Hearts on Fire : Lighting the Spark for Social Change

We live in complicated times and face a raft of tough and interconnected problems, from making sure that communities prosper to ensuring that people have access to health care and education and live in a clean and safe environment. But, as we all know, solutions at times seem ephemeral and hard to replicate. I often hear the question and sometimes ask it myself: does all of this work to create change, or support organizations and people that do this work, really make a dent in the problems we collectively face?

Hearts on Fire by Jill W. Iscol and Peter W. Cookson, Jr. helps to address this question. The contribution this book makes is that it introduces us to 14 visionaries, and gives voice to their work across the globe. They range in age and background, but share passion, purpose and a drive to leave the world a better place than they found it. About half of the visionaries are women, and a fair number work in the United States. Hearts on Fire provides some contextual background for the work so that readers know a bit about why the project is important.

These are people who have taken on big challenges and are working creatively and strategically to make a difference. Importantly, however, at the same time, they are very accessible. Their work, and the way they talk about it, is rooted in common sense. These are people that I would not only want to meet, I can envision sitting next to me at a coffee shop, anywhere around the world. In the book's forward, former President Clinton notes that these stories highlight how to take a good idea and operationalize it, and inspire others to do the same.

After reading about Leila Janah, you understand why the laptop is the new sewing machine, and why she started Samasource, working with the very poor in Kenya, India and Pakistan to start "microwork" factories serving some of the world's largest companies. The same is true with the three young men who founded on Medic Mobile, providing health care information in Africa via mobile technology. And, Sara Horowitz' work to start the Freelancers Union for independent workers here in the United States so they have access to health insurance and retirement benefits makes perfect sense.

These are visionaries and leaders to be sure, and the book also provides a great understanding of why they do what they do. Jimmie Briggs talks about how his journalistic work covering war led him to fighting violence against women by getting men and boys engaged. Organic farmer and Fulbright scholar Maria Pacheco saw the impact of war on communities in Guatemala and now works with indigenous Guatemalan women to create sustainable businesses that respect traditions and the environment. Susana de Anda's advocacy for clean drinking water in California's San Joaquin Valley is rooted in her childhood experiences growing up the daughter of a farmworker.

The book also reinforces the values that underlie all successful work and projects: passion, giving back, and basing solutions on the real needs of communities. For example, Dr. Amy Lehman saw a need for a ship based medical clinic to reach people living around Lake Tanganyika in Africa. Former prisoner Vivian Nixon is the director of the College and Community Fellowship program in New York to help women in prison get degrees. Andeisha Farid started Afghan Child Education and Care Organization to build orphanages and invest in children in that war torn country.

Importantly, it also stresses the importance of defying expectations and doing the right thing. Diahann Billings-Burford grew up in New York City, buffeted from drugs and other problems by her mother's high expectations and drive for education. Today, Billings-Burford is New York City's Chief Service Officer and helps engage New Yorkers in service opportunities. Nate Fick is a former Marine who now runs The Center for A New American Security, focusing on foreign and security policy, with an eye to how issues of war and peace affect all of us.

Each chapter is based on the authors' interviews and closes with information about how to get in touch with the work done by the person profiled, but also lists other groups that work on similar issues. It's a good road map for anyone who is looking to meet people making a difference, and to see if there is a project that might be something they want to support. In the words of Jacob Lief, who started a comprehensive health and education program in a South African township, "the hardest thing is taking that first step." Indeed it is, but this book proves that you can do just that and keep on walking down that road.