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Historian for Good: Q&A with Mae Silver '58
December 17, 2018

By: Madison Molner '17

Map of Horner's addition Mae Silver '58 founded the first alumni association at Rutgers School of Social Work and remains a proud advocate for the field of social work today. Born in New Brunswick, she has dedicated her life to bringing social work resources to her community. As a resident of San Francisco for nearly four decades, she founded her local neighborhood association and chaired NASW's bay area chapter. Later, she returned to New Jersey to establish the Thomas Paine Society of Bordentown, NJ. 

Prior to her recent move to Jacksonville, Mae lived in Fort Lauderdale, where she continued to offer insights in to the community, including a presentation on "The Secret History of Fort Lauderdale", which illustrated the city's segregation-era history. A prolific writer, Mae has written a number of articles and pamphlets and published upwards of 10 books, most notably, Too Hot Too Handle: Remarkable Women of Fort Lauderdale.

Mae's passion for social justice continues to inspire her work and her life, alongside her interest in exploring historical origins of places in order to connect people more specifically with their communities and personal identity. 


What is it that you drew you to working closely with community organizations?
Silver: I am a social worker for life, regardless of the work I do. I look at my community through those eyes, and listen as a social worker to get a sense of what's going on beneath the surface. When I was living in San Francisco, I recognized that when people understood their history and the stories of the community, they would become involved in whatever project we had going in the neighborhood organization-- like planting a tree or tending a community garden.

Once people get invested, regardless of whether they were homeowners or renters, they established an emotional connection to their community and were then more likely to stand up for issues that had to do with their neighborhood, or other neighborhoods in San Francisco. Community investment in where you're living keeps the it alive and functioning.  


Why do you think it’s important for social workers to understand the history of their communities?
Silver: It’s like understanding your own personal history. As you learn about your origins, you begin to appreciate who you are and to celebrate the connection with your ancestors. When you move into a new city, as sophisticated and vast as may big cities are, you assume you don’t have any connection and then it doesn’t mean anything to you beyond a place to live. 

For example, when I bought a home in an area in San Francisco called "Horner's Addition," I became curious about the name. After doing a little research at the local library and looked at municipal records, I discovered that the place's was named after John M. Horner, who, in the 1840's, became known as “California’s First Farmer” because he provided fresh produce to prospectors during the California Gold Rush. He also built a school and meetinghouse for the community, and it turns out that he was originally from Hornerstown, New Jersey . As a native of New Jersey, now living in California like Horner—this knowledge of its history created for me an immediate connection to the place. 


How should social workers get started in understanding their local history?
Silver :
Be curious about your environment and the place you live. Most social workers have an innate curiosity about others; they are detectives of emotion. You can treat the history of a place in the same way. Every location has a social and political history that has shaped it. Start by going to your local library archives to find out the history of the street you live on--who is it named after? When was the area around it developed? Think of the location as a person you are better trying to understand, as you would a client or colleague. As you begin to uncover its history, you will likely develop a stronger connection and a better sense of understanding about place.  


How has being a social worker for the last several decades shaped your life?
Being a social worker has enlightened me; given me a greater understanding of the complexities of life, as well as the skills to involve others in what I’m doing for the community. A social worker's ability to focus on the human aspect of situations and the skill to involve others in what you're doing is powerful--never underestimate this strength.   


Image Source: Huntington Digital Library 
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