October 6, 2014

A Tribute to Bob Lawrence

Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts

CLF Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Today the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health honors CLF Director Bob Lawrence with a scientific symposium. Bob announced his plans to step down earlier this year. The symposium is available via live-streaming.

Bob at the helm / 2014

Bob at the helm / 2014

I met Bob at a think-tank organized by the Kellogg Foundation in 2001, and we took to each other immediately, because we recognized each other as fellow catastroptimists—people who are determined to remain positive and look for a way out and forward no matter how bad things look.

I was managing the Toronto Food Policy Council at the time and was feeling my oats about all the positive and empowering things that could be done with food at the city and community level. But I was also looking desperately for someone more prestigious than I was to promote that message—which required a shift in outlook on the part of good food advocates, as well as a leap of faith about city leaders who weren’t exactly falling over themselves to prove their relevance to this area.

But Bob was willing to give this approach a try.

I have to say it saved my sorry butt.

Johns Hopkins is respected around the world—held in awe even. Part of Bob’s brilliance was to hook his wild ideas to an institution that demanded attention just because of its affiliation. So when Bob invited me in 2002 to give a talk on “urban agriculture as the next frontier of public health,” my unhappy public health managers thought twice about disciplining me for thinking that urban agriculture was the next frontier of public health.

Shortly thereafter, Bob was invited to speak to a  meeting in Ontario of medical officers of health, and asked his opinion of what he’s learned that most impressed him about Ontario. In answer to the question, Bob did not say “your system of public health insurance” or “your decision not to be involved in the alliance of the willing to go to war in Iraq” or “your support for gay equality before the law”  or “your acceptance of evolution as a pretty reasonable theory,” or anything as obvious and tamely uncontroversial as that.  He said “the Toronto Food Policy Council.”

Now I’d long been eating my greens for some time, but I have to say I enjoyed salad days from then on in my 10-year stay at Toronto’s public health department. That is the kind of respect that Bob commands.

What we really needed in Toronto was other cities that saw the value of a food policy council, and thereby added affirmation and resolve to people who had pioneered in that critical tool of democratic policy change at the local level.

Bob played a fundamentally important role in ensuring there were resources to support Baltimore’s becoming a food policy council city, and thereby paving the way for the movement to spread—from three urban centers when I started in 2000, to 200 today— including cities with the stature of Baltimore, Los Angeles, Rotterdam, and Bristol.

I also learned during the trip for my 2002 lecture about Bob’s contagious practical optimism as applied to the Meatless Monday campaign, which was an early project of the Bloomberg School and the Center for a Livable Future. It has since become one of the most successful outreaches for public engagement and participation in healthier and more environmentally-responsible eating—anywhere in the world. He had the boldness to support that, and the strategic sense that this was the way for a practical optimist to move and use the prestige of Hopkins as a lever for popular transformational change.

I think the greatest tribute to him is that the Center will continue to make progress after his alleged retirement, because he built for successors as well as for success during his tenure. The food movement is powered by the Power of One, but the only people who can use the Power of One are people who don’t have an ego that gets in the way of grooming new leaders and making it possible for them to grow into the shoes they will need.

We need to recognize that combination of big brain, big workload, and small ego as part of his personal greatness, and an important part of the legacy he has created.

I am delighted to participate in the celebration of a person who has done so much so that the entire world can enjoy a livable future.

Read the web article for coverage and photos of the symposium and celebration.

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