Computer Science Has the Power to Impact the Lives of the 99 Percent

By Divya Nekkanti

During high school, I looked unquestionably at technology leaders like Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, whose philanthropic foundation aimed to solve every apparent misfortune in the Global South. Even more, I found solace in the “giving back” days that Silicon Valley tech companies employed as a fulfillment of their corporate social responsibility.

But increasingly, no matter where I look–in the world, in my community, within myself–tech and development are misaligned. There seem to be two mutually exclusive avenues of engaging with the world–innovating or giving–the only overlap for which involves donating money to admirable causes or engaging in occasional volunteer service. This dichotomy between the fast-paced, disruptive tech world that doesn’t afford engineers the time to fully understand the complexities of social challenges and the slower-moving development sphere, where the redundancy of approaches and lack of human, financial, and tech capital hinder growth, have become more and more apparent to me in my experiences at Cal.

Perhaps this dichotomy was once not so strong, but as an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) major today there’s a very distinct path you follow. You take onerous math and programming classes, cease at nothing to get accepted into the engineering or business consulting organizations that flood Sproul Plaza in the semester’s first few weeks, and then embark on a toxic pursuit of software engineering internships at Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Amazon, etc. You attend every info session, stand in hour-long lines to talk to a single recruiter, and apply to hundreds of companies without distinction as to why–all because the sole purpose of your “technical” education is to work at the biggest, most profitable software company in the Valley.

Application of knowledge becomes fixated on the destination rather than the journey, and despite going to a school as economically and experientially diverse as Berkeley, you get so lost in the allure of free T-shirts and food, the glitz and glamour, that social problems–even at the campus level–go unnoticed. Despite having few requirements outside the EECS major, the exhaustion from technical courses prompts you to deliberately pursue humanities courses that offer the highest average grade and lowest workload, rather than taking classes that actually pique your interest.

Disillusioned by this herd mentality and eager to explore a multidisciplinary Berkeley education, I decided to pursue a minor in Global Poverty & Practice. Taking on this minor was the best decision I made at Cal, as it is affording me an evaluative lens not only to examine determinants of poverty, but for the first time to critically analyze the bubble I have been living in for my entire life in Silicon Valley. A productive hiatus from my homogenous computer science courses, GPP is allowing me to daily interact with students from a broad array of majors and backgrounds, whose perspectives challenge my own and elevate every classroom discussion.

Yet despite the minor’s longstanding diversity, I see few engineers, even fewer computer scientists, in my GPP classes. At the same time, across campus I see few engineering and computer science students willing to confront the economic misfortune and inequality of access that exist beyond Soda Hall. With my eyes more open than ever been, I can now critically assess a variety of complexities: the tax evasion benefits and occasional alternate agendas behind philanthropic donations; the dependencies that result from inconsistent foreign aid; and the millions of laptops donated by the tech community’s One Laptop Per Child program, which never reached children in need.

Unlike the abundance of engineering courses that posit innovation must be accelerated to be disruptive (thus often fabricating problems to “solve” and oversimplifying ones that already exist), GPP courses are making me careful about my language, as I “practice” how to effectively address people in poverty (rather than naively think I can “serve” them).

Never anticipating the ability to reconcile my passions for tech and development, last summer I intentionally took on two very different internships: one with an NGO that focuses on education, economic empowerment, and equality for women and girls in developing regions; and the other an analytics consulting company.

At the NGO, I actively tried to refrain from imposing my software skills, as I was wary of oversimplifying the problems the nonprofit inwardly faced and outwardly worked on with redundant tech solutions. Yet day after day, the need for tech internally to scale the organization and externally to enrich the organization’s education programs, felt glaringly critical.

My most surprising discovery was the NGO’s high turnover, which appeared to engender bottlenecks like lack of data standardization. As employees came and went on their own volition, they stored years of donor and program information on different online services, in independent accounts, and with inconsistent formats. The irregularities on this scale of data made communication with donors and tracking of scholarship students nearly impossible, with half the incoming mail consisting of emails undeliverable as addressed. Seeing as the NGO was primarily funded by donors, the gravity of mismanaged data heightened by the day.

