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Memorial celebration planned for activist and teacher Rob O’Brien

Posted on 11 June 2012

West Philly resident Rob O’Brien passed away on June 1 at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He was a long-time activist and teacher who organized a series of rallies and vigils on the Rutgers campus, where he was an instructor, in the wake of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi’s suicide. Rob died of a heart attack. He was 44.

In honor of Rob his family and friends are hosting a Pot Luck Celebration at the William Way Community Center. Please bring a dish to share with everyone. There is also a blog set up for the memorial.

The following information was submitted by Rob’s family and friends:

Rob was living at 48th and Hazel at the time of his death. He loved Dahlak, both the food and the bar. Ask anyone who’s been at the Dahlak bar in the past few months if they remember the guy with curly blue hair and all the tattoos, and you’ll probably hear from several people. He was trying to organize a community education series at Dahlak, a series of film screenings and discussions. (The first and, as it turns out, only, one of those happened on May 10th.)  He also loved Fuh Wah and knew all the staff there by name.

Robert Thomas O’Brien (born October 2, 1967) was Ph.D. Candidate at the Anthropology Department of Temple University. He was Assistant Instructor of Anthropology at Rutgers University (Jan 2007-Sept 2011), Adjunct Professor at the Department of Culture and Communications of Drexel University (Jan 2003-June 2009) and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Anthropology of Temple University (Sept. 1999-Dec. 2006).

He was the author of “Unemployment and Disposable Workers in Philadelphia: Just How Far Have the Bastards Gone?” published in 2006 in the journal Ethnos, and was the co-author, with Judith Goode, of “Whose Social Capital? How Economic Development Projects Disrupt Social Relations,” a chapter in Social Capital in the City.

Rob was a very active member of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), through the Society for the Anthropology of Work (where he was an officer of the Board), the Society for North American Anthropology, and the Committee on Labor Relations, of which he was a founding member. In 2006 he was the recipient of the Carrie Hunter-Tate Award for academic and professional service from the National Association of Student Anthropologists.

Rob was a committed, life-long activist. He spent his early 20s working for Greenpeace, first as a grassroots organizer. He later rose to the position of Co-Director. From the mid-1990s, he was involved in work, research, community service and activism around poverty, drug use and health care. He served as Executive Director and Board member of Prevention Point Philadelphia, a harm reduction/syringe exchange program. He was a co-founder of the Philadelphia County Coalition for Prison Health Care, was a member of the AIDS Treatment Activist Coalition, and was a volunteer with Catholic Worker.

Beginning in 2000, with his work with the Temple University Graduate Student’s Association – American Federation of Teachers Local #6290 – Rob became increasingly involved in academic labor issues. From 2004 to 2010, he published, along with Kerim Friedman, the blog “AAA Unite.” Through this blog he reported on the AAA’s efforts to find conference facilities in unionized venues, the boycott to Coca-Cola and its products that he helped organize, and other actions supported by the AAA Committee on Labor and other anthropology action groups.

Rob brought the same passion and commitment to his teaching, and he was very inspiring to students who pursued activism and research of their own.  At Rutgers University, Rob and his students called attention to bullying against queer youth, and organized a series of vigils and protests after the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student.  Rob worked intensively with upper-level undergraduates at Rutgers in classes on medical anthropology, gender and sexuality, and others; and he also supervised honors theses and independent studies. In 2011 he was the Anthropology Department nominee for the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Award.  In the 2010-2011 academic year he also served as a Rutgers University LGBT Liason.

At Rutgers, Rob shaped students’ thinking in critical and creative directions. Students have circulated testimonials on his email list:

“I am a former student of Rob’s and he was one of my favorite professors during undergrad,” wrote one alumnus, “His classes were part of the reason I stayed in Anthropology and much of what he said during class has stayed with me to this day.”

Another graduate summarized Rob’s impact as follows: “There is so much knowledge I have obtained because of him and so much knowledge that he helped turn into wisdom within me that I was always grateful for.”

A third student wrote: “I visited him in the hospital in the fall of 2009, and found him on his computer, trying to explain Foucault to a student via webchat. Rob went so far out of his way to help all of us, even when he was hurting terribly.”

Rob left Rutgers on a medical leave in September 2011.

Rob died of a heart attack on June 1st, 2012, at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. His body was donated to Science Care, and his organs to Gift of Life. He is survived by his mother and stepfather, Catherine Ann and Bob Hemmelstein, his father and step-mother, John and Carol O’Brien, his sisters, Staci Lea Bustle & Christine O’Brien Holland, and his brother, John Francis O’Brien III.

 Information contributed by Christopher Carrico, Gabriela Vargas-Cetina, Staci Bustle, David M. Hughes and Anna Melton.

3 Comments For This Post

  1. Philly Bud Says:

    So sorry to hear this sad news … I see he only lived about 6 blocks from me.

  2. Ephream Says:

    He will surely be missed.. but I am grateful for the fact that he has blessed me with some of his wisdom during the time he’s spent around me. He has really been an inspiration for me as well as the future of Dahlak… RIP, Rob, and say hi to Amare for me!

  3. LMC Says:

    I am extremely sad to hear this news. I took one of Rob’s classes and it was life changing. He was truly an inspiration, and such an amazing and charismatic person with so much love to give.

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