2018 Honoree

Lori Silverbush

Filmmaker, Activist

“I most identify with Margaret Thatcher because she got the job done and famously stated: ‘If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.’ She led by example, was a true trailblazer, true to her values and core, never faltered, and always prevailed. I completely identify with her uncompromising sense of wisdom, power, vision, and unwavering sense of self.”

What do you feel are the qualities of a Power Woman?

I subscribe to the belief that power is the ability to talk softly and people lean in to hear what you have to say. It’s the ability to get things done without having to raise your voice, wave a big stick, or act like a bully. Real power comes from people buying into your message and believing your purpose. That’s real leadership, that’s real power. The qualities that make up a powerful human, in my mind, are having a message and a compelling delivery of that message that grabs people in their heart center, makes sense to them, and resonates with them, both intellectually and emotionally, and gets them to say, “Yeah, I want to be part of that, I want to connect.” Real power is the ability to connect with impact for an important goal.

How do you balance efforts for gender equality? Is it a global approach, is it specific to the issue, how do you feel passionate about this topic?

I think I feel passionate about human empowerment and when one group has historically been left out of the structures that enable their empowerment, then I want to see them raised up. Historically, people who have been marginalized—-women have been marginalized, people of color have been marginalized, people of different sexuality and gender identifications have been marginalized. I feel really strongly that everybody should have a voice and that voice deserves to be heard. So, my work is trying to make their voices heard. Marginalized people who–by the way we shouldn’t even by calling them marginalized, but that’s what our structures have done…I also feel that we’re in a unique moment in time right now where average people of all genders, race, everything, from all walks of life, are feeling marginalized and don’t believe that their voices matter, and as a result of that, they’re making choices that are born out of desperation, hostility, and resentment. And, the truth is if we set up a democracy that makes everybody heard and valued, a lot of that goes away. So, I feel really passionate about working towards everybody having a voice. I feel that a functioning democracy is a real way to get through some of the historic pain that has existed. The solution is to raise people up, to get them to matter, to get their voices heard, give them the tools to get their own stories told and heard, and then that feeling of being unempowered goes away. But, we can’t do that if we don’t look really critically and pointedly at our democratic institutions and social structures and ask, “Is this structure set up in a way that allows somebody else is to get an advantage? Because, historically, it’s been set up for their disadvantage.” So, we have to look at our democracy and our institutions and build them and recreate them as tools for empowerment. That is 100% what I believe needs to happen. I’ve been working in the area of hunger, income inequality, and economic injustice for a while now and a lot of the inequality and disempowerment of women is because women are disproportionately in these groups that are disempowered and unfairly structured. Historically, they haven’t been allowed to participate in the social structures to give them their voice, to get their voices to heard, to make them participants in a functioning social environment. I really believe in looking at democracy as tools for ending inequality and disempowerment. The fact that we, as a nation, haven’t looked at our constitution at a certain point and said, “Well, it’s not fair that we’ve designated one group of people 3/5’s human. That’s completely unacceptable. We need to change that.” Or, “We looked at our laws and said it no longer serves us. We evolved. We understand now that one gender should not be excluded from representation in our legislatures. We cannot do that anymore.” So, there’s examples throughout history of how we’ve empowered groups that have traditionally been disempowered, and we’ve looked to our democracy to do that. And, I think my job and the work that I’m doing helps people get over some of the misperceptions about the consequences of our historical mistakes and understand that they’re fixable and achievable today. When you have an entire group of people who are economically disadvantaged because these structures have never been addressed, the answer is not to say, “Well, obviously, this is a lesser group so they need so much more in the way of charity, let’s be kind.” That’s not the answer. That’s not empowering at all. In fact, it’s degrading. The answer is asking, “How do we empower people as equals so their voices are strong and that they can advocate for themselves on equal footing with the very people who are in charge?” Because they should be in charge. That’s democracy, right?

How long have you had this initiative that you’ve been rolling out?

