Local Legend a Lifelong Social Advocate

Photo: Maudelle Shirek, a former Berkeley city council member and Bay Area resident since 1943, will celebrate her 100th birthday this June.
Karen Ling/Photo
Maudelle Shirek, a former Berkeley city council member and Bay Area resident since 1943, will celebrate her 100th birthday this June.

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Bundled up in a fleece snowman blanket with "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on the TV, Maudelle Shirek, a local activist and former Berkeley City Council member, contemplates her contributions to the community - which many agree are marked by a genuine passion to better the world - while admitting she personally does not think she has done much.

Shirek, who will celebrate her 100th birthday this June, is a Berkeley legend, having fought for many local and global causes, such as affordable housing and union rights. In 2007, Old City Hall - located on Martin Luther King Jr. Way - was named after her because of her devotion to social justice and the disadvantaged in the community, according to Mayor Tom Bates.

"She's a person who deeply cares about the poor ... and was interested in being sure their point of view was taken into consideration," he said.

Shirek, the granddaughter of slaves, first moved from Arkansas to the Bay Area in 1943 to work at the shipyards on the Richmond army base and then for the Berkeley Cooperative Center Federal Credit Union and the New Light Senior Center. Politics was something she began to "just grow into," said Shirek, who served as the District 3 council member from 1983 to 2004.

"Instead of cussing the dark, she lit a candle and jumped right in and has been active ever since (and) for the rest of her life," said Berkeley resident Carole Davis Kennerly, who first met Shirek in the late '60s or early '70s when the two were activists at the city credit union. Kennerly said Shirek worked specifically to secure loans for working class individuals in South and West Berkeley.

At 73 years old, Shirek was forced into retirement from her post at the senior center and decided to run for city council. Known by fellow council members as the "conscience of Berkeley," she worked diligently to empower the underprivileged in society and serve the community as a whole, according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who was on the council with Shirek from 1996 to 2004.

"The thing that made her so compelling to me was she went up a stairway to deliver a meal to someone who was sick, and here she was, 80-something, climbing up a stairway to hand-deliver a meal to this senior citizen," Worthington said. "That kind of social service is a great form of compassion."

Dale Bartlett, who served as Shirek's City Council aide, said he sees Shirek less as a public figure and more as a mother. She and her husband Brownlee Shirek took Bartlett in when he was trying to avoid the Vietnam War draft in 1969, with "no questions asked."

"Her feminine spirit is so strong," he said. "I'd say she's a mother to us all. She's the kindest, wisest, most beautiful human being I've ever met in my life, and I've learned so much from her."

Bartlett praised Shirek for her work on the committee that created the Peralta Community College system in 1967 and for instigating a lawsuit to establish the Berkeley City College three years ago.

Jacqueline DeBose worked alongside Shirek, an advocate for organic food and cooking, at the New Light Senior Center from 1990 to 1996. DeBose said Shirek taught her more about global issues - in addition to their work at the center.

"Her phrase that I most commonly report is that, 'You have to choose your battles and the struggle continues,'" she said. "And the struggle is not necessarily a local struggle, it is a global struggle - what happens in the streets of Zimbabwe affects what happens in the streets of San Pablo Avenue."

Shirek said her curiosity and interest in improving the community motivated her to stay socially active throughout her life.

"It's a beautiful world - a lot of beautiful people, but a lot of bad people too," she said. "It's a struggle, but it's what you make it to be. You want the world to be a little better place because you had been there."


Victoria Pardini covers Berkeley communities. Contact her at [email protected]

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