By Jill Iscol
The 2014 World Giving Index found that Americans rank first in the world when it comes to helping strangers in need of assistance. That doesn’t surprise me. Since becoming involved in the philanthropy world more than 25 years ago, I have met countless generous people who live their lives with others in mind.
Where does this awareness of others start? What are the personal experiences that shape one’s commitment to fairness, social justice and equality of opportunity?
In thinking about these questions and talking with social activists from every walk of life, I have come to believe that charity, in its broadest meaning of goodwill and love of humanity, often begins at home.
Early on in my life I began to understand that I had the good fortune of being born in a time and place and of parents who afforded me opportunities not necessarily available to others. My sisters and I enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class upbringing in an upwardly mobile community on Long Island. But along with the perks of that lifestyle came a clear message from my parents: that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected.
As chairman of the board of an orphanage not far from where we lived, my mother would, on occasion, bring one of the children home to spend the weekend with us. We knew they didn’t have as much as we had, but we viewed them as new friends, playmates and equals. We were following our parents’ lead.
The older I got, the more apparent it became that some children had a leg up and others didn’t because of an accident of fate — what has been called “the birth lottery” — dividing us by class, race, ethnicity, gender or physical differences.
In the 1950s, when African-Americans began migrating in large numbers to the North, lured by the prospect of jobs and a better life, my mother hired housekeepers from the coal-mining region of West Virginia. They were wonderful, warm, hardworking women. I spent an enormous amount of time with them and considered them family. So, it was an awakening moment for me, and a confusing one at my innocent age, to discover that these women had children of their own whom they loved and had had to leave behind so they could earn money to support them. It is the same story told today in the plight of Mexicans, South Americans, Filipinos and other migrant groups.
My father gave back mainly in an active commitment to Jewish causes, especially those which strengthened and secured Israel. But his generous spirit reached beyond the temple doors. When he died in 1993, we were comforted by an outpouring of love and emotion from friends and strangers alike — people whose lives he touched as he went about his daily routines. They were from every chapter and every piece of his life; from garage attendants and shopkeepers, to doormen and waiters at the restaurants he frequented, to college friends and the people who worked with him and for him in business. He wasn’t just interested in their welfare; he tended to it.
That was the belief my parents tried hard to impart: that no matter where you came from or what your station in life, you deserve respect and an equal chance to develop your potential and have a fulfilling life; is up to those blessed with more to help those with less, not from a sense of noblesse oblige but from a genuine identification with each person’s humanity.
I heard that call-to-action again in high school in a eulogy for President John F. Kennedy written by Ruth Klein, one of our most respected teachers. The death of the young president, she said, was at once the salty taste of “the tears for human beings” of which the poet Virgil wrote, and a reminder that the old teach the young, and trust that the young will learn to light the fire that may kindle a better world.
In 1989, my husband and I started a small family foundation, the Iscol Family Foundation, which has since become the IF Hummingbird Foundation.
It is, I believe, built on the groundwork laid by my parents and other adult role models and it has been a life-changing experience for me. Early on, I was inspired by meeting and working with social change activists like Jacqueline Novogratz, Margot Strom and Jonah Edelman.
Today, when the world is exploding with negative energy, when we’re confronted every day with images of frightening brutality and violence, I am heartened and even exhilarated by a new generation of social idealists. They come from both privilege and poverty, but they share a common ideal. Happily, they include my own adult children who are acting on their own passions and ideas for changing the world. My son, Zach, a veteran of the Iraq war, is deeply involved in helping other veterans and their families with his organizations, The Headstrong Project and HirePurpose. He is helped by my daughter, Kiva, who is also working on the family foundation’s Hearts on Fire Visionaries campaign to enlist global talent to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.
My husband, Ken, and I are so gratified to see that our family’s belief in lifting up the human community has been carried through us to the next generation.
Along with my children, all of these extraordinary visionaries have enriched my life and bolstered my optimism about the future of our society and our planet.
In 2008, when the world seemed on the brink of financial collapse and people everywhere were feeling helpless and despairing, they were the reason I remained full of hope. They signaled the beginning of an exciting, new movement of engaged, compassionate citizens who are helping to build a more humane society.
They may not be famous but in my book they are stars and they deserve to be as well known as Beyonce and Taylor Swift. Four years ago, to spread the word of their good work that it might inspire others, I wrote “Hearts on Fire: Stories of Today’s Visionaries Igniting Idealism Into Action.” In doing so, I was reminded of Ruth Klein’s words more than 50 years ago, “Trust that the young will learn to light the fire that may kindle a better world.” I believe they are doing it.
Image credit: Flickr/Simon Cocks
Jill Iscol is President of the IF Hummingbird Foundation, a family foundation established in 1989 to support domestic and international efforts to strengthen democracy and reduce the social, economic, and educational inequalities that threaten it.
For the past two decades Jill has supported and participated in numerous organizations and has developed an expertise in identifying visionary leaders and programs at early stages of their development. She fosters their advancement by providing seed capital and guidance enabling them to become stable, sustainable and successful organizations, impacting lives around the globe. Additionally, she launched the Hearts on Fire, a community and platform to showcase inspiring social entrepreneurs and help inspire young people to pursue careers in service and cause.