Greenlining Series: Born in civil rights era

Robert Gnaizda during 1970s legislative hearings

This is the second part in a series of articles about the radical Greenlining Institute produced by CalWatchdog and the Examiner.

APRIL 14, 2010


It’s often said that even the best of intentions can go awry and that may well be an apt description of the careers of Greenlining Institute founders Robert Gnaizda and John Gamboa.

The duo grew up on opposite coasts, but in 1993 jointly incorporated what had been a loose coalition of activists groups into what became the Berkeley-based activist non-profit devoted to forcing banks and other powerful institutions to pour more resources into under-served neighborhoods usually populated by minorities and the poor.

But Gnaizda and Gamboa go way back together, having first met in 1970.

An attorney from Brooklyn, New York, Gnaizda, now 73, was a civil rights worker in the South, then migrated to the west coast where he started the radical activist groups California Rural Legal Assistance and Public Advocates of San Francisco. He was appointed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown as deputy secretary of the California Department of Health, Welfare and Prisons.

Gamboa grew up in a Mexican barrio in San Bernardino and dropped out of high school to work in a steel mill. But he went to community college and then the University of California at Berkeley, which then was in the throes of the Free Speech Movement. Now 68, Gamboa graduated with a social sciences degree and worked for Pacific Bell Telephone. His leftist activism from within Pacific Bell’s marketing department twice nearly got him fired, and he later organized the Latino Issues Forum, met Gnaizda, and the two organized a number of community groups from around California into a loose patchwork of activism known as the Greenlining Coalition (a purposeful play on the banking term, “redlining’).

From there, Gnaizda and Gamboa evolved the techniques and tactics they’d first learned in their younger years in fighting racism in Mississippi and the California barrios to the tasks of “persuading” giant financial corporations and community banks to re-direct billions of dollars away from profit-making activities to lending based on ideologically defined gender and other demographic factors.

“We’ve been together 40 years,” Gamboa reflected. “I’ve been with him longer than I’ve been married. We’re almost attached at the hip because we’re partners. We’ve never argued about what needed to be done, but we have disagreed on how to get it done.”

Gamboa was paid $196,866 in 2008, his last full year as executive director. Gnaizda was paid $175,834 in his last full year as general counsel.

The two still maintain offices at the Greenlining Institute’s headquarters, but are semi-retired to pursue other activities. Both remain as advisors to Greenlining’s current leader, Orson Aguilar, who took over after the pair spent several years planning their exodus and grooming him for the top job.

Gamboa and Gnaizda still have offices at Greenlining and work as consultants at half pay. “It was time for the young people to take over, we were dinosaurs,” Gamboa said. Gnaizda added: “It’s not good for an organization on the cutting edge to have leaders in position too long. He’ll be better than we were.”

Photo: Robert Gnaizda during a 1970s-era congressional hearing.

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