From counseling men on San Quentin’s death row to tackling social justice concerns on a global scale, Saybrook University Professor Bob Flax has always been guided by inquisitiveness and a desire to positively enhance the human experience.
The undeniable leitmotif of Saybrook University Professor Bob Flax’s personal and professional narrative is transformation.
“I’ve always sought to help people and respond to human suffering,” Dr. Flax says. “That took me on a journey that began working with individuals, then large systems, and finally helping to create global solutions to global problems.”
His research and experiences on this journey give Dr. Flax, who received a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Saybrook in 1992, sought-after expertise in the field of transformative social change.
One formative chapter came during the 16 years Dr. Flax spent working in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. For two of those years, he got up every day to counsel men who were awaiting execution.
“I was the first psychologist in the state of California assigned to work on death row full time,” Dr. Flax says. “San Quentin State Prison had more than 500 prisoners on death row at the time. Many prisoners had undiagnosed mental disorders, which became exacerbated under the circumstances.”
While his assignments working in the prison system included managing inmate rehabilitation programs and working in an experimental “boot camp,” death row duty was tough. In addition to the fate the men faced, the conditions in the facility were grueling and primitive.
It was during this time that Dr. Flax booked a trip to Tanzania that would change his life in ways he never expected.
“I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, went scuba diving in the Indian Ocean, and joined a safari,” he says. “Along the way, I witnessed indescribable poverty, tribalism, and other social ills. When I returned, I began to see more clearly the injustice and human suffering the prison system was perpetuating—no matter what side of the bars you were on.”
Dr. Flax developed a passion for change on a large systems level—marking a profound shift in his journey. He began working for prison reform, as well as taking courses and networking with people about how systems work and what they need to be transformed.
From this chapter came another unexpected leap into what is now the third phase of Dr. Flax’s career. Through his work with large systems, Dr. Flax discovered and began working with the World Federalist Movement, an international effort that began after World War II to find peaceful, humane answers to the world’s problems. After years of involvement, Dr. Flax is now on the board of directors of three World Federalist organizations: The Democratic World Federalists in San Francisco; Citizens for Global Solutions in Washington, D.C.; and the World Federalist Movement—Institute for Global Policy in New York City.
“I’m very proud of the work we do to solve global problems,” Dr. Flax says. “For example, in 1998 the World Federalist Movement brought together 120 nations and nonprofit organizations to form the world’s first International Criminal Court, which holds individuals responsible for mass atrocities around the globe.”
In addition to teaching, Dr. Flax is the co-director of Saybrook’s Office of Research, and is also developing new curriculum for Saybrook’s Transformative Social Change program. He says Saybrook’s influence continues to shape the work he does to create impactful transformation in the world.
“My life’s journey has been about addressing human suffering,” he says. “As individuals, it’s easy to feel powerless. But one individual, with the passion to correct the injustices we all face, can have a huge impact in the world.”