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A Young, Local Activist Vies for Office in Berkeley

October 29, 2020
by Dylan Svoboda
Aidan Hill If elected mayor, Aidan Hill would be the first legally non-binary (with a gender marker x) public official in U.S. history. // Photo by Yesica Prado

Aidan Hill is one of four candidates running to be Berkeley’s next mayor, including incumbent and UC Berkeley alum Jesse Arreguín. Hill, 27, is a UC Berkeley senior transfer and re-entry student pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in political science. They were raised in Fontana, California and obtained an associate’s degree in communications studies at Riverside City College. They currently serve as the vice-chair of the city’s Homeless Commission. Previously, Hill has spent time volunteering with the California Public Interest Research Group and interning for Nancy Skinner’s 2016 State Senate campaign.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved in local politics as a student?

Aidan Hill: My mother was always involved in the PTA. I had this idea of being able to participate in social structures that made me who I was. My grandparents lived close by so I had a strong family unit.

I grew up a theater kid, I played various roles such as John Valjean [in] Les Miserables and Ebenezer Scrooge. Through arts, I was able to understand what it meant to have a full and unique experience of humanity. That’s what drew me to the next stage of my life, which was politics. During my senior year of high school, I did a mock trial, and I got congressional recognition for it. I thought: I want to try to find ways in which humanity can flourish because of the way things were going and the way things still are going, with the financial collapse in 2008, to the natural disasters happening now, I felt like California deserved better.

Basically, I was displaced from UC Berkeley because I wasn’t lucky enough to have housing close by. I lived in Richmond, where I could afford it. I was going to school and working at the same time. And it didn’t work out for me. I had adopted a rescue cat; most places wouldn’t allow cats. I also found a huge difficulty getting into housing as a trans person. I just kept thinking: Where’s a UC Berkeley or city of Berkeley system that can help people like me? It wasn’t there. So I had to move back to Southern California and start working, and then try to regain the stability in my life to go back to school. I got that chance in 2018. I found an apartment.

But I was in debt. I went to my Dean’s office, I was like, “Hey, I have this debt. It’s $17,000. And it’s for a semester I couldn’t complete because of all these extenuating circumstances.” And they’re like, “I’m sorry, you have to talk to the Chancellor.” So I started protesting and talking to the chancellor. They would always narrow their eyes like, “Who are you? Are you a student?”

That same year, I realized the election was coming up. I had no intention of running for office but I reached out to an organization called First They Came For The Homeless because I was struck by the plight of homeless students, especially my experience. They told me People’s Park is the most important issue facing homelessness in the city of Berkeley. So I sat in People’s Park for the entire year, every single day, doing meditation, yoga, reading books, having fun with people, and I was invited to meet with an organizing committee. At that same time, in May of 2018, as I was preparing to run for office, the Chancellor came out and said, our first development will be on People’s Park.

And what are your thoughts on People’s Park?

AH: [Growing up] in Fontana, we always had these open hills. That really gave me an understanding of open space. I didn’t understand how precious it was until I moved to Berkeley because it’s so constricting.

I want to keep [People’s Park] as open space. That means finding a way to create a public, a truly public, partnership between the community, the UC, residents, and business interests. We should work out that space together. Currently, the UC wants to build on it. I don’t think that’s the best plan. If they take any more of the trees, not only will they destroy arable land and good soil that feeds people, they’ll also create runoffs for heavy rainfall that will flood into the Telegraph Avenue area.

Berkeley mayoral candidate Aidan Hill addresses attendees of a People’s Park open house. Hill is an outspoken advocate for preserving the park as open space. // Photo by Sheila Mitra

I also don’t think it’s smart fiscal planning. In the policy briefs I saw from UC Regents, it looked like whoever was partnering for the student housing component would have a long life lease. For like 50 to 100 years they would own that space. I just don’t think that’s a service to the community. Overwhelmingly, people who are actively engaged in People’s Park show up every single day, and they do not want housing there, regardless of whether it is a resource center or if it’s student housing. They know that they’re not going to be the ones that get housed there. Building on a space where low income and people of color used to share their culture, activate themselves through organizing and doing organic farming, would be destroying something they couldn’t begin to understand.

But there’s a housing crisis for students too. If not in People’s Park, where should the university create housing for students?

