Social Activism, Rigorous Economics
are Sazama's Yin and Yang
January 31, 2000
n 1992, Gerald "Jerry" Sazama was involved with the development of a non-profit housing cooperative in a low-income Providence, Rhode Island neighborhood. The project - one of many to which he has provided economic counsel over the years - brought him in touch with people from many walks of life and different socio-econom ic groups. But one woman, in particular, stands out in his memories of that experience.
"She was an elderly African-American woman who lived in a tough neighborhood," recalls Sazama, an associate professor of economics. "Economically, she was poor, but spiritually she was rich. She was the foster mother to 8 children, toddlers to late teens. They had something in common - a deep, abiding respect for this woman. She had given them wonderful values and her home worked with great harmony."
For Sazama, recipient of the 1999/2000 American Association of University Professors Excellence in Service Award, that lady stands as a symbol of the values that he has espoused himself. Those values have led him to a lifetime of professional service that has enriched every other aspect of his life.
Born in Wisconsin, near the end of the Great Depression, into a family with longstanding ties to the labor movement, Sazama says "I was exposed to the idea of social activism early in life."
It was an idea that found fertile soil in Sazama's conscience. As a young adult he followed the footsteps of his uncles, enrolling for a time in the Teamsters Union. Later, when he felt the demands of academia were keeping him too much in the classroom, he found an outlet for his need to help make the world a better place as a convert to the Society of Friends (Quakers), which has a long tradition of activism and community service.
Eventually, however, Sazama found ways to integrate his mutual passions for economics and social activism. As an economics scholar, Sazama has increasingly focused his research on four areas that parallel his activist interests - affordable housing, economic development (at the local, state and international levels), public finance, and the economics of higher education. In doing so, he has effectively merged his two interests into a seamless web of involvement with the world.
A Spiritual Core
In economics, which he stresses is "a social science," he finds the yin that balances the yang of his activism. As director of the economics department's new undergraduate studies program, he is helping to establish new student services, such as the economics internship program, extended registration services and an honorary society. He also teaches a large lecture course on macroeconomic principles, a course on microeconomic theory, and both undergraduate and graduate level sections on government economics and public finance.
Sazama's research and work on social projects has led to publication of nearly 40 scholarly papers and technical reports, and dozens of service activities during the more than 30 years since he joined the UConn faculty. And "real world" examples from this volume of research and service constantly inform his classes.
"One of the beauties of economics is its rigorous analytical core," he says. It is that core that balances his urge to improve the world, which he terms "following my heart." The former provides focus for the latter.
"In 1985," he says, "I was in Costa Rica on a Fulbright Fellowship to research the economics of household energy consumption. In one of the
impoverished mushroom cities that had sprung up on the outskirts of San Jose I met a man who was an ex-alcoholic. He was a poor man. His alcoholism had cost him a leg. But he had assumed responsibili ty for his life and he had emerged as a leader in his community. Kids respected him and he was making things happen. I'll never forget what he told me: 'We have to learn to help ourselves.'
"People like him and the foster mother in Providence are an inspiration for me. There is resilience in the world. I like to support it."