Honoring Community Through Service

When I  saw the call for nominations for the 2019-20 Chancellor’s Awards for Public Service, I immediately thought of International House resident Benny Corona. This was affirmed when an email appeared in my inbox just minutes later from another I-House resident saying he felt the same way, followed by a request that I (as an administrator) nominate Benny. I did so without hesitation and was thrilled to hear that Benny won the Graduate Award for Civic Engagement! While we were unable to celebrate in person this past May due to the pandemic, the Chancellor’s office will be honoring Benny and others at a virtual ceremony next week and I hope you’ll join.

But I have gotten ahead of myself. 

Sometimes, you land the good fortune of remembering exactly when and where you met someone. This was the case for me with regard to Benny. 

It was our second New Resident Orientation Retreat in Fall 2019 and I was exhausted. Still, I remember with clarity the exact moment I first met Benny. I was instantly drawn to his soft spoken but confident demeanor. In a short conversation over lunch, I quickly learned what matters most to Benny: his community in the Central Valley of California.

I’ve had a year to learn about and from Benny. While Benny is someone who listens before he speaks, he did not hold back any details, bravely answering all my questions for our I-House podcast. It became clear to me that Benny would take any opportunity to bring attention to his community. Creating and raising awareness is great, but it is a whole other level to get people to truly care about a cause. By being so open and vulnerable in sharing his life experiences with me (and essentially the whole world through the podcast), Benny inspired me to care about his community too. Before meeting Benny, I was guilty of only viewing the Central Valley from a narrow lens: hot, arid, where almonds are grown. After learning from Benny, I think of the Central Valley as beautiful— infused with vibrant colors of citrus fruits that someone has often suffered to pick so that I can enjoy them — and also filled with the vibrancy of a diverse immigrant population. It is a place where people live proudly in community: a rarity, I would argue. This is also Benny’s home, where he was born and raised.

Benny started working on the farm at the age of seven, helping his formerly undocumented parents pick fruit under harsh conditions. He landed — like a fish out of water — at Cal as an undergraduate. He defied the odds by being the first in his family to graduate from college and has since worked as a community organizer, community development specialist, and political campaigner. Some of his proudest projects involve working directly with low-income Central Valley communities to access and develop clean water and sewer systems, and working directly with farmworkers to advance state-wide and local policy.

Benny returned to Cal as a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy to continue building his tool kit to better serve his community. This summer he was able to use some of these tools working for the California Governor’s Central Valley Regional office where he supported efforts to increase Central Valley diversity and presence in State decision-making, and where he worked to address the region’s most pressing public policy issues (e.g., the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in the valley, increasing economic investment in the region, etc.).

Benny shares photos and stories about his life and his Central Valley community with the I-House community. The projected image is of a younger Benny as a farmworker.

There is not enough room to begin to scratch the surface of Benny’s story. However, if you want to learn more about why Benny is so committed to his community and why he and his community undoubtedly deserve this recognition, be sure to check out the first inaugural I-House podcast From All Corners episode featuring Benny on Apple PodcastGoogle Podcast, or Spotify

And of course, all are invited to join the awards ceremony live stream to cheer Benny on at 3pm PT, Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020.

Congratulations, Benny, on winning this award, and a big thank you to your community for temporarily sharing you with I-House and Cal. 

About valerie0ng

Valerie Ong directs the Program Office at the International House at UC Berkeley where she has the privilege of interacting on a regular basis with residents. Valerie is a big proponent of story-telling through various platforms because it is a powerful way to learn more about yourself and others. 
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