Karen Hemphill. Courtesy: Karen Hemphill

Karen Hemphill, who served three terms as school board director and laid the foundation for the district’s existing career and technical education program, died in early April after a three-year battle with cancer. She was 66.

During her 12-year tenure on the school board, which ended in 2018, Hemphill fought to forefront equity at Berkeley schools, earning a reputation for being an outspoken advocate for Black and Latino families. 

“She was a visionary leader that knew what it meant to stand up for what was right and what was needed, even if she felt she was standing alone,” Laura Babitt, school board president, wrote about Hemphill in a district statement.

First elected to the board in 2006, Hemphill had previously been involved in a parent group called Parents of Children of African Descent and volunteered on several school district and city committees. Throughout her years on the board, she tried to ensure families of color had a voice within Berkeley schools.

In a passionate speech at her last board meeting, Hemphill criticized Berkeley Unified teachers and staff for perpetuating racial achievement gaps through their implicit bias. 

“There are many middle-class and other college-educated Black families, including mine, that can cite chapter and verse of how their student was perceived as less than,” Hemphill said, calling implicit bias the “single most significant factor in our continuing academic disparities.” 

Karen Hemphill (fourth from left) gets a 2018 send-off from current and former Berkeley School Board directors. File photo: Natalie Orenstein

School district and city leaders praised Hemphill for her dedication in fighting against inequities. “You were a fierce champion and warrior on behalf of Black and Brown children and their families. You never gave up demanding better and insisting on holding the district accountable,” former school board director Julie Sinai wrote on Facebook. 

In her pursuit of equity, Hemphill helped lay the groundwork for what several of the current school board’s current initiatives, such as the African American Success Framework, according to school board director Ka’Dijah Brown.

Hemphill also helped expand career and technical education at Berkeley High — playing an instrumental role in securing state funding and establishing connections with trade unions to grow CTE into a full-fledged career preparation program that offers 10 professional tracks ranging from fire science to biotechnology. She also helped establish science and technology facilities, like the Berkeley High Fabrication Lab. Today, over half of Berkeley High students are enrolled in CTE pathways. 

“CTE was widely misunderstood as a form of vocational education, but not by Karen,” wrote Stephanie Allan, who has been involved in career and technical education at Berkeley High for years. “She saw it as a way to teach core academic skills in math, science and English Language Arts as well as open doors for students to careers that offered them intellectual challenges, high wages, full benefits and pensions.” 

Hemphill had an infectious laugh and became a mentor to many Berkeley leaders, including school board directors Babitt, Brown and Ana Vasudeo and city councilmember Terry Taplin.

Former school board director Ty Alper recalled Hemphill whispering in his ear throughout his first board meeting, helping him understand the district budget. Vasudeo remembered coffee sessions with Hemphill, who advised her when she was running for school board and emphasized the value of engaging families.

“I learned from Karen to read between the lines of what was not being reported or said about black and brown students and their families,” wrote former board director Beatriz Levya-Cutler, who said she made a pact with Hemphill to run for school board to increase more representation for Black and Latino students and families. 

Hemphill worked in local government for decades, starting Berkeley’s composting and recycling programs and later working as a senior administrator and city clerk in Emeryville, where she established the Emery-Go-Round shuttle. She loved to travel and tell stories about the places she visited.

Hemphill is survived by her husband, Richelieu, and her sons, Jonah and Elijah. 

A celebration of life will be held April 21 at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. The formal part of the program begins at 6 p.m., and the service will also be streamed online.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...