Social justice advocate, community ally Robert Gnaizda passes away

COMMUNITY advocate and pioneering civil rights lawyer Robert Gnaizda passed away on July 11, 2020 surrounded by his loving family. He was 83.

Gnaizda, known as Bob to his colleagues, friends and even to his adversaries across the aisle, was a fiery, articulate and thoughtful community advocate who fought for equality, minority rights and social justice throughout his career which spanned over six decades.

Gnaizda was a community advocate and pioneering civil rights lawyer.

He was born on August 6, 1936 and spent his youth in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, which was a tough Jewish neighborhood.

A graduate of Columbia University and Yale Law School, Gnaizda co-founded many groups involved in the fight for his advocacies, including California Rural Legal Assistance (1976), Public Advocates in San Francisco (1970), the Greenlining Institute (1993), and most recently was involved with the National Asian American Coalition (NAAC)/National Diversity Coalition (NDC) as its General Counsel.

He was a key advisor to the administration of California Governor Jerry Brown in the 1970s where he served as deputy secretary of health and welfare for the state.

Even prior to his involvement in the many groups he co-founded, Gnaizda showed his mettle by collecting testimony in 1965 on how white police and officials were preventing Blacks from voting, which helped influence the Voting Rights of 1965.

Perhaps, people will most recognize Bob Gnaizda as he was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, which focused on the financial crisis in the late 2000s directed by Charles Ferguson and narrated by Matt Damon. Prior to the crisis, the Stuyvesant High School alumnus had repeatedly warned the Federal Reserve about the coming subprime mortgage crisis and predatory lending.

It was with NAAC and NDC that Bob devoted his time in his later years, joining the organization when he was in his late 60s, and continuing to fight for access to equal opportunity, affordable housing and loans for small and minority-owned businesses.

The NAAC and NDC work with government institutions and corporations, aiming to seek policy changes so that underserved communities may benefit through different programs offered or developed by these entities, including supplier diversity programs. Areas tackled by NAAC/NDC-supported programs have focused on issues like homeownership, financial literacy education for youths and adults, digital and broadband literacy, affordable housing and healthcare.

It was at this time that Bob continued to build alliances and coalitions to open a gateway for underserved communities, and he was known to reach across lines to collaborate and negotiate a solution to problems. He also mentored many young people from different ethnicities and backgrounds who today continue to fight for the same advocacies that he cared about.

Faith Bautista, president and CEO of both NAAC and NDC, told the Asian Journal via email that “Bob is the hero of Filipino community, he won the suit for Filipino CPAs to have reciprocity. He worked with Larry Itliong to help Filipino and Hispanic farmworkers, he fought against Marcos regime, he built NaFFAA with Alex Esclamado, and most of all he made me who I am to follow his footsteps and continue the advocacy work [he started] since 1960.”

She further said: “I worked with Bob since 2002, spent thousands of hours fighting for small business and homeowners, changing policies. If there’s a message that Bob will continue to preach is to have more Filipinos in power! Now it’s all up to us to make that happen. I lost my partner, colleague, mentor and most of all, I lost the other half of me.”

“Bob was an inspiration for all of us. He fought till his last breath. I thank him for his hard work and dedication for helping the underserved people in America. Bob, all your work will not go in vain. If you are a member of International Giraffe Appreciation Society, Inc., you will continue Bob’s work. For those who doesn’t know International Giraffe Appreciation Society, Inc., that is how Bob recruits you to stick your neck out to join an organization that has no benefits to you, no membership fees and all one has to do is selflessly go good deeds in this world. Bob preached this throughout his life and lets all continue his legacy. His work will not be forgotten, and we will continue to further his noble deeds. We will miss you,” Bautista added in a NAAC/NDC release.

NDC Board chair Jin Sung also sent a message to Asian Journal on Gnaizda’s passing, saying, “Our general counsel Mr. Robert Gnaizda was a true hero who fought the financial structures that deepened the wealth inequality and racial discrimination in our times. National Diversity Coalition is tremendously honored to have worked along-side with him, as he actively taught the next generation how to be the change through indirect public policymaking. His brilliance and tactics supersede all strategists that I have come across, and I am found grieving for the loss of this magnificent man of justice. Thank you, Bob, for your dedication and love for the minority communities and shedding light on the power of people in this nation.”

Steven Sugarman, former General Counsel of NDC and founder of The Capital Corps, LLC, said, “Bob Gnaizda was an inspiration to me and so many others. He stood for doing right, putting the community first, speaking on behalf of society’s voiceless, and challenging others to live up to their ideals. I was proud to meet Bob’s challenge to help finance his vision for the National Diversity Coalition; I was humbled by the opportunity to assume the General Counsel role at NDC upon Bob’s retirement; and I am proud of The Capital Corps’ progress meeting his challenge to build a revolutionary CDFI focused on expanding access to capital for those ignored and left out of the banking system.”