AH: The city of Berkeley needs to reclaim all vacant land and rehabilitation buildings. We should have a vacancy tax. We should have a tax on agencies that don’t reside in Berkeley. We would have better outcomes for nonprofit developers that are in Berkeley, and they can provide affordable housing. I believe that we need a strong partnership between not only UC Berkeley but residential families, especially those who are middle income and above, where students can rent from them with minimal prices rather than having a dorm room with other students and having to pay about $2,000 per month.

That’s just the student aspect of it. We also need Rapid Rehousing for the unhoused population. We must make sure a decent quality of life is available for our medium-income population. Changing the rules and regulations on cohousing environments, zoning where we don’t have to provide parking spaces, all of these things are interdependent to make sure that people can use public land for public needs. Some of it looks like open space. This is all urban design and smart city planning.

What separates you from other mayoral candidates?

AH: The biggest thing that separates me is my demographics. I’m uniquely intersectional. I would be the first legally non-binary with a gender marker x public official in U.S. history. It would have an impact on national politics to have the inclusion of trans and genderqueer people.

I’m also the only Black and student mayoral candidate. I understand what young people are feeling. I’ve always been committed to the communities I’ve served, and not necessarily just getting power, but making effective change that’s not based on a single issue or because it benefits me personally. I have the skillset and the ethics to make sure that we protect Berkeley for future generations. I’m the only candidate that’s put forward a housing policy that includes extremely low income to above-median income people. I’m the only candidate that’s put forward a policy on ensuring universal health care coverage—at least a public option for it to cover dental and mental health, but also children’s health care and education—making sure reproductive freedom is available, focusing on universal human rights, and protecting people with disabilities with ADA compliance.

Social and environmental equity are a big part of your campaign. I’m wondering how you plan on addressing those issues?

AH: The first thing we need to do is change our food regulation policies. Something I’m looking forward to is strengthening regulations on genetically modified organisms, making sure that if there is any cloning, that it’s heavily tested and regulated by an outside or independent agency. I’m strongly in favor of ending pesticide use. Pesticide use increases the potential of wildfires and chemical smoke and contaminates our rainwater and drinking water. I’m also working to create basic food networks—working with different pantries, organizations, and making sure that everyone’s needs are met. I also want to heavily regulate high fructose corn syrup and push for a moratorium on large-scale, sugary drink manufacturers like Coca-Cola that use unethical practices in favor of local goods. But it’s all about the water and making sure it’s clean. We must protect our Bay and wetlands and ensure that we have clean air using energy and wind power to take carbon out of our atmosphere. The way we move around the city must change as well. Changing our transportation network, which accounts for 60 percent of greenhouse gas [emissions] in Berkeley, is key. Berkeley should be a place where everyone can grow food and children can play in the open air.

What has campaigning been like during quarantine?

AH: It’s definitely changed things. For me, personally, it was easy to transition in a COVID-responsible way. I focus on sanitization, making sure that people have accommodations like masks. We have socially distant gatherings.

Hill has had to get creative to connect with potential supporters during shelter-in-place restrictions. // Photo by Yesica Prado

The signatures were the biggest thing for me. We have to get 20 signatures to qualify for the ballot. It was difficult to get those signatures because people didn’t want to be in-person. No one was walking the streets. I learned through this campaign that digital media, emails, mass social media campaigns, putting fliers up, and making sure that people get the word out, including public speeches and making videos is a way to get people’s attention. By utilizing things such as NextDoor and newspaper ads, I’m able to talk to people in a way that’s not just me speaking a platform to them. I’m able to have a conversation.

What’s it been like running for office as a student?

AH: It’s been a great experience. All my classes are based upon public policy and environmental science so I’m getting a lot of extra understanding of the issues. But as a young person, the worst thing is the ageism bias. But I see this machine for what it is. I was born into the Great Recession—I don’t understand what it means to have a retirement plan or how to get a cheap apartment. I’ve been able to develop a good rapport with other students, especially Berkeley high school students because I’m speaking to the issues that affect them dramatically.

So it’s been hopeful, but it also gives me great pain because I understand where we’re going. We have not kept our carbon emissions at a reasonable level. It’s even more essential that we give people who are younger than me a chance at life. I think that’s missed with older generations. For young people, we see the end of the world as we know it by 2025-2030 at the latest, whereas many people who don’t understand the effects of what is happening, see it as like, we can wait until 2040 or 2050. That’s why my legislative policies have been geared towards now.

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