Monday, Sept. 10, will be Michelle Thomas’s first day as UC Berkeley’s basic needs manager, a new role in the Division of Equity and Inclusion. Thomas — a licensed clinical social worker proficient in helping children, adolescents and families in community-based and outpatient crisis settings — will oversee the campus’s basic needs programs and services and provide case management for students experiencing financial, food and housing insecurity. Among her priorities in 2018-19 will be readying the new Basic Needs Center for its grand opening in January and working with on- and off-campus partners to shape protocol for homeless students.
UC Berkeley News recently spent time with Thomas and asked what energizes her work and why it’s important to treat those in need with a holistic approach.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing. Did it inspire your social work?
How I see the world and my commitment to public service are deeply rooted in my dad’s faith and his insistence on our family being involved in social ministry. He’s originally from Minnesota and is Lutheran, and I was raised Lutheran.
He is really passionate about opportunities to serve, and when I was younger, our family took part in hosting meals at our church, where we broke bread with those who were homeless and who didn’t have food. My brother and I would sit facing strangers, and that was important to my parents, that there be a relational aspect to sharing a meal and a human experience. We were privileged and fortunate with the resources we had at hand, and it was expected that I would always be thinking about the person who had less.
My mom, who was born in Japan, is fiery and politically vocal and active. Her lens of dedication to public service came from learning when she was older that her grandfather and uncles were sent to internment camps during World War II. Because shame is an experience deeply connected to Japanese culture, her family hadn’t spoken about it. My mom’s mother — my grandmother — had been spared because she’d been sent from the United States, where she was born, to Japan.