Chauncey Bailey Project

Remembering Lani Silver, 1948-2009

Lani Silver
Lani Silver

Lani Silver

The Chauncey Bailey Project lost an important founding member when Lani Silver died of brain cancer Wednesday, Jan. 28. She was 60. Following are memories from some of her Chauncey Bailey Project friends.

Funeral services will take place on:
Sunday, Feb. 1, 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Temple Beth Israel-Judea
625 Brotherhood Way
San Francisco, CA 94132

Friends can find other remembrances of her online at her memorial page:

Obituaries are pending, but you can read about her life at her own Web site:

From Bruce Bruggman, Publisher of The San Francisco Bay Guardian:
Services for Lani Silver, a passionate activist for more than four decades in San Francisco who died Wednesday, will be held at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way. A burial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. at Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, 130l El Camino Real, Colma. She was 60.

Silver died at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday night in the home of her sister Lori in San Francisco.

“Lani is gone,” her sister Lori wrote an hour later on the website. Lani was diagnosed with a brain cancer in September and has been fighting a brave battle ever since. “Lani has always been terrified of being sick, but with this illness, was serene,” Lori wrote in the latest of a regular series of posts on Lani’s condition. “And she died with that same calm and serenity. She was surrounded by her family.”

As the word went out that she was sinking on Wednesday, her legion of friends and colleagues put in messages on the CaringBridge website and to each other by email and telephone. I got the word in an email from Robert Rosenthal, who headed one of Silver’s latest passions, the Chauncey Bailey Investigative Project. He forwarded an email from Martin Reynolds, editor of the Oakland Tribune and a key project editor.

Reynolds wrote, “Lani is close to leaving us. She is unconscious, surrounded by family, but comfortable, as she wanted it. Her sister Lynn said she can still hear so we asked her to let her know we called and that we all still loved her.” Rosey added, “Thanks, Martin, for putting things in context. Very unique and caring lady.” I added that Silver, a longtime friend and colleague, was a “remarkable lady with endless good causes and good results.”

Sandy Close, a founder and catalyst for the project, wrote “I remember Lani coming to the founding dinner for the Chauncey project at the Mandarin Garden and never wavering in her support afterwards. But then, for the 30-plus years I knew her, she was a sometimes irritating, always humble, never judgmental goad for social justice causes. (Do you remember those amazingly detailed biographic drawings she would produce about the movement?)”

And so the emails went amongst the members of two of Silver’s latest and last passions, the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (where she was an ever passionate board member) and the Chauncey project (where she was a founding member and ever passionate participant.) The Chauncey project was a media coalition that has had much success in investigating the 2007 murder of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey while investigating the finances of Your Black Muslim Bakery.

The reaction to Silver’s condition was a remarkable display of affection and respect for the political activist who “fought the good fight for Bay Area community,” as the headline of the excellent obituary by Kamika Dunlap put it in the Friday Oakland Tribune. Dunlap, who never knew Silver personally, nonetheless got Silver’s essence by interviewing her family and friends. Her lead: “LaniHanako Silver always stayed true to the causes she believed in.” Second paragraph: “Family and friends say she was a committed, beautiful and wonderful political activist who gave her life to the Bay Area community.”

Most of us have a standard job or freelance career. Silver’s “job” was working as a passionate activist with a breathtaking list of passionate and important causes. Her range was from the political battles of the day (women’s issues, liberal politics and campaigns, gay rights and gay marriage, Obama, Jeff Adachi) to the unconventional (founding the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History project and later a racism project growing out of the case of James Byrd Jr.,who in l998 was chained to a truck by three white supremacists and dragged to death in Jasper, Texas.)

I first remember her when she came into the Guardian in the fall of 1977 with a batch of radio interviews she had done of 34 prominent women attending the National Women’s Conference 1977 in Houston. It was a classic Silver project. This was an important moment in the women’s movement. Silver was there with her tape recorder as a reporter for National Public Radio. She knew how to get the good political quotes from the right women in exclusive taped interviews (Billy Jean King, Flo Kennedy, Kate Millet, Gail Sheehy, Gloria Steinem, Midge Costanza, Betty Friedan). And she had the right lead for the story: “Bella Abzug simply said: ‘Houston is going to change the lives of women in this country.'”

And Silver reported in delicious detail the horror stories of bad food, not enough rooms, terrible service, women having to wait five hours in line to register at the Hyatt Regency, delegates with confirmed reservations being bumped, no food in downtown Houston, and “for five days most people I know survived on cotton candy, popcorn or hot dogs.” Silver did much of her interviewing in elevators.

