popularity, but more than photography brings people to Mission Peak. Paragliding, training for more strenuous journeys, family outings and a view from the top are just a few of the reasons Bay Area residents frequent the park. Still, Ragatz believes social media has driven some change in the demographics, with a trend toward a younger population. There are more than 88,155 tags using the hashtag “Mission Peak” on Instagram.

“[An] awful lot of people are tweeting and using Instagram,” Ragatz said. He describes the photos as “Hey, I’m on top of the world” kind of pictures.

Brian Johnson, who came from San Jose to hike for his fourth time, said he found out about the park through videos and social media, but he didn’t come for the sole purpose of picture taking. “It’s in a convenient location” and it’s “a challenging workout,” he said. Hiking with him was Bianca Brown of Fairfax.

“I just think hiking, in particular, has become more popular,” she said.

The park’s location has attracted people from several cities in the Bay Area, with users coming from Mountain View and San Jose to Oakland and Pleasanton. Increased popularity has meant that the 47 parking spots near the Stanford Avenue entrance sometimes fill up before 6 am as hikers park in the neighborhood. The local residents, Ragatz said, “can’t have a birthday party or relatives come and stay because there’s never any place to park.”

“Ten years ago the cars were just in the parking lot. Now the whole neighborhood is full of cars,” said Stella Wu, who has lived close to the park for the last five years.

Parking is not the only problem; unprepared hikers without enough water or adequate shoes have also been a burden on local emergency services.

With no water fountains at the top of the peak, rangers recommend bringing enough water to avoid heat exhaustion. Photo: Mallory Pickett

For some, Mission Peak has something other places do not. Greg Grothaus lives in San Jose and works in Mountain View, but began going to Mission Peak on a regular basis in January to train for Mount Rainer. It came down to “either a nice park or a stair master,” Grothaus said. He said Mission Peak is particularly appealing to him because of the steep grade, and the parks closer to his house all close at sunset. For him, “the new hours make it relatively impossible” to hike from the Stanford Avenue entrance, a sign that the park district’s new regulations may, indeed, be effective in curtailing the stampede.

After we climbed roughly 2,000 feet in less than 3 miles, we reached the summit. Looking below towards San Jose, hikers can see all the way to San Francisco. The Dumbarton Bridge looks like a small toy and the South Bay salt ponds glimmer in multiple hues nearby. There is a sense of physical accomplishment at the Peak, and a “spiritual feeling up there,” Francis Mendoza said. Mendoza is a naturalist with the EBRPD whose territory includes Mission Peak. Prior to working with the park district, Mendoza was teaching high school science, but he “just couldn’t stay indoors,” he said. Now he leads district-sponsored group hikes here at Mission Peak and at other nearby parks.

With the goal of lessening the impact on the natural environment and the neighboring community, the park district is considering additional options as well. One possibility is to create a 300-car parking lot within the park. Other options are a per-person hiker fee, or a permit program similar to Yosemite’s Half Dome.

In the meantime, hours will further decrease in the winter, from November 1 until February 1, the Stanford Avenue entrance will be open from 6:30am until 6pm. Hours will increase again in the summer, but the second entrance (at Ohlone College) will remain open from 6am to 10pm.

“This is the first step to trying to solve a problem,” Ragatz said. In the meantime, hiking will continue and so will social media. Though I did not take a “selfie” at the summit, I did post a view from the top on Instagram.

On some days hikers wait up to 30 minutes to take a picture balancing on the pole. Photo: Mallory Pickett

Debunking the Model Minority Myth with Humor: The Rise of the South Asian Comedian

This article originally appeared in Aerogram.

One of Hari Kondabolu’s jokes begins with his observations while sitting on a bus in New York City. He describes a woman who is teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. She says, “Asians are so well-behaved.” Kondabolu jokingly comments, “I don’t know if you know this lady, but Asians aren’t puppies.” He says that her remark is coded model minority bull-shit. “I was going to say something, but I didn’t have to, because the very next stop on the bus, Genghis Khan got on the bus, took out his sword and chopped her head off.” He ends the joke by saying this proves “not all Asians are well-behaved.”

