A journalist, philosopher, and activist, Solnit refuses to be confined by anything but her own wildly roaming passions. The author of 13 books and countless essays, she has unraveled subjects as broad as punk, place, walking, ecology, and hope in the face of hopelessness. Her breakthrough book, River of Shadows, raked in the accolades for asserting that the seeds for both Hollywood and Silicon Valley were planted in 1878 when photographer Eadweard Muybridge proved that a Palo Alto racehorse’s hooves left the ground at once — foreshadowing modern cinema and cementing the peninsula as a hub of innovation. Her latest book, Unfathomable City, a companion to the bestselling Infinite City, weaves together brilliantly reinvented maps and essays that challenge our notions of New Orleans, a city defined as much by its crime, corruption, and disasters as it is by its colorful music, food, and cultural history. She said in an interview with Harper’s, “There is a kind of tragedy to all our lives, consisting of failures, of losses, of mortalities — but that sad landscape is salted with pleasures, with unions, with epiphanies and revelations … The trick is to hold both and maybe value both.” Find some of Solnit’s political essays on TomDispatch.com, or follow her on tumblr.
Awuah left his home in Ghana in 1985 with $50 in his pocket and a full scholarship to Swarthmore College. Today he is one of Africa’s most respected leaders. After rising through the ranks at Microsoft, the birth of his first child inspired him to shift his focus toward home — and the belief that higher education could revitalize a nation beset by poverty and corruption. He enrolled at Berkeley-Haas and turned an audacious idea to establish Africa’s first private liberal arts college into a student project. Founded in 2002, Ashesi University (which means “beginning”) has graduated more than 500 students and is setting its sights on expanding the academic program and recruiting more African students beyond Ghana. “There have been times when it has seemed like Mission Impossible, but magic is happening,” he said in the Berkeley-Haas magazine. Although Awuah told CNN that only 5 percent of Ghana’s children go to college, he is courageously developing a generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders who will one day run the country. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickAwuahJr.
A 2013 winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant, Iyer, a jazz composer-pianist, is quickly ascending as a trendsetter through his eclectic mix of improvisation-based solo and ensemble compositions, cross-genre collaborations, and research on listening. Although Iyer, who holds a Ph.D. in the cognitive science of music, had planned on a career in the sciences, “Little by little I found myself pulled into a community of artists that valued the history and the aliveness of jazz,” he said in a video. Counting the classical music of his South Indian heritage, West African drumming, and African American masters such as Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk among many influences, Iyer creates imaginative, rhythmic — even disorienting — works. While Accelerando features his superb trio and topped charts worldwide with its accessible experimentalism, his latest project, Holding It Down, is a collaboration with poet Mike Ladd that focuses on the experiences and dreams, from the mundane to the harrowing, of veterans of color who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow Iyer on Facebook or Twitter @vijayiyer.
An unapologetic fan of Bono, Roy is a bit of a rock star herself. A professor of city and regional planning at Berkeley, she is a mighty voice behind connecting students’ passion for service to the skills and fieldwork experience they need to help alleviate global poverty. The global poverty and practice minor — which she founded through the new Blum Center for Developing Economies — is now a top minor. More than 450 students have graduated since 2007, and more than 4,000 students have taken her class on poverty and inequality. Today Roy is leading the #GlobalPOV Project, a groundbreaking teaching experiment that uses Twitter and artful, provocative videos on YouTube to heighten the conversation around this seemingly insoluble problem. The videos steer clear of two extremes: “the hubris of benevolence, young Americans thinking ‘I’m going to solve poverty during my alternative spring break,’ and the paralysis of cynicism.” Students honored Roy with the Golden Apple Award in 2008. One nomination said, “At the end of every lecture, you leave contemplating … the meaning of life and the world around us.” Follow Roy on Twitter @AnanyaRoy_Cal.
As a former history professor at Berkeley, Litwack did more than recite facts and figures. He dramatically brought his subjects to life with quotations, photos, and popular music as he guided more than 30,000 students through American history during a 43-year career. Litwack drew from the experiences of his Russian-born parents and immigrant neighbors to develop his own fascination with African American history, particularly the consequences of slavery. Even as a teen he confronted what he called “distortions and racial biases” in the textbooks. He was later active in the civil rights and free speech movements and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his book Been in the Storm So Long. Despite his prestige, he insisted on teaching introductory courses and challenged his students “to stand in the shoes of those who came before us, to flesh out and give human meaning to abstractions about democracy, freedom, liberty, and opportunity.” When he received the student-driven Golden Apple Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2007, one student wrote in his nomination, “I can hardly find a moment to blink for fear I’ll miss something interesting.”