“Bob, we thank you, remember you and honor you and your legacy. Your inspiration, patience, and wisdom built a legacy that demanded our community, business and political leaders do more and do better. You demanded more than words, you acted with integrity and decency, and you were not afraid to give credit where credit was due. May you Rest in Peace. We all miss you,” added Sugarman.

The Greenlining Institute issued a statement after Gnaizda’s passing, extending its “deepest sympathies to Bob’s family during this difficult time.”

“Since the mid-1970’s Bob was a tireless leader who created community around a simple, shared and powerful vision,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “To bring together grassroots community leaders from the African American, Asian American, Latino and disabled communities to both fight institutionalized discrimination and redlining and to proactively bring investments and opportunity into these communities. Bob was fearless. He and John Gamboa forced big banks and other institutions to listen, and brought billions of dollars in investment into communities that had been redlined.”

Bob Gnaizda (in wheelchair), gives a thumbs up, along with Faith Bautista (behind) and NAAC/NDC members at a press conference in Sacramento in August of 2019. | Photo by Joseph Peralta/AJPress

“Before racial and economic justice was a popular hashtag, Bob was bold enough to say what others wouldn’t and brave enough to do what most wouldn’t,” said Greenlining Board Co-Chair Tunua Thrash-Ntuk. “He wielded a pen and paper that was guided by his vast and unrivaled knowledge of our national economic and banking system. Coupled by his love of people, Bob never shrank in the face of the racial justice fight against outsized circumstance — be it a financially endowed CEO, a Federal Reserve Chairman or a powerful member of Congress or the Cabinet. His uncanny knack for strategy yielded Greenlining and the communities it serves countless wins that bent the arc of justice toward righteousness.”

Greenlining Institute co-founder John Gamboa, who along with Gnaizda initially served as the organization’s staff as both formulated a strategy that used the Community Reinvestment Act to push banks to lend and invest in long-redlined communities of color, said, “Bob is one of the most underappreciated civil rights leaders of our time because he never cared about being honored or celebrated, he cared about the work,” John Gamboa said.

“Bob Gnaizda was a social justice creative genius,” said Orson Aguilar, who led Greenlining after Gnaizda and Gamboa retired. “He mixed his vast legal skills with a creative organizing approach that often mixed baseball statistics with current and historic events. He always sought to uplift leaders of color and never backed away from talking about race. Nobody has worked harder than Bob to build a long-lasting, multi-ethnic coalition. Bob had an enormous spirit that will leave a long-lasting impact on all of us who were fortunate to have worked alongside him in our march towards social and racial justice.”

“Bob was a brilliant lawyer, advocate and comrade for social and economic equity for, with and in our communities,” said Ortensia Lopez, another co-founder and longtime Greenlining Institute board member. “Bob was always ahead of his times and always had great insights and strategies to address our issues. I am honored, privileged and thankful to have worked with him on so many issues.”

Many also have given tributes to Gnaizda, who touched many lives in his legendary career, in a statement distributed by the NAAC.

Gilbert R. Vasquez, Managing Partner of Vasquez & Company LLP, said, “I met Bob Gnaizda in 1979 on a Filipino matter before the California Board of Accountancy. It was a ‘small racial matter’ to some but it was a big deal and blatant discrimination to Bob. Bob won this battle and justice was served. What a man and he was no ordinary man. A man to be admired and who was a dear friend.”

Joseph Otting, 31st Comptroller of the U.S. Currency, remembered, “Bob was a giant amongst mankind in caring and supporting low to moderate communities and individuals in America.”

Eugene Ludwig, CEO of Promontory Financial Group and 27th Comptroller of the U.S. Currency, expressed, “Bob Gnaizda, was someone I cherished as a friend. I had deep respect for Bob. To me he combined the highest standards of a concern for his fellow man, particularly those in the greatest need, with considerable talent and energy. Bob made things happen for the common good. I often remember when I was Comptroller of the Currency how he would come to visit me and inspire me to do more for low- and middle-income Americans of all races, genders, ethnicities and religion. He led the charge. An activist with a sense of humor, he leaves behind a legacy of achievement in which friends and family can take pride.”

Dr. Mark Whitlock, Pastor, COR Church, said, “He was the wise beginning to a living end. Thank you for living to end redlining for others to have a greener living.”

George McDaniel, president and co-founder of African Americans for Economic Empowerment in Oakland, CA, said, “I was very saddened to learn of the passing of Bob Gnaizda, one of the most notable and stalwart Champions for Social Justice in the nation over the 20th Century. He was one of my idols and heroes in large part because of his intellectual prowess and his courage in speaking truth to power unashamedly and with great positive effect on the economic and quality of life outcomes for many powerless people of color around the Nation. He blazed a trail for so many others to follow. Rest in Peace my Friend!”

Gnaizda is survived by his wife, Claudia Viek, sons Josh and Matt and granddaughter August. A private funeral is planned in Petaluma, CA on Saturday, July 18. Plans for a public online memorial are being developed and will be announced later.

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