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Mimi Silbert: the greatest hacker in the world

Here's a problem for you: build an organization that transforms thousands of homeless people, ex-cons, and recovering drug addicts into productive members of society. OK, now do it with no money and no staff. And achieve a >90% success rate. While you're at it, make the organization double as a business that provides valuable services to the community. And make the whole thing self-sustaining.

Amazingly, Mimi Silbert accomplished this very feat. She's been at it for 35 years and her organization is called the Delancey Street Foundation. I've been scouring the web for every bit of information I could find about how Delancey Street operates, and simply put, it's the most spectacular and innovative organization I've ever come across.

At the highest level, Delancey Street is a stunning example of social entrepreneurship. Residents work in Delancey Street's numerous training schools, such as their moving company and restaurant. These businesses give the residents marketable skills and also generate revenue to support the organization. Delancey Street takes no government funding.

What's really amazing is that the residents run the whole organization -- Mimi Silbert is the only "outsider" within Delancey Street. Mimi has crafted an organization where the residents have to support each other, teach each other, work for each other, and learn to care for each other. As described by Mimi Silbert:

We determined that these people have been passive recipients their entire lives - they've received welfare, they've received therapy, they've received punishment, they've received analysis, and they're busy receiving statistics left and right...

But you know what makes you feel good? It's the things you do! Not the things that are done to you or for you! It's you doing something that gives you your sense of who you are and your pride, and that word my profession loves so much - your self-esteem. But you know you can't sit in a group and give someone self-esteem ... you're sitting there and the truth is we all know what we do, whatever we're conning inside we know ourselves and we judge ourselves. And when we earn our own self-respect is when we begin to have self-esteem...

The way we run Delancey Street is what we call the 'act as if' theory. It's an 'each one teach one' place - every resident's in charge of teaching a newer resident what they've learned. When you do to people or for people it gives you a sense of empowerment...

And that's the basis of our organization: everyone is the therapist, everyone is the teacher, everyone is saying thank you to someone and everyone is having thank you said to them... At first, you only 'acted as if' you cared... and then some Tuesday at 3:00 in the afternoon you don't know why but this person's life really mattered to you and you really gave a damn if they were going to make it or not make it.

Think about this for a second. Mimi discovered a wildly more effective way of rehabilitating people - make the residents be givers and teachers rather than just receivers. Not only is this method more effective, but it's much more practical too. No staff is needed because the residents are the staff. Since there's no staff, costs are low and all money can be used directly on the residents. And the philosophy of rehabilitation through doing meshes perfectly with entrepreneurship - operating businesses teaches the residents accountability, responsibility, and job skills, along with generating income to support Delancey Street1. What a beautiful hack.

Of course, as any entrepreneur knows, an idea is just an idea. What really makes Mimi Silbert amazing is that she was able to execute on her vision. She's working with people who encapsulate pretty much every social problem you can have - violence, self-hatred, extreme compulsiveness, and drug addiction just to name a few. Yet she held firm in her belief that these people were capable of being good, that these people we teach our children to fear can be transformed.

There must have been an enormous amount of "implementation details" that needed to be overcome to make Delancey Street successful. For starters, the residents of Delancey Street don't exactly have healthy views on sexuality. This is one of those issues that you can imagine can seriously jeopardize the organization. Delancey Street's solution is ingenious: courtship must be done in a slow, controlled, very traditional style:

Living communally also means throwing hundreds of horny male residents into the same residence with hundreds of women, many of whom have been repeatedly raped or have developed destructive-seductive strategies for dealing with the men in their lives.

"It’s our biggest problem," says Silbert, "the one addiction everybody has -- 'I’m not real good at relationships'... so we teach them, twenty-four hours a day.

"Most of the women, in addition to whatever else they've done, have also been prostitutes. They typically have one pattern... you know, do anything for any guy any time any place, and then he beats the shit out of them and that’s what’s supposed to happen. And then they’ll do more for him...

"So we set a period of time in which residents are not allowed to touch or even say, 'Hey, you and me baby, in six months.' It's like grammar school. Then it moves on to high school and, pretty soon, there's two women living in an apartment and two men next door...

...So, we have all these archaic rules. You have to court each other, like in the olden days...

...You start by going out in a group of people. Then, after a month, it progresses to 'relationship status' by mutual agreement. You say, 'I still like you. Do you still like me?' If you want to go beyond that point, you have to go before a council of your peers and tell them you want to pursue the relationship. You have to state your intentions."2

Another serious problem Delancey Street deals with is that residents come into the organization and "don't think they need to be fixed because they're not broken."3 They are filled with self-hatred and don't trust anybody:

Each new resident is then placed in what we call a minyan of ten people. The minyan leader, who has been there a little longer, tells them they are not only responsible for themselves but for each other as well. One of the difficult things we have to do is break the code of silence that exists on the street, where no one tells anything about anyone. We help them understand that if a group member starts doing something that is self-destructive, they need to take action; if they don't, that person might die. Eventually, these ten people become a true unit.4

Sometimes it takes more than a year before a resident starts to believe that he can have a better future. The minyan support system, and the act of seeing other residents transform themselves, plays a crucial part in this.

Another interesting example of an implementation detail that needed to be overcome were the residents' own biases and self-stereotypes:

In the first few years of Delancey Street's growth, residents chose the area in which they wanted to be trained. However, the residents fell into the stereotypes job positions they assumed society held for them. The women chose paperwork jobs; the Blacks and Latins primarily chose physical labor; and the Anglo males picked sales. Now, every resident is briefly trained in one physical labor job; one sales-oriented job; and one paperwork job. After residents see they have abilities in areas beyond their stereotypic images, they can choose the field in which they want to make their careers.5

There are so many synergies in how Delancey Street operates that thinking about it makes me want to cry with joy. And the title of this post is no exaggeration. Mimi Silbert has accomplished what any hacker strives to accomplish -- deeply understand the essence of a problem, craft an elegant solution, and then execute and cleanly deal with implementation details. What makes Mimi Silbert really special is that she hacked the most enigmatic of systems possible: the human mind, the human spirit, and society's collective belief of what is possible on this planet.

I've really only scratched the surface on Delancey Street. Please, go to the restaurant. Hire their moving company. You will be amazed at how courteous, sincere, honest, and competent they are. To learn more about the organization, you can check out their website where there is a lot of material linked. I found this speech by Mimi Silbert and this writeup to be particularly enjoyable and informative.

You should follow me on Twitter here.

1 "Typically, between 55%-65% of the operating funds come from pooling the incomes from the resident-run training schools such as moving and catering; 25%-35% of the funds come from donations of product or services primarily from corporations; and about 5%-15% of the funds are provided by financial donations from individuals and foundations." -- http://www.delanceystreetfoundation.org/faq.php

2 http://www.socialent.org/pdfs/MimiSilbertStory.pdf

3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwEVGMn8is4#t=1h11m46s

4 http://www.delanceystreetfoundation.org/pdf/businessheartfull.pdf

5 http://www.delanceystreetfoundation.org/pdf/dsf_restitution_full.pdf

Reader Comments (3)

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This post was mentioned on Twitter by nathanmarz: Blogged "The greatest hacker in the world (she hacks society)" about the Delancey Street Foundation http://bit.ly/79hz5a...

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenteruberVU - social comments

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by bradford cross, bradford cross, Hamilton Ulmer, Manish Shah, Nathan Marz and others. Nathan Marz said: Blogged "The greatest hacker in the world (she hacks society)" about the Delancey Street Foundation http://bit.ly/79hz5a [...]

Now THIS person should have won the Nobel Peace Prize.

January 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Smith

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