On the evening of Thursday, March 29th, the Heller School hosted a book discussion in collaboration with the Eli J. Segal Citizen Leadership Program and the Silberman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy on the newly released book “Hearts on Fire: Twelve Stories of Today’s Visionaries Igniting Idealism into Action” by Jill Iscol, author, philanthropist and longtime advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Iscol and Jacob Lief, one of the visionaries featured in Iscol’s work, spoke about their processes as philanthropists and activists both from behind the scenes and in the field.
Lief spoke about his project the Ubuntu Education Fund in South Africa, which he co-founded and acts as the organization’s current president. In his responses he made a clear statement that in his opinions the large aid-organizations mostly originating in the US have not been effective and do not have any long-term effect. He is both a supporter and successful example of very localized grassroots projects, which may appear small but have a lasting influence in their specific areas. His project clearly showcases just how effective a long-term commitment and investment can be. While his influence may seem insignificant, he has vastly changed a number of young people’s lives, ultimately enriching the entire local society’s well-being and socioeconomic status. For Lief, this was the true achievement to obtain and it appears to be of much more value than a brief limited impact on a larger area and number of people. Iscol herself also commented on the necessity of the smaller localized grassroots organizations. Her own organization, IF Hummingbird Foundation, has helped fund numerous smaller groups to help in exactly such a way. She acts more from “behind the scenes” compared to the hands-on approach of Lief, as her focus lies on strategic philanthropy and the business aspects of successful projects. It was inspiring to hear the opinions and experiences of two people so heavily involved in social justice and activism and seeing the diverse approaches possible for philanthropy.
During the brief Q&A session open to the audience, the main focus remained on the experience of the two activists. Their message was engaging and elating as they kept pressing the issue of the general population’s involvement in social activism. In their opinion, anyone can become a philanthropist and activist and has the social responsibility to do so in some way or another. As Iscol ended her final answer with the uplifting and inspiring remark “You (the students in the room) are our future and are the future ‘changemakers’. Anyone can bring on social change, even if you are not an entrepreneur or leader. There are always ways to become active.”
While I personally am always interested in learning about more ways to become active in social justice, I am also critical and skeptical of the American upper-middle class often empowered to lead such projects (which I am a part of myself). Despite my critical eye, which I cast on Jill Iscol specifically and her seemingly somewhat sensationalized book and reports on the twelve ‘changemakers’ she describes, I left this particular presentation with a positive sense of Iscol and Lief’s work and do believe they made many valid points in their optimism towards the future of long-term grassroots activism. I felt these two speakers had a very clear grasp on what it takes to achieve positive change in the world. While Iscol’s audience is the upper-middle class American and she plays this field well, I felt reassured of her sincerity after hearing her very realistic yet committed recount of her experiences. Lief’s education project speaks for itself in terms of validity and efficacy and I commend his humble yet confident approach to philanthropy.