Aug 6, 1936 - Jul 11, 2020
Robert Gnaizda, a pioneering civil rights lawyer, died on July 11, 2020 in San Francisco, surrounded by loving family.
Robert, known by friends and colleagues as Bob, was an exceptional man: a fighter for justice, an advocate for the underdog, a family man, and an insatiable lover of chocolate.
He fought for social justice in varying ways for more than 75 years. He is most known for his five decades of work as a public interest attorney.
Born on August 6, 1936, Bob's passion for justice began in Brownsville, Brooklyn—then a tough Jewish neighborhood—where he frequently defended other boys and their stickball turf by beating up the biggest schoolyard bullies.
It was further sparked at age 10, when he rode his Schwinn bicycle to Ebbets Field to watch Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and observed that the common stereotypes about Blacks were unfounded and unfair.
Bob Gnaizda graduated from his beloved Stuyvesant High School in 1953, from Columbia University in 1957, and from Yale Law School in 1960.
As a young attorney in February 1965, Bob hid in the backseat of a car as he rode to Clay County, Mississippi, where he collected testimony on how white police and officials were preventing Blacks from voting. That testimony helped influence the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1966, during the era of Cesar Chavez, Bob co-founded California Rural Legal Assistance. He took class action cases on behalf of farmworkers forced to work for low wages in poor conditions.
In 1970, he co-founded Public Advocates in San Francisco. Among his many achievements there, in the 1970s he won a legal battle that forced the San Francisco Police and Fire Departments to end their discriminatory hiring and promotion practices.
Bob worked as a key advisor in the first Governor Jerry Brown administration, from 1975 to 1976, where he was deputy secretary of health and welfare for the State of California.
He co-founded the Greenlining Institute in 1993, bringing together a diverse group of community leaders to fight against redlining, and for the economic empowerment of communities of color.
As a long-time advocate for minority housing rights, Bob saw the subprime mortgage crisis coming and tried to warn the Federal Reserve. He was featured in Inside Job, the Oscar-winning documentary on the crisis.
After refusing to retire at age 68, he joined the National Asian American Coalition, and then the National Diversity Coalition, as General Counsel, as always, fighting on behalf of access to affordable housing, small business loans and equal opportunity.
Throughout his career, Bob was known as a brilliant strategist who came up with inventive ways to get results. He believed in building coalitions and was always willing to negotiate with the other side. His mentoring of young people of color resulted in numerous and powerful community leaders who carry on his legacy today.
After much convincing from his family, Bob finally retired at age 81 due to declining health. He died of complications relating to old age at age 83.
But more important to Bob than his long and celebrated career was his family. Bob was a loving, supportive husband to his wife, Claudia Viek—who has been his partner in social justice activism. Through his previous wife Ellen, Bob has two sons, for whom he was an incredible father. He gave them his time, his support, and his love of debate and math. He is survived by his wife, his sons Josh and Matt Gnaizda, and his granddaughter August Gnaizda.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle from Jul. 14 to Jul. 15, 2020.