New Jersey and the nation lost someone special last week with the passing of Robert Curvin.
Bob, as he was widely known, was one of those rare people who took on many important leadership roles in life and did them all remarkably well. The list is long: young civil rights leader calming angry citizens at the beginning of the Newark rebellion in 1967, co-founder of the Newark chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, member of the New York Times editorial board, dean of a public policy school, executive at the Ford Foundation, and most recently public scholar and author of a well-regarded book about his beloved Newark. And this is a shortened list. The leadership roles I’ve mentioned do not tell the full story; no list can in the case of Bob Curvin.
The Bob Curvin story is better told through the things to which he devoted time and effort. He loved cities, and he loved none other more than Newark. Bob came of age in a time when Newark was a regional retail destination, a hub for midsized manufacturing, and an end-point for successive waves of African-Americans fleeing southern economic and political oppression in the first half of the 20th century.
The Newark of Bob’s early years was no utopia. Yet discrimination and ethnic and racial tensions were counterbalanced by genuine friendships across these fault lines, among individuals and families often lasting a lifetime. In a word, Bob was fortunate to have a vibrant Newark community in the midpart of the past century that gave him what any good community should: caring neighbors, functioning schools, and a path to upward mobility. As Bob told me on many occasions, it was not perfect, but it gave him and many others their foundation and path in life. He stayed in, and fought for Newark, not out of nostalgia, but because he believed that others should have the same opportunity to build a productive life for themselves and their families.
This brings me to something that I greatly admired in Bob Curvin: a commitment to providing opportunity for groups marginalized by race and economic circumstance. Bob believed in values centered on family, hard work and perseverance, and the never-ending search for improvement as a nation and as people. He knew that the playing field was not always level in the United States, but he believed in the importance of voice and action that would productively force our nation to live up to its highest ideals.
Bob also knew that local democracy, the kind that leads to collective action, especially by marginalized communities, needed organization. He participated in the creation of the New Community Corp. in Newark, one of the initial (and still one of the best) community development corporations in this country. CDCs, in their best form, are resident-led organizations that provide job training, housing rehabilitation, community organizing for neighborhood security, and many other functions that promote community development. Bob saw models such as New Community as one ingredient in community strength and self-determination and certainly as a preventive to violent upheavals that we’ve been witnessing in places like Baltimore and Ferguson.
While Bob believed in local community action, he knew that truth had to be told to power in corridors where ordinary residents would never have access. Throughout his amazing career, Bob was able to do just that. He carried the message and desires of marginalized communities far and wide. He never claimed to represent marginalized communities and tried always to create opportunities for them to tell their own story without an intermediary. Bob also believed in speaking honestly to those who did not have relative power in America. He did not pander to either end of the spectrum (or to those in between) and as a result enjoyed legitimacy in all quarters.
I had the honor of working with and for Bob Curvin for several years at the Ford Foundation. I will miss his sober analysis of current affairs, the fellowship, and many other things. But I know that if he were able, he would ask that we redouble our efforts as a nation to help our cities become great, livable places for all. He would also ask that we fix our attention squarely on the young people in those cities who feel little connection to the rest of us, who then do destructive things to themselves and their communities.
Bob would say leadership counts and that we all have to get to the business of articulating coordinated policies that promote good schools, family support, and economic development. Knowing Bob, he would also say don’t forget the arts and culture in making our communities vibrant and whole! Well, Bob, I do not forget and I will never forget you.