Even more of a hurdle was the lack of technology for educational programming and outreach. While the organization received Chromebook donations from Google, low electricity in the areas where the NGO work prevented deployment of the laptops. And while the girls finishing high school requested technical curriculum in robotics and web development, there was no one with the bandwidth to structure the programs. Meanwhile, in my second internship at the analytics consulting company, the resources seemed endless. If I didn’t like the size of my Mac, with a few clicks I could instantly order a new one. Unlike at the NGO, where I knew the faces and names of the women my work was directly affecting, working on software projects at a large tech company felt like coding in a black box. I was assured there were huge companies on the other end, transforming their businesses with the firm’s services, but my role in delivering this value was largely ambiguous and concerns were cursorily dismissed.

It was only during my practice at the nonprofit that I began to view challenges of sustaining an NGO and achieving development goals as technical opportunities. Sourcing data from all accounts, I wrote scripts to parse CSVs and standardize entry formats, transitioning the entire organization onto Salesforce’s nonprofit success pack for centralized donor and program management. I researched solar chargers and the historical reception of robotics and web development curricula in the NGO’s target regions, wrote cost/benefit analyses, and developed technologies for later deployment in schools.

With every task I completed and every proposal I pursued, I realized how invaluable technology in the social sector has the potential to be, especially in streamlining internal processes and scaling external facing projects. Connecting the two disparate dots in my life, I have felt fulfilled and inspired. I have realized innovation isn’t solely synonymous with the next iOS update, computer science has the power to impact the lives of the 99 percent, and the “technical vs. nontechnical” mentality we unconsciously employ fails to represent the very multifaceted and interdisciplinary approaches requisite in development.

As an engineer, I have gleaned that it is possible to transcend the stereotypical boundaries of a traditional tech job, that it doesn’t take the philanthropic capital of a billionaire to change the world, and most importantly that I don’t need to compromise my technical background to alter paradigms in the development sector. Instead, I can actionably address the assemblage of social issues that keep me up at night with the skills I learn during the day.

Divya Nekkanti ’20 is a UC Berkeley Electrical Engineering & Computer Science major and a Global Poverty and Practice minor from San Jose, California.

Sustainable Employment at the Bread Project

By Tamara Straus

What does it take to help hard-to-employ people in the Bay Area find steady, decently paying jobs? According to Veronica Barron Villegas ’18, a Global Poverty & Practice graduate who works at The Bread Project, it requires receptive employers, well trained employees, and lots of follow up.

Founded in 2000 by Lucie Buchbinder, a homeless advocate and Holocaust survivor, and Susan Phillips, a social worker involved in affordable housing, The Bread Project is known within employment development circles for its model of targeted persistence, which includes a rigorous bakery training program, extensive workplace readiness coaching, on-the-job experience, employer outreach for job placement, and long-term follow-up support. Eighteen years ago, Buchbinder and Phillips acted on a hunch. They knew that the baking industry paid above minimum wage and offered a career ladder. With this in mind, they approached Michael Suas of the San Francisco Baking Institute, who agreed to train their low-income clients and provided space and equipment for classes at cost.

Since that time, the Berkeley nonprofit has trained 1,800 individuals for the baking sector through dozens of partnerships with Bay Area chefs like Mark Chacon, agencies like the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development, and employers such as Whole Foods and Semifreddis. Trainings are long by comparative standards: three to four weeks. And follow-up services are beyond the standard: 15 months, which include six rounds of job search assistance and career counseling.

The results for a small nonprofit are extraordinary—averaging an employment rate of 83 percent, a graduation rate of 85 percent, and a job retention rate of 80 percent.

Trent Cooper, The Bread Project’s Program Manager, believes the high employment rates stem from the high-touch training and post-graduation services. “If you see our boot camps, you see how closely we interact with each student. Upon graduation, we provide 15 months of follow-up services, with outreach at one, three, six, nine, 12, and 15 months. This is time consuming and expensive, but we’re able to help participants longer.”

The Bread Project serves people who are the first to get turned down by employers—immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, formerly incarcerated individuals, and people with disabilities as well as those with employment barriers due to language, addiction, unstable housing, and childcare. In 2017-2018, 79 percent of participants relied on public benefits, 21 percent had zero income coming into the program, 100 percent were low income, and the participant pool was 61 percent female and 32 percent male. Most trainees come from Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond. And many lack independent housing and are dependent on public housing, friends, family, shelters, or transitional lodging.

Foundation grants, individual and corporate donations, and city funding keep The Bread Project afloat as well as a well-honed social enterprise model. Its University Avenue kitchen produces sweet potato buns for the high-end San Francisco restaurant International Smoke and mixes up about 3,000 pounds of cookie dough per week for DOUGHP. There’s also a food business incubator program; The Bread Project focuses on renting out its kitchen to minority-run businesses. All of this pays for the cost of the long boot camps, from which about 120 people graduate annually.

