An interview with the author of the award-winning Visionaries in our Midst: Ordinary People who are Changing our World.
By Jane Hess Collins
Imagine a dinner party where a history buff, author, film producer, photographer, grantmaker, nonprofit founder, advocate and Capitol Hill staffer decided to write a book on social justice. Such a book would be insightful, detailed, entertaining and motivating. The only problem would be getting these eight experts together.
Or not. Because Allison Silberberg has been all of those things. And her book, winning Visionaries in our Midst: Ordinary People who are Changing our World, hit number one on Amazon’s list of Hot New Releases in Philanthropy and Charity for over two weeks and stayed in the top ten of that list for five consecutive months. Silberberg’s book was a 2009 finalist for their Book of the Year award, and Silberberg herself was nominated by Change.org to be one of their annual 250 Changemakers.
In Visionaries in our Midst, Silberberg narrates the stories and struggles of a single mother on welfare, a doctor, a teacher, a policeman and a retired government worker and 13 other everyday citizens who saw a need and filled it. Silberberg shared her insights over coffee on a Wednesday afternoon:
What motivated you to write this book?
I saw how much need there was and heard these great stories when I was hosting monthly charitable events for nonprofits. The thing that always stayed with me was the story behind the story told to me by the executive director or the founder of the non-profit. People really confided in me and every night I’d say to myself, “Someone really ought to write up those stories.” And then one day I realized, “Well, I am a writer, I guess I could be the one.” It really hadn’t been done before. I wanted to focus on the people, these visionaries, the people behind the nonprofits.
How did you find the people you profiled? What was your selection process?
I knew some of the visionaries because I had hosted charity events for them for nearly every month for a decade and I got to know how they worked and their stories – who they were and why they did this. As I was writing the book I wanted to select other people to profile as well and I started investigating and doing a lot of research. I was interested in what their mission was and their passion. It takes time. It took some of these people years to open up and tell me the story behind the story that they never told anyone else.
Why did you limit your heroes to the greater DC area?
I feel that this region is a microcosm for the rest of the country and that the same unmet social needs that are here are all over America. These stories are universal. When I focused on the individuals who were making a difference, I was really focusing on those like them all over the country or all over the world.
Why do you call them visionaries?
I saw them as someone who envisioned a better way. They believed in what was possible and they were pursuing that, against all odds sometimes. They’re not Gandhi, they’re not Dr. King. They are just regular people. If you think about what Gandhi and King have done you might never step forward and do something, but if you look at the people in my book who stepped up, you might.
Of the 18 people you profiled, who inspired you the most and why?
That’s like picking out your favorite child among all of your kids. I really love them all.
Are you still in touch with the people you profiled?
Yes, all of them.
Aside from an incredible vision, did you find any commonalities among the people you profiled?
Yes. They all have passion, exuberance and leadership. They saw what is possible where some people would say it was impossible. There’s a wonderful quote from Robert Kennedy who was actually quoting George Bernard Shaw, ‘Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not.’
What did you learn in your research and writing of this book?
I learned so much. Perseverance counts in anything, but especially in this line of work. It’s hard work but it’s heart work, as one person says in the book. It happened to me when I worked with kids in Anacostia. A parent of a child came up and gave me a hug. When a parent thanks you for helping them raise their child to adulthood, that’s really very transformative.
So do you really believe it takes a village?
I think it takes a village to be a community. I think the questions that the book poses are: What kind of community do we want to live in? What kind of country do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a world where we really are just focused on ourselves? If there’s a child who needs help reading, and you can spend an hour a week with her and that kid graduates from high school and goes on to college, that’s a win-win for society. And, the kid is transformed because you gave an hour a week.
Anyone can be philanthropic You can give your time, you can give your ideas, you can give your connections, you can give a couch, a computer. If everyone did a small thing, wherever they are, it would be a sea change.
[Folksinger] Pete Seeger talks about when the wind blows pomegranate seeds, just a few of the seeds land in fertile ground and take root and blossom. This book is about planting seeds and you never know which ones will blossom. In my book I also talk about Robert Kennedy’s quote about how each of us can cast a ripple upon the water and together we can create a cascade that can tear down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. And in the book the visionaries demonstrate what Pete Seeger is talking about and what Robert Kennedy spoke about and what they both envisioned. You never know when you help a child in the inner city or help someone with their health care needs, how that’s going to have a ripple effect.
What changes are you aware of as a result of your book? What are people telling you about what they’ve changed or what they’ve done because your book has influenced them?
People tell me that that they’re seeing things differently and they’re getting more involved. Some of the nonprofits I interviewed are getting great feedback. I think people who were not necessarily involved are now volunteering on boards or wanting to do more at work. And at my book events and speaking engagements, people come up to me with tears in their eyes and want to give me a hug (Silberberg gets emotional here) which is unbelievably meaningful. It’s really been very gratifying.
Why do you think they want to do that?
I think that the message of the book is very meaningful and that we live in difficult times, or we know people who are having difficulty. And I think that my message of how each of us can have impact, that each of us can make a difference and create change, is a message that is universal and touching.
What would you say is the single most important social issue that needs to be changed or fixed?
They all intersect in some type of snowball. For example, I think hunger is a very big issue, and I think that if parents or adults get job opportunities, that would help alleviate child hunger. But I think job opportunities come from education so I would focus on education first if I had to pick one issue, because that snowballs into all of the other issues. Education gives you choice, opportunity, employment, self-sufficiency and the chance to do well, and then hopefully nobody’s hungry in that family.
Do you plan on writing a sequel? Are people sending in stories to you or sending in profiles of people to write about?
I would love to. I keep getting emails from people asking why I don’t choose this or that person to profile.
Do you think there’s a greater collective desire in people to give back now more than a decade ago?
Yes, I think that people were in a different place when I started the book in 2004. The country was in a different place. And now I think people are more aware of how difficult things have gotten and they see that they are vulnerable too. We’re a resourceful, energetic, positive, can-do country, and I think individually we’re strong but together we’re that much stronger. In my speaking engagements I say that this is the time to step up for one another. We all have to focus on our own situations but even an hour a week for one child can make all the difference in that child’s life.
What do you want to say that I haven’t asked you?
I’m really honored to have written the book. I’m just the messenger. I’m an observer by nature and I feel like it was my honor to share these stories. If it helps one person see that they can step up and do something for another, then that will mean everything.
Jane Hess Collins is a retired Air Force colonel who writes to inspire people to contribute. She is also a public speaker, conducts workshops for clients to discover their most intrinsic way to serve, and has established game nights for at-risk families throughout the country. You can contact her for speaking engagements or workshops at www.getoutandgiveback.com.