As a world-renowned authority on the human brain, it’s no surprise that Diamond carries one around in a hatbox. Possibly Berkeley’s oldest active professor, she has been filling her anatomy classes for more than 50 years, and her Integrative Biology 131 series has become a YouTube sensation. Reflecting on becoming a teacher, she wrote, “The first time a medical student asked me a question … I felt a deep, warm glow of satisfaction radiate through my body. This is where I belong.” One of Diamond’s major discoveries — that the brain can continue to develop at any age with proper stimulation — revolutionized thinking about the potential of the aging brain. She also spent decades researching how environmental factors can alter the brain’s anatomy — an idea that took her to Cambodia to improve the nutrition and learning of orphans in a remote Buddhist community. But her journey to academic stardom was not easy. A pathologist strung her along for years when she requested samples of Albert Einstein’s brain. “He wasn’t sure that I was a scientist. This is one thing that you have to face being a woman,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010. But she succeeded, and has not stopped spreading her knowledge with creativity and passion.
Though his father helped lead Levi Strauss & Co. for decades, Koshland built his life around science, not jeans. A third-generation Cal grad, he was a longtime professor of molecular and cell biology at Berkeley and a brilliant scientist known for his work on proteins and enzymes. In the 1980s, he spearheaded a massive reorganization of 11 biology departments that included a new curriculum to reflect advances in genetics and protein interactions. A subsequent campaign renovated one campus building and funded two others, one of which is named in Koshland’s honor. As his colleague Robert Tjian said, “People thought the reorganization was impossible, and I think no one else could have pulled it off.” Koshland also served as the editor of Science from 1985–1995, turning “a good, but stodgy journal” into the nation’s leading voice of science. Extending his vision and generosity beyond Berkeley, he established a scholarship program for San Francisco public high school students. Nga Pham, a 2012 recipient, said in a video, “This is the first time that I’ve wanted to go to college so bad. Even though I only came here two years ago, I realized that there’s nothing that I cannot do.” Among Koshland’s many awards are the National Medal of Science in 1990, the Berkeley Medal, and Alumnus of the Year in 1991.
A lifelong sports fanatic — she once dressed up as the Giants’ Will “The Thrill” Clark for Halloween — Scott first gained legendary status at Cal as the “mic chick,” the first full-time female yell leader at football and basketball games. KNBR’s morning sports anchor today, she continues to break ground as a lesbian in a male-dominated field. With a smooth voice and direct honesty, Scott doesn’t back down when men think they know more about sports. Program Director Lee Hammer told the SF Chronicle, “She knows what she’s talking about. She keeps guys in their place with the way she handles herself on the air.” In 2008, during a short window of time before California banned same-sex marriage, she wed Nicole Everett, a graduate of UC Berkeley Extension’s interior design and interior architecture program. Although the Supreme Court recently overturned the ban, they felt “lucky” to be married when so many of their friends lacked the right. Tune into Scott on weekday mornings, or follow her on Twitter at @katetscott.
Pérez made history in 2010 when he became Speaker of the California State Assembly, the first openly gay person to hold such a position in the nation. Raised in working-class communities, he learned the value of hard work and community service and spent more than 15 years advocating for more jobs, expanded healthcare, and the protection of workers’ rights. A longtime champion for LGBT issues, he was appointed by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to serve on the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. In March 2012, Pérez told a massive rally in Sacramento protesting education cuts that, “California is watching, and the people support you.” Backing their call, he wrote the Middle Class Scholarship Act to lower tuition for students who don’t qualify for financial aid at the University of California and California State University campuses. It was signed into law on July 1, 2013, the same day Congress failed to keep student loan rates from doubling. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @SpeakerPerez.
The starting right end for the last Bears team to play in the Rose Bowl (1959), Bates has pursued a lifelong career of visionary, socially responsive public service. A former captain in the U.S. Army, he served in the California State Assembly for 20 years, passing 220 bills that included legislation for children and families, mental health services, the environment, and civil rights. Berkeley’s mayor since 2002, his successes include the establishment of the David Brower Center, a home for environmental and social action; the Ed Roberts Campus, a fully accessible transit hub dedicated to disability rights; and the relocation of the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, a traditional music venue, to downtown Berkeley. Green at heart — he doesn’t own a car and composts his coffee grounds — Bates told the LA Times that recycling is his religion. “I want to do what I can for climate change and global warming,” he said. Follow Bates on Facebook or Twitter @MayorTomBates.