History shapes people. But for San Jose State University sociology professor Scott Myers-Lipton, people also shape history.
Myers-Lipton has taught his students that not only do they live through world events, they have the ability to create change. Now after 24 years, Myers-Lipton is making a significant change in his own life—retiring this summer.
“Once you’re in this work, you realize that you can’t do it all,” Myers-Lipton told San José Spotlight. “What we can do is be part of a larger collective of people that are working for a better world.”
The 63-year-old is moving on to become the director of the Teaching Social Action Initiative, an organization that encourages faculty to develop social action courses that help students launch campaigns.
The incorporation of applied activism has been part of his work at SJSU since he started in 1999. The only difference now is he will teach social action to educators, he said.
“Come up with a policy that you want to change (on) the campus or (in) the community for the better, and I’ll teach you how to do that,” Myers-Lipton told San José Spotlight. “We want to see a social action course every semester on every college campus in the country.”
William Armaline, director of the SJSU Human Rights Institute of which Myers-Lipton is an advisory board member, said Myers-Lipton is a “significant contributor” to the university.
History shapes people
Despite being voted “most talkative” in his high school senior class, teaching wasn’t Myers-Lipton’s first choice. His teaching days came after a professional tennis career and working for local political campaigns and organizations.
“I had this desire to do something for the world,” he said. “I didn’t know what that was.”
A mentor encouraged him to pursue teaching, and he eventually became a U.S. history teacher at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School. After a life-altering class where a student asked how the actions of so many people contributed to the Holocaust, he decided to pursue a master’s degree at San Francisco State University in humanities, studying the works of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. He became the first in his family to earn a doctorate at the University of Colorado in sociology.
Teaching history was personal, Myers-Lipton said. His father fought in World War II and served six months as a prisoner of war in a Nazi camp before returning home to marry his mother. The family raised four children in San Jose, with Myers-Lipton being the youngest.
He met his wife of 32 years while tabling for the Beyond War Foundation at San Francisco State in the 1980s. They got married in 1991 and had two children, twins, in 2001.
Decades later, as nationwide protests erupted in the aftermath of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in 2020, Myers-Lipton was inspired to highlight systemic racism through the Silicon Valley Pain Index. The annual project collects data revealing the ongoing disproportionate impact of racism and wealth inequality on local people of color.
“(Historical) events change your life, and you get involved in the issue,” Myers-Lipton told San José Spotlight. “But sometimes it changes your personal life too.”
People shape history
San Jose State University is home to headline-making history and activism, Myers-Lipton emphasizes to his students.
Japanese-American residents reported to the men’s gym at SJSU, now named Yoshihiro Uchida Hall, during World War II for details on their imprisonment in internment camps. Latino students walked out during the university’s 1968 graduation to protest the lack of Latino representation in the student body. Students also fundraised to build a statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on campus, SJSU alumni and athletes who made history with their Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics to protest racism.
Over years of teaching social action, multiple movements have generated real change, Myers-Lipton said. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he and his students flew to the area five times and worked with local organizations to develop and enact legislation to help 100,000 people rebuild infrastructure and get paid a livable wage. Other examples include a victorious 2016 campaign to tax corporations to fund infrastructure projects in the city. Students also advocated for better services for their homeless peers last year, including extending the length of time students can use the college’s 12 emergency beds and pushing for better outreach.
He’s helped advise more than 40 student-led activism campaigns during his tenure.
One of the most memorable successes was the 2012 movement to raise the city’s minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10 an hour, he said. The student-led campaign put a measure on San Jose’s ballot to push for a livable minimum wage. Their actions were one of the first in the nation.
“When they won that campaign—and to see the smile on their faces and the change that it did for them—it changed their lives,” Myers-Lipton said. “You should be able to do your part, whatever that part is, to make the world a little better off.”
Former student Leila McCabe Williams helped shape and lead that campaign, which made national headlines.
“I’m lucky that Scott will continue to be someone I call a friend and mentor,” she told San Jose Spotlight. “As an organizer and movement builder myself, we never truly retire. I’m sure we will continue to see (Myers-Lipton) out there with boots on the ground.”
Myers-Lipton said it’s not the end of his time at SJSU: he’s still holding on to his library card and parking spot. But after this final term, he’s going to stretch his piano-playing fingers, travel more with his wife and spend time with their college-age children. Ultimately, his next chapter will be at the Teaching Social Action Initiative, he said.
“My hope is… to give (students) hope,” Myers-Lipton told San José Spotlight. “I don’t have all the answers… But I know together, we could maybe start figuring some things out.”
Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.