Humor and comedy are malleable. The timing and build-up of a joke are important. The joke itself cannot be “too soon” nor the punch line be too late. Subject matter is, of course, important as well as who is in the audience and who is telling the joke. There is nothing inherently funny about a brown comedian, but there seems to be an increasing number of South Asians choosing this path. Funny? Perhaps. Demolishing stereotypes? Definitely. Speaking to six comedians: two in Los Angeles, two in the Bay Area and two in New York, the mission is clear. It’s about the laughter.

South Asians are supposed to be doctors or lawyers. In lieu of doctors or lawyers, a good job working in computer science is acceptable. If not, a well-paying management job is will do. The stereotypical “American Dream” for South Asians includes children equipped with an above average education. As the model minority, 64 percent of Indian-Americans had a Bachelor’s degree or higher according to the US Census of 2004. In addition, 60 percent of Indian-Americans had management or professional jobs, compared with a national average of 33 percent.

Against the backdrop of the model minority stereotype, some South Asian comedians have already pleased their parents with a “good job” or “good school.” All of the comedians I spoke to for this article agreed that the number of South Asian comedians is growing, though there was no consensus as to why.

South Asian comics as a whole do not have much in common, aside from a few common comedy tropes. Many discuss the everyday, the mundane and the experience of being brown in America. Russell Peters and Aziz Ansari may have paved the way for South Asian comedians, but we now seem to be entering an era in which there are more than a token two. Why is there a growing number of South Asians in comedy circles? How do they talk about their identity?

I interviewed comedians with backgrounds in engineering, finance, computer software, and human rights. What do they think about the increasing presence of South Asians in comedy?Rajiv Satyal who is a standup comedian from Cincinnati, Ohio (now based in Los Angeles), and has toured with the likes of Dave Chappelle and Russell Peters, says it is “the natural progression of things.” He notes that, “Initially we saw immigrants going in less risk averse professions such as medicine or engineering.” Now that the children of the doctors and lawyers are growing up, it is only natural that they begin to explore other careeres. Satyal also had a unique view of his South Asian cohorts saying, “South Asian American comedians are some of the strongest ones. I think it is because we are a product of the two most important democracies. Free speech is a really big thing.”

The concept of comedy as interwoven into free speech is also echoed by Samson Koletkar, a first generation immigrant in American who was born in Mumbai and raised Jewish (he is the only Jewish-Indian comedian, as far as we know). Koletkar does not shy away from talking about serious issues or religion, “Even when I am making fun of my religion or your religion I am not mocking you and telling you you’re stupid.” Instead, he uses logic. Koletkar, sees that it is increasingly acceptable for South Asians to explore professions other than doctors and engineers. In addition to performing at clubs, colleges and corporations in the US and India, Koletkar’s comedy has been featured on NBC Bay Area, CBS and NPR.

Brooklyn-based Hari Kondabolu says, “The mainstream has accepted more South Asians because there is a generation of Americans who grew up with South Asians.” Kondabolu’s debut comedy album called Waiting for 2042 came out March 11, 2014. “There is a generation that has gone to school with us,” he says.

Despite what feels like a rise in South Asian performers, San Francisco based comedian and storyteller Dhaya Lakshminarayan still sees audiences with few South Asians, “There can always be more,” she say. She believes it is important to increase the demand for supporting the arts. “Go watch live comedy, go watch live theatre.” Lakshminarayan was named Best Comedian 2013 in the SF Bay Guardian’s Best of the Bay Readers Poll.

Like all comedians, South Asian comedians must decide whether or not to make jokes about their own race and culture. For the first two years of his comedy, Rajiv Satyal avoided making jokes about being Indian. “You do more to break down stereotypes by not addressing it [race],” Satyal says. While some comedians try to tailor their show to the audience, Satyal says, “My act is pretty much my act… for Indian audiences it’s going to be more ‘you guys know what I am talking about,’” otherwise, he describes it as more explanatory.

Nimesh Patel, from New York, made a similar choice when he first started in comedy, he avoided discussing his identity. These days he sees race as a “rich field of material.” He talks about it because “it’s something that effects my life.” Patel described being at lunch with a friend, and noticing that he and his friend were the only non-white people at the restaurant. He added that comedians talk about race because it is “so obvious, and so hidden at the same time.”

South Asians are seen as “The whitest minority,” Patel says. As more names such as Aziz and Mindy come into play, Patel says that people forget they are Indian, “which is really cool and weird at the same time.” When I probed further into what he meant by this, he said, “You don’t think of Aziz as that funny Indian.” He is funny, regardless of race.

