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Alum Profile: Ben Glickstein

Monday, August 1, 2016

Ben Glickstein ’01 jokingly sees bagpipes and kilts as the “through-line” in his education. From GUS to Waring to Macalester College, both Scottish traditions were prominent at his commencements. While that may be true, the truly important through line for Ben was what each school taught him about the importance of learning about people, contributing to the public good, and building sustainable cities.

In college, Ben majored in cultural anthropology, studying in Cape Town, South Africa during his junior year. It was there he decided he was most interested in museums, archeology, and “the politics that surround how you tell the story behind something old.” As he explains, “whether it’s intended or not,” how you present an exhibit or artifact “talks about the country in a certain way.” In Cape Town, he saw the uncovering of remains from the Colonial era and realized how everyone had a stake in how that story was told. There were racial, ethnic, and political issues, with strong feelings on every side. Ben ended up writing his senior thesis about this microcosm of South African history and how it was emblematic of the different points of view of people who tell the stories of history and ethnography. At that time, he imagined embarking on a career working in museums. 

After college, Ben pursued the idea of working in a museum, first interning at the DeYoung in San Francisco where he helped high school students learn about exhibits on King Tut and the Pacific Islands. He then landed a position at a small Oakland, California museum, the Peralta House Museum, where he remained for three years. The Peralta House is an example of an early home built by Spanish Mexican settlers before the area was part of the United States in a neighborhood that is now becomming Hispanic again. The museum defies the image of house museums as “stodgy,” says Ben. Instead, he and the staff collected oral histories and put them on display, blending them with the old history of Antonio Peralta, demonstrating that history is ever evolving and includes everyone.

While Ben felt that the museum was a great place to work (he’s still on the Board of Directors), its small size meant there were few mentors to learn from. He decided to take the marketing skills he’d acquired at the museum to work in the corporate and start-up world for a while, but that soon seemed too far afield from his interests.

Fortunately, he found a middle ground, a place where he could use his skills and apply them to solve problems that were important to him. Ben is now doing public relations and marketing for East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD), the water department and wastewater agency for Oakland, California and other cities in the East Bay. He is in charge of anything and everything that has to do with interfacing with the community. He was hired to focus on recycled water, that is, highly treated wastewater, that can be used again for purposes such as irrigation. “It is a cool program,” says Ben. “I get to talk to people about sustainability and the science behind it. I try to get people interested in it.” 

To recycle water requires building an infrastructure of new pipes in the road that can bring the treated wastewater to parks or city buildings so that drinking water can stop being used for irrigation. The public needs to understand why this is good, why their roads are being torn up, and that there are strict regulations that make it safe, Ben explains. “We are now out of the drought, but we need to get people to understand that drought is the new regular, to educate people in the community about the future of water in California.” To do this, Ben speaks to people at community meetings, gives media interviews, creates mailers, and writes for the website. “We are reminding people that water is a basic human need, but it is not going to be flowing freely every day. It takes work and innovation.” 

Just as he did as an anthropologist, Ben focuses on learning about different communities—a city or a neighborhood or government agency - and their needs and how best to communicate with the various people. “It is what I learned in my ethnography classes,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be learning about people and their needs and finding the mutual benefits.” 

In his current work, Ben recalls the conversations at GUS about environmentalism and sustainability and feels he has come full circle. “Outside of work, in my personal life, in my continuing passion for literature and learning about culture and art, I have a lot to owe to my teachers, especially Penny Randolph and Chris Draper. Some of my teachers really helped inform my inquiring mind as someone who wants to read, and read between the lines, and enjoy a variety of art and culture.” 

Ben is still close to several GUS classmates, particularly Eliza Jarrett, Evan Dec, and Hunter Wallingford.