Reef Madness: a profile of Al Dobbins

Al Dobbins (LF ’90) is as likely to be found scuba diving in the Florida Keys on a maritime archaeology project or coral reef conservation mission, or photographing manta rays and whale sharks in the Maldives, as he is working on a heritage area management plan in Maryland. The year after his Loeb Fellowship, while snorkeling with his daughter in Nassau, he watched a group of divers pass 50 feet below and thought, “As much I like being up here, I’d rather be down there.” He immediately enrolled in a diving class and obtained his open water certification in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. Over 600 dives later, Dobbins is now a master scuba diver and member of the Underwater Adventure Seekers of Washington, DC, and the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, a group formed in 1959 by African American divers ostracized by their white peers. It’s not surprising; he’s been pushing boundaries since his youth.

Raised in Detroit, Michigan, Dobbins grew up in a family-oriented working class neighborhood somewhat insulated from the civil and racial strife in other parts of the country. He developed a love of nature and nature photography during camping trips with his boy scout troop and scoutmaster father, and by the age of 13 he had earned high honors as an Eagle Scout.

The 1967 Detroit race riot opened his eyes to the stark realities of the day. That year he left Detroit to pursue an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, where he got involved in civil rights and anti-war activities. Dobbins joined the Black Action Movement strike that sought a balance of African American students and administrators proportional to the 10% balance statewide. During a summer internship in the Mississippi Delta he worked with limited-resource farming cooperatives. His early love affair with nature and his later activism shaped his outlook on life and his career path.

After earning a Master of Urban and Regional Planning at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1983, Dobbins worked on economic and community development for Jackson Ward, a historically African American business neighborhood in downtown Richmond, Virginia. Later as a Loeb Fellow, with access to real estate development classes at MIT, public policy classes at the Kennedy School and design courses at GSD, he deepened his knowledge of strategies for the revitalization and preservation of African American business districts. He said, “The Loeb Fellowship also had an impact on my professional life in terms of what I have learned, the people I have met, and the relationships which developed during the Fellowship and the years that followed.”

Dobbins’ next job as deputy director of planning in Brooklyn was the direct result of meeting Max Bond, a renowned African-American architect working in NY, at a Fellowship dinner. From Brooklyn Dobbins became  planning director in Washington, DC, working alongside Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. When the mayor’s term ended and he started his own firm, he was surprised to receive so much work. He recalls, “It was perplexing!” to have to hire staff or find a partner. A.G. Dobbins Associates collaborated on projects ranging from transportation planning to low-income housing development to site selection for a new Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Department headquarters. The common thread among these diverse projects was equity and quality of life. He says, “Size doesn't matter much because oftentimes it's the small projects that make big ideas happen, especially when they combine a community development objective with an appreciation of local history and culture.”

In 2000, Dobbins accepted an attractive offer to become community planning division chief in the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission Prince George's County Planning Department, where he directed planning for transit-oriented development around the county's 15 Metrorail stations. He was there for 14 years, half of them as deputy planning director, but eventually he realized, “It's time for a change. I still have more to learn and give and it's time to get back to what I really enjoy doing.” His current consulting practice offers a variety of planning and development services with a special focus on heritage area planning and photographic surveys.

Most importantly, he’s found a way to combine his expertise in planning with his love of diving. In addition to diving recreationally, Dobbins participates in Diving with a Purpose, a nonprofit that conducts maritime archaeology and coral restoration projects and operates Youth Diving with a Purpose to engage teenagers in marine and archaeological conservation. He has conducted archaeological surveys around Biscayne National Park with the National Parks Service and in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His team has located ruins from the Guerrero, a Spanish slave ship that wrecked in Biscayne Bay while illegally carrying 561 captive Africans. Dobbins has found the process of surveying surprisingly similar to work on land: locating and mapping artifacts using trilateration, preparing in situ drawings and producing a final composite site map using AutoCAD. The main difference–and it’s not a small one–is that most of the process is conducted underwater.

Dobbins is just getting started. His consulting firm and DWP are working on a proposal that builds upon the African Slave Wrecks Project launched in 2008 by a coalition of US and African partners to locate, document and preserve the remains of ships that wrecked while engaged in the international slave trade from Africa. He is working on a proposal for a cultural heritage program in Mozambique that combines diaspora heritage, education and volunteer tourism related to maritime archaeology and the slave trade. And he is working with entities like the National Park Service and National Museum of African American Culture and History to support the identification of a transatlantic slave trade shipwreck trail reaching from the southern coast of Mozambique, around Cape Town, South Africa, to the Americas. This heritage trail assembles all the seemingly disparate threads of his interests: economic development, ecology, culture and history. Dobbins, in following his passions, would seem to have located the Fountain of Youth.

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