Alumnus Rigel Robinson makes history as Berkeley, Calif.’s youngest city councilperson


Courtesy of Rigel Robinson

On the campaign trail, alumnus Rigel Robinson speaks at a political fundraising event. Robinson’s key campaign issues include funding for public education and creating affordable housing. “Everything we do results in a compromise; that’s how governing works. If you don’t start dreaming big then you’re going to end up with an end result that is insufficient; that’s just the way it is,” Robinson said.

Alumnus Rigel Robinson pauses, then explodes in laughter. “No, this was all just a big, happy accident,” Robinson said. 

“This” refers to Robinson’s career; he is the youngest city councilperson in Berkeley, Calif. history. Sworn in this past December, the 2014 alumnus made Berkeley history.

“[Being a city councilmember] is a full-time job. I have an office, and I work at the city hall in downtown Berkeley. I spend a lot of time at meetings with different community groups and stakeholders, and it takes a lot of time to just breathe and keep up on the items and to write the items you think are most important, to really legislate,” Robinson said. “Everyday is an absolute different thing–it’s different groups, different stakeholders, a different hot button issue or a different crisis that has emerged that we have to firefight together. It’s a lot, but it’s our neighborhood we’re working on, so we’re all working together.”

After graduating, Robinson chose to stay in Berkeley in hopes of earning a spot on the City Council Board. He announced just weeks before his college graduation and assembled an all-student campaign team. 

It’s a lot, but it’s our neighborhood we’re working on, so we’re all working together,”

— 2014 alumnus Rigel Robinson

“As we got closer to the 2018 election, friends, neighbors and people involved in local politics and some current council members started encouraging me [to run]. They said I brought something unique to the table, a different perspective, and that I had been doing the work that would prepare me for this. For a long time, I thought that was ridiculous; the job didn’t pay very well, and I was more interested in looking at jobs in Sacramento or [Washington] D.C. or taking the Law School Admission Test and going to law school,” Robinson said. “Eventually, I started to realize they were right. It’s a unique confluence of factors. Having family here and having done the work here was an incentive to stay. I decided to go for it. We pulled together an entirely student-run campaign team. It was a ragtag band of misfits. None of us knew how, but we ended up winning. We knocked on the door of every single house in the district and at the end of the day, it worked.”

Robinson began his political work in college, advocating for an increase in funding for public education. The 2018 graduate of University of California, Berkeley majored in Political Economy, where he allowed his political interests and experience to grow, along with his love of Berkeley. 

“I missed a lot of class. I spent more time in city council meetings or in Sacramento lobbying the state legislature on one thing or another than doing homework. In certain ways, maybe that was negligence, but in other ways, I’m doing the work that I am now because of the work that I was doing while I was a student,” Robinson said. “I was always a bit more interested in what was going on outside of the classroom–which was true in high school too. I lobbied in Sacramento for more funding for higher education and education, period. In California, despite being very progressive in many ways, we’re behind in per-pupil spending. That’s no good, at the city level, especially.”

In high school, Robinson was an active member of the speech and debate team, the environment where he credits the cultivation of his love of politics. 

“I’m basically doing what I did in speech and debate every day. You have to take issues–and oftentimes it’s a totally new issue that you weren’t thinking about before–and suddenly it’s a crisis. Then you have to look at both sides of the issue: dissect it, take it apart, understand who supports it, who’s against it, why, understand the stories, the statistics,” Robinson said. “The only difference is that in Speech and Debate, I spent years learning how to take apart issues like that. In my current job, I actually have to choose a side, which is fun, but the stakes are a little different. I wouldn’t be able to do that very well if I hadn’t spent years training with [speech and debate coach Cara] Borgsmiller.”

Courtesy of Rigel Robinson
Alumnus Rigel Robinson speaks at the the senior reflections ceremony in May 2014 for graduating seniors at the end of the year.

Robinson was also an active member of the theatre and English departments.

“From speech and debate or theatre with [theatre teacher Amie] Gossett, that’s still useful every single day. I couldn’t be more grateful for the incredible Parkway West community that raised me. Every one of my English teachers [had a profound impact on me.] Even if I’m not dissecting works of fiction and stark American literature right now, I’m using those same skills when speechwriting or trying to navigate the intent of a colleague on the council to figure out what they really mean when they say something. It’s those analytical skills that we learn in school that you take with you everywhere you go,” Robinson said. 

Despite a full academic course load, Robinson consistently found time for extracurriculars, crediting his success to programs that enable young people to be involved in their community.

 “It has been so exciting and moving to talk with young people since the election. It’s a movement, and it’s a hunger all over the country for people in government and officials who are more progressive and younger,” Robinson said. “In a lot of places, mine included, young people are proving that they can be their own best advocates. [The way] we can  ensure that happens is through programs like theatre of debate that let people learn skills and develop to be the best they can.”

Berkely is a city that has come to be on the forefront of innovative policymaking and change, including policies like marriage equality. Robinson hopes to be a part of progressive developments like these by planning to stay in Berkeley and introduce progressive legislation. 

“Berkeley is a very incredible and unique place that is often on the forefront of innovative policymaking. Often times, Berkeley will be the first city in the country to take on some new initiative. Then a few other cities pick it up, and then the state does,” Robinson said. “Eventually, you hope something becomes law–nationally.”

Starting small, as he did, is what Robinson encourages young people to do, especially if they hope to impact change. 

“It’s easy to be absorbed and even distracted by the biggest issue happening in our country, but you must pay attention every day, not only to Washington, but also to the problems in your neighborhood that are within your reach,” Robinson said. “If you focus a bit and get your friends to pay attention, you can have a really big impact.”