Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Q&A with writer and politician Allison Silberberg

Allison Silberberg
Writer and photographer Allison Silberberg is the author most recently of Visionaries In Our Midst: Ordinary People who are Changing our World. She also wrote And Life Will Be a Beautiful Dream: A Book About Peggy and Alvin Brown. A longtime social justice advocate, she was elected to the Alexandria, Va., City Council last year, and, because she won more votes than any other council candidate, serves as the vice mayor of Alexandria.

Q: How did you end up deciding to write Visionaries In Our Midst?

A: I was inspired by stories from people I had met in the nonprofit sector—the story about how they came to start a small grassroots nonprofit, and what was the untold story—they saw an unmet social need in their own communities and decided to do something about it. They didn’t necessarily have degrees—some did, some didn’t, but they decided to take their conviction, add courage, and persevere.

The stories demonstrate what is possible in our communities, and around the country and the world. Individuals can make a difference. It doesn’t take much to ruin a life, and it doesn’t take much to turn around a life. Unmet needs can snowball, and distort a person’s future.

These folks have come up with a way to stem the tide of suffering. These programs can be replicated anywhere. In DC and elsewhere. Afterschool programs for children, food for the ill, helping the elderly create new bonds of friendship, health care for those who don’t have it, helping women of color to earn PhDs—these programs not only help a person, but it helps our society.

One overarching theme of the book is a life of engagement. There’s the Biblical story that Pete Seeger shares about planting seeds—the seeds of a pomegranate go in different directions. Some are blown by the wind and disappear, some are blown by the wind and go into the rocks and get crushed, and some miraculously take root. And that is what the individuals in my book are doing. They are planting seeds. And each of us can plant seeds. 

Ultimately, the question is what kind of community, country, world do we want to live in? Public service is a reflection of gratitude, a part of the covenant between generations. This is our time to step up for one another.

These are trying times for millions of American families. Things are beginning to turn around for some, but we need to continue to reach out. Over 50 percent of kids in high school in Alexandria are receiving free or reduced price lunch. In Fairfax County, it’s 1 in 4 or 5. In the midst of great wealth, there are communities on the edge. These communities (and the stories in my book) are a microcosm for a much larger story across our nation.

Q: How did you select the groups you focused on, and were many of them through your charitable work with your group Film Biz?

A: Visionaries In Our Midst is a book of profiles of individuals—I had met Maria Gomez and Tom Lewis when I hosted monthly charitable events in the DC area. We gave away all proceeds, which was over $50,000. Every month, I selected a local nonprofit that was focused on children at risk and families in distress. Before that, I had run a nonprofit that mentored youth in Anacostia.

At the end of each [Film Biz] evening, I would talk one on one with the nonprofit's founder/executive director, and I would ask the person what inspired them. After some prodding, they would tell me. I would know that there’s much more to the story. I was so inspired. As I thought about the whole evening, I always felt the best part of the evening was that story from the founding director. I didn’t meet everyone in my book through Film Biz, but a number of them, I did.

I thought, somebody ought to write up these stories. Finally it hit me, you’ve got to do this. If it only inspires one other person, it’s worth it. At the end of each chapter, I include others from around the country. I found similar programs.

Here’s an update on Maria Gomez—Mary's Center has continued to grow despite the economic downturn. Maria has been advising the president with regard to his health care plan. She came here from Colombia when she was a child, and now she’s running a major nonprofit in the nation’s capital, and she speaks all over, and ends up advising the president on health care. In the last couple of weeks, she got a huge award. In February 2013, President Barack Obama presented Maria with a 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian award in the United States.

That’s a wonderful tale—it tells us what’s possible. You can come to this country with nothing, make a life, and make a difference. In Maria's case, she has had the great honor of advising the president.

One of the principles I realized is that folks in the book appeal to other people’s goodness. The book is about the interconnectedness of people’s lives. They have a moral compass that they follow. They know themselves first, and they have a moral compass and share it with others. They’re creating a shared vision and influencing how we affect change.

Q: Did your work on the book have an impact on your decision to run for public office?

