Ginger Ogle never dreamt that her impromptu venture, Berkeley Parents’ Network, would come this far. A database programmer and mother of three, Ogle humbly describes herself in terms like “geek” and “armchair activist,” but never as a crusader for families or women’s rights.
Rather, Ogle created a free online network that would endure over 12 years and draw thousands of parents and caretakers closer together through a forum that collects expert advice (on topics ranging from night tremors to where to find a reliable math tutor) from those who have learned all the lessons firsthand-other parents.
The BPN Web site at www.parents.berkeley.edu is unusually devoid of pop-up ads and functions on a not-for-profit status out of a UC Berkeley server. The principle is deceptively simple: with a question in mind, a parent or interested party searches the BPN site for a suggestion. If a suggestion is not archived, they e-mail the inquiry to BPN, whose volunteers sift through their 50-or-so weekly e-mails to select those that will receive a response in the upcoming newsletter sent to all subscribers. BPN sends e-mail newsletters at least three times a week, with separate sections listing items for sale and postings for caretaking or tutoring jobs. BPN also distributes a separate newsletter for parents of teens.
Carol Nyhoff, graduate student at Mills’ School of Education, subscribed and posted to BPN when her now college-aged children were in high school. Nyhoff says that while she did not always agree with the advice of other parents, her participation helped her recognize that she was a “good enough mom.” Today, Nyhoff still reads BPN postings, and her 19-year-old daughter uses the site to advertise her tutoring services.
BPN was born in 1993 when Ogle was a Masters student in computer engineering at UC Berkeley. As a leading member of Women in Computer Science and Engineering, Ogle helped produce a proposal to the UC demanding more lenient policies toward expectant parents who would require maternity leave, which WICSE argued should not negatively affect students’ graduation status. The university quickly approved the proposal, and Ogle went on to secure diaper-changing stations and a separate office for graduate student parents.
These victories for parents at UC Berkeley were significant breakthroughs, Ogle says, because women are so drastically underrepresented in science and technology, and by the time women reach graduate school, they are often becoming more family-focused, which diverts even more qualified women from completing advanced degrees.
In conjunction with the WICSE proposal, Ogle had been organizing students through an e-mail list, which only reached engineering and computer science students-then the only demographic that regularly used electronic mail. Over the months, the list of recipients grew by word-of-mouth and began to reach a more diverse range of parents as e-mail became increasingly common.
Today the BPN mailing lists reach 14,000 subscribers, with 10 volunteers to staff the site and newsletters.
Ogle says that such accommodations-like the ones UC made for student parents in her day-are not always so easily won, and more often than not campus housing and daycare is unaffordable to student parents.
“There is very little support for middle-class students,” Ogle says. “You have to be very poor to qualify.”
Katie Carranza, a Mills Public Policy major, says that one of her primary reasons for choosing Mills was its option of on-campus family housing, although she has been on the waiting list for the Underwood Apartments without word from the administration since summer. Carranza seems a little disappointed, but says that Mills usually provides adequate services to its student mothers who are willing to actively pursue them.
“The counseling services at the health center have been good resources for me,” she said, “… but [I] don’t feel like there’s much of a safety net.”
Carranza says that she would be willing to give BPN a try and is especially interested in meeting other single moms at Mills. “We need each other,” she said.
Ogle says she has always been struck by the sense of community that BPN subscribers seem to feel, which she says is demonstrated by the intimate nature of participants’ discussions with topics like disciplining children, sex and abortion.
Today Ogle receives thankful e-mails from Bay Area parents and e-mails from parents in other countries asking if similar sites exist in their part of the world.
Unfortunately not, she says.
“Berkeley parents are kind of wacky and special that way.”