Community Advocate Bob Brownstein Establishes Scholarship and Future Endowment to Support King Library
As a high school student, Bob Brownstein, ’94 MS Environmental Studies, had the opportunity to see the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at the City University of New York. It was the early 1960s and already Brownstein saw the importance of King’s message: that Americans of all backgrounds should have equal civil rights, including access to education and healthcare. But he couldn’t have predicted that decades later, he’d play an instrumental role in establishing a strategic partnership between the City of San José and San José State University for a library named in the civil rights pioneer’s name.
“I was shaped a lot by the Civil Rights Movement,” says Brownstein, who relocated to California in the late 1970s and has dedicated his career as a policy director, community advocate and public servant to making Silicon Valley a more equitable place. “I came of age as a lot of progressive causes and political events caused a shift in culture. Social and economic justice have been my core values for my whole adult life; if there are students that are just starting out and are interested in advancing these ideas, I want to do what I can to help them get an education.”
Starting next year, Spartans can apply for the Bob Brownstein scholarship, awarded annually to students who are actively pursuing activities to address economic and social inequality. In addition, Brownstein has included a gift in his estate plans to create a permanent endowment for the Africana, Asian American, Chicano & Native American Studies Center at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library to provide stipends for student assistants working for the Center.
An eye for diplomacy
Brownstein’s relationship to San José State spans back to his tenure as Santa Clara County Supervisor Susie Wilson’s policy director. When residents of their district complained of an environmental crisis in South San José, Wilson asked him to investigate how they could safely address the leakage of toxic chemicals into city groundwater. Brownstein enrolled in environmental studies classes at SJSU to improve his understanding of the root of the issue, eventually earning a graduate degree while working with city and corporate partners to stop the leaks, lead remediation efforts to control the spread of contaminants and clean the affected sites.
This experience came in handy years later, when he was hired as a member of San José Mayor Susan Hammer’s team. He still remembers the breakfast meeting between Hammer and then-SJSU President Robert Caret, when they discussed the possibility of combining resources on a joint library.
“I love libraries; I’ve been an avid reader my whole life,” he says. “I like the idea of creative, innovative partnerships. The City of San José had a main library on San Carlos Street, but it had a limited collection. San José State had an excellent collection, but it was in a rundown building. The city had redevelopment agency funds to create a building, but it had no library collection. So we were able to satisfy everyone’s basic needs.”
King Library, which recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its partnership with the city, provided a great blueprint for other city-university joint partnerships around the country.
Empowering future community leaders
Brownstein worked alongside Mayor Hammer for eight years before becoming research director at Working Partnerships USA, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing human rights campaigns. Over the years, he has championed efforts to pay and raise living wages, establish rent control, and offer part-time workers more hours — he’s perhaps most proud of his work establishing a Santa Clara County policy to provide health insurance for children, an initiative that has since been replicated statewide.
Though he claims to have “tried” retirement, Brownstein remains committed to ongoing campaigns and causes. He hopes that by creating scholarships and endowments to support students, he can incentivize the passing of the proverbial baton.
“The university represents an awesome opportunity to have a positive impact on this valley,” he says. “It has already reached a very large number of people, generations of students. But San José State University still needs philanthropic support from alumni or others who recognize its values and want future generations to have the best educational opportunities we can give them. It makes a lot of sense for me to support SJSU.”