Like the story of the blind men describing an elephant -- a tree, a rope, a snake! -- the name Carol Ruth Silver
evokes different responses when being introduced: "Oh, weren't you elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with Harvey Milk, and allegedly targeted along with him in the Moscone-Milk assassinations? Weren't you a Freedom Rider
-- one of the first white women arrested and incarcerated for protesting segregation in Jackson, Mississippi, at a pivotal time in our nation's civil rights history? Weren't you the lawyer for the prisoners in the San Francisco County Jail -- who quit to protest the War on Drugs? Didn't you run for Congress in Humboldt County as a tree hugging environmentalist? Weren't you a civil rights attorney in North Carolina, back in the day? A poverty lawyer in Delano, California? Aren't you the one who founded San Francisco's Chinese American International School
, the first and most modeled Mandarin Chinese immersion program in the United States? What are you doing with the One Laptop Per Child Project
? And was that you on Oprah
? You're a single mom? And a grandma too! Hey, you helped me buy my house."
Carol Ruth Silver's service journey has been one of courage, impact, and contribution -- across decades, across geographical regions, and across substantive areas. Underlying it all has been her unwavering commitment to help open doors of opportunity for all. As a 22-year-old recent college graduate in June 1961, Carol, originally from Massachusetts, headed south as a Freedom Rider to protest racial segregation in the American South. Before doing so, she received training in nonviolence (along with her fellow bus riders) from sponsoring civil rights groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Everyone in their integrated group was arrested upon arrival at the bus station in Jackson, Mississippi. Silver spent the next forty days in Mississippi jail cells, including in the Maximum Security Unit at the infamous Parchman Prison Farm. She chronicled the events and her experiences on hidden scraps of toilet paper, the outside and inside of envelopes and anything else she could find, and amazingly was able to smuggle out the paper. She fashioned these raw written scraps into a manuscript, which waited, unread for more than fifty years, until she published it in 2014 as Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison
Being a Freedom Rider "was a life-affirming, life-changing event for me," Silver says
. "After you get out of jail having been a Freedom Rider, nobody and nothing can frighten you, or tell you that you have to accept injustice. You stood up and said, 'No.'"
Citing her Jewish roots as inspiration for her early and lifelong commitment to civil rights activism, she often says: "Everybody knows about the Ten Commandments. But in the Jewish Bible there are actually 613 Commandments. Of those, some are archaic and properly forgotten, but one of the most important to my family when they were raising me is tikkun olam
. That means 'fix it' or 'repair it', for whatever that 'it' might be, your responsibility is to try your best to make it right."
Following those early experiences, she went on to get her law degree and embark on a distinguished career as a civil rights attorney. She moved to California, working as a law professor and legal aid attorney. She also embarked on a political career. Settling in San Francisco, Silver was elected to three terms as a San Francisco supervisor, under mayors George Moscone, Dianne Feinstein and Art Agnos. She reportedly was an additional target of Dan White, who assassinated Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on Nov. 27, 1978, but she escaped because she was late getting to City Hall that day: she had opted to have a second cup of coffee with a constituent.
Silver's compassion and commitment to equal opportunity have found expression in all aspects of her life. As the adopted mother of a Taiwanese boy, Silver was very concerned that he learn his original language and study about Chinese culture. After a long discussion of educational ideals with the Gold Mountain Monastery in the early 1970s while she was running for office, she agreed to help get a school started
, then called the Instilling Virtue Elementary School in San Francisco, and now part of the Instilling Virtue Elementary and Developing Virtue Secondary Schools
on the grounds of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
in Mendocino County, California. Silver also was the driving force in the founding of the Chinese American International School
in San Francisco in 1981, the first in the United States to have a Mandarin immersion program. Currently a board member of the Dharma Realm Buddhist University
at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Silver has also been active in helping create a Montessori-Inspired early childhood education program for children in Ghazni, Afghanistan
. And she has been active in promoting the extension of the One Laptop Per Child Program
, as a speaker for law enforcement against drug prohibition (LEAP) and in many other causes.
Join us for a conversation with this remarkable and indefatigable social change leader!
Five Questions with Carol Ruth Silver
What Makes You Come Alive?
I love working on Wind of Hope, the little school I co-founded two years ago in Ghazni, Afghanistan (a small, home-based, Montessori-inspired pre-school) and I also love and admire the Chinese American International School in San Francisco (a Mandarin immersion pre-K to Middle School, founded 35 years ago, now with three sites and cutting edge technology, successful beyond my wildest dreams.)
Pivotal turning point in your life?
Without doubt my decision at the beginning of the civil rights decade to Get on the Bus -- to become one of the original Freedom Riders in the fight against racial segregation -- apartheid -- in America.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
When the head of the University Press of Mississippi, that bastion of white supremacy which I had fought so vigorously, called and asked if they could publish my book -- Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison -- and not only published it but supported and distributed it in a most generous and kind and caring way.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
None -- except to hit it lucky on Match.com -- for I am fully content with my life -- no regrets, no desires -- other than to continue giving, doing, learning and enjoying.
One-line Message for the World?
"No good deed goes unpunished," as Oscar Wilde said, but even so, it is never, ever, a mistake to follow your inner impulse to take action out of kindness, generosity or justice.