Has this word become so overused that it’s losing its true meaning? Today we sometimes toss the word around without thinking much about it. Our culture of hyped up media and unnatural addiction to celebrity has contributed to the diluted definition we’ve now come to accept. Some may even call a football player scoring a winning touchdown at the Super Bowl game last night a hero. But, heroes are an exception, not the norm.
By actual definition, heroes are individuals who consistently and continually sacrifice their own needs in the interest of others. It is with this spirit that Welcome Books introduced Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit at a Time, a beautiful, visual narrative book that serves as an inspiration and reminder of what the word hero is intended to mean.
Everyday Heroes features extraordinary portraits by award-winning photographer, Paul Mobley, which are accompanied by first-person narratives written by author, Katrina Fried. This collaboration provides readers with a unique view into the journeys of these heroes and their causes. These are the stories of regular people who’ve made an exceptional impact on those in need, often at great personal or financial sacrifice.
Women You Should Know recently had the opportunity to speak with Katrina about her inspiration for the book, the women who made the cut and how each and every human being can make a difference.
What was your inspiration to create this book?
KF: The idea for the book was born about five years ago; America was in the early grip of the recession and this notion that we had to become architects of our own destiny—both as individuals and as a nation—seemed more critical than ever. We’re a small publishing company [Welcome Books], and we were giving some deep thought to what the world really needed at that time, and considering that we generally publish more expensive, high-end art and photography books, how we could make some kind of a contribution. The more we discussed it, the more this concept of wanting to create a book that provided a sense of hope and concrete examples of what we could all do to help lift ourselves as a society out of what was a pretty dark moment took hold. It developed into this idea of finding and celebrating individuals who were doing extraordinary things to help other people. By spotlighting the everyday heroes among us—agents of hope and change who had committed themselves to improving the lives of others—I hoped to challenge and empower myself and others to lead and give within our own communities.
How do you define “visual narrative”?
KF: A visual narrative seamlessly partners text and image to tell a particular story. A powerful image provides very different information than the written word, and is also received viscerally. As a reader, the photograph is personal and specific, which makes it an excellent introduction to the text. I have always been interested in using this combination of the visual and the written to amplify the power of a story—particularly when that story might otherwise be more easily overlooked. Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit at a Time is the only book on this subject that treats the visual with the same respect as the written. In that regard, it truly stands alone both on the bookshelf and in the marketplace.
As editors of Women You Should Know we have come to learn that there are so many ordinary women doing extraordinary things, everywhere. How did you find your heroes and select the ones you have chosen to feature?
KF: When I began exploring potential subjects, I knew relatively little about the modern landscape of domestic philanthropy. So the first and greatest task I faced was really to educate myself, and become as expert as possible within the limited amount of time available. After a year of research and hundreds of hours spent interviewing accomplished social entrepreneurs, the learning curve was steep.
Narrowing down the subjects to just fifty was the next challenge. There are thousands of worthy potential subjects who certainly deserve to be recognized and celebrated. The criteria I used helped somewhat. The heroes honored in the book are not those, for instance, that personify physical bravery—such as veterans or fire fighters, though they are by no means less praise-worthy—rather, these are crusaders for social justice and equality in a wide variety of sectors…food, health, homelessness and many others. Their work is humanitarian in nature. They are all the founders and/or leaders of successful nonprofits that also represent a diverse range of demographics. Offspring of the marriage of entrepreneurship and community service, they nearly all self-identify as social entrepreneurs. They vary widely in ages and backgrounds. They are all Americans. They are also what I would categorize as “out of the box” visionaries, whose often unorthodox techniques set them apart from the traditional non-profit model.
The criteria for selection of subjects was lengthy, but the ultimate goal was to curate a group of individuals and causes whose variety provided as many opportunities for self-identification as possible. My hope is that everyone who picks up this book will discover a story and a cause that speaks to him or her, no matter their background, their politics, or their personal values.
What surprised you the most about the female heroes you met while putting this book together?