To support nine low-income Berkeley residents pass through the training program, UC Berkeley’s Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund recently awarded The Bread Project a grant. The project, in collaboration with the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) minor, aims to strengthen the university’s ties to the City of Berkeley through employment development opportunities and engages GPP student interns in poverty alleviation work.

Jasmine Tsui, a UC Berkeley global health major and Global Poverty & Practice minor, said her summer internship at The Bread Project has given her a front seat row to the Bay Area’s widening income gap. “I’ve seen what it means to be looking for a job and have no computer to do job research and applications. Employment barriers like those are real, but The Bread Project is surmounting them through a range of supports.”

Global Poverty & Practice Students Jasmine Tsui and Emily Lui at The Bread Project in Berkeley.

Tsui, who has been working closing with Barron Villegas, The Bread Project’s employment and graduate services manager, has been on the phone with graduates for much of her summer internship. “I’ll call graduates five, six times,” said Tsui. “I’ll leave messages, emails, and texts, and once I get them on the phone, I ask them how they are, if they need a job, and make an appointment to come in right there.”

Tsui’s summer internship colleague, Emily Lui, a UC Berkeley economics major and Global Poverty & Practice minor, also has been impressed by the personalized services. “There’s a lot of emphasis on trying to find people who graduate from the program a job—and a job they actually want. Earlier this month, there was a hiring event where different reps from different Whole Foods came in and did onsite interviews.”

Barron Villegas, who like Lui and Tsui got her start at The Bread Project as a GPP intern, said she is currently developing and strengthening employer partnerships with Noah’s Bagels and High Flying Foods.

“The reason The Bread Project has the outcomes it does is because we build relationships with both employers and job seekers,” said Barron. “Our clients walk away with a specific skill set and into a more specific job market. They learn interview skills, resume writing skills, and other job readiness skills. They also earn a ServeSafe certificate from the State of California. Employers want all of that.”



But First, Water

By Morgan Hillenbrand

On a typical day in the village of Mihingoni, Kenya, girls emerge at dawn, traveling down red clay paths against a backdrop of palm trees and corn stalk plants. The beauty of Mihingoni stands in contrast to the tough reality of their lives. These girls—some as young as six years old—are not in school. Today, like all days during the dry season, they will spend hours walking in search of that one element none of us can live without: water.

There is a saying in Swahili: “Maji Yaje Kwanza” which means “water is the first of many things”. The people of Mihingoni—most of whom are subsistence farmers—depend largely on rainwater for survival, but climate variability and long dry seasons continue to stunt crop yields. Low agricultural productivity decreases household income, and increases hunger. Lack of proper water, sanitation and hygiene leads to disease, and Kenya continues to have one of the worst under five mortality rates, globally. Families are forced to choose between sending their girls for water or sending them to school, and they choose water first. This limits the prospects for their future, and the cycle of poverty in Mihingoni continues. Until now.

Ashley Miller—an alumnus of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley—has spent the last five years working with the community of Mihingoni to design solutions that will increase their access to water. Miller first traveled to Mihingoni in 2013 when she and her classmate, Louisa Mwenda, took a seven hour drive from Nairobi to attend a family wedding.

“When I said ‘yes’ to that invitation I had no idea that the course of my life would change forever,” Ashley said. “Once I saw the impact lack of water was having on that community, I knew I had to get involved. I have been working with Louisa, her family, and the community on this issue ever since.”

Miller returned from Kenya, threw herself into fundraising, and one year and $21,000 later she was on a plane heading back to Kenya to implement the Maji Yaje Kwanza project. Determined to build a sustainable, community-led program, Miller and the team collaborated closely with Mihingoni Primary school, and asked local teachers to help her organize a community meeting where they could solicit and hear the thoughts, needs, and ideas of the community first-hand.

“I didn’t want to make any assumptions about what the community needed, or what the solution should be,” Miller said. “The meeting was entirely spoken in KiGiriama, which allowed those most affected by the project to fully express themselves and their needs. We wanted to put the people’s needs at the center of all of our work.”

With just over $20,000, Miller and her team were able to hire 200 people to build and install drip irrigation pipes at the school for a school garden, hand-washing sinks outside of the boys, girls, and teachers’ latrines, two drinking water taps and a water kiosk that serves the entire community. Two 10,000-liter water tanks were provided, ensuring water access even during periods of low rainfall. The crew also created a basin for soapy sink water to be recycled for cleaning latrines. And that wasn’t all.

Maji Yaji Kwanza collaborated with the local municipality to enact a pipeline expansion across 2.5 kilometers, which would build on the work of several World Bank water projects being implemented in the area. But project delays and variable water pressure brought additional challenges, and the provision of water was inconsistent. The community needed to connect a well to existing infrastructure to ensure water provision year-round. By the summer of 2017 the team had hired a geologist, completed a hydrogeological survey, and secured the necessary permits from the Kenyan government to build the well.

“We’ve accomplished so much, learned an incredible amount, and we’re just getting started,” Miller said. “News of our success has spread throughout the region, and that has raised people’s hopes and expectations. We are personally accountable to these communities, and that is what drives us to get this done.”

Maji Yaje Kwanza is currently fundraising with the goal of raising $10,000 to complete construction of the underground well and water pump. Once the project is completed, it will serve roughly 3,000 people.

“I want people to imagine a life where you can’t turn on a tap. Can’t turn on the shower, flush the toilet. A life where you look at your daughter and say, ‘you can’t go to school; we need you to go for water today’. People shouldn’t have to make those types of choices. This is a solvable problem, and we all need to be part of the solution.”

To contribute to Maji Yaje Kwanza through the official UC Berkeley crowdfunding campaign, visit .The current crowdfunding campaign cycle will be live until February 23 at 11:59 p.m. PST. To learn more about how The Blum Center is supporting students to change the world, visit

GPP Alumni Reflect on Post-Grad Life

From the East Coast to the Bay Area, several esteemed Global Poverty and Practice Minor program alumni gathered in Blum Hall for a panel hosted by GPP to speak about their experiences after graduation. For the majority of the graduates, the minor was crucial in shaping their career paths and passions — and in some cases, far more impactful than their majors.

Staying true to the nature of GPP, each alumnus had different majors and, after graduation, entered different fields. Although they are all still trying to “figure it out”, these returning students had plenty of advice to give to current program students.

Where are they Now?

Farnaz Malik, a 2011 graduate who has a degree in Integrative Biology, said that the minor had a profound effect on what she did post-graduation. Through GPP coursework, Malik began to foster an interest in epidemiology, a branch of medicine that deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health. Now, six years and two degrees later, Malik works at Vital Strategies, a global health nonprofit in New York that partners with governments to design public health initiatives and build better health systems — particularly in low and middle income countries. For Malik, the GPP minor has come full circle now that she can further her interests in epidemiology at Vital Strategies.

2015 graduate Shrey Goel is a case manager with Asian Health Services and volunteer at the Berkeley Free Clinic. In his undergraduate years, Goel majored in Environmental Sciences, but recalled how his GPP courses were the ones that interested him the most. He discussed how the clinic is furthering this education through a more hands on approach. After graduation, he landed a job as a research coordinator at UCSF where he learned plenty about clinical research, but where he was also exposed to the ethical dilemmas embedded in research.

“I think the years since I graduated really enriched me in challenging my own role and my own position in the institutions I participate in,” Goel said. “I hope to pursue a career in medicine in a way that is more authentic to what my actual interests are.”

Nikki Brand, a Master’s student in International Policy Studies at Stanford, graduated from Cal in 2013 with a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and immediately moved to Guatemala to work as a field consultant with Community Empowerment Solutions, supporting women micro-entrepreneurs in marketing and selling products with health and environmental benefits. In 2014, Brand started at USAID as a program assistant, which “was not glamorous” at first, but after a year Brand was promoted to a team tasked with applying digital tools and approaches to support  small farmers around the world.

Brand traveled to multiple countries — Ghana, Nepal, and Cambodia, to name a few — conducting workshops and research on ways that digital tools such as mobile money, digitally-enabled extension services, and geospatial analysis can support smallholder farmers. Brand left USAID in August to start a Master’s at Stanford and will be continuing to focus on the use of technology and data in international development.

2011 Graduate Lauren Herman said her story was far from linear. After she graduated with her B.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies, she received the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize and traveled to Nairobi, Kenya to do consumer outreach, which was inspired by her Practice Experience working with a microcredit program. When she didn’t get accepted to a public policy fellowship program she had applied for after she returned from Kenya, Herman said she took some time off to seriously reevaluate her goals and wants. After initially preparing to apply to graduate school, Herman secured a job as the Director of Communication and Training at a consulting and organizational management company where she’s worked for the past four years. But she credits her time off as fundamental to finding her own path.

“What I hope you take away from all this is no one has it set in stone,” said Herman. “ It’s all about taking it day by day and asking others for help.”

Lastly, Areidy Beltran, a Class of 2015 alumna who studied Environmental Earth Sciences, said her first job was an environmental/geotechnical engineer in Oakland. After a year, however, Beltran discovered that she wanted to work on issues of energy and climate change on a broader scale. This led her to return to Cal for a Master’s in Earth and Planetary Science and pursue additional short-term programs focused on computer science and business education. Now in order to meld her interests in business and environmental science, Beltran said she is considering a job in energy consulting.

The Road to Grad School

Many students in the audience wanted to know how these graduates weighed in on the value of graduate school and what were the best strategies to approaching the next step in academia, if they wished to do so.

Brand said she talked to at least 100 people before applying to grad school, which led her to some valuable advice. First, is to have at least two different jobs before entering graduate school in order to get a feel for what one should study. Similarly, Beltran said taking a year off led her to the realization that she did not want to pursue environmental engineering as a career. Second, Brand advised students to pay attention to job descriptions of positions they want to be in 5 years in the future, and noted many of them will require a graduate degree and at least two years of work experience.

“Wait until you at least have a more specific sense of what you want to do in life,” said Brand “Now I have a better sense of what direction I want to go in.”

Change is Okay  

When confronted with sobering statistics and facts on global poverty, students of the GPP minor admitted that the work of global social development can often seem overwhelming. The speakers, in turn, recommended ways to deal with “burnout”.

Herman reminded students that the small ways in which the minor engages them to be critical thinkers matter, as well. Although progress is slow, Herman said it is crucial for students to not put too much on themselves and to “slow down and breathe.”

Beltran assured students that it is okay to change your mind, even after graduation. She said that she considers jobs right after graduation as experiences that should lead to self-reflection and change.

Goel believes the issue of scale underlies the struggle to find purpose after graduation for many students, meaning that students may feel pressured to have a large impact on a large scale. He found focusing on  concrete skills development helped him find a sense of purpose.

“By really making sure I’m in spaces where I’m learning something very specific and I’m doing something very specific, I can gain an understanding of the connection between output and input,” said Goel. “So I understand what my effort and work is worth and can actually accomplish.”

Through their different experiences, these alumni imparted their knowledge upon the next generation of global development changemakers. The Blum Center is proud to see its graduates contributing to the GPP community and is looking forward to what they will accomplish next.

Welcome to the Global Poverty & Practice Minor!

The problem of poverty is far from a clear-cut issue. In the new age of globalization and technology, future generations must develop the skills needed to critically think about the complexities of inequality in order to overcome the world’s most challenging obstacles.

Since its formation 2007, the Global Poverty and Practice minor at the University of California Berkeley trains students to understand contemporary forms of poverty, wealth, and inequality through invaluable academic coursework and a worthwhile practice experience. GPP has become one of the largest, most popular minors on campus, with about 350 students regularly enrolled in the program.

At the core of the minor lies the “Practice Experience”, a fieldwork opportunity where students apply the theoretical approaches they learned in their coursework to aiding local and international populations by partnering with a non-governmental organization, government agencies, and other poverty or development groups around the world. In addition to utilizing theory in the field, students learn from the organizations on how they approach poverty in action.

GPP invites all students from different majors and backgrounds to gain a critical edge and a unique opportunity to supplement their field of study.

Priya Natarajan, a 4th year linguistics major, completed her Practice Experience in the summer of 2017 with KIVA, an international nonprofit dedicated to alleviating global poverty through microfinancing. According to her, the GPP curriculum allows for a diverse range of students from multiple disciplines to come together, which changes the perspective of each individual student and fosters a more holistic approach to learning about inequality.

“Sometimes you look at a problem and you’re like ‘Ok this is it. Let’s tackle it’, but we fail to consider a lot of different factors that are causing the problem in the first place […] I think GPP really pushes you to explore the different roots of the problem rather than just the surface level problem and I’ve really appreciated that and that’s really helped me in different parts of my life, not just in school,” said Natarajan.

Check out the GPP website to learn more about the minor! If you have any questions about the application process or the program in general, feel free to attend any GPP info sessions. Best of luck to our incoming freshmen and returning students. Go bears!

Deadline to apply for the minor is October 4th.


Clarifying Poverty Action: A Profile of GPP Student Kristian Kim

By Nicholas Bobadilla

Kristian Kim decided to pursue a minor in Global Poverty & Practice because she felt a moral impetus to mitigate poverty. Instead, she found herself immersed in critical reflection and uncomfortable questions that forced her to examine her own role in the systems driving global inequality.

A double major in Development and Peace & Conflict Studies, Kim completed her practice during the summer of 2015 with AFSCME 3299, a labor union that represents University of California service and patient care workers statewide. She conducted research and interviews with workers, and examined how administrative decisions trickle down to affect their wages, job security, and benefits. Through her work, Kristian developed relationships with on-campus employees and gained a deeper appreciation for the people who make her life as a student possible.

“Getting to know people whose labor and struggle make it possible for me to come to school on a daily basis has tied me more to campus,” said Kim. “Understanding my relationship to them has helped me better understand my responsibility to support them as they struggle.”

That struggle involves a demand to be hired directly by the university, which currently outsources workers from private companies that do not provide the wages or benefits required to ensure economic stability.

Kim’s work on behalf of AFSCME 3299 also resonated with her personally. The socioeconomic struggle facing many campus workers, she said, resembled that of her own family members. Her grandparents fled North Korea in the 1950s and immigrated to the United States from South Korea with her parents in the early 1980s. Kim entered GPP knowing the sacrifice her family made to provide the stability in which she grew up. But witnessing the struggle of UC workers firsthand brought her closer to her own family’s hardships.

The Global Poverty & Practice minor is one of the most original, unorthodox, and progressive poverty studies programs in the country. (Full disclosure: I am a GPP minor.) Since its inception by the Blum Center in 2007, the minor has become one of the largest minors on campus, with students from numerous disciplines. GPP aims to supplement students’ chosen fields, encouraging them to engage with poverty on a systemic level and critically reflect on their own positions in relation to the problems they seek to address. In addition to teaching the prevailing theories on global poverty and development, the GPP program requires a minimum six-week “practice” component, in which students work with an organization dedicated to poverty alleviation or socioeconomic development.

Said Kim: “[GPP] gave me a different way of understanding some of the struggles my family members had as people, not just as stories, but as people who go to work and are exploited and struggle to make ends meet.”

Kim’s practice experience also reaffirmed the privilege she enjoys as a result of her family’s and UC workers’ sacrifices. This sense is not unusual among GPP students, who are taught to reflect on the factors that make their socioeconomic positions possible. It is an approach that ensures students are aware of the benefits they have, and it aims to prevent them from becoming complicit in the problems they try to ameliorate.

“My work with GPP contextualized my work with AFSCME and all my work in general. It’s given me a space to be critical without being paralyzed by cynicism,” said Kim.

Kim is referring to the commonly quoted words of Professor Ananya Roy, one of the founders of the minor who created its introductory course, GPP 115, at UC Berkeley. Roy often spoke of the “impossible space between the paralysis of cynicism and the hubris of benevolence.”

These words capture the essence of an educational program that provides an uncomfortable awareness of the factors responsible for systemic inequality. Students are encouraged to question their motivations and many come to recognize their own complicity in the systems that create global poverty. Kim is no exception, and expresses a deep awareness granted by the minor.

“GPP showed me things are messed up, but we engage with these forces every day. My choice to engage in specific aspects of struggles comes with the responsibility to fight those forces.”

This conviction drives Kim’s continued study of global poverty and her ongoing work with AFSCME.

“I move forward with that knowledge that I have a responsibility to undermine the systems that privilege me at others’ expense,” she said.

Such a realization has been possible due to the reflective tools provided by the minor. GPP 105 teaches students common methods used in fieldwork, while building habits for reflecting on the modes of power and inequality that come with their roles. It is this reflective component that Kim believes is one of the most standout features of GPP, in that it encourages students to go beyond the typical approaches to poverty utilized in academia.

“The way poverty alleviation is often approached at Berkeley is by looking at the global impact an organization can have, but that often comes with a disregard for the experiences of the people in poverty. This approach can undervalue the importance of these experiences,” she explained. “I think doing the work I did over the summer showed me I can’t ignore the way it [poverty] plays out in people’s lives.”

Kim recognizes the role she once played in perpetuating the conventions of poverty, yet the GPP framework has allowed her to step outside her previous mode of thinking and deconstruct those conventions.

“If you find yourself reducing people to things,” Kim said, “you need to face what keeps you from recognizing that your liberation is implicated in other people’s liberation. Thinking about poverty action that way makes it clear what you’re responsibilities are.”

The Fast Trains of Mumbai: A GPP Grad Reflects on Living and Working in India’s Most Populous City

By Priyanka Athavale

Priyanka Athavale
Priyanka Athavale

Today was the epitome of the Mumbai fast train experience. It was utter frustration, suffocating stench, and packed with bodies. At the same time, the train felt systematic, organized, even solitary. This duality—a kind of chaos within order—is what defines Mumbai, the most populous city in India and the country’s financial, commercial, and entertainment capital.

For someone from suburban California, accustomed to organized roads and paved sidewalks, taking the trains is something of an adjustment. Yet I saw the transport as a feat—and not just any feat, a feat that thousands of Mumbaikars accomplished every working day. After four months in the city, my aim was to be a true Mumbaikar. Riding the fast trains would be the ultimate validation of my belonging.

I stood at the platform ready to board, my face sweaty, my palms clammy. The sun beamed in my eyes, as I read the digital sign blaring in red digits “F02,” indicating the fast train was approaching in two minutes. Mumbai’s trains are a miracle of mass society. Spread over a 465-kilometer network, they carry about 7 million passengers a day. Around 3,000 people die every year on the trains, most from falling or being pushed off the packed cars.

Standing there, I could hear my Indian family members warning me against the fast trains. I buried their sounds. I looked to my left, to my right, and felt a lump forming in my throat—the feeling you get when you’re about to drop 50 feet in a roller coaster. Seventy women stood at the platform, on par with me, ready to board the train.

Whatever confidence I had started to evaporate. I realized there was no way 70 people were going to board the train. It simply wasn’t possible. But there was no time to make an alternate plan. I needed to get to work. I had to board the train, and it was already in sight.

The train approached and then screeched to a halt. Women started pouring out of the ladies car. Pouring is an understatement. Women were flooding out. They were getting thrown out with their babies, their bags, their young children, all rushing to escape the havoc. There were women in saris, women in business clothes, women selling fish, women hocking earrings, fat women, thin women, old women, young women—they were like marbles gushing out of a bottleneck. At the same time, the 70 women on the platform were trying to get in.

Inside my head, I thought, “THIS IS RIDICULOUS!” but maintained a calm exterior. There were collisions, verbal conflicts, insults. Women were shoving other women, defending their bags, moving haphazardly—and all the while, I was getting sucked into the crowd with my two bulky bags. I closed my eyes and let the crowd take me in.

I appeared composed yet inside I was fuming: This experience should not be the norm for millions of women. The trains have to change—they needed a total revamp! The only thing calming me down was John Mayer blasting through my headphones, “Waitin’ on the world to change.”

Fury and fuming are familiar emotions in Mumbai. During my initial days, I questioned the streets crowded with rickshaws, the cows roaming aimlessly, the myriad of fruit and vegetable carts, the stray dogs and cats, and the street dwellers scattered on the sidelines. Everyday, I saw street children, some crying, some sleeping, some basking in the sun, and their mothers trying to manage a thousand things at once.

As Fulbright-Nehru scholar, my purpose in Mumbai was to conduct qualitative research on maternal barriers to child nutrition among families making less than $5 a day. I considered myself part public health researcher, part anthropologist, and part humanitarian. But when I walked through the streets of Dhobi Ghat, a large Mumbai slum, all I felt was appalled. My eyes stuck on corner stores selling junk food, the mildew-stricken jugs containing “fresh” water, and the half-clothed children wandering barefoot between homes.

Yet the mothers I encountered expressed hope about the future, despite the conditions they face. They are among the most inspiring and energetic women I will ever met—household managers, caregivers, and wives facing multiple daily lacks—of toilets, adequate food, clean water, effective education, and access to basic, affordable healthcare.

Mumbai is rife with juxtapositions: of affluence and poverty, of technological advancements on the one side and lack of electricity on the other, of towering highrises shadowing low tin-ceiling slums. How can a place like this be? The answer lies in the intrinsic necessity to survive. The city has an intangible energy; it is a place where resilience blossoms from struggle.

Back in the train, I let myself be taken through the crowd. Gradually, I realize I am part of team, a group of women, albeit complete strangers, who share a common cause and are helping each other toward it. The women guide me through the battleground of the train car and allow me to pass through. I find a little oasis near the window where I can stand.