For others, identity is just part of the show. Rajan Dharni, a Los Angeles-based comedian sees stand up as a very personal thing, “I like to share who I am.” While he may discuss his identity, it is usually not the focus of the joke, “I don’t see anything funny about being Indian.”

Kondabolu observes that mostly white audiences are uncomfortable with race. “People say the best comedy is funny because it is true. Truth is not a singular thing,” he says.

For Lakshminarayan, growing up in the South meant she was seen as Black. “Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of self identifying,” she says, “Brown is what people see.” Lakshminarayan tries to elucidate what it is like to be her, in all of the various identities, as a San Franciscan, a brown person and a small person.

“On stage you just have one rule — you just have to be funny.” She adds, “Your goal is to be yourself.”

Berkeley Supports Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Protesters from Afar

This article originally appeared in The Berkeley Graduate.

50 years ago, Jack Weinberg’s arrest helped set off UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. Last week, commemorating the FSM, Weinberg spoke in support of protesters in Hong Kong.

Jack Weinberg speaks to UC Berkeley students on the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement

“This wasn’t what I was planning to say today, but I think it was what had to be said today,” Weinberg declared, “the whole world is watching.” Weinberg was the graduate student who refused to show campus police his identification 50 years ago. Students encircled the police car on Sproul Plaza where police placed Weinberg’s after his arrest. The students deflated the tires so the car was unable to move, instead serving as a podium for public discussion.

Speaking to students and FSM veterans gathered again in Sproul Plaza, Weinberg highlighted that university and high school students are leading the way in Hong Kong. “Our movement in Berkeley inspired activists around the world,” he remarked. “The Hong Kong students taking part are setting an example for the whole world to follow.”

Thousands of pro-democracy protestors have been occupying Hong Kong’s financial district since September 28. Equipped with umbrellas, the protestors have “turned central Hong Kong into a colorful sea of umbrellas,” according to Global Voices author Oiwan Lam.

The “Umbrella Movement” takes advantage of Hong Kong residents’ constant preparation for weather changes. In addition, the umbrellas have helped protesters fend off tear gas and pepper spray.

Local police are attempting to suppress the movement by force. As of this weekend, Amnesty International, Hong Kong Twitter that, “blue ribbon anti-protest groups have attempted to provoke peaceful demonstrator.”

Police clashes may continue. An opinion piece in China’s People’s Daily confirmed mainland China’s support for Hong Kong’s law enforcement, “to restore social order in Hong Kong as soon as possible.”

Occupy Central with Love and Peace is organizing the movement. Over the summer, the group gathered citizen opinions and had 800,000 signatures on a referendum that would allow all citizens to choose candidates for Hong Kong’s upcoming election. China previously announced they would only allow Hong Kong to vote, on the condition that a pro-Beijing committee choose the candidates. On July 1, organizers held a peaceful sit-in, commemorating the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. In late September, students boycotted classes leading up to China’s National Day (October 1). “Pro-democracy protesters believe their future is at stake, and so does the Chinese government,” reports Oiwan from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, courtesy of Pasu Au Yeung

“I am glad to see people in Hong Kong finally stand up for themselves,” remarked Jeremy C.F. Lin in an interview. Lin is a UC Berkeley at the School of Journalism graduate student. An international student from Taiwan, Lin believes, “Taiwan and Hong Kong share a lot of similarities. They both are economically strong, democratic, civil and both have been suffering from China’s insatiable thirst for international political clout.”

Lin is happy to see demonstrators in Hong Kong cooperating with student leaders of the “Sunflower Movement” in Taiwan, “we are ultimately fighting against Beijing for the same reason — our identity,” Lin explained. His friends in Hong Kong have passionately supported the protest, which Lin sees as directly linked to identity, “why would people in Hong Kong ever want to embrace China when they don’t share the same identity?” Lin feels the Chinese government is “unable to keep its promises and is run by a tiny minority of oligarchs who pay little attention to what the people really want.”

Lin would like to see UC Berkeley students becoming more involved, and believes students can actively support Hong Kong by using social media to raise awareness.

At Berkeley on October 1, Weinberg applauded the yellow ribbons and banner representing the movement. As Weinberg stated, “just when things seem impossible, the opportunity arises.”

Note: This author recognizes the absence of a voice from a UC Berkeley student from Hong Kong in this article and welcomes comments and opinions from students from Hong Kong.