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Student Profile: Joe Sciarrillo (MSW '14)

Second-year student's photobook, Bay Area Underground, focuses on local social movements

Current second-year Berkeley Social Welfare MSW student Joe Sciarrillo first recognized the usefulness of the camera to document and capture the spirit of community at the age of nine, when he started taking pictures for skateboarding.

His elementary-school hobbies have clearly remained his lifelong passions, as he is still both skating and honing his photography skills, with the latter talent recently culminating in the published collection, Bay Area Underground: Photos of Protests and Social Movements, 2008-2012. Released by the Berkeley-based independent publishing house Thought Publishing in December 2012, the coffee-table book features images shot by Sciarrillo and UC Berkeley alumnus Matt Werner (BA '07), who captured many of the notable social movements and public protests in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and other Bay Area cities taking place throughout President Obama's first term in office.

"Both Matt and I wanted to show a people’s perspective of the social movements, especially Occupy, because when it started in San Francisco and Oakland there wasn’t much coverage in the mainstream media," says Sciarrillo. "Matt has been self-publishing several books on his own, and he had seen the photographs I’ve been taking at different protests over the years. He started to think about what type of journalism could best capture Occupy and the Oscar Grant protests. That led to the idea of putting together a book of all the photos I had taken over the years, alongside the photos that Matt was beginning to take in Oakland."

Werner adds, "What inspired us to do Bay Area Underground was that Joe had been taking photos at many of the major protests and social events around San Francisco and the East Bay, and I told him, 'You should do something with all the photos. You need to get them out there,' because his images are really engaging." Werner, whose other projects include the interview collection, Oakland in Popular Memory (Thought Publishing, 2012), and the satirical faux news site Oakland Unseen, says of his and Sciarrillo's photobook that it's likely the "first book…to come out of Occupy Bay Area and the first that covers the Oscar Grant protests."

Like photography and skateboarding, Sciarrillo's deep-abiding interest in social justice, which will include the completion of his MSW in the community mental health concentration this May, dates back to his years growing up. He notes that his upbringing in a Catholic family who believed strongly in the social justice component of the faith has strongly influenced him, particularly the values of his parents, who were "always involved in social justice causes." Additionally, he and Werner met at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, where the friends and future book co-authors "did a lot of social justice volunteer projects together" as part of their high-school education.

While Sciarrillo has deep roots in the Bay Area, having grown up in Northern Marin and lived and worked in San Francisco the past several years, his exposure to community-based political action spans nationally and internationally. He attended Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where he earned a BS in Foreign Service with an emphasis in culture and politics. As part of his degree, he participated in a study abroad program in Senegal's University of Dakar, earning African studies and French proficiency certificates along the way, all with the initial goal of pursuing a career in international development and human rights work.

His professional trajectory took a slight turn when he returned to the Bay Area and joined a San Francisco community center to tutor African immigrants in English. The language lessons evolved into a position as a paralegal, with duties including assisting clients with visa documentation, resume preparation, employment searches and helping deportation defenses in conjunction with attorneys. In 2009, Sciarrillo and a few of his colleagues established their own agency in the city's Mission District named the African Advocacy Network.

"Doing paralegal work over the years in the Mission District and using French at work, I realized there are many social needs," explains Sciarrillo. "Sometimes people needed an interpreter to go to the homeless shelter, or oftentimes they needed psychological evaluations for their immigration cases. Right now we focus mostly on legal services, but I wanted to do an MSW -- not only to learn more about psychology and social services -- but also to develop a social services program at our agency."

Sciarrillo has continued to work at the African Advocacy Network during his MSW program, arranging to do his second-year field placement at the agency as well as in Oakland's International Rescue Committee, and he will remain at the AAN following his impending graduation from the School of Social Welfare. He also has yet to put the camera down, focusing his lens more recently on graffiti and murals throughout the Bay Area.

He has become interested in looking at the changing architectural landscape of San Francisco in the form of new and generally astronomically priced housing developments -- a subject whose metaphoric representation of the city's increasing economic divide, replete with community concerns about displacement and gentrification, is not lost on Sciarrillo. As he and Werner note in the afterword of Bay Area Underground, "Each city fosters its own identities and cultures as well as subcultures within each neighborhood." Sciarrillo's latest project seems a natural continuation of his and Werner's goal to demonstrate "how cities and neighborhoods interact, blend together, and create an interplay of identities," this time via the hotly contested issue of housing -- and who has access to it.

"The last few years in the Bay Area have been historic as far as public mobilizations, use of public space and the political implications," says Sciarrillo.  And the soon-to-be Berkeley Social Welfare graduate will be ready with both his camera to memorialize these community protests along with his social-work education and training to help individuals affected by the social issues and economic imbalances driving the acts of public defiance.

Photos from Joe Sciarrillo and Matt Werner's Bay Area Underground will be on display in the Haviland Commons, Haviland Hall from mid-April to August.