CHS grad creates legacy as political activist
In December of 2017, a video of a man on an airplane confronting Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona about his vote on a GOP tax bill that, if gone into effect, would make immense cuts to the US Medicare program, rattled the nation.
The man in the video—one of an estimated 30,000 Americans with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal disease with no cure—explained to the senator that passing such a bill would limit his access to a ventilator, a device crucial to extending his life and, more importantly, time with his infant son. Within days, the near two-minute video was broadcast on major media outlets, including CNN and MSNBC.
“Think about the legacy that you will have for my son and your grandchildren if you take your principles and turn them into votes,” he implored. “You could save my life.”
That man, Ady Barkan, has proven to be one of today’s most impactful political activists. But before his involvement in politics, Mr. Barkan was a student at Claremont High School, where he graduated in 2002.
“My parents cared a lot about the news and global affairs, but I don’t know what made me so political,” Mr. Barkan told the Wolfpacket from his Santa Barbara home.
As reported in a Politico article, “The Most Powerful Activist in America is Dying,” Mr. Barkan has been arrested at the US Capitol seven times, his most recent resulting from a protest while Brett Kavanaugh met with Republican senators regarding his Supreme Court confirmation.
Mr. Barkan, along with a large group of activists sporting T-shirts that read “Be A Hero,” the name of Mr. Barkan’s pro-Medicare campaign, took to the Capitol Building determined to ensure that Mr. Kavanaugh would not be given an opportunity to make cuts to Medicare.
“I am going to go inside of the senate, and I will not leave until we win,” Mr. Barkan announced from his wheelchair to the crowd.
Aside from being a persistent voice in Washington DC, Mr. Barkan is an attorney, has founded multiple social justice campaigns through The Popular Center for Democracy, and published a memoir, all while battling ALS.
He earned his law degree from Yale University. He and his wife Rachael King, an English professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, met as undergraduates at Columbia College when they both worked on the student newspaper, The Chronicle. The couple now lives in Santa Barbara with their three-year-old son Carl.
Mr. Barkan, 35, was diagnosed with ALS three years ago, just four months after the birth of his son. Life expectancy for those with ALS is estimated at five years.
But it was no surprise to Mr. Barkan’s friends and teachers from CHS that after his diagnosis, he responded in a quintessential Ady-like manner they all knew so well: with raging persistence and indestructible grit.
Though his condition continues to rapidly progress—he recently lost his ability to speak—his involvement in activism has remained prevalent. Using eye-tracking technology with a tablet attached to his wheelchair, Mr. Barkan communicates and types, and recently finished his memoir, “Eyes to the Wind.”
Mr. Barkan’s activism and public speaking traces as far back as his experience at CHS, where he was heavily involved as a speech and debate captain, theater student and a Wolfpacket reporter and section editor.
“Those three activities were more important to my life trajectory and world view than any class I ever took or book I ever read,” he said.
He competed in speech and debate all four years at CHS, where he particularly stood out in student congress, a debate-style where students discuss the pros and cons of a resolution in a similar fashion to the US Senate—as a senior, he qualified for the national tournament.
At tournaments, Mr. Barkan was highly regarded and respected as a witty and knowledgeable competitor. CHS speech and debate coach Dave Chamberlain got involved with the debate team in Mr. Barkan’s junior year. Mt. Chamberlain remembers him as someone who was always willing to engage in rich, intellectual conversation.
“At the end of that first year, it came time to think about who would lead the team the next year, and he was certainly the standout and the obvious choice,” Mr. Chamberlain said. “Even though I was worried about his involvement in other activities, I put that aside because of his strength as an advocate, all the great research he did, and his super-smart argumentation.”
On the Wolfpacket, Mr. Barkan was as a reporter, section editor and columnist. His column, “Critical Thought,” incorporated articles that made strong, often controversial, commentary on international affairs. As a reporter, he wrote about 9/11, freedom of the press and countless other topics.
“Ady is one of the most brilliant students I’ve ever taught,” Rebecca Feeney, his Wolfpacket adviser, said. “His intellect is incredible, but his passion is too. He was one of the most challenging students because he was so bright. He wanted to challenge everything.”
The CHS theater production program was also impacted by Mr. Barkan’s strong-willed mindset, where he was a thespian, involved in stage tech, a valued player on the Comedy Sportz team, and portrayed lead roles in productions like Romeo and Juliet. Under advisor Krista Carson Elhai, he took home second place in the state for monologue at the annual California state thespian festival.
“He was one of those kids that challenged everything about what everybody said,” Ms. Elhai shared. “Teachers like kids like that. We like bright kids who put input into what we’re doing and Ady was one of those kids. He really dove into whatever he was doing, so when he was in the theater it felt like that was his number-one priority. But that’s exactly how he operated in speech and debate and Wolfpacket, too.”
The CHS theater program was also where Mr. Barkan met one of his good high school friends, Ashley Opstad, during production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. They were working in stage tech when the friendship, which would last long after graduation, was initiated. The two often spent time organizing large games of Mafia during lunch, participating in the infamous Anti-Social Club, and planning pranks in the theater.
“As a teenager, Ady wasn’t afraid of offending anyone,” Ms. Opstad said. “He would have a passionate opinion about something and didn’t care if it would ruffle feathers, he would just keep going and push the envelope.”
Ultimately, Mr. Barkan believes his experience in Claremont and at CHS was a substantial factor in developing his voice for his career in political activism.
With the time he has left, Mr. Barkan said he is determined to remain active in politics and make as large of an impact as he can, specifically in preserving Medicare—a program he has witnessed the importance of firsthand.
“We deserve immediate change, and I don’t blame people for being impatient,” he said. “I want you to have fire in your belly and to refuse to accept ‘no’ for an answer. I just don’t want you to give up when things don’t change fast enough.”
On April 28, Mr. Barkan traveled to the Capitol to advocate for Medicare for all to Congress. He even met with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Throughout it all, however, he has learned the biggest impact one can make is not through policy change, but rather, through the lives of individuals.
“Change is hard. Really, really hard,” he said. “But you can make a really big change in individual people’s lives. If you are a teacher, social worker, or public interest lawyer. Even if you are not changing the whole world, you are certainly having an enormous positive impact on the people you are working for. That has deep meaning and value.”
Donate to Mr. Barkan’s “Be a Hero” fund by visiting beaherofund.com.
[Editor’s note: After receiving a news tip from a CHS teacher about Ady Barkan, Wolfpack reporter Claire Judson, a sophomore, set out to get an interview. After she located Mr. Barkan’s wife Rachael online, the couple invited Claire to Santa Barbara for an interview. With her mom, Pam Judson, Claire spent several hours interviewing Mr. Barkan, who uses eye-tracking technology to communicate. This is Claire’s first year on the Wolfpacket staff. The story is re-published here, with permission. —KD]