Robin Toma: executive director of Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission

Oakes College affiliate Robin Toma graduated from UCSC in 1982 with a B.A. in economics and sociology.

The alarming news that hate crimes in Los Angeles County jumped 28 percent last year made headlines across Southern California and beyond.

Attacks based on race, ethnicity, and national origin rose dramatically, as did crimes based on sexual orientation and religion, according to the annual report issued in July by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

As executive director of the commission, UCSC graduate Robin Toma (B.A., economics and sociology, Oakes College, '82) fielded media calls and interpreted the report for journalists. The report was discouraging, but Toma is committed to the fight for racial equality and social justice. He draws inspiration from the courage of those who are committed to breaking the cycles of stereotyping, violence, and retribution.

"What keeps me hopeful is the work I do with members of the community, like the mothers of those who have been killed at the hands of hate," said Toma. "When they stand up and call for peace, and call for us to come together to address the root causes of the violence, those experiences remind me of our potential to go beyond what we are, and not allow ourselves to be drawn into the pettiness of rivalries and revenge."

And he credits UCSC with shaping his life's work as a global citizen and an advocate for change, greater equality, and social justice.

"I look at UCSC as being a pivotal experience in my life," said Toma. "In many ways, it made me the person I am today. It opened up this whole world of possibilities."

Toma recalled studying the Russian Revolution with the late Oakes College professor Roberto Crespi, learning about Middle East politics with economist Alan Richards, and becoming fluent in Spanish with the help of Frank "Paco" Ramirez and others. His list of influential professors includes sociologists James O'Connor, William Friedland, and Wally Goldfrank, as well as the late economist Richard Gordon, whose course on England's transition from feudalism to capitalism remains vivid.

Through the UC Education Abroad Program, Toma spent his junior year in Barcelona, a "life-changing experience" during which he became fluent in Spanish and met people from across Europe who were standing up to injustice.

"I really do feel the values of social justice and equality I gained at Santa Cruz have guided me in my decisions," said Toma.

After college and a stint as a public school teacher, Toma earned a master's in urban planning and a law degree from UCLA. As a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, Toma first encountered Japanese Latin Americans who had been forcibly brought to the United States and imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II. Toma, who is Japanese American, played an instrumental role in a class action lawsuit and a political campaign for redress for more than 2,200 of the former internees. He helped win a settlement that included an apology and payment to the plaintiffs.

"Urban planning allows you to look at the broad causes of social ills, and the law is a specific tool," he said. "The courts can be a place to ensure that people can have their human rights respected."

In 1994, Toma was selected to participate in the prestigious three-year Kellogg National Fellowship Program created to nurture the next generation of leaders. He traveled the country and the globe to study how societies treat their newcomers and one another. From Indonesia and China to Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean, Toma looked for successful strategies that help build political and economic democracies in culturally diverse, pluralistic societies.

"I learned that what we were experiencing in the United States in terms of creating a more inclusive society was far ahead of what other communities were just beginning to experience," recalled Toma. "Europe was just beginning to experience the cultural diversity of global migration. But even in China, I saw the incredible human capacity to divide and discriminate, and I realized the definition of an outsider doesn't depend on ethnicity."

In 1995, during the fellowship, Toma was hired by the commission. He was appointed executive director by the LA County Board of Supervisors in 2000.

"I've made my decisions in life based on whether I feel good about what I'm doing every day," said Toma. "I didn't think I'd be at the County more than a few years, but I found a unique place where we can use the power of government to do what my time at UCSC inspired me to do, which is to dedicate myself to working for urgently needed social change."