A Vision for the City: Participant Profiles 

Wednesday, Mar 7 2001
Photos by Ted Soqui


One of Jan Breidenbach's first moments of social consciousness occurred when she was 18. "It was 1964, and there was a ballot initiative to repeal the fair-housing act," recalls Breidenbach, a fourth-generation Californian. That state law, called the Rumford Act of 1963, barred owners of apartments and public-assisted housing from discriminating on the basis of race. Though Breidenbach didn't grow up in a particularly political household, her mother's fundamental opposition to racism of any kind made a strong impression on her. "It just struck me that fair housing was fair, and they shouldn't repeal it," Breidenbach says. "It was wrong." The repeal, which passed by a more than two-thirds vote, was later overturned by the state Supreme Court. Breidenbach went on to join the anti-war movement, the women's movement and, later, became an organizer for the SEIU. For the past decade, she's been a housing and community-development advocate, serving currently as executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, which initiated the Housing L.A. campaign to secure $100 million a year in city funds for affordable housing. "L.A. is probably one of the most exciting places to work," she says. "If you can do something here, you can do it anywhere."


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Peter Dreier's call to action came, as it did for many other budding '60s radicals, in the form of a speech delivered by Michael Harrington. Dreier, who was in high school at the time, had read Harrington's The Other America and found validation for his own experiences growing up in urban New Jersey. "It wasn't like it surprised me," he says, "because I knew a lot of poor people and was friends with a lot of poor people. But it gave me a context and overview: This is about the system and not just isolated problems." Hearing Harrington speak deepened Dreier's activist resolve. In high school, he picketed slumlords and fought for integrated housing. In college in upstate New York, he immersed himself in community organizing with local tenants' rights groups and worked on the grape boycott. He did a brief turn in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. In the '80s, he served for nine years as housing chief in Boston, helping enact a range of progressive policies despite a nationwide leaning toward Reagan-driven conservatism. Dreier is now director of the Urban Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College, where he and Bob Gottlieb serve as co-chairs of the Progressive Los Angeles Network. "All movements are a combination of organizing people, a vision for where they want to go for the future, and a policy agenda as a road map to help them get there," Dreier says. "PLAN is an attempt to provide a bridge between those three things."


Bob Gottlieb grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and '50s in a household steeped in radical politics, so it was no surprise when, as a teenager, he immersed himself in the earliest battles against atomic testing. He then embarked upon an education and protest path that included membership in Students for a Democratic Society, course work at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, and the creation and leadership of the Movement for a Democratic Society. Perhaps his most radical act, however, was his decision, in the late 1960s, to set up shop in Los Angeles, at that time an unlikely proving ground for Gottlieb's radical environmental agenda. But to Gottlieb, the growing sprawl and an increasingly polyglot population made L.A. the perfect petri dish for new approaches to social change. He co-founded and managed the cooperatively owned bookstore Midnight Special, lectured extensively on politics and social movements, served for seven years as director of the Metropolitan Water District, and wrote nine books, most recently Environmentalism Unbound, which explores environmental justice and community and workplace movements. He is now director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, where he finds inspiration in his students. "You see their sense of possibility and also some of the problems," he says. "It's difficult to engage in activism, yet there's a tremendous desire to do so."


When John M. Grant applied for a job as a meat packer in the Farmer John slaughterhouse in East L.A. in 1976, he didn't mention his bachelor's degree in urban planning or his law degree from Loyola. As an attorney for workers' rights, he had felt disconnected from the people he was supposed to represent, and he hoped that going to work in the plant would return him to the kind of activism he had practiced as a teenager in La Habra, where he founded Orange County's only high school chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. "I wanted to be part of the movement, creating solutions to what the problems were," he says. "I didn't want to come at it from the top. I wanted to understand exactly what was at stake." Grant worked at the slaughterhouse for nine years, helping bring about reforms that dramatically increased worker protections and benefits. He is now vice president and in-house counsel for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, and he serves on the steering committee of Housing L.A. "Obviously there wouldn't be as great a need for a movement if we were winning all the time," he says. "But out of each struggle you realize how people have been crippled by the system, and how the struggle ennobles people, and how the finest emotions come out of the struggle."

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