Professor Bob Gottlieb was a champion of environmental and social justice causes long before they became fashionable. Students and colleagues celebrate his influence and impact
By Samantha B. Bonar '90 | Photos by Kevin Burke
At the crossroads of academics and activism on Occidental's campus sits a neat little house with chickens running outside and raised planter beds bursting with kale and Swiss chard. And the head of the household—formally known as the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute—is Robert Gottlieb, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban and Environmental Studies and director of the Institute.
Bringing bicycles to freeways and fresh produce to schoolchildren; saving janitors from exposure to toxic cleaning products and farmworkers from pesticide drift; restoring the L.A. River and polishing up the ports—these are some of the issues that have driven Gottlieb the activist over a career that spans 50 years. Just as meaningful has been lighting a fire in the bellies of generations of Occidental students over such important environmental and social justice issues, with the hope of launching them on careers of social service.
"Bob really does get his hands dirty in the real world," says UEP colleague Peter Dreier, the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics. "He's a big thinker but he also has his feet on the ground, and that combination is hard to find in an academic."
"Professor Gottlieb created a space for me as a freshman where I could question everything and anything," says Julia Kingsley '15, a UEP major from Marblehead, Mass. "I could express my rage for e-waste being sent to China and my frustrations about my lack of knowledge as to how to fix these huge global issues. He let me be mad about the issues, and then would say, 'OK, so there are steps you can take to address it.'"
The UEP major is a challenging one, culminating in a yearlong senior comps project that requires original research. "We've created something unique here that combines being in an academic institution with functioning as a community-based think tank," says the 71-year-old Gottlieb, who is retiring this spring after 18 years at Oxy. "I think it is very gratifying because students really come to see it as essential to what they are becoming, whether for career purposes, for graduate school or for life experiences."
"I think we have pioneered the role of community-based learning on campus, and now it's kind of become a mantra on campus," adds Dreier of the community-based engagement and research UEP majors are expected to do. "L.A. is the perfect laboratory" for this work, he adds, pointing out that Occidental and Tufts are the only two colleges in the country with a combined urban and environmental program.
Dreier—who joined the College in 1992 and had been something of a "one-man band" teaching public policy—spearheaded the effort to recruit Gottlieb to Oxy from UCLA in 1997. "Bob had a national reputation even then as someone who was on the cutting edge of the environmental movement and also thinking about how to connect environmental issues with economic issues," Dreier says. "We wanted someone who was a serious scholar, a good teacher, and an applied teacher/activist who translated his scholarship into practice."
A senior professorship—made possible by a 1996 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation's Henry R. Luce Professorship Program—"was very appealing in the sense that the focus was L.A. and environmental justice, so it corresponded directly with the work I'd been doing," Gottlieb recalls. He also liked the idea of teaching undergraduates, rather than the graduate students he dealt with at UCLA. "When you see the changes that the students go through from first-years to seniors—from 18-year-olds to 22-year-olds—it's such an incredible time of transition and change and finding your voice. It's exciting to be part of that process."
A native of Brooklyn, Gottlieb grew up "in a household where radical politics was a mainstay," Anne Becher wrote in a short profile for her book American Environmental Leaders (2000). He protested atomic testing as a teenager, and majored in French literature at Reed College in Portland, Ore. As a graduate student of sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York City, he founded or cofounded a number of groups that 'translated the environmentally oriented utopian ideas of such radical thinkers as Murray Bookchin and Paul Goodman into action strategies, including … limiting the access of cars into Manhattan," Becher wrote.
He moved out West in 1969, eschewing the alternative allure of San Francisco for more buttoned-down Los Angeles ("I felt it was more interesting—full of possibilities"). He co-founded and managed the Midnight Special in Venice, a cooperative Leftist bookstore, which he left in 1973 to concentrate on lecturing and writing on politics and social movements, urban planning, and the history of Los Angeles. With co-author Irene Wolt, he published his first book, Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers, and Their Influence on Southern California (Putnam, 1977).
Along the way, Gottlieb branched out into academics, teaching courses at CalArts, People's College of Law, and UCLA Extension before becoming an adjunct lecturer at UCLA in January 1982. As environmental issues came to the fore, his take-no-prisoners attitude ruffled more than a few feathers. In 1989, Gottlieb served as faculty adviser to six UCLA graduate students who published a study that fingered the campus as one of the region's worst polluters. That precipitated the founding of the Pollution Prevention Education and Research Center in 1991 that he brought with him to Oxy six years later (as well as three UCLA staff members with grant money in hand).
When Gottlieb arrived in Eagle Rock, there was no UEP major at Oxy and no Institute. He credits a "very supportive dean, David Axeen," and a student body interested in participating in "action research," for making the transition. "The changes that were happening at Oxy were very appealing: Diversity. Community-orientation."
Probably the most ambitious urban experiment Gottlieb and his department undertook was their attempt in 2003 to shut down the Pasadena (110) Freeway to cars and open it to cyclists for a day. "There was a lot of community collaboration, a lot of interest in integrating it into research and curriculum," he says. "But the main thing was, how do you get Caltrans and the three cities and their transportation departments to agree to close the freeway for a bike ride?"
While the community groups hit a road block with Caltrans, "Because UEPI was part of Oxy, we got Caltrans' ear," Gottlieb says. Oxy became the sponsoring organization for the event, called ArroyoFest, and "It was extraordinary. It had such a powerful impact. And the actual experience of riding or walking on the freeway was quite stunning," he remembers. ArroyoFest spawned CicLAvia, in which downtown L.A. is closed to automobile traffic for one Sunday each May so cyclists can take over the streets.
