Woman Around Town: Jill Iscol—Her Heart’s on Fire

Visiting Jill Iscol, in her elegant Fifth Avenue apartment, is an unexpected New York surprise. An educator, activist, foundation director and now author of a new, unusual and truly inspiring book, Hearts on Fire, Jill lives in one of those admirably calm comfortingly beige large beautiful places with flowers that seem to be a permanent part of her elegant sitting room, a room where everything is where it belongs. Jill Iscol is herself elegant. She is thin and beautiful, with long golden hair and enough bangles on her left arm to make the sound that bracelets should make and never do – a deeper melody than tinkling.

Iscol met with WAT recently to talk about her impressive life’s work. With her was Peter W.  Cookson, Jr.,  her co-author,  a well-known college teacher. They met at Yale, where Iscol got her graduate degree. Cookson, the author of 15 books himself, teaches sociology at Columbia University. Their collaboration, Hearts on Fire: Twelve Stories of Today’s Visionaries Igniting Ideals into Action, profiles, honors, celebrates, and reveres activists around the world who devote their lives to improving the lives of others. Former President Bill Clinton, whose global Initiative embodies many of the same principles, wrote the book’s introductions.

Jill serves on many boards and committees, and administers the IF Hummingbird Foundation, a family fund dedicated to social and economic justice. All her life, she’s worked to make the world a better place. The intention behind the creation of Hearts on Fire, portraits of some of the many inspirational people that she’s encountered, is to inspire the rest of us. The people she portrays find a problem, and decide they will resolve it, not just for themselves, but for everyone.

One such person is Diahann Billings-Burford (above)  who grew up in Brooklyn and lost her mother as a young child. Soon after she decided to help people in need. She echoes Iscol’s own ideology when she explains in her interview that we all have something to give. Her way of making the world kinder, better, and even larger is to create the New York City Service organization, a program she now runs for the City of New York, encouraging everyone to volunteer and to help. Many thousands of people participate today.

Jacob Lief and Banks Gwaxula started the Ubuntu Education Fund in South Africa, to help children in that country with health, and to succeed in school. Today 40,000 children’s needs are served through their programs. Sara Hurwitz, a New York labor lawyer, wanted to organize unorganized freelance workers, to provide insurance, benefits, and an umbrella for work. Freelancers Union, with 160,000 workers around the country, is what she helped create. Dr. Amy Lehman founded the Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic, in Africa.

In Haiti, Guatemala, Kenya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uganda, Iscol found inspiration, and change. Her book is a picture of how change happens, and a message to us all to join with the visionaries, and to add our own voices to this growing movement.

How did you become a social activist?

My parents were my greatest inspiration. They were always involved in the community where I was raised. Involvement was a natural part of life.

Tell us about the IF Hummingbird Foundation.

We are a family foundation established in 1989 to support domestic and international efforts to strengthen democracy and reduce social, economic, and educational inequalities

Why did you want to profile activists in your recent book Hearts on Fire?

I’ve always encountered incredible people. All my life, I’ve sought out people who weren’t content to just sit back. I grew up on Long Island, where I was raised by a family that very much believed in giving back to the community. My mother was president of an orphanage, and she arranged for me to play with the children, very often. I was aware from an early age of how hard life can be.

What traits do the people you profiled have in common?

They are all, every single one of them, people who have enormous respect and reverence for the dignity of everyone.

What can all we do to make the world better?

Find your talent and your passion. Then you’ll find a way to make it work.

Click to buy Hearts on Fire on Amazon.

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: With a girlfriend: BG or Fred’s, with my husband: Café Boulud; with my adult children and friends, any Keith McNally restaurant
Favorite Place to Shop: Barneys
Favorite New York Sight: Central Park
Favorite New York Moment: Running into my future husband on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street many years after we had dated…
What You Love About New York: Everything…the people, the art, the culture (theater, movies, dance, music), window shopping ( okay, admittedly, shopping too), the energy, its friendliness and warmth, the ability to be alone but never lonely, the fact that every day is a surprise, all the possibilities for learning, growing and connecting, and so many yet undiscovered places to visit.
What You Hate About New York: The occasional dog poo left by inconsiderate and irresponsible owners and never having enough time to do everything I want to do.