Lani Silver, 1948-2009
News, Posted: Jan 30, 2009
Lani started contributing to Pacific News Service sometime in the late 1970s. She wove herself into the fabric of our office, and my life — a raw nerve of justice signalling an abuse she'd discovered, a voice she wanted to magnify, an event she wanted to promote. She listed her occupation on FaceBook as an activist. It fit. She had skills as an artist, interviewer, oral historian, journalist, filmmaker, speaker—but what she felt most comfortable doing was engaging with people in some collective effort. I knew almost nothing of her private life — her passions were all about the public realm. Her activism was driven by an almost cosmic empathy. Irritating at times like any gadfly — she talked too much, sometimes seemed too earnest and caring — nevertheless when she came to the founding dinner of the Chauncey Bailey Project, I was thrilled. Once she sunk her teeth into an initiative, I knew she'd never give up. That was the Project's great good fortune. Her passing is both an intimate and a collective loss.
— Sandy Close
Services for Lani Silver, a passionate activist for more than four decades in San Francisco who died Wednesday, will be held at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way. A burial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. at Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, 130l El Camino Real, Colma. She was 60.
Silver died at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday night in the home of her sister Lori in San Francisco.
"Lani is gone," her sister Lori wrote an hour later on the CaringBridge.org website. Lani was diagnosed with a brain cancer in September and has been fighting a brave battle ever since. "Lani has always been terrified of being sick, but with this illness, was serene," Lori wrote in the latest of a regular series of posts on Lani's condition. "And she died with that same calm and serenity. She was surrounded by her family."
As the word went out that she was sinking on Wednesday, her legion of friends and colleagues put in messages on the CaringBridge website and to each other by email and telephone. I got the word in an email from Robert Rosenthal, who headed one of Silver's latest passions, the Chauncey Bailey Investigative Project. He forwarded an email from Martin Reynolds, editor of the Oakland Tribune and a key project editor.
Reynolds wrote, "Lani is close to leaving us. She is unconscious, surrounded by family, but comfortable, as she wanted it. Her sister Lynn said she can still hear so we asked her to let her know we called and that we all still loved her." Rosey added, "Thanks, Martin, for putting things in context. Very unique and caring lady." I added that Silver, a longtime friend and colleague, was a "remarkable lady with endless good causes and good results."
Sandy Close, a founder and catalyst for the project, wrote "I remember Lani coming to the founding dinner for the Chauncey project at the Mandarin Garden and never wavering in her support afterwards. But then, for the 30-plus years I knew her, she was a sometimes irritating, always humble, never judgmental goad for social justice causes. (Do you remember those amazingly detailed biographic drawings she would produce about the movement?)"
And so the emails went amongst the members of two of Silver's latest and last passions, the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (where she was an ever passionate board member) and the Chauncey project (where she was a founding member and ever passionate participant.) The Chauncey project was a media coalition that has had much success in investigating the 2007 murder of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey while investigating the finances of Your Black Muslim Bakery.
The reaction to Silver's condition was a remarkable display of affection and respect for the political activist who "fought the good fight for Bay Area community," as the headline of the excellent obituary by Kamika Dunlap put it in the Friday Oakland Tribune. Dunlap, who never knew Silver personally, nonetheless got Silver's essence by interviewing her family and friends. Her lead: "LaniHanako Silver always stayed true to the causes she believed in." Second paragraph: "Family and friends say she was a committed, beautiful and wonderful political activist who gave her life to the Bay Area community."
Most of us have a standard job or freelance career. Silver's "job" was working as a passionate activist with a breathtaking list of passionate and important causes. Her range was from the political battles of the day (women's issues, liberal politics and campaigns, gay rights and gay marriage, Obama, Jeff Adachi) to the unconventional (founding the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History project and later a racism project growing out of the case of James Byrd Jr.,who in l998 was chained to a truck by three white supremacists and dragged to death in Jasper, Texas.)
I first remember her when she came into the Guardian in the fall of 1977 with a batch of radio interviews she had done of 34 prominent women attending the National Women's Conference 1977 in Houston. It was a classic Silver project. This was an important moment in the women's movement. Silver was there with her tape recorder as a reporter for National Public Radio. She knew how to get the good political quotes from the right women in exclusive taped interviews (Billy Jean King, Flo Kennedy, Kate Millet, Gail Sheehy, Gloria Steinem, Midge Costanza, Betty Friedan). And she had the right lead for the story: "Bella Abzug simply said: 'Houston is going to change the lives of women in this country.'"
And Silver reported in delicious detail the horror stories of bad food, not enough rooms, terrible service, women having to wait five hours in line to register at the Hyatt Regency, delegates with confirmed reservations being bumped, no food in downtown Houston, and "for five days most people I know survived on cotton candy, popcorn or hot dogs." Silver did much of her interviewing in elevators.
