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Advancing social justice

Jill Iscol discusses philanthropic efforts of world leaders today

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Published: Monday, April 2, 2012

Updated: Monday, April 2, 2012 16:04

Iscol 1

Jenny Cheng

Andrew B. Hahn Ph.D. ’78 (Heller), left, conducted a question-and-answer session with Jill Iscol (center), the author of ‘Hearts on Fire,’ and Jacob Lief, co-founder of the Ubuntu Education Fund.

Jill Iscol, activist and advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spoke at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management last Thursday. She discussed her book Hearts on Fire, which features 14 leaders who have made a difference in the world. Iscol discussed her own philanthropic efforts and what compelled her to write the book.

The event was co-sponsored by the Eli J. Segal Citizen Leadership Program and the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy.

Iscol was born and raised in New York and is the president of the IF Hummingbird Foundation, started in 1989, that socially and economically supports democracy in the U.S. and abroad. Hearts on Fire was made available to the public on Nov. 8, 2011.

Jacob Lief, one of the 14 activists mentioned in the book, was also present to answer questions. Lief, the president and co-founder of the Ubuntu Education Fund, spoke about his project which provides necessary medical and educational resources and supplies to more than 400,000 orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa.

The mission of Lief’s program is to support the development of these children from an early age through higher education and their careers.

Before the question-and-answer session with Iscol and Lief, a short film called “Welcome to Hearts on Fire” was shown, showcasing the two activists and their thoughts on how to begin in the world of social activism.

Iscol mentioned several times that most activists experience a moment in their lives that makes them realize they are meant to enter the social justice field.

For Iscol, this happened when she was studying sociology at Yale University in 1993 and her father passed away. At this point, she asked herself what she wanted to do with her life and started to explore strategic philanthropy.

“I started to think, ‘Well, you have so many years left in your life, what do you really want to do with it? Do you want to isolate yourself and write another dissertation, or would you like to take what you’re doing in terms of philanthropy very seriously?’ And I chose the latter, and I started to learn and study about strategic philanthropy,” Iscol said.

“What inspired me to write this book was I was very active in politics. ... After 2008, I decided to take a break from politics, and I gave myself some time to think about my next steps,” she said.

“Upon reflecting on the years that I had been doing the work as president of a small family foundation, I realized that I had gotten to know the most extraordinary, inspiring people ... who could be doing anything with their lives, ... but they had chosen [to devote themselves to public service].”

“I wanted to do something to spread the word about the extraordinary work that so many people I had met, that I had the privilege and honor of knowing, were doing,” she said.

Lief spoke about some strategies he has used in his work in social activism, especially the importance of relationships with other non-profits, studying their models and exchanging strategies.

Lief kept things in perspective by acknowledging that in social justice, successes come with many failures, which is why his team tries “to celebrate the small successes,” he said.

Iscol said that the non-profit sector and the government have lost progressive interactions. The government is not quick in allowing the necessary risk-taking in order to find what strategies work best. People need to “get together with [their] colleagues who are in the same sector ... to inform policy,” she said.

Iscol said that what defines a visionary is confidence, belief in him or herself, problem-solving and knowing when to ask for help, rather than trying to figure out all aspects on their own. She also said it was important to “invent a language to be able to talk to donors.”

After the event, Jamie Minton, who will receive her Masters in Public Policy in 2013, shared her thoughts on Iscol’s and Lief’s words: “Being at a school that promotes social justice, it’s great to have these opportunities, and I really like that not only was the author here, but one of her examples of how to change the world came with her, and it was really good to hear, you know, straight from both of their mouths how to be successful in a competitive world and rise above that competitiveness and focus on what you want your goal to be, and so, it was very motivating to be able to listen to their stories.”

Jessie Stettin ’13 also added, “I think both of the speakers were ... incredibly inspiring people, and I think that hearing two different approaches from people who are in two different stages in their philanthropic life was just really eye-opening and sort of allowed for us to open our minds to different creative ways in order to make social change.”

Iscol stressed that students at Brandeis have the groundwork set up to enter the field. She ended by saying that “each one of these stories is different and perhaps they will help you as you decide which direction you’re going in.” 

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