Raised in Dallas, Tex., Allison Silberberg is the mayor of Alexandria, Va., a city of 153,000 near Washington, D.C., and author of Visionaries In Our Midst: Ordinary People Who Are Changing Our World. She spoke with JW magazine about growing up in a politically engaged family, how she defines public service, and why every vote counts. Part of our #VoteLikeAGirl series, the following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Why do you vote like a girl?
A: Countless people have fought for our right to vote. My maternal great-grandmother was a suffragette, who marched for women’s rights. She did a lot for the most vulnerable in Boston and encouraged the state government to do more for the poor, for families, and for women and children at risk. So I come from a long line of people who are very active, my mother included. Voting is an honor and a privilege that millions of people around the world don’t have. I take it very seriously. So I encourage everyone to vote, regardless of their gender, regardless of their party affiliation. Just go out and vote.
Q: Is there any reason why young women in particular should care about voting?
A: I think that Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL, really put it best at the Democratic National Convention when she talked about the fact that the issues at stake are related to everything that we do. It’s not just about choice. These are not just women’s issues. They are family issues and human issues. It’s outrageous that women today earn only 79 cents on the dollar. We need to do better in 2016. If a woman takes home 79 cents on the dollar, then she can’t bring home as much milk. She can’t buy as many school supplies for her children. She can’t put as much food on the table. She can’t help as much. That is a family issue—both men and women need to be very concerned about the pay gap.
Then there are all kinds of issues related to women’s healthcare and health insurance and how health insurance covers our needs. That’s a family issue. That’s a human issue. These are basic rights that we are still fighting for and it’s 2016. It’s much more than just the glass ceiling—although that’s part of it—and we need to shatter it. And we don’t just shatter it for other women and for younger women. We shatter it for men too, for our sons. We’re all in the same boat.
Q: You mentioned some of the progress that we are making or could stand to make. What do you see as the big things that are at stake in this upcoming election?
A: This is a transformational election, there’s no doubt. I am proud to be a Democrat. I think a lot of the issues in my city, Alexandria, Virginia, are not necessarily red or blue. And I do think that there are a lot of issues in our country that don’t fall on one side or the other, that we need to come together and find common ground on. I’m one of those people who works hard to find that common ground among a wide range of voices. I think that this is a time for our country to come together. There are a lot of issues on which we find agreement, and those things on which we don’t agree, we have to continue to work hard on.
Q: How does your Jewish identity affect your approach to politics or the way that you vote?
A: For me, politics is not about being a politician per se, it’s really about public service. I have a strong sense of faith. I think that my public service has a direct tie to my values. And my values are directly tied to a sense of gratitude, a commitment to tzedakah and repairing the world, and making the world a better place for all.
I get to help people every day at City Hall, people I don’t even know. I get to be rabbinical, in a way, because I get to help people. I get to do mitzvahs all the time. And really that’s what public service is about—helping people find their way.
Q: How did your family influence your interest in public service?
A: My mother’s mother was one of seven children, and she was one of the oldest. And yet, despite the fact that they were very poor, my great-grandmother would take in people who literally just came from Europe with nothing. So that’s a part of my DNA and the family that I grew up in. We’re here to do what we can for others. My mother was totally involved in community, I mean all the time. We were always collecting books or clothes and donating. I’ve been involved in a lot of community work for over 20 years. One thing led to another: I ran for city council and then I ran for mayor.
My family was certainly involved in political life as I was growing up. I often watched Walter Cronkite with my parents, and afterwards, at dinner, we would discuss the issues of the day. It was pretty robust conversation, so if you were not up on the issues, you really weren’t participating in the dinner conversation. It was expected and it was a lot of fun. So, one thing has led to another in terms of my trajectory of being involved in public service.
Q: You wrote a book about ordinary people changing the world. Can people do that through voting?
A: Voting is unbelievably critical to our country, at the national and local levels and everything in between. We have to remember that President John F. Kennedy won his election against Richard Nixon in 1960 by one half of one percent. That’s unbelievable. I have a friend who is now a delegate in Virginia, and she won her race by, I think it was 16 votes. Sixteen people. Every vote matters.
If you think you might not be able to vote on Election Day, then see about voting early. It might be raining on Election Day in November. You might wake up that morning with the flu. It might be that, God forbid, someone isn’t feeling well in your family that day or you have to fly out. There are reasons to vote early. One of the last things my father did—and he was ill—was to vote in the 2000 election. He voted early and then right around Election Day, he passed away. We believe in voting in my family. It makes a huge difference.
Everyone thinks that the national level makes a huge difference, and it does. But local elected officials sometimes have even more impact on our daily lives than we realize. I think far more actually based upon what I’ve been doing in the city of Alexandria. I would encourage everyone to get out and vote. We need to do better with our voting numbers. It’s critical. When I was running, I’d say “Please go out and vote. I need every vote, but not just your vote. Please ensure that five other people get out and vote.” It doesn’t sound like a lot when you say “plus five,” but that was one of my strategies and it helped. So everyone, plus five!
Q: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
A: I just think it’s really important for people of all backgrounds in our country to get involved Civic engagement is the key to our democracy. Be informed, read different media sites, vote at every level of every election, serve on a committee or a commission in your city, run for office. Speak up, be heard. Think about others and see what you can do to make a difference.
I wrote a book called Visionaries in Our Midst: Ordinary People Who Are Changing Our World, and it really stems from a place of gratitude. All these people I wrote about saw an unmet social need and decided to do something about it. They stepped up to the challenge. And we have those same challenges everywhere across the country. Every community has needs: for after-school programs for kids in need, for programs for the elderly to create new bonds of friendship, to help people who are hungry and folks who need clothing. The same needs are all across the country and around the world.
I interned for Senator Ted Kennedy while I was in college at American University and it was a great honor. When you walked in his office every day, there was a sense of mission. And I knew then that, wherever I was, I always wanted to have that sense of mission in my life, so that my work was tied to my values, my passion and my core beliefs. I have that every day. I get to help people.