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Emotions Run High as Campus Opens Prop. 209 Dialogue

Forum Explores the Personal Impact of Controversial Legislation

by D. Lyn Hunter
posted October 7, 1998

Tearful testimonies, a soulful gospel hymn and an anonymous letter are some of the ways a panel of staff expressed their emotions concerning Proposition 209 at a Sept. 29 noon-time discussion in the student union.

The panel, which included staff members from both sides of the issue, focused the dialogue on their personal experiences and feelings and did not debate the merits or drawbacks of the legislation.

The five panelists were each given 10 minutes to present their views. The 70 audience members in attendance were asked to hold their questions and comments for a series of small-group discussions to be held Oct. 1.

"Some of us have been affected positively, some negatively and some are confused," said Dianne Rush-Woods, a CARE Services counselor and co-moderator of the discussion. "We want to recognize the full spectrum of perspectives with this forum."

Helen Johnson, coordinator of the Re-entry Program, choked back tears while describing the conflict she struggles with in the wake of Prop. 209.

"I cringe when I hear students talk about their feelings of isolation and rejection and I wonder if I should stay at Berkeley or go somewhere else," she said. "But I love this place and I'm committed to trying to make opportunities for others."

A letter from a campus employee who felt too intimidated to reveal pro-209 views in person was read by one of the event's organizers. The letter's author, who asked for anonymity, initially agreed to appear in person but decided against it, fearful of job-related recrimination.

The writer said that anti-Prop. 209 sentiments dominate the campus and are perpetuated by certain outspoken administrators and skewed Berkeleyan articles.

"If Prop. 209 is bad for Berkeley, then I must be bad for Berkeley," said the writer. "Berkeley has a reputation as a forum for open debate, but I feel my views don't have a place here."

Gary Kelley, manager of sponsored student group advising, began his presentation by singing a moving gospel hymn that described a peaceful world where people live together in happiness. He used the song to illuminate the division between Prop. 209 opponents and proponents.

"Misinformation results in barriers and this breaks down the ability for us all to come together," said Kelley, a Berkeley alum admitted under affirmative action. "The problems have been caused by both sides because the issue hasn't been discussed in a meaningful way."

Mark Gotvald, an advisor in the College of Letters and Science, used to be against Prop. 209, but changed his mind after examining the issue more closely.

As an advisor, Gotvald says he witnesses, first-hand, the disadvantages and low self-esteem that some affirmative action students experience because they are not academically prepared.

"Affirmative action is a band-aid solution to a very complex problem," he said. "The repair can't be done at the college level, it needs to start in kindergarten and elementary school."

"We asked panelists to speak from their heart and that took a lot of courage," said Edith Ng, director of staff affirmative action and one of the organizers of the event. "There is tremendous power in sharing our stories and this is an important first step toward meaningful dialogue. Now we want to broaden and continue the discussion."


How Has Proposition 209 Personally Affected You?

To broaden the dialogue and help design future activities, the Diversity Advisory Group that organized the forum would like to hear from you, whether you're in favor of or in opposition to Prop. 209.

Submit your anonymous comments using the online form at or email

An anonymous summary of responses will be provided to Chancellor Berdahl.


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