KF: I’m not sure “surprised” is the right word, but it was certainly interesting to me that most of the women I interviewed were deeply motivated to start their nonprofits by their own personal experiences. Anne Mahlum’s decision, for instance, to start Back on My Feet —a nonprofit that uses running as a means to rehabilitate the homeless—stems directly from her own experience with running as an adolescent. In her struggle to cope with her parent’s divorce and her father’s addiction issues, she found self-empowerment and solace in the ritual of running every day—an activity she’s continued throughout her life. As an adult, Anne is now able to do for the homeless what she didn’t have the tools or experience to do for her father as a child—she is helping them to overcome their weaknesses and repair their lives. Catherine Oppenheimer is another excellent illustration of this quality. As a professional ballet dancer in her youth, she suffered acutely from bulimia and anxiety which almost took her life. But through her determined process of healing and rehabilitation, she was able to get back in touch with the gifts and joy that dancing once held for her, and was ultimately inspired to share those gifts with other young people through her non-profit organization National Dance Institute of New Mexico (NDI-NM). These are just two examples of many!
Is there one story from the book that resonates most with you?
KF: A very tough question—that’s like asking which one of my children I love the best! But on a purely emotional level, I will say I was particularly moved by Taryn Davis’ story of losing her young husband Michael in Iraq, which eventually led her to found the American Widow Project, a nonprofit that provides a network of support for military widows all over the country. Taryn’s expression of her love for Michael, the pain of losing him, and the process of healing was so unvarnished and authentic, I found it impossible not to be deeply affected. Embarrassingly, I recall having to mute my handset more than once during our phone interview to keep my emotions in check—it was a heartbreaking story with a beautiful and redemptive ending.
On the other end of the age spectrum is the elegant and fierce, Kathryn Hall-Trujillo, who personifies the notion that one person truly can make a difference. With the Birthing Project USA she has built an organization that is grounded in the idea of partnership and mutual accountability and harnesses both the power of youth and the wisdom of age. Her generosity and perseverance has empowered hundreds of others—her “sisterhood of women” as Kathryn says—to scale her cause globally, reaching thousands of soon-to-be-mothers so desperately in need of mentorship and guidance. “All these chapters are headed up by women who I consider to be my sisters,” Kathryn said to me. “When we get together and support each other, we get through the hard times. It’s almost like a quilting circle, and I think how lucky I am to see the world in sisterhood with women. I just love it.” Kathryn’s heroism has not only helped bring thousands of healthy babies into this world, it has birthed a whole new generation of heroes. I can think of no greater gift than that.
You have said that people have come to the realization that “they’ve seen something and know something they didn’t before, and now that they know it, they can’t ignore it”… what’s that realization for you?
KF: I’ve been asked a few times in the course of speaking about this book to groups across the country, whether, as the communicator of these stories of everyday heroism, I now consider myself an example of a successful social entrepreneur. I’ll be honest—it’s very tough for me to see myself that way. The contribution of this book pales in comparison to the contributions of the heroes it profiles. But the decision to embark on this project did stem from my new awareness of the incredible work being done by so many private citizens. Did I know good people existed before writing Everyday Heroes? Certainly. But I had no grasp on how profound their impact was or how inspiring their personal stories were until I began this research. That powerful discovery spurred my commitment to share these narratives of heroism with others, in the hopes that they, too, would feel compelled to use their own unique gifts and strengths to make a positive contribution.
Is there a woman who inspires you?
KF: My mother! She is a beautiful example of how simply living your life with a spirit of generosity and kindness can make a huge difference in the lives of all those you touch.
KF: Welcome Books and I are partnering to create a series of follow-up titles to Everyday Heroes, each of which will focus on a particular sector of either public service or social entrepreneurism. The first book, which will be published in fall 2013, is American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom, which concentrates specifically on examples of amazing educators in public schools across the country, who are going far above and beyond the call to give their students the best possible tools for a healthy and productive future. Subsequent subjects will include the Environment, Science and Technology, Health, and Food.
Of the 50 heroes featured in Everyday Heroes, 19 of them are women: