Laney Professor gives his students advice on life, saving the planet
By Ryan Barba/Associate Editor
Laney College Geography instructor Gregory Schwartz Ph.D. has a message, “I am here to inspire hundreds and hundreds of students to play a part in healing the planet.”
Schwartz is an environmental activist who not only gives powerful insights on saving the planet but is also a published author who gives influential advice on life. He earned a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin and is a member of the Association of American Geographers.
He has been featured on KTVU news and has informative social media accounts that spread awareness on health, wellness, and impacts on the environment. He has taught at three high schools, nine community colleges and one California State University.
Schwartz described his childhood in suburban Los Angeles as an idyllic and wonderful time that gave him a sturdy base of emotional support, an emphasis on logic and stability, inspired him to study geography.
“We took trips to Europe and the Middle East, and it was amazing,” Schwartz said. “I thought, I have to know about this, I had to learn about this.”
After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a bachelor’s degree in Geography and a minor in Spanish, Schwartz became a high school teacher at Gardena High School in Los Angeles. Despite lacking teaching certifications, Schwartz said that the school was desperate for staff, hiring him on an emergency teaching credential that allowed him to teach.
He said that his time as a high school teacher was challenging and changed him as a person. Being in those environments, Schwartz said, allowed him to develop his teaching skills and the way he engages with his students.
“You have to be an entertainer, and you have to connect it to their life,” Schwartz said. “You have to connect to their heart and stimulate that.”
He said he started giving life advice in class because he saw that his students lacked good adult role models.
“Teaching in high school is where I realized my role is beyond just delivering information–I’m a guide, and an adult role model.”
As his father had obtained a doctorate and his mother had a master’s degree, Schwartz was inspired to further his academics and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. While in pursuit of his master’s degree, Schwartz worked alongside renowned geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan, who selected him to be the final research assistant before he retired from academia.
“Tuan truly is a thought leader in human geography, and having him choose me as the last research assistant of his academic career was a huge honor for me,” Schwartz said. “My ideas are sometimes unorthodox, so his approval was an important verification for me. If you talk about geographers, this guy’s Albert Einstein.”
With his ultimate desire to teach in a college environment, Schwartz worked as a part-time instructor at nine community colleges and Cal State University (CSU) Northridge. CSU Northridge offered Schwartz a full-time teaching position if he obtained his doctorate.
After enrolling into the University of Texas, Austin, Schwartz graduated in under three years. He would decline the offer for a tenure-track position at CSU Northridge and instead accept what became his current full-time teaching position at Laney College.
“It feels essential to me that I got my doctorate because it gives me a platform so that more people will listen to my messages about saving the planet,” Schwartz said.
According to Schwartz, the significance of geography is key to our survival. He said that as the planet has entered the climate change era, an understanding of our natural systems is more important than ever.
“Those who could create and read maps, as well as understand how to cultivate and control nature in order to survive, were those who flourished,” Schwartz said.
“I short, those who understand nature — water, energy, food, soil, and waste — will wield power in coming decades, because those resources are of more importance than ever.”
Schwartz said that his goal is to publish in mainstream journals and to bring his messages to the radio and television. He said that he wants the information to resemble what he teaches in the classroom.
“I try to make it really absorbable and meaningful,” Schwartz said. “I want it to seem easy and interesting, and at the end you realize that you’ve learned a lot.
“I see my world where I have this really important scientific information but I have to translate it so that the masses are attracted to it.”
As a geographer and world traveler, Schwartz says the San Francisco Bay Area is the best metro area on Earth. He said that the diversity, urban amenities, access to nature, quality of public transportation, and the amazing views of topography add dynamism to the area.
Schwartz loves living in the Bay Area and equally loves working as an instructor at Laney. He said that his main goal is to inspire the next generation of environmentalists in healing the planet.
“I’m here to put a spark in students’ minds and hearts, so that they on some level change the way they look and interact with the world, and change the trajectory of their life just a little bit,” Schwartz said.
“I’m just happy to be at Laney and to have great students that keep me inspired.”