Silver got right to the political point, reporting wryly that "One official explanation was that the oilman convention was in town and its delegates decided to extend their conference. Could it be, a lot of us asked ourselves, that the conservative oilmen intentionally screwed up the working conference? I like conspiracy theories." We were happy to play up her interviews on the front page under the head, "WOMEN IN HOUSTON SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES." The subhead said, "Betty Friedan on her initial doubts, Gail Sheehy on the 'pro family' rally, Jean Stapleton on Edith Bunker."
Silver was born March 28, 1948, in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her parents moved to San Francisco when she was two months old.
She liked to tell me that she started out in life as conservative but that she did a full political turn when she traveled to South Africa at l9 and observed first hand the awful effect of apartheid. When she returned to San Francisco, she became active in the Jewish community and with liberal causes and campaigns.
In 198l, when Silver was a professor of political science and women's studies at San Francisco State University, she visited Jerusalem to attend a conference of Holocaust survivors. She interviewed 50 survivors and found that none of them ever had their histories recorded. She returned to San Francisco, quite excited, and founded what became the centerpiece of her activist career, the Holocaust Oral History Project. It was slow going at first, finding survivors and getting them to talk, but she found she was a natural entrepreneur and soon found she could raise money and started building a major project.
Over two decades, she coordinated l,700 oral histories with l,400 Holocaust survivors and witnesses. And she did it, as a Chronicle profile later pointed out, "without a big name backer, without media attention and without much money. It was quite a mission, one deemed so valuable it was mimicked by Steven Spielberg when he created the better-known, better-funded Shoah Foundation in 1994."
Chronicle Reporter Heather Knight used the diplomatic word "mimic" but my reading of the situation was that Spielberg grabbed the project from Silver and never gave her proper credit. As is her way, she knew her project needed primetime help and so she went quietly and served as a project consultant. Spielberg's foundation ultimately gathered 53,000 oral histories with Holocaust survivors.
Silver's investigative instincts led her to a major discovery: Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara, who she helped dramatize as "the Japanese Schindler." Silver found that Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during World War II who rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. She brought the story to San Francisco and hosted a party in her West Portal apartment with a Sugihara family member. She told a fascinating story of how Sugihara, in cooperation with the acting Dutch Consulate Jan Zwarfendijk, made a practice of quietly issuing visas to Jews against the orders of the Japanese government.
Silver pointed out that Sugihara was bravely supported by his wife. After the war, the Japanese foreign service dismissed Sugihara for "that incident in Lithuania." Her media campaign led to 500 or so articles about the Sugiharas in major national and international publications.
She also discovered the story of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, an all-Japanese American unit that played a major role in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Again, Silver created a media campaign leading to 500 or so articles in major national and international publications. She also co-produced a photographic exhibition titled "The Unlikely Liberators" and "The Remarkable Story of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara."
In recent years, Silver has devoted much energy to anti-racist issues. She is the director of the James Byrd Jr. Racism Oral History Project and since 2000 has collected about 2,500 oral histories on racism in America. Last June, she did what many of her friends considered almost impossible. She rented the Herbst theater on her own and produced a major program commemorating the l0th anniversary of the Byrd incident, a tough act to do in San Francisco, which is a long way from Jasper, Texas, but she did it.
Silver maintained a positive attitude during illness and chemotherapy. She went on outings, saw friends, and went to special effort to support two of her favorite last passions: SPJ and the Chauncey project. She attended the annual SPJ "Excellence in Awards" dinner last fall and a special Chauncey presentation in early December at the annual meeting of the California Press Association.
She is survived by sisters Lori Silver and Lynn Jacobs; nieces Sara Silver Jacobs, Brette Silver Jacobs, and Lauren Shaber; nephews Jose Jacobs and Justin Shaber and brother-in-law Syd Shaber.
Her last blog was Dec. 29. "I planned my funeral this week. That was sad. It will be fun, and I wish I could be there. What does it feel like thinking I'm going to die? Nothing could be worse. I didn't read all the books I meant to, didn't finish the things I was writing, didn't get out all my thank you notes, yet the Chauncey Bailey project is flourishing, chemo and radiation have gone perfectly. I've never met such beautiful people as those around me. I've known such two beautiful sisters. As mine who keep love piled on and keep the fear away. They were beautiful now, they are luminescent now.
"More later. Thank you for listening."
So long, Lani. Thanks for your passions and good causes.
Postscript: WEAR BRIGHT COLORS, reads the phrase used on the blog notice for the Sunday funeral. "We will have a service, go to the cemetery, then back to the temple for food. For those who have generously offered donations for Lani's funeral, you can send a check to Lynn Jacobs, 207 King St., #706, SF94107. You can call 650-400-1000 or 831-595-5514.
— Bruce Bruggman, Publisher of The San Francisco Bay Guardian
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