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Portrait of an Activist-Academic

USC College’s Ruth Wilson Gilmore shares her experiences with graduate students in the new faculty speaker series “Inside the Academics Studio.”

Portrait of an Activist-Academic

Those familiar with Ruth “Ruthie” Wilson Gilmore’s work as an anti-prison, -racism, -sexism activist may not be surprised to learn she is the daughter and granddaughter of activists.

But there are lesser-know facts about Gilmore, an associate professor of geography and American studies and ethnicity in USC College since 2004.

She worked as a mechanic. She studied to become an actor. She was petrified of public speaking. In the early 1980s, she was a higher education consultant and attended meetings at USC — sort of incognito.

“No lie, I had very short hair, I wore ladies suits and very high heels,” Gilmore said during a recent interview, part of the “Inside the Academics Studio” series, sponsored by USC College’s office of graduate programs.

During the interview, Gilmore wore her standard casual attire: sleeveless shirt, slacks, sensible shoes and long dreadlocks pulled back in a high bun.

“All the time I was undercover to do something about raising more funds so that more kids without money could go to school, public or private.”

Michael Preston, special advisor to Provost C.L. Max Nikias and professor of political science in the College, conducted the interview, the first in the series. The speaker series program is also part of the new USC College Doctoral Fellowship Program, which recently welcomed 18 doctoral students.

“We want people to get to know the faculty,” Jennifer Wolch, dean of graduate programs and professor of geography, told the crowd. “What they’re doing, how they got to be involved in the kinds of work that they do. What makes them tick. And in general, to learn about how they think about their work and their teaching.”

In Gilmore’s case, becoming a professor was a natural progression, although she had many previous incarnations.

“I’ve had many lives, Michael,” Gilmore told Preston. “Many, many lives.”

Born in 1950 and raised at the peak of the civil rights movement in New Haven, Conn., Gilmore’s father was a union organizer and leader against racism. The sole daughter among three boys, she was raised to believe that fighting against inequality in its many forms was as natural as brushing your teeth or eating breakfast.

“Activism was our daily routine,” she said. “I was raised to believe it was completely normal that no matter what one did, what one should be doing at the same time is changing the world.”

Gilmore thinks that the seeds were planted for her to pursue a career in academia when she was 3. She recalled the unusually sunny February day when she begged her father to allow her to help wash the windows in their family home.

“He was using a chamois, a sponge and a squeegee,” Gilmore recalled. “It looked like a lot of fun to me.”

Finally, the toddler wore down her father and he acquiesced. After toiling tirelessly on a pane, she and her father went inside to survey her work.

“So my father said to me when I was 3,” Gilmore recounted. “ ‘Ruthie, you’d better go to college, because you’ll never make a living washing windows.’ ”

As a child, Gilmore shared with anyone who would listen everything she had learned at school.

“My parents couldn’t shut me up,” Gilmore said. “I think that having found my way to being a professor, obviously not exactly the career path that I had set out on in my young years, has been a very good thing.”

Gilmore earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dramatic literature and criticism at Yale University, where she was among the first women allowed admission. She returned to graduate school at age 43.

During the 20-year interim, her curriculum vitae shows widely-diverse employment, from a job as a mechanic at Bill’s Auto Service in Montclair to ones as a lecturer on black studies at various institutions such as Pomona College and UCLA.

Gilmore’s activism led her to what she is widely known for: Her work to improve the criminal justice system in California, emphasizing on the prison population.

Her soon-to-be-released book, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press, 2007), analyzes the economic and political changes that led to California’s prison-building boom. The book also explores the ways in which community-based activism has bridged urban-rural, racial and other divides to fight against the mushrooming prison system.

So before Gilmore returned to graduate school, she had been working with families of prisoners and opposing what she terms “the all-purpose use of cages to solve social, political and economic problems.”

While at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Gilmore earned her Ph.D. in geography. She switched her discipline from planning to geography so she could study with Neil Smith, a noted expert on geography, social theory and urban anthropology.

She explained to the crowded room of mostly graduate students how it took her a mere four years to earn her doctorate.

“Tip number one,” Gilmore said. “Write everyday. Once you find a topic, something that excites you, something that you wake up thinking about in the morning, stick to it.”

Gilmore advised students to connect with those who have already completed the Ph.D. process. As a doctoral student, she sought their advice when she saw no end in sight.

“I cried,” she recalled. “I cried a lot. I cried so much. There was one chapter in particular. I must have written that chapter 8,000 times. I would write it and give it to Neil, and Neil would give it back and I would cry.

“Then I started calling up Neil’s students who had finished. I asked them, ‘How did you finish? This man is a monster.’ They’d say, ‘No, I used to feel that way, but don’t worry, don’t worry, you’ll finish.’ ”

The next event in the “Inside the Academics Studio” takes place Nov. 8, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Hedco Neurosciences Building, Room 100. A reception will follow. Superstring theorist Clifford Johnson, professor of physics and astronomy, will interview cosmologist Elena Pierpaoli, an associate professor of physics and astronomy who joined the College faculty this fall.