Robert Reich’s Wealth and Poverty Class: COVID-19 Edition

Each time you ask a Berkeley student the golden question, why Berkeley? Or maybe just asking what they love most about the university, you’ll end up finding a different answer. To me, that might be one of my favorite things about this campus — the fact that there can be 40,000 students learning in a single environment and each individual can walk away with a unique Berkeley story. When I walked onto campus as a student for the first time I had never been a very politically active person and tended to shy away from politically charged discussions for fear I wasn’t educated enough or simply wishing to avoid conflict. Therefore, what drew me to Berkeley wasn’t necessarily the political history and progressiveness of our campus, but instead the academic environment and the opportunities I might find learning under experts in the fields of science and medicine that I was studying. Of course, I did end up finding myself in general chemistry lecture halls named after Berkeley professors who have paved the way for modern science and being taught by pioneers in the field; however, what solidified my Berkeley story and my own personal growth was something entirely different. 

If you’ve been on campus for at least a month you will have heard about Robert Reich’s Wealth and Poverty class. For those of you who, like me, may have not been familiar with Professor Reich here’s a little background. In addition to serving under US Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton, he was also the United States Secretary of Labor from 1993-1997 and a member of Obama’s economic advisory board. Let’s just say the man knows a bit about economics and chooses to now dedicate his time to teaching Berkeley students the basics of income, wealth, and racial inequalities in modern America. 

As a freshman ready to satisfy my philosophy & values breadth requirement with a class I had heard nothing but good reviews about, I signed up immediately and was grateful to get a spot among the hundreds of juniors and seniors in the lecture hall. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was entering a politically charged arena I had previously done everything to avoid, nor was I anticipating a global pandemic that would allow these issues of wealth and poverty to come to light in a palpable way. 

The moment I sat alongside hundreds of Berkeley students anxiously awaiting Professor Reich’s first lecture in Wheeler Hall and witnessed a sea of phone cameras at the ready for this campus celebrity, I was filled with immense pride to be a part of this community. To be able to attend a university where the professors are experts in their fields, but also where their lectures are followed by a cacophony of applause by students who are as passionate about learning as the professors are about teaching is a distinct part of why I love Berkeley.

In the months following that first lecture Reich’s two-hour Friday classes became the perfect way to end my week and leave knowing that the concepts discussed in that lecture hall were happening just outside of Wheeler and all around the United States. As soon as I stepped outside I could see the world a little bit clearer. Then Monday discussion sections came and seniors who had spent their past four years at Berkeley studying public policy would share their insights with a confidence and clarity I couldn’t quite muster. This class in which students wait years to take was my way of just scratching the surface so I would often sit back and listen, observe, and slowly make my own opinions.

Week 8 took on a bit of a different look when I sat there from my childhood bedroom and watched Robert Reich on a screen in an empty Wheeler Hall that would normally be filled with 700 hundred students ready with their iClickers to participate in the lecture. At first, with COVID-19 shifting all learning to Zoom learning, it was difficult to anticipate how successful this could be without the nods of understanding or blank stares of apathetic students. However, for a class that tackles the social and economic inequalities of America, a global pandemic began to reveal the undeniable and frightening truth to all of Robert Reich’s lectures. The more things changed in the world, the more Robert Reich and his graduate student instructors (GSIs) would change slides and topics to reflect it. Soon, Robert Reich’s lectures were on my grandparent’s calendar as they sat in their own home and hopped on a Zoom to learn with me. While statistics were released that showed the coronavirus’ disproportionate effect on minority Americans, I would simultaneously be learning about the inequalities of the American healthcare system. As Professor Reich would consistently reiterate, it is impossible to analyze income inequality without tying it into wealth inequality and entwined in it all, racial inequality. These very ideas stuck with me as the Black Lives Matter movement took center stage in our nation following the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. 

After sitting on the sidelines of discussions for months and taking everything in, I believe that this class enabled me to slowly find my own voice. I am certainly not the most politically active person in any room, but I now feel enabled to speak my mind based on what I’ve learned, researched, and been challenged with in this class. Looking back, I’m grateful I decided to take this class when I did, not despite but because of, the national crisis that allowed me to appreciate the lectures that much more. I certainly still enjoy my biology lectures and I’m excited for my career in the sciences going forward, but this class and those like it that force us to confront our own ignorances is what has allowed me to grow in such a short time.


My grandpa and I listening to Robert Reich's lecture