Meet Jim GerberBoard Member Highlight Dr. Gerber taught at San Diego State for 34 years as a member of the Economics Department. He served as Director of Latin American Studies and Director of International Business. He is the author of several books and articles about international economics, Mexico, and the US-Mexico border.
What is your connection to Via International...how were you first introduced to the organization?
I first heard about Via in the 1990s when it was Los Niños and based in Tijuana. I was a relatively new faculty member at SDSU and had started working with colleagues in Mexico at some of the local institutions. As a junior faculty member and new father, I did not have enough time to get involved but around 2005, while working as the Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at SDSU, I tried to facilitate a Via-led study abroad in Tijuana for SDSU students in the Teacher Education program. That program did not take off because the faculty leaders were nervous about taking students to Tijuana. Finally, when I retired in 2019, I started hanging around and they asked me to be on the board.
What is it about Via International that most interests you? How do your passions align with the mission of the organization?
I admire Via and its commitment to grassroots organizing. I’ve written a lot about the border, but to be a bit self-critical, it’s mostly from 30,000 feet above the ground. Via is on the ground. That gives them insight into the problems of community development and knowledge in ways that macro-analysis cannot about the obstacles that hold back individuals. I think the “big picture” analysis is important, but if you want to encourage what the UN calls human development, as opposed to solely economic development, you need to help individuals develop the tools they need to expand their choices in life. Via does that. Its nutrition programs, its education programs and its micro-finance are all about assisting real people in the goal of expanding what they are capable of doing and the real choices they have in life. That is human development.
What value do you hope to add to the organization? (i.e. What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the Via board?)
To be honest, I am not sure. I am still learning about the organization and its great staff. Given that the activities that would normally be happening have been suspended due to the pandemic, it may take a while before a role becomes apparent. I’ll give my input when it seems appropriate but mostly, I want to listen for a while and learn more about the organization. One of my joys in life is helping others understand how wonderful and enriching it is to have colleagues and friends in Mexico. Mexico is so different from the US and it scares off a lot of people if they are not comfortable being in another culture or if they solely focus on negative headlines. In the long run, however, we need to build these ties between individuals. I’m not sure how I might contribute to that, but I’m sure something will develop eventually.
How do you describe Via to others…or is there an aspect of Via’s programming that you like to share with others or that you find others really respond to?
Via is as I described in an earlier response: it is about human development. That is a big idea but it’s really quite simple at its core. According to the UN, human development is the expansion of human capabilities. Capabilities are the things we can do, the real choices we have in life, whether we exercise them or not. The key is that they are choices we can make if we choose to. More choices in life are a very good thing and are at the core of human development. Some of the main obstacles to expanded choices are the lack of income, poor health, too little education, polluted environments, discrimination, and political and social exclusion. Via cannot solve all those problems, but it works hard to give people new opportunities to expand their choices in life.
You are joining the board at a time of real uncertainty in the world. What challenges do you see for the organization and how best can the organization continue to respond to community needs?
As an economist, I know this is a horrible time for non-profits and for-profits alike. The pandemic has created all kinds of challenges and it comes at a real low point in US-Mexican relations and during some of the worst treatment of migrants in US history. I think the strategy should be “stay the course.” It’s important to maintain the constancy of Via’s connections with its communities as best it can during the pandemic. We cannot change US migration policy or US policies towards Mexico, but we can keep working on the issues that are within our power to influence.
What other organizations or issue areas are you engaged in/with or what other hobbies/interests would you like to share?
I’m on the board of Alliance San Diego, another great organization focused on building a more inclusive society. I’m also on the editorial board of the Journal of Borderlands Studies. When I retired from teaching in 2019, it was because I wanted to spend more time writing. I’ve just finished an article with a colleague that constructs an index of human development for the border region and am working on a book-length manuscript that will examine economic integration in the border region during the 20th century. Several years ago, a colleague asked me “What’s different about border cities?” This longer work is my answer: we are integrated in ways that people do not realize. What happens on one side of the border generates a reaction and feedback on the other side. Border economies are married to each other with no divorce options. We need to see our integration as an asset and a benefit and not a cost or a liability.
Related question...What is one positive thing that you have been able to focus on or that you have discovered during this time of quarantine/pandemic?
Well, it’s not exactly positive except in a somewhat twisted way. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the huge amount of inequality in our society. I and everyone at Via knew about that, but for me personally, there is a shock of what that actually means for people. Inadequate or no Wi-Fi, and suddenly your child’s schooling is in jeopardy. Parents, particularly single parents, are struggling, sometimes with basic needs like food security, employment, and health care. It is hard to imagine the difficulties of balancing work and childcare and homeschooling. I’m fortunate and as an academic, I’ve spent a lot of my life as a natural social distancer, but I feel it is extremely healthy for all of us who are privileged to have a reality check about the holes in our social fabric. Maybe that realization will lead to programs we badly need, such as universal daycare, broadband for all, more generous unemployment insurance, expanded earned income tax credits, paid sick leave, and others. I’m hopeful, mostly because I choose to be.