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Talking About Real Change with Mimi Silbert

It’s difficult to find a better example of community-based change than the Delancey Street Foundation and even harder to find a more feisty advocate than its founder, Mimi Silbert.

For 37 years, Silbert has lead the nonprofit foundation aimed at rehabilitating criminals and drug addicts through a simple philosophy; that those who have lost their way can earn back self respect by developing their strengths rather than focusing on their failures.

Delancey Street _ made up of several businesses, residential treatment centers in six different cities including a nearly 400,000 square-foot residential and retail complex at the foundation’s home base in San Francisco _ was built from the ground up and has changed hundreds of lives for the better with no staff and no government funding.

It all sounds impossible until you talk to Silbert, a five-foot tall, 66-year-old mother of two, grandmother of four, who doesn’t know the meaning of the word can’t. A lesson, she’ll be quick to tell you, she learned from her “Delancey family” and one that was passed on to her own children. Silbert lives at the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco and the divorcee raised her two sons there.

“There is nothing in life more exciting than watching people trying to be good and struggling to be better,” Silbert said. “It’s the most sustaining and exciting thing to be a part of that.”

Silbert was raised just outside Boston the daughter of European immigrants. She went to the University of Massachusetts and then to earn a double doctorate in psychology and criminology from the University of California, Berkeley. All the while, she remembered her peers from the poor neighborhood she grew up in who didn’t come from homes that were as supportive.

“I felt that somehow my parents gave me something that I didn’t earn that much, so that it’s kind of on me to give that back,” she said.

After years of working as a criminal psychologist, Silbert co-founded Delancey Street. It’s named for the street in New York City where many immigrants first settled and she often refers to residents of Delancey Street as immigrants.

The metaphor is apt, Silbert says, because most of the men and women who come to Delancey Street are third or fourth generation criminals who don’t know the basics of how to live in civil society. Everything from their language to their code of conduct is different, she said.

At Delancey Street, the residents are the staff. Excuses about how their past and upbringing lead them to where they are today are not tolerated. What is fostered is reliance on each other. Residents who have been there longer are assigned to work with newer residents in a chain that stretches from Silbert at the top to the latest arrival at the bottom.

Some residents apply to come to Delancey Street eager to find their way out of lives filled with crime and addiction. Others are sent, or beg to be sent, by judges in hopes of one last chance at rehabilitation before they end up in prison. Many come from prison. They are required to stay two years, the average stay is four.

All of them are taught marketable skills by helping run the foundation and its businesses: a restaurant, a moving company, catering, a printing company and more. They also handle the bookkeeping and administrative work that keeps it all going along with the construction work that builds and maintains their housing.

It’s a daunting task, there are failures, of course, but the successes have been inspiring not just to Silbert but to her sons.

“No (parenting) book has ever suggested that you move your children in with a lot of criminals,” Silbert laughs.

But she knows that her sons, David and Greg, who are now grown, successful and have families of their own, learned from her commitment to Delancey Street.

In his college admissions essay one of her sons wrote about taking risks.

“He said, ‘I’m not afraid to take risks because I’ve seen that people who fail can come back up,’” Silbert said.

“I don’t know if my kid would know that had I not been part of a world that fought for change. It’s a lesson that can’t be taught by words. If you are yourself involved you give your kids more ability to dream about what’s possible.”

Author: Debbie Hummel

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