Another topic important to Gottlieb is food justice, which incorporates the issues of food safety and making healthy, affordable food accessible to all. "I started engaging in that area about five years before I came to Occidental, and it mushroomed to become our biggest program at UEPI," says Gottlieb, who chaired the Los Angeles Food Policy Task Force created by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2009. "We were developing really innovative new initiatives like Farm-to-School that caught on around the country and that could plug back into the class."
In 2000, armed with a $2-million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, Occidental headed a national consortium of universities, school districts, and nonprofit groups to develop farm-to-school programs—in which local farms provide produce for public schools—in California, New Jersey, and New York. Two years later, the College received a $691,000 grant to expand California's programs statewide. And since the launch of the National Farm-to-School Network in 2007, the program has expanded to all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Gottlieb's Food Justice course is now so popular that a "virtual alumni class" joined his final sessions this spring. And a few years back, UEPI started community vegetable gardens at local elementary schools that students work in as volunteers.
"Food became a big thing—not just at Oxy, but around the country," he says. "It led to student organizations, it led to the FEAST [Food, Energy, and Sustainability Team] garden, which was student-initiated, and it led to a student-run class that I would supervise on gardening and preparing food."
Food Justice was a transformational class for Jennifer Yi '15, a politics major from La Crescenta. "After this course, I decided to pursue food justice research under Oxy's China and the Environment program," she says, spending the summer after her junior year in Hong Kong working on a rooftop farming research project under Gottlieb's mentorship. "He gave the other interns and me the freedom to pursue a research project that we are passionate about, while also providing us with the information and feedback we needed to move forward and produce a meaningful project," she says.
Yi, who aspires to a career in food law and policy, presented her summer research with fellow researcher Rachel Young '16 at the Asia-Environment Student Research Conference in New York in April.
"Professor Gottlieb is a wonderful professor, but most significantly for me he was a great adviser and mentor. In the spirit of activism and determination, he made me want to think in new ways according to my own passions," says Miranda Chien-Hale '13, an Occidental geology major who is currently in a master's program studying water resources management at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.
During the summer before her senior year, Chien-Hale also traveled to Hong Kong as part of Oxy's China and the Environment program. "Professor Gottlieb sent me on an exploratory research mission to document community-based methods used to address the issues surrounding air pollution in Hong Kong and other parts of China," she recalls. "It was during that summer that I solidified my interest in environmental issues, specifically water resources. Perhaps most significantly, I discovered my desire to help bridge the gap between science and community."
Once she receives her graduate degree, Chien-Hale plans to focus on urban water-quality issues in California. Gottlieb "encouraged me to be optimistic and to believe that I can and should contribute in a positive way to change in the world," she says.
"He's an incredibly gentle soul who mentors students with a light touch, but he has inspired a lot of students over the years to commit to some kind of social justice work," Dreier says. "He's a warm teddy bear of a person, but underneath he's got a fire in his belly about social and environmental justice. Both qualities have served the College well."
While Dreier regards Gottlieb as "irreplaceable in some ways," UEPI will continue its mission under the guidance of someone "who will pursue many of the issues that Bob is interested in and someone who cares about getting undergraduates' hands dirty," he says. That person is associate professor Martha Matsuoka '83, who majored in political science at Oxy (with a minor in Asian studies) and has worked closely with Gottlieb since joining the College in 2005. She will be taking over as director of the Institute, while Dreier remains as chair of the department. The department will also be adding a junior faculty member this fall.
"With infinite generosity, Bob has inspired generations of scholars and activists," Matsuoka says. "It has been an amazing gift to continue to learn from him as a teacher, mentor, and friend. His ideas and activism are even more salient now as we face the challenges of climate change and increasing inequities of race, class, gender, and place.
"I look forward to expanding and deepening the role of UEPI as a community-engaged research and action center," she adds. "By engaging faculty, students, and staff as well as community partners, funders, and decisionmakers, UEPI will continue to advance Bob's vision for just and sustainable urban places and communities."
"Having UEPI has really been a centerpiece for my experience, but it's good that Martha is transitioning into becoming director," Gottlieb says. "You don't want to get into a founder's syndrome, where you kind of hold on to something. So even though I will miss the excitement and energy in UEPI, I'm glad about the leadership and the direction that it's already taking—it's really interesting the ways it's going to grow."
As for Gottlieb's ultimate legacy? "The hundreds of Oxy graduates who are out there making the world a better place, and the tens of thousands of people out there who have never heard of Bob but whose lives have been improved by programs that he helped inspire," Dreier says. "The ripple effects of his work have spread very widely."
"It's hard to imagine the UEP department without his presence, and it's going to take me a while to get over the fact that he won't be here next year," says sophomore Young, "but I know he'll keep in touch because that's just who he is."
Gottlieb plans to research and write two books after his "transition"—the word he prefers to retirement—one comparing the urban environments of Los Angeles and Hong Kong. "It's work to do a book, but there's also fun and pleasure in it," he says.
He also plans to read, travel, and practice mindful meditation with his wife, Marge Pearson. One thing he won't miss about Oxy? The commute from Santa Monica he has endured for 18 years. That's one traffic problem that even Bob Gottlieb hasn't figured out yet.