As election season comes to a close, we thought it only fitting to choose a November book of the month that celebrates some of our nation’s most inspiring citizens. Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World, One Nonprofit at a Time tells the inspiring stories of 50 social entrepreneurs who work tirelessly to champion a variety of worthy causes. Here, author Katrina Fried writes about the process of choosing subjects for the book. —BBL Editor
The idea for my new book Everyday Heroes, began percolating about five years ago, just before Barack Obama was elected, as America was bearing down to weather the worst economic crisis we had seen in generations. With the mist of the recession slowly blanketing the country, amidst the salvo of doom and gloom headlines, it seemed vitally important to find focal points of light. Who were the heroes, the torchbearers of hope and humanity, in this new era of darkness?
Many of us consider heroism a quality reserved for an exceptional few—Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa. Such heroes are to be idealized and looked to for guidance, like the North Star—a moral compass, not a literal road map. But the more I read, learned, and listened, the more obvious it became: The heroes of today are anything but rare, they’re everywhere.
They’re standing beside you in the elevator and sitting across from you on the subway; they’re your next-door neighbor and your college roommate; they’re teachers, doctors, ex-cons, priests, lawyers, inventors and orphans. There are quiet heroes among us who embody the power and promise of the American spirit; ordinary men and woman who have devoted themselves to uplifting the lives of others. And it is precisely their ordinariness that makes them extraordinary. Unlike our leaders of the past, these new revolutionaries are not wrangling to become the dominant voice of reform. Their power stems from the aggregate. Together they are raising a chorus for change. Listen closely, and you’ll hear a growing battle cry: If we don’t take care of each other, who will?
The process of selection for this book was equal parts pleasure and torture. There were thousands of worthy potential subjects who deserve to be recognized and celebrated—how to choose just 50? My criteria narrowed the field somewhat. The heroes honored in this book are not those, for instance, that personify physical bravery, such as veterans or firefighters—though they are by no means less praise-worthy—rather, these are crusaders for social justice and equality. Their work is humanitarian in nature. They are founders or leaders of successful nonprofits representing a diverse range of causes and demographics. Offspring of the marriage of entrepreneurship and community service, nearly all self-identify as social entrepreneurs. They are all Americans.
Individually, each of these men and women has something exquisitely unique to teach us. Their personal paths to magnanimity are scattered with guideposts and universal lessons for achieving fulfillment. In their stories are actualizations of many of our own deep aspirations to live a just and generous life. By example, they demonstrate that the potential for heroism is innate to us all, if only we choose to activate it.
Collectively, these 50 heroes paint an electrifying portrait of contemporary philanthropy in America. The themes and qualities that emerge repeatedly in their profiles add up to a new and provocative re-imagining of charity, one that eschews tradition and embraces innovation, daring and a global mindset.
The variety of causes, ideas and narratives chronicled in Everyday Heroes goes to prove that there are as many ways to give as there are human beings. With each hero’s story, there is yet another entry point to the undercurrent of munificence that flows around us. And here’s the real take-away: There is no contribution too small or insignificant. Whether you choose to show kindness to a loved one or a neighbor, to volunteer, to donate, or to build your own movement—you are helping to grow a culture of giving, from which—to use a favored phrase among these entrepreneurs—a thousand flowers will bloom.
Photo above: Founder and C.E.O. of Back on My Feet Anne Mahlum is pictured with members of the organization, a national nonprofit which uses running as a means to build self confidence and independence within the homeless population. “I knew that homeless or not, running makes you feel like you can fly. It doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, rich, or poor,” says Mahlum.