I take a deep breath of air—the feeling of relief is unmatched to any I’d felt before. I look around and notice every woman is engaged in some activity: talking, sleeping, people watching, holding onto children, selling trinkets. I am just another woman in the crowd, trying to get to my ultimate destination. This train is a microcosm of the city. It could use some oiling, but it works and it has been working for years.

Priyanka Athavale graduated from UC Berkeley in 2014 with a double major in Molecular and Cell Biology and Public Health and a minor in Global Poverty & Practice. She was awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship to study barriers to improved nutrition and health practices in the urban slums of Mumbai, India.



Will student loan debt be worth it? (San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed by GPP student Amber Gonzales-Vargas)

In 2014, outstanding student loan debt for Millennials surpassed $1 trillion, making it the second largest category of household debt after mortgages.

By Amber Gonzalez

In 2014, outstanding student loan debt for Millennials surpassed $1 trillion, making it the second largest category of household debt after mortgages. These numbers are all too familiar to me and my friends at UC Berkeley. Initially, most of us considered student loans a great trade-off for getting our undergraduate degree, and we have held to that opinion as the loans needed to graduate increased. Yet as we face graduation, these loans are not feeling fair. They feel like a noose around our collective necks, the price of which may be dreams deferred.

As a low-income, first-generation student from Stockton, I have been able to stay enrolled at UC Berkeley through the rising tuition— from $9,342 in 2010-11 to $13,317 in 2014-15 for California residents— thanks to a Pell Grant and Cal Grant A. To cover other living and student costs such as rent, food and books I have worked as a peer adviser and office administrator.

Believe me, I am not complaining. My parents, who are from Peru, have often reminded me that I am lucky to have been born in the United States— and I agree. We assumed my future was set, as long as I excelled in high school and succeeded in college. This path would land me a job reserved for hard-working students from one of the nation’s best universities.

But will it? What is apparent to many of us attending four-year institutions is that a bachelor’s degree does not reserve you a job, even if you are graduating from a top institution. The proverbial entry-level position for recent graduates now typically requires two or more years of relevant work experience. In certain fields, these opportunities are offered as an unpaid internship, a luxury that few can afford to accept, even if it increases the chances of getting a job.

For me and many of my friends, the need for job security is especially high because we face immediate loan repayment. I owe $12,900. Yet I am “lucky.” I took out subsidized loans that do not accrue interest until six months after graduation. Others? My brother, who is at a private university, has taken out unsubsidized and other loans that begin to accrue interest upon signing, and he is only a freshman.

We are all fiercely hunting for a job. We know that not having work lined up this summer will make paying back our loans difficult. One of my best friends, who has accrued about $15,000 in debt, is attending community college as a way to acquire additional skills and to defer her loans for a few more months. She is doing this while working full-time.

Because our immediate futures are limited by loan paybacks, many Millennials may avoid creativity or risk. We may take any job that provides an income, however far from our interests. Down the line, this may also translate into deferment of such life milestones as buying a car, buying a house or having children.

In a March 28, 2014, article, Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine said Millennials will be the greatest generation yet because they are idealistic, adaptive and more tolerant of differences. But Erskine makes no mention of student debt, citing instead a Pew Research Center study of Millennials that found we are the nation’s “most stubborn economic optimists,” with more than 8 in 10 reporting we have enough money to lead the lives they want, or expect to in the future. I wish he and the Pew pollsters had canvassed more of the 80 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 whose economic lives are dictated by student debt.

In March 2015, President Obama signed a Student Aid Bill of Rights that argues that the federal government should do more to help young people pay off their crushing loans. He offered several improvements such as a Pay-As-You-Earn plan and a centralized loan website. My experience is that no one really wants to take out a loan, and while this plan sounds like a good way to help young Americans navigate the student-loan system, we should be looking to significantly reduce student loan debt, not just making adjustments to help keep track of debt. Students still will face rising student-loan debt and have to start their careers increasingly indebted.

In the upcoming weeks, the class of 2015 will depart for the working world. We will go on to become teachers and doctors and policemen and data analysts. An estimated 12.7 percent of Californians will default on their debt; the rest will dutifully pay back the banks and the government. Our successors may also fare worse. The UC regents have approved a tuition increase of up to 5 percent per year through the 2019-20; however, the governor has proposed a budget deal that would give UC more funding if UC forgoes the increase and freezes tuition through 2016-17.

Will Americans with such early indebtedness be able to become credit-worthy adults? In a decade’s time, will our earliest financial decisions feel worth it? I certainly hope so.