Mimi Sibert with Chancellor
Dignitaries: Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was the convocation master of ceremonies, Mimi Silbert gave the main speech, and Walter Hewlett also spoke to December grads. Hewlett is chairman of the Wiliam and Flora Hewlett Foundation. A Harvard grad with three graduate degrees from Stanford, in 2007 he steered $113 million to Berkeley (its largest private donation to the campus ever, at that point) to create over a hundred new endowed chairs for faculty and to recruit top grad students. A quietly satisfying moment of the program came when Birgeneau cheerfully presented Hewlett with the Berkeley Medal, the University’s top honor (which has been received by a smattering of academics, but also by presidents of the U.S. and other nations, U.N. secretaries-general, two kings, a queen, a prime minister, and the current Dalai Lama). (Photo: Peg Skorpinski)

Berkeley’s fall (and summer) 2008 graduates had a two-degree Cal alumna as the principal speaker at their commencement in December, Mimi Silbert by name.  She might be called a community organizer. The community she organized was unusual when it started  38 years ago, and now, even with offshoots across the country, it’s still a rarity. It’s a nonprofit foundation — that part’s common enough — called Delancey Street, a residential self-help organization for substance abusers, ex-cons, the homeless, and others who’ve hit bottom. The self in self-help is literal, and seriously meant. The group has no professional staff and no government funding. Like a large family (now circa 250), residents have to develop their strengths and help each other. The average resident would have an unusual resume: hard-core drug addict for 16 years, dropped out of school in the seventh grade, institutionalized several times, abuser of alcohol and multiple drugs. Together, they’ve become teachers, contractors, truck drivers, and they run moving companies, restaurants, bookstores, and more, on their own.

Silbert, the founding force of Delancey Street, lives there, abides by its rules, and takes no salary. She did her undergraduate work in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, then came to Berkeley for a master’s in counseling psychology (1965) and then a Ph.D. in criminology and psychology (1968) before starting Delancey Street in 1971. Among pages and pages of honors she’s received in the intervening years, there’s one from Berkeley of which she’s particularly fond: the California Alumni Association named her as Alumna of the Year for 1990.

— Dick Cortén

(Originally published in eGrad, January 2009)