A: For over 20 years, I’ve been deeply involved in public service behind the scenes—interning for Senator Kennedy, working for Senator Bentsen, starting a nonprofit and working with at-risk youth in Anacostia, running monthly charitable events for nearly a decade—the book was a culmination of that, and then I decided to take the next step and began stepping up and speaking from the heart about issues that concern us all. An all-volunteer team stepped up and helped me, and I’m very grateful to each of them.

Serving on the City Council and as vice mayor is an honor. Every single day, I have the great privilege of helping people I don’t even know. That just keeps me going. I’m taking a long view of our city's fiscal health, and of historic preservation. I always say that we are all the temporary stewards of this national treasure called Alexandria. You could extrapolate that to say that we are all the temporary stewards of America, and of our world.

Q: What are the top priorities for you?

A: The City of Alexandria is a beautiful, historic, national treasure. The old lampposts and cobble-stone streets, in addition to the multitude of historic landmark homes in Old Town Alexandria, amaze over three million visitors each year. Alexandria's commitment to historic preservation is inspiring. Nestled along the Potomac, Alexandria is a few minutes' drive to our nation's capital and is itself a top arts destination with wonderful shops, highly acclaimed restaurants, and lovely neighborhoods.

Alexandria has a AAA bond rating, and is a vibrant city. But like all cities, Alexandria has some tough choices to make in terms of its budget. We are facing some serious challenges. I just took office eight weeks ago, and we’re facing a $30 million shortfall this year. We have an overall debt around $500 million. Ten years ago the debt was $150 million. Ten years from now it will be $900 million. I’m deeply concerned about that. Some debt is OK; it’s investing in the future. But I am deeply concerned. Of course, I am also focused on our schools and have a strong commitment to affordable housing. 

Another huge priority is the future of Alexandria’s waterfront. The City Council is about to make a decision about the plan. While the plan has improved over time, I feel the waterfront plan is not visionary enough. It’s such a contentious issue.

I have been clear and consistent that I seek a compromise between the two warring factions. The plan calls for two medium-sized hotels on the waterfront. The plan would also change the density. Some want zero hotels. I say we should seek compromise, and have one small boutique hotel and maintain the current density levels, which date back to 1992. I know this is a compromise when both sides are angry. We should also have a small permanent bandshell in Oronoco Bay Park.

I’m urging the council to take a wise course, and to seek wisdom. We need to remember that there was a time back in the late 1960s or early 1970s when the city council, after a long and hard debate, voted to demolish 23 square blocks of Old Town Alexandria. Though controversial, they tore down 6 blocks including the old Opera House. There was such an outcry from the public that the city council stopped the demolition. Gadsby’s Tavern near City Hall dates back to the 1700s—five men took it upon themselves to save it and took out second mortgages on their homes and saved Gadsby’s Tavern. A new building is an inch away—that’s where the line stopped because of those gentlemen. It takes great courage to stand up.

I think we as a community need to come together. That’s why I put out a compromise proposal. It’s a wise thing to do, but it will also enable our community to heal. One of my main priorities as vice mayor is to help lead the community back to a very civilized discourse. We need to be careful with our words, and show mutual respect. I have a monthly gathering called Council on our Corner, and it’s very well received. It’s very respectful. It’s not just good for me, it’s good for the citizenry.

I also have an Alexandria Arts Initiative, which is another top priority. First, I have created a roundtable, which brings together arts, business and community leaders. And it is growing by the week. 

There are five pillars to my initiative. We will be creating an arts fund to support public art; branding Alexandria as an arts district; branding Alexandria as a creative economy, from writers to consultants to graphic designers to analysts. Non-industrial jobs, thought leaders. Entrepreneurship.

Also, within this framework, I have set forth an arts challenge, which would [involve] intergenerational participation in all aspects of art. We would have a day, Easel to Easel, where people of all ages set up an easel and will all be painting.

There also would be a music challenge within the initiative—every child from age 5 through graduation from high school learns to read music; they would pick an instrument and learn to play it. We would work with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra and the school system. If a family can’t afford it, we will raise money and engage the nonprofit sector. It creates a common bond. Every kid will have an instrument. I can envision that kids will form their own little jazz quartets or chamber music [group].

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. (NOTE: I had the privilege of being one of the early readers of Visionaries In Our Midst.)

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