May 8, 2005: Headlines: COS - Afghanistan: City Government: Mercury News: Afghanistan RPCV Richard Hobss has lived a lifetime of tireless activism

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Afghanistan: Peace Corps Afghanistan: The Peace Corps In Afghanistan: May 8, 2005: Headlines: COS - Afghanistan: City Government: Mercury News: Afghanistan RPCV Richard Hobss has lived a lifetime of tireless activism

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Afghanistan RPCV Richard Hobss has lived a lifetime of tireless activism

Afghanistan RPCV Richard Hobss has lived a lifetime of tireless activism

Afghanistan RPCV Richard Hobss has lived a lifetime of tireless activism

A lifetime of tireless activism


By Katherine Corcoran

Mercury News

Richard Hobbs looks every bit the bureaucrat, a balding man in a gray suit with the pallor of someone who toils in artificial light in the basement of the county building.

But the new shepherd for a variety of programs for immigrants, youths and women is in fact a passionate product of a childhood marked by abandonment and abuse -- a tireless activist who came of age among revolutionaries.

``I've experienced or witnessed a lot of pain and suffering,'' says Hobbs, new director of the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations. ``Some in my personal life. Some in Santa Clara County, and a lot in Third World countries. When you see people dying of hunger, malnutrition, lack of health care, it's a huge motivation to fight that pain and suffering.''

While his $97,000-a-year position oversees conflict mediation programs and others to stem violence and hate, Hobbs also hopes to use his tenure to improve the quality of every county resident's life -- by encouraging people to spend more time caring about each other and less about their bank accounts.

In one of the richest areas of the world, Hobbs sees human suffering in the drive for material success. It's reflected in the county's elevated rates of divorce, teen suicide and school dropouts.

``Working more,'' he says emphatically, ``does not provide more happiness.''

And Hobbs knows work.

In nearly 30 years in the valley, he has been a janitor, an English-as-a-second-language teacher, an immigration attorney and a college trustee.

As the county's director of Citizenship and Immigrant Programs, he built a service system known nationwide as the ``Santa Clara County Plan.'' His personal endeavors include the national Take Back Your Time campaign. His vacations take him seven miles from the nearest paved road, clearing weeds on a cactus farm in Mexico.

Many call Hobbs selfless and kind-hearted, while others say he can steamroll people. Even as he advocates for people to devote more time to their families, he admits to tension in his own household over his long work hours.

To his supervisors and colleagues, those contradictions make him perfect for the job.

``There's always a debate. Do you bring a bureaucrat into that office, or an activist?'' said Debra Dake, who chairs the county Human Relations Commission that Hobbs' department staffs. ``Richard has the ability to do both. . . . He can pull very ethereal ideas and discussions into a concrete project plan.''

Big shoes to fill

A slight man with a boyish face, Hobbs had enormous shoes to fill.

For 27 years, the late Jim McEntee, a former Catholic priest, led the human relations office with the mission to ``promote equality, justice and peace.'' He was a towering figure in social services, with an aura of spirituality.

``He was right up there with the pope,'' said human relations commissioner Johnny Khamis.

Hobbs, on the other hand, was hard-wired by life experiences. He grew up in St. Louis, and was plunged into the foster care system at age 9, when his father was killed in a head-on car crash. His mother, unable to handle three children, made only occasional appearances in Hobbs' life until she died when he was 28.

Hobbs was physically abused in some foster homes, started committing petty crimes, and by age 14 found himself in a reform school. Deciding that education was his only option, Hobbs wound up valedictorian of his senior class, voted most likely to succeed -- and most shy.

``That survival instinct leads you to hard work and productivity and a need to achieve,'' said Hobbs. ``I know a number of immigrants who are undocumented or refugees willing to work 20 hours a day if that's what it takes to survive . . . because they've escaped such dire conditions.''

Road to activism

While a student at the University of Missouri, Hobbs embarked on the road to activism. He studied abroad under Spain's Enrique Tierno Galvan, a European philosophy professor who was regularly jailed as an opposition leader to dictator Francisco Franco.

Later, as a graduate student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Hobbs roomed with a student who was jailed in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, during which Mexican troops fired on and killed hundreds of protesters demanding democratic reform. Hobbs spoke only Spanish for two years to his roommate, honing his bilingual skills.

Mexico ``radicalized me in a big way,'' Hobbs said. ``All of my professors were very critical of the Mexican government and of governments around Latin America.''

But three short months in 1974 as a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan exposed him to the worst suffering.

``I saw the deepest poverty I ever saw in my life,'' he said. ``One of every two babies died before the age of 5. There was no concept of basic sanitation.''

Hobbs came to San Jose in 1977 to earn a second master's degree at San Jose State University, then a law degree at Golden Gate University. Like his mentors, Hobbs burned to put theory into action. In 1990, he became director of Catholic Charities' immigration program.

It was there that McEntee called one Sunday at midnight, delighted and stunned when Hobbs picked up the phone. ``I guess I got the right guy,'' said McEntee, who urged Hobbs to apply for the immigrant services job with the county. ``You work all hours day and night.''

Some say Hobbs' drive leads him to cross the line at times. His decade on the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District board, including two stints as president, has resulted in controversy. The district recently received an accreditation warning for not fixing problems of micromanaging and other dysfunctions on the board.

``I think Richard has a certain view of community colleges, that he sees them more as social service agencies than as educational institutions,'' said Clay Whitlow, a former Evergreen Valley College president. ``I personally disagreed with that, and you would find a lot of people on both campuses who would disagree with that.''

When McEntee retired in June 2003, Hobbs didn't apply for the job, seeing how much time and energy it required.

Finding balance

``I do try to take time for myself and my family,'' said Hobbs, who is married with children ages 17 and 10. ``It's a constant tension. Because of that, I am consciously aware of how I spend my time, and why I'm doing what I'm doing. And even then, I have a difficult time saying no to people.''

But when McEntee died in September, Hobbs made a commitment to continue his mentor's good work.

Hobbs wants to spread training and power to his entire staff so all can carry services to the community, while creating more flexibility for them to have personal lives.

He also is working on an institute to train community members in techniques to reduce conflict and prejudice.

Rather than fill McEntee's shoes, Hobbs says, ``I want to create many Jim McEntees.''
Contact Katherine Corcoran at or (408) 920-5330.

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Story Source: Mercury News

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Afghanistan; City Government



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