Silver got right to the political point, reporting wryly that “One official explanation was that the oilman convention was in town and its delegates decided to extend their conference. Could it be, a lot of us asked ourselves, that the conservative oilmen intentionally screwed up the working conference? I like conspiracy theories.” We were happy to play up her interviews on the front page under the head, “WOMEN IN HOUSTON SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES.” The subhead said, “Betty Friedan on her initial doubts, Gail Sheehy on the ‘pro family’ rally, Jean Stapleton on Edith Bunker.”

Silver was born March 28, 1948, in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her parents moved to San Francisco when she was two months old.

She liked to tell me that she started out in life as conservative but that she did a full political turn when she traveled to South Africa at l9 and observed first hand the awful effect of apartheid. When she returned to San Francisco, she became active in the Jewish community and with liberal causes and campaigns.

In 198l, when Silver was a professor of political science and women’s studies at San Francisco State University, she visited Jerusalem to attend a conference of Holocaust survivors. She interviewed 50 survivors and found that none of them ever had their histories recorded. She returned to San Francisco, quite excited, and founded what became the centerpiece of her activist career, the Holocaust Oral History Project. It was slow going at first, finding survivors and getting them to talk, but she found she was a natural entrepreneur and soon found she could raise money and started building a major project.

Over two decades, she coordinated l,700 oral histories with l,400 Holocaust survivors and witnesses. And she did it, as a Chronicle profile later pointed out, “without a big name backer, without media attention and without much money. It was quite a mission, one deemed so valuable it was mimicked by Steven Spielberg when he created the better-known, better-funded Shoah Foundation in 1994.”

Chronicle Reporter Heather Knight used the diplomatic word “mimic” but my reading of the situation was that Spielberg grabbed the project from Silver and never gave her proper credit. As is her way, she knew her project needed primetime help and so she went quietly and served as a project consultant. Spielberg’s foundation ultimately gathered 53,000 oral histories with Holocaust survivors.

Silver’s investigative instincts led her to a major discovery: Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara, who she helped dramatize as “the Japanese Schindler.” Silver found that Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during World War II who rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. She brought the story to San Francisco and hosted a party in her West Portal apartment with a Sugihara family member. She told a fascinating story of how Sugihara, in cooperation with the acting Dutch Consulate Jan Zwarfendijk, made a practice of quietly issuing visas to Jews against the orders of the Japanese government.

Silver pointed out that Sugihara was bravely supported by his wife. After the war, the Japanese foreign service dismissed Sugihara for “that incident in Lithuania.” Her media campaign led to 500 or so articles about the Sugiharas in major national and international publications.

She also discovered the story of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, an all-Japanese American unit that played a major role in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Again, Silver created a media campaign leading to 500 or so articles in major national and international publications. She also co-produced a photographic exhibition titled “The Unlikely Liberators” and “The Remarkable Story of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara.”

In recent years, Silver has devoted much energy to anti-racist issues. She is the director of the James Byrd Jr. Racism Oral History Project and since 2000 has collected about 2,500 oral histories on racism in America. Last June, she did what many of her friends considered almost impossible. She rented the Herbst theater on her own and produced a major program commemorating the l0th anniversary of the Byrd incident, a tough act to do in San Francisco, which is a long way from Jasper, Texas, but she did it.

Silver maintained a positive attitude during illness and chemotherapy. She went on outings, saw friends, and went to special effort to support two of her favorite last passions: SPJ and the Chauncey project. She attended the annual SPJ “Excellence in Awards” dinner last fall and a special Chauncey presentation in early December at the annual meeting of the California Press Association.

She is survived by sisters Lori Silver and Lynn Jacobs; nieces Sara Silver Jacobs, Brette Silver Jacobs, and Lauren Shaber; nephews Jose Jacobs and Justin Shaber and brother-in-law Syd Shaber.

Her last blog was Dec. 29. “I planned my funeral this week. That was sad. It will be fun, and I wish I could be there. What does it feel like thinking I’m going to die? Nothing could be worse. I didn’t read all the books I meant to, didn’t finish the things I was writing, didn’t get out all my thank you notes, yet the Chauncey Bailey project is flourishing, chemo and radiation have gone perfectly. I’ve never met such beautiful people as those around me. I’ve known such two beautiful sisters. As mine who keep love piled on and keep the fear away. They were beautiful now, they are luminescent now.

“More later. Thank you for listening.”

So long, Lani. