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Excerpted from Poverty & Race, Volume 32, No.2 (April – July 2023)
John Charles Boger, PRRAC Board Member
We at the Poverty & Race Research Council (PRRAC) pause here to remember and lift up the life of Chester Hartman, whose death in San Francisco on May 9, 2023 ended 87 years of remarkable service. PRRAC was especially blessed when Chester agreed to become our first Executive Director (1989-2003) and thereafter stayed on as our Research Director (2003-2015).
PRRAC sprang to life in 1989 thanks to the prompting of Jim Gibson of the Rockefeller Foundation, who had long funded key national civil rights, legal services, and anti-poverty groups. In sparking the birth of PRRAC, Gibson urged greater mutual collaboration among these groups, challenging them to dig deeper to gauge and then confront more profoundly the interrelated racial and economic forces that continued to bar millions of poor families and people of color from the American mainstream – a virtual straitjacket woven from racial exclusion and economic exploitation.
In order to articulate this vision, PRRAC needed a leader of immense learning, energy, and passion who could strengthen daily the national network of scholars, activists, litigators, and legislators devoted to these core issues.
Chester Hartman’s name soon emerged. All recognized at once his extraordinary qualifications for the task ahead. A Ph.D. graduate of Harvard’s preeminent Department of City & Regional Planning, Chester had subsequently taught at half of the Ivies – Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Columbia – as well as at some of the nation’s other great public and private universities: Berkeley, the University of North Carolina, George Washington University, and UMass Boston. His writings were prodigious; in addition to scores of articles, Chester would eventually author seven scholarly volumes and actively edit some 13 more.
What we didn’t fully appreciate is just how thoroughly Chester’s prior decades of professional life – he was 53 when he joined PRRAC – fit him for his demanding new role. As his old friend and colleague Peter Dreier recently wrote in a wonderful tribute appearing on PRRAC’s website and in Shelterforce (May 18, 2023):
Trained at Harvard’s city planning program but never seduced by the cult of expertise . . . dominant in planning schools, Chester used his professional skills in the service of grassroots movements at both the local and national levels. He also helped build a national movement to link progressive planners and urban activists, most notably by his energetic efforts to create the Planners Network, which since 1975 has sponsored a newsletter and organized conferences so planners can shape their political and professional ideas.
Chester . . . looked at urban renewal from the perspective of its victims, told their story, and then used his professional, organizing, and writing skills to challenge top-down planning. His combination of passion, persistence, political savvy, and professional skills helped change city planning for the better.
Dreier went on to recount Chester’s roles as a progressive planner/consultant to groups in Boston and later in San Francisco that were fighting to prevent local highway projects from destroying their communities. Chester later joined the National Housing Law Project, daily advising lawyers who worked with low-income families and communities of color on how best to shape their clients’ demands. Later, for several decades, he worked with the Institute of Policy Studies, where he developed a broad domestic portfolio of research and proposed policies in support of progressive housing and racial justice.
I well recall my close working relationship with Chester as PRRAC’s Board Chair. Chester had bone-deep knowledge about, and profound practical insights into the inescapable relation between systemic racial discrimination and persistent poverty. He was genial and soft-spoken, often mildly ironic, but always tireless in his commitment to writing, organizing, convening, and speaking about ways to change those powerful, centuries-long patterns. He was a boon to us all.
Chester was also integral to drawing together the remarkable people and organizations who made up, and still make up, its Board, its illustrious Social Science Advisory Board, and its thousands of subscribers and conference participants. No one else, I think, could have assembled such a deeply devoted group while regularly soliciting short articles from the nation’s leading social scientists and maintaining PRRAC’s remarkable, inside-the-Beltway conversations with scores of Congressional and Executive leaders and their key staffers. All the while, Chester the editor was meticulously overseeing Poverty & Race, the very journal you’re reading now, while simultaneously authoring and/or editing his own books that emerged from his always active mind and heart, regularly reaching tens of thousands of activists and reformers across the nation.
At a personal level, I felt exceptionally lucky to have shared so many hours of contact with Chester. He was a wise and wonderful colleague and a good friend to all. His talented wife Amy and his children Ben and Jeremy have been generous to PRRAC in their unswerving support of his work. Chester Hartman’s lifelong contributions to the ‘unfinished business of America’ have been immense. We will miss him greatly.