In December of 2017, a video of a man on an airplane confronting Republican Sen. 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.
In the video, a man diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, a fatal disease with no cure, explained to the Senator that the passing of such a bill would limit his access to a ventilator — a device that would be crucial in extending his life and, more importantly, time with his infant son. Within days, the near two-minute clip was being broadcast on numerous 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 pleaded to the Senator. “You could save my life.”
That man, better known as Ady Barkan, has proven himself to be one of today’s most impactful left-leaning political activists. But before his involvement in politics, Barkan was a student at Claremont High School, where he graduated in 2002.
According to a recently published Politico article under the title, “The Most Powerful Activist in America is Dying,” Barkan has been arrested in the U.S. Capitol seven times, with his most recent arrest occurring in protest of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation. Barkan, along with a large group of other activists sporting T-shirts reading “Be A Hero,” the name of Barkan’s pro-Medicare campaign, took to the Capitol Building, determined to ensure Kavanaugh does not take action to make cuts to the Medicare program.
“Brett Kavanaugh, right in this very moment, is holding meetings with Republican senators,” Barkan announced from his wheelchair to his audience in front of the Capitol Building. “I am going to go inside of the Senate, and I will not leave until we win.”
Aside from being a persistent voice in D.C., Barkan has developed a career as an attorney, founded multiple social justice projects and campaigns through The Popular Center for Democracy, and published a memoir, all despite his ALS, a condition resulting in gradual paralysis and the eventual inability to speak. The disease, which Barkan was diagnosed with four months after the birth of his son, Carl, typically has a life expectancy of around five years.
But it was no surprise to Barkan’s former friends and teachers at CHS that after he had received the diagnosis, he responded in the quintessential Ady-like manner they all knew so well: with raging persistence and indestructible grit. Though his condition continues to rapidly progress and he has recently lost his ability to speak, his involvement in activism has remained prevalent. Using eye-tracking technology with a tablet attached to his wheelchair, Barkan is able to communicate and type, making it possible to finish writing his memoir, “Eyes to the Wind.”
Barkan’s work in activism and powerful 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 Wolfpacket reporter and section editor.
Barkan participated in speech and debate in 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 — an event that he qualified for the national tournament in as a senior.
At tournaments, Barkan was highly regarded and respected as a witty and knowledgeable competitor. Current speech and debate coach Dave Chamberlain began his involvement with the debate team in Barkan’s junior year, where Chamberlain would get to know him as a student that would always be willing to engage in rich, intellectual conversation. So when it came to his end-of-the-year task of determining which 11th-grade student would serve as team captain in the ensuing year, he already knew who stood out: Barkan.
“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,” 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, Barkan served as a reporter, section editor, and columnist. His column, titled “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, among countless other topics. With Becca Feeney as his journalism teacher and adviser, Barkan’s controversial work often stirred up conflict within the Claremont community. Though he often butted heads with Feeney and the community at large, Barkan made a point to defend his work relentlessly.
“Ady is one of the most brilliant students I’ve ever taught,” Feeney 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.”
Claremont High School’s theater production program was also impacted by Barkan’s strong-willed mindset, where he was a thespian, involved in stage tech, a valued player on the Comedy Sportz team, and often portrayed lead roles in dramatic, contemporary pieces such as Romeo and Juliet. Under the advisory of current Claremont theater adviser 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,“ Elhai said. “And I think teachers like kids like that. We like bright kids and that 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.”
Claremont’s Theater program was also where Barkan met one of his good high school friends, Ashley Opstad, on the production Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Opstad and Barkan were both working in stage tech when the friendship, which would last long after the two graduated, was initiated. The two often spent their 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,” 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, Barkan’s experience with the Claremont community, along with Claremont High School’s debate, theater, and journalism program, is something he believes to have been a substantial factor in developing his voice for his eventual career in political activism.
After graduating from Claremont High School in 2002, Barkan proceeded to receive a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College, along with a law degree from Yale University. In terms of developing a career in politics and public speaking, though, Barkan attributes his skills to his speech and debate, theater, and student journalism experience.
“I feel like I had really amazing opportunities at CHS,” Barkan said. “Debate, Wolfpacket, and theater were so crucial in shaping my ability to think, write, and speak about politics and public affairs. I feel really privileged to have gone to CHS.”
With the time he has left, Barkan is determined to remain active in politics and make as large of an impact as he can, specifically in regards to the preservation of the Medicare — a program he has witnessed the importance of firsthand. On April 28, Barkan traveled to the Capitol to speak for Congress to advocate for Medicare for all, and met with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Throughout his activism, however, he has learned that the largest impact one can make is not through policy change, but rather, through the lives of individuals.
“Change is hard. Really, really hard,” Barkan 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, then even if you are not changing the whole world, you are certainly having an enormous positive impact on the people whom you are working for. That has deep meaning and value.”
At a speech and debate meeting one afternoon, Barkan and Chamberlain struck up a conversation about a Jack London quote on a postcard pinned to his classroom wall. Both spoke highly of the quote.
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dryrot,” the quote on the postcard read. “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in a magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”