In 2013, a film that I co-directed with the filmmaker, Christy Jacobson, was released and it was called “A Place at the Table.” It was specifically about how hunger and economic inequality were at epidemic levels in this country because we had lost sight of these truths. We substituted a charity mindset for a democracy mindset, and unfortunately, the charity mindset was not even close to reaching the need because we had just been through a really terrible recession, so we had historic levels of hunger and income inequality in this country, historic levels of obesity and obesity-related diseases because there was an entire subsection of our population eating marginally nutritious foods. They were having a third world diet in a first world country, and therefore, they were very unhealthy and hunger was at historic levels. So, me and my partner made this film and we started to take it out there and it was a radical departure from all of the storytelling and messaging around hunger at the time, which was basically saying, “If you are upset that there’s hunger in our country, donate cans of food, go volunteer at a food bank, write a check,” which, in itself, is not a bad thing at all–in fact, it speaks to American’s general goodness and generosity. They want to take care of other people. But, it was a flawed logic. It was reinforcing for people that it was charity: those who have should give to those who don’t have. It was a temporary solution to social problems and it had been classified as a secondary system for the poor, so we never had to look at the underlying issues that created this problem in the first place. When we went out there, it was met with a lot of really positive responses, whether it was a “red state” or a “blue state,” people got it and said, “Yes, this is what we want to be part of.” And, I was a filmmaker, I didn’t have something for them to be part of. I didn’t have a way for them to channel their enthusiasm and their passion for helping our democracy to fix this. I didn’t have anywhere to send them, except to the same charities that were used in the old mindset. So, together, with a couple really great smart people who have been working in media their whole lives, my partners Tim Castri, his wife Kristin Castri (also someone who has a real background in media) my husband Tom Colicchio (who has been addressing hunger issues from a restaurateur and chef perspective from quite some time) and I put our heads together and asked ourselves: “How can we use what’s at our disposal to change America’s mindset from the charity mindset to one where democracy really is a solution to these things? And we created A Place at the Table organization that is helping get this message out there–that this is an achievable problem. We shouldn’t be OK with the idea of hunger because it is solvable. We solved it as a nation before when we took care of the underlying system, and we can do it again, but we have to be conscious of the patterns that we’ve fallen into and be able to look at them at an intelligent, critical difference and say, “Ok, this is based on kindness, but it’s perpetuating the problem. How can we be kind and smart, fixing the problem rather than just managing it and putting band aids on it?”

If you could have somebody else’s job for a day who would that be and why?

I would say, if I could be anybody, I would be Alejandro Innaitu. He’s a director whose work I admire and he has access. Everybody in the world wants to work with him because he’s that good, he’s that innovative, and he can really tell the stories I care about, he can really tell them at scale. That’s the director I hope all women filmmakers, like me, can have access to those kinds of opportunities. He’s just fantastic. Do you remember the movie Birdman? That was him. That was a really politically incorrect answer. I probably should have said Mother Theresa or something.

Are you involved in any shape or form to influence and empower women in the space of politics? Do you feel that the number of actions in society taking place is a more affirmative action to see change? How do you feel about what’s actually happening in the political space today and how can we change it?

Our society is undergoing a change all around us. Ever since I was a young woman, I kept hearing, “Now it’s really happening for women,” and it was kind of not true, just lip service. I would see that opportunities were not really coming in the same way as they were for men. I would say, since last year, there really has been a cultural shift, for real. Where we end up, and the backlash to that is still to be seen, but without question this is a different era. And, I believe that because of that the work that needs to be done is not work of remediation, like “let’s make sure there’s all these extra opportunities for women.” We don’t need people to give us extra help or extra legs up. And, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, there’s always been groups that do need that because they’ve been, historically, put in the position where they can’t succeed. However, when you give women a chance to succeed, meaning you actually level the playing field, they do the rest themselves. My answer to that is what I’ve been particularly doing is looking at my platform to support candidates—-and this is me personally; my organization is not advocating for any particular political group at all, we’re advocating on behalf of democratic solutions to economic injustice. But, me personally, I am looking at any candidates who are truly invested in empowering humans to be their absolute authentic self, and to me that means giving. If it means a women, great, if it’s a man who believes that and is looking into ways to make sure women and girls have economic opportunities and that people of color are not still being put into a tiered system that’s invisible but there, then that’s the candidate I’m interested in–regardless of their gender. Turns out we have historic levels of women running, and that’s exciting because women traditionally fall into a group of people that want to see this type of empowerment and it’s usually part of their platform. I would say, personally, I’m very involved in trying to get candidates seen and heard however possible because I want a diverse group of people representing this country and that’s an incredibly exciting thing. In terms of my organization, what A Place at the Table is doing…the name of it is about giving everyone a voice in the process. It’s not just about food and a seat at the table to eat, which everyone should have especially in a country this abundant, but about everybody’s voice and point of view being important. What my organization is doing is working to engage young people at a very young age to be active citizens in their communities and in our society, saying to them, “You don’t have to wait until you’re 18 and can vote. Your voice matters before then.” We’re developing podcasts for kids and teaching materials to go to school districts that help kids understand themselves as active, vibrant citizens in a democracy from day one, so when they turn 18 they can also, and should also, be voting.

What issues in the workplace do you feel contribute most to the gender pay gap? Is the economic and reproductive situation still being addressed, should they be asked, and how do we overcome them not being asked? What do you feel are still the challenges being faced in this space?

To be honest, I’m not someone working in a corporate environment and I’m not really in a position to comment on what is and is not being posed to women in those types of interview and hiring settings. But, I will say from my vantage and taking a 30,000 feet look at where women are at, I think that, for sure, there is some unconscious bias, but that’s changing every day. I know my children have grown up thinking women are directors and men cook, so it’s changing with all the young people coming into the workplace and taking over. I think the single biggest thing that is standing in women’s way for economic parity, and for waste parity right now, has to do with child care. I think because our society gives lip service to caring about how we raise our children, we don’t actually have the structures set up to truly empower women during those reproductive years, women and families I should say, so they can move forward simultaneously as engaged parents and as engaged workers. I think we are still in a situation where we have created duality and you have to choose to either be super engaged as a parent, and then your work suffers, or to be super engaged with work, and then your parenting suffers. And, because most mothers are incapable of making that second choice–because once you have a kid it’s really, really hard to do–it ends up by design, or by accident, perpetuating an outdated model where somebody has to stay home with kids, or to lean out so that the other person can lean in. And, if you look at cultures around the world that have made the father the parental lead, where they value the father with the mother, they have incredible family-supportive policies so women don’t pay a penalty for their childbearing years and men don’t pay a penalty for deciding to take advantage of these types of policies. I think the next big hurdle for our country to get wage parity for women is to lead some sort of National high quality childcare option. I think that would be a real empowering thing for women. It would certainly change people’s attitudes about what being a “good” parent is. I think a lot of times women carry their own beliefs about sacrifice–that they can’t possibly be a good parent without sacrificing their own work ambitions–and our society is certainly set up to encourage that belief system. But, if we, as a culture and as a Nation, said we’re going to really lean into this; it’s going to be a National priority that we tell women their goals and their ambitions are equally important, especially during those critical years when you’re having babies and in early childhood where kids really need an engaged parent at home, then that’s when it counts. I don’t think it should specifically be the province of privileged people to have both.

Do you feel that you’ve experienced any kind of that divide? You’ve talked about being an artist and a producer in your own right, have you overcome anything that’s created a barrier for your space and your profession that you can share?

Yes. For years and years I told myself that sexism wasn’t an issue because I was always the one woman in the room. I was getting the meetings and the opportunities, so I scoffed at the idea that sexism was in my way, and I was really fortunate to have someone as a partner who absolutely believes in my work and has been an advocate for me in every scenario. But, I think I failed to understand the extent to which my personal privilege played a role in me being in those roles and the extent to which a certain amount of tokenism was involved. To be honest with you, I do believe that gender has played a role. I have not always gotten the jobs I was certainly qualified for, but I was certainly prepared for it and I brought everything into a room for some reason younger men would get that job. I feel like it sounds like sour grapes and it’s a hard industry, that I get, but if you take it in aggregate with all the other women in my profession, it can’t be a coincidence. At a certain point, we all look at each other and say, “How excellent do we have to be to get this job?” I believe it is changing. I believe there is real hunger now for the types of stories I’ve always wanted to tell. I have to take responsibility for some of it because I’ve always wanted to tell these stories that are now in vogue, but they weren’t always, so there’s a piece of that too. But, I do believe I’ve always had to do a little more, give a little more, and I was fortunate enough that I had a life that allowed me to do that and I question how somebody who didn’t have the same advantages that I had, the educational advantages…I come from a family that supported me in my hope in dreams that gave me a world-class education, I have a partner that believes in me, what about somebody that doesn’t have each and every one of those boxes checked? They would find it even harder. I’m excited because the world has shifted and I’m ready for it.

What is your favorite book, fiction or nonfiction?

I have so many. I would say my favorite piece of fiction is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” To this day it just kills me every time. I love it. I reread it periodically because I love it so much.

What quality do you most value in friends?


Which trait do you most dislike in yourself?

Blame. I get all snarky and who to blame when things don’t go my way. I’m working on it. I meditate.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

I would say the most overrated virtue is niceness. I prefer compassion and kindness to niceness.

Who do you most admire and why?

I know you’re supposed to answer with a famous person, but the person I most admire was my paternal grandfather. His name was Sy Silverbuch, Seymour Silverbush, and he was one of the most erudite and brilliant people I’ve ever met, but he was not able to go to college because he had to support his brothers and his family, but he paid for them to go to college and he worked. However, he proceeded to get himself an education. He’d read the encyclopedia and whatever he could get his hands on. He was absolutely the most brilliant and knowledgeable person. He was also an incredibly accomplished artist, he painted. He never learned how to play an instrument, but he whistled. I’m not kidding, that man could whistle a symphony. The most interesting thing about him was he truly was a seeker for justice. No one knows his name, he’s not famous, they don’t have statues erected of him in public squares, but he spent his life making sure people got a fair shake. When he died people let us know that he had made the difference between them being able to make it or not. He didn’t see race or gender, he helped people that nobody else was willing to help and got them to the place where they could stand on their own two feet, and he did this without a claim, without any sort of public office. He was a true believer in democracy and equality and justice. And, to this day, I think he is the same person I admire most. And, by the way, he was with the same woman. They were married since they were 17 and he died in his 80s.

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