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Student Commencement Speaker: We Are ‘Capable of Anything’

We are part of a university that led the Free Speech Movement, a university that didn’t back down from a fight for justice, a university that, regardless of what the world said, marched forward for equality and justice. Those students before us did things that the world told them was impossible. That is who we are and what we represent.

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“We are part of a university that led the Free Speech Movement, a university that didn’t back down from a fight for justice, a university that, regardless of what the world said, marched forward for equality and justice,” student speaker Sahar Formoli told her fellow graduates. (UC Berkeley video)
“We are part of a university that led the Free Speech Movement, a university that didn’t back down from a fight for justice, a university that, regardless of what the world said, marched forward for equality and justice,” student speaker Sahar Formoli told her fellow graduates. (UC Berkeley video)

By Public Affairs

UC Berkeley graduate Sahar Formoli gave the student address at the 2021 winter commencement. Her prepared marks are below.

Hello and welcome friends, family, staff, faculty, alumni and the illustrious class of 2021. I am incredibly grateful to stand here with the rest of my class after the journey we have been through together — and what a journey it was. When I applied to universities, I thought of how difficult it would be to go to a new place with harder courses. But I looked to my parents, who came to this country with few prospects and little money and now own a business in Sacramento just a few doors down from the governor’s office. With their support, I mustered up the courage to apply to the best public university in the world, UC Berkeley.

When I got my acceptance letter, I didn’t immediately open it. I was ready for rejection. But after a few days, I thought I might as well delete one more email from my inbox — and there it was. Do you remember the virtual confetti falling across the screen — changing the trajectory of our lives? I never read the entire acceptance letter, only the part that said “Welcome.” And that is what I have felt throughout my entire time here — welcomed.

While the campus, faculty and my peers are the most kind and accepting people, that didn’t stop me from feeling like an imposter. I couldn’t accept the fact that I was wanted, that I deserved to be here. Sitting in classes next to those who seemed to know more than I ever did or could — and who were so far ahead of me — made it hard to feel like I belonged here. It wasn’t until I took a genetics course from a professor who was also from Sacramento that something changed. During office hours, she asked me what my goals were, and I said, “to graduate.” She waited for a moment, as if reading my existence, and said, “You know you are capable of anything.” I didn’t want to cry during office hours, but I pondered that for days. I can do… anything. She went on to give me the best advice I had ever received: “The only limitations that exist are the ones you allow to.” At that moment I remembered my parents, and how they did not allow their lack of language, limited understanding of U.S. culture and other perceived limitations to stop them from thriving.

At that moment I became acutely aware that I am here because I belong here. I wasn’t given this opportunity, I earned it — just as we all did.

With my newfound sense of belonging and encouragement from my advisor, I joined a film club of students who are just as obsessed with films as I am. One of my favorite films we watched was Lady Bird, about a girl from Sacramento, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, another girl from Sacramento. I related so much to the characters, emotions, and small references — and to the story about a girl who thought she would never go to the cultured colleges she longed for because of where she came from. She literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks that split Sacramento nearly in two, a symbol of the separation of wealth and privilege — a place where many people find their limitations lie.

But in the film, Lady Bird’s mother never let these tracks hold power over her.

This reminded me of my mother. Like Lady Bird, I had accepted rejection before it came to me, and my mother was my cheerleader who sent me to a school to find role models and mentors. Little did she know that she was the one I looked up to most, a woman who didn’t let limitations stand in her way and who never made me feel that there was something I couldn’t do.

At the end of the film, as Lady Bird is walking away from the screen, she asks her mother, “Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing.” She saw that those obstacles were in her head and that life’s twists and turns made her who she is. We are an incredibly diverse class of students from every background. Our life experiences made us who we are and have proven time and time again that we can do anything.

We are part of a university that led the Free Speech Movement, a university that didn’t back down from a fight for justice, a university that, regardless of what the world said, marched forward for equality and justice. Those students before us did things that the world told them was impossible. That is who we are and what we represent.

Knowing the history of the people before me, both of those close to me and the historical figures that fought to create the school that I am in now against the odds, I went on to be a part of faculty research projects, I pursued a second major, I did multiple internships all because I recognized I — like Lady Bird, like my mother, like the students before me, and my peers that I stand side by side with today — am capable of anything.

Every one of us is capable of anything. We powered through the pandemic and persevered when it felt like the world was going to end. And now we stand beside our friends, family, and the faculty who helped us along the way. Like Lady Bird, coming out of our hometowns to follow our dreams in spite of the bumps in the road. To the class of 2021, you made it here. Now go on and show the world what Berkeley students are made of.

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Activism

Congresswoman Barbara Lee Releases Statement on the Passing of Ying Lee

“Ying will always hold a special place in my heart, our community and the planet. Her life will be remembered as one of love, passion, compassion, dedication, and brilliance. Her legacy will provide us guidance in rising to the occasion as we continue her fight for peace and justice. I loved Ying and will miss her tremendously. May she rest in peace and in power,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA).

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“I am heartbroken over the loss of a great warrior woman, a good friend and former colleague, Ying Lee Kelley,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA).
“I am heartbroken over the loss of a great warrior woman, a good friend and former colleague, Ying Lee Kelley,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA).

Oakland, CA – Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13) released the following statement mourning the loss of her friend and former Legislative Director, Ying Lee.

“My condolences and love go to Sarah, Max, and Ying’s entire family upon learning of her passing. I am heartbroken over the loss of a great warrior woman, a good friend and former colleague, Ying Lee Kelley. I have known Ying since the early 1970’s and have experienced first-hand her brilliance, her honesty, her beauty and her commitment to global peace and security.

“Like many, she taught me many lessons and was a confidant and advisor. One of my most memorable moments with Ying was our visit to Japan to engage with the Japanese people on issues of war and peace following the horrific attacks on Sept. 11. She was greeted as an icon and legend. Her greatness was recognized by everyone.

“I spoke with Ying a couple of weeks ago and she was optimistic. She recognized the many challenges before us, yet — as usual — she provided words of encouragement and wisdom.

“Ying will always hold a special place in my heart, our community and the planet. Her life will be remembered as one of love, passion, compassion, dedication, and brilliance. Her legacy will provide us guidance in rising to the occasion as we continue her fight for peace and justice. I loved Ying and will miss her tremendously. May she rest in peace and in power.”

Congresswoman Lee is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and Chair of the Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. She serves as Co-Chair of the Steering & Policy Committee, former Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Chair Emeritus of the Progressive Caucus, Co-Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Health Task Force, and Co-Chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus. She also serves as Chair of the Majority Leader’s Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity. As a member of the House Democratic Leadership, she is the highest-ranking Black woman in the U.S. Congress.

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Bay Area

COMMENTARY: A Historical Look Back – – Sounds of the Bay Area – Secular and the Sacred

When Southern migrants came to California during the World War II era, they transported their music with them. Music served as a reminder of home; it was like medicine for the soul. The sounds of gospel music found a popular place in the Bay Area.

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Based on traditional choir and quartet singing in southern churches, a cappella gospel music enjoyed an upsurge in popularity as southern black migrants formed new singing groups that toured local communities.
Based on traditional choir and quartet singing in southern churches, a cappella gospel music enjoyed an upsurge in popularity as southern black migrants formed new singing groups that toured local communities.

By Rev. Dr. Martha C. Taylor

The late T-Bone Walker, blues singer, said, “The first time I ever heard a boogie-woogie piano was when I went to church, even the sermon was preached in a blues tone while the congregation yelled amen.” Charlie Yardbird Parker, famous jazz saxophonist frequented the Bay Area during the 40s. Parker once replied to a question about his religious affiliation that he was a devout musician. Even T-Bone Walker’s friends were convinced that he would become a preacher when he stopped singing because of the way he sang the blues. They said it sounded like a sermon. Blues singer Alberta Hunter testified “The blues are like spirituals, almost sacred.”

When Southern migrants came to California during the World War II era, they transported their music with them. Music served as a reminder of home; it was like medicine for the soul. The sounds of gospel music found a popular place in the Bay Area.

Based on traditional choir and quartet singing in southern churches, a cappella gospel music enjoyed an upsurge in popularity as southern black migrants formed new singing groups that toured local communities. Shipyard workers formed gospel groups like the Singing Shipbuilders Quarter (Richmond), Rising Stars Singers (Oakland), and the Paramount Singers (San Francisco).

These two groups, whose members came primarily from Texas and Louisiana, laid the groundwork for later Bay Area gospel groups like the Golden Stars, the Golden West Singers, the Swanee River Singers, the Spartonaires, the Oakland Silvertones, and many others. Church mass choirs began to cut records under the leadership of pastors like G. W. Killens and Carl Anderson.

Opal Nations said Bishop Louis Narcisse sounded like a saved and sanctified blues singer. Blues and gospel music both expressed the struggles of life. Charles Albert Tindley wrote, “I’ll Overcome Someday,” was popular during the Civil Rights era. Betty Reid and her husband Mel Reid opened the first black gospel and blues record store in West Oakland in 1945, Reid’s Records.

Two years later, Mel acquired time on Berkeley’s KRE radio station and broadcast a weekly thirty-minute gospel program called “Religious Gems.” It takes a seasoned saint to remember Reverend George Killens, pastor, Mount Calvary Baptist Church, Oakland, his two-part sermon, “The Cross,” and his congregation singing “Father I Stretch my Hands to Thee,” Mass Choir singing was birthed in the Bay Area.

Some may recall the J. L. Richards Specials and the Voices of Evergreen Baptist Church, a mass choir that broadcast for fifteen minutes on Sunday nights on radio station KWBR and Antioch Baptist Church (featuring the Reverend R. T. George, a master preacher and musician). Sunday night was the time when all ears were tuned into the radio to hear old-fashioned preaching and singing.

“Jumpin” George Oxford was one of the beloved D. J.’s of the 1950s. His focus was on race records, catering to Blacks as did Bouncin’ Bill Doubleday on KWBR and Don Barksdale, former-basketball-star-turned D. J. in the late 1950s. Barksdale was the owner of the Sportsman on Grove Street and the Showcase on Telegraph Avenue, both in Oakland.

Ray Dobard moved from New Orleans to Berkeley during World War II. Dobard established a music publishing business, providing a chance for locals to get their music on “wax” and to a larger audience. Many of Dobard’s fine gospel sides featured King Narcissee, the Golden West Singers, and others.

Jesse Jaxyson moved to West Oakland in the 1930s. A member of the First Church of Religious Science. There he met Clarissa Mayfield, a choir member at his church, and together they set up a radio repair shop at 1606 7th Street, Oakland. He had a room converted into a makeshift recording studio that he ran along with Bob Geddins. Bob Geddins, called the ‘Father of Oakland Blues,’ began pressing records at his West Oakland plant at 8th and Center Streets.”

As we fast forward, it was Edwin and Walter Hawkins, two brothers that completely changed the genre of religious music with the remake of an eighteenth-century song, “Oh Happy Day” featuring Dorothy Morrison and the Edwin Hawkins singers became the first cross over music creating a new contemporary gospel genre. The song created controversy within the church, because it sounded secular.

The Hawkins launched a new sound of gospel music fused with a secular sound paving the way for future artists such as Kirk Franklin, Byron Cage, Fred Hamond, Yolonda Adams and more.

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Bay Area

California’s New COVID Plan Includes Faith Community, Public Health Leaders

Pointing out that California has one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in the country, Governor Gavin Newsom added that the SMARTER plan will also focus on preparing the state in the event that there is a similar crisis in the future. Ensuring that the plan is equitable and addresses the needs of Californians of all backgrounds is a priority as well, he emphasized.

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Pastor Sam Casey is the executive director, Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE). Americaspromise.org photo.
Pastor Sam Casey is the executive director, Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE). Americaspromise.org photo.

By Tanu Henry, California Black Media

Black faith and public health leaders are hailing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new COVID response plan.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the proposal designed to be more strategic, nimble and sustainable than it is reactive. California is the first in the nation to transition the Coronavirus crisis from a pandemic to an endemic.

Newsom made the announcement three days after he lifted the statewide indoor mask mandate.

Dubbed the SMARTER Plan, an acronym that stands for Shots, Masks, Awareness, Readiness, Testing and Rx, the state’s new COVID response plan will focus on precautionary measures and interventions rather than broad mandates on masking, sheltering in place or shutdowns.

“This has been a remarkable two years for everyone. No one has been immune from the stress and travails, the heartache and devastation. But many of us have shared those burdens disproportionately, unequally,” said Newsom. “Those issues are all part and parcel of the consciousness that brings us to this moment.

The governor was speaking at a warehouse in Fontana that the state set up to handle logistics during the pandemic.

Pointing out that California has one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in the country, Newsom added that the SMARTER plan will also focus on preparing the state in the event that there is a similar crisis in the future. Ensuring that the plan is equitable and addresses the needs of Californians of all backgrounds is a priority as well, he emphasized.

“We are moving away from a crisis mindset to living with this virus,” said Newsom. “We have come to understand what was not understood at the beginning of this crisis: that there is no ending.

“We have a more prescriptive details and strategies to continue those efforts in partnership with 800 community-based organizations, 200 mobile clinic sites, in partnership with our state-owned testing labs, in partnership with our schools and faith-based leaders,” he added.

According to the governor’s office, over 70 million COVID vaccines have been administered in the state. About 80% of Californians have received one dose and about 70% are fully vaccinated.

Sam Casey, executive director of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE) and pastor of New Life Christian Church in Fontana, says he has been involved in the fight against COVID since the onset of the pandemic.

“We engaged in testing, bringing greater awareness as well as making sure some of the most marginalized communities had access to not only testing but more importantly vaccination,” he said.

“We are still engaged in that fight that’s relevant to the SMARTER plan,” Casey continued. “We’ve helped individuals get shots in their arms. We’ve presented some 75,000 N95 masks to our congregations and communities. We have passed out some 15,000 COVID tests and continue to create greater awareness in our communities.”

Dr. Jerry Abraham, director of Kedran Vaccines in South Los Angeles, runs a health center that provides COVID-19 inoculation to people in neighborhoods that have been historically underserved.

“We continue to see a continued decline in infection rates, in hospitalizations and in deaths — and that’s really exciting,” said Abraham, speaking at a press briefing for the African American press organized by VaccinateAll58, the California Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 response program.

Although about 82,000 Californians have died from COVID-related causes and more than 8 million have been diagnosed with the disease, Abraham says he’s hopeful about entering this next phase of the state’s response.

“We are really in this transition period from pandemic to endemic, and there really is this new conversation about learning to live with COVID. That is how we are going to go about our business and how we are going to go about staying in business and staying in school, going to church – all of these things are a part our strategy to move forward.”

Abraham encouraged people to continue to be vigilant, wear masks when necessary, and take steps to protect themselves and the people they love.

Black Californians, who make up about 6% of the state’s population, currently account for about 7% of confirmed deaths from COVID and more than 5% of all cases.

Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren, who is African American, welcomed the governor to her city and thanked him for leading the fight against COVID.

“California has led the nation’s fight against COVID-19 with early, robust, public health measures that have helped to save countless lives,” she said. “In Fontana, we remain focused and ready to adopt to the evolving pandemic.”

Keeping incidents of COVID low in the state, will require the participation of everyone, said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the UC San Francisco.

“California’s success in this next phase of the pandemic depends on our focus on those who have borne the brunt throughout: essential workers, older adults, Latino, Black, and Pacific Islander communities, and those with more limited resources,” she said. “The equitable response is the smarter response, and I hope the plans outlined here receive sustained attention and investment,” Bibbens-Domingo said.

Andy Slavitt, former senior advisor for COVID-19 Response in the Biden Administration, says Newsom’s post-pandemic strategy should be a model for states around the country.

“California’s SMARTER plan should represent a turning point in managing the pandemic from taking whatever the virus brings us to being prepared to manage whatever challenges come next,” he said.

Newsom said the state will also be analyzing wastewater to track the evolution of the virus.

“As we enter the next phase of the pandemic, the state is better equipped than ever to protect Californians from COVID-19 with smart strategies that save lives and advance our ongoing recovery,” said Newsom.

“Building on proven tools – rooted in science and data – that have been honed over the past two years, we’re keeping our guard up with a focus on continued readiness, awareness and flexibility to adapt to the evolving pandemic. As we have throughout the pandemic, the state will continue applying the lessons we’ve learned about the virus to keep California moving forward.”

Aldon Thomas Stiles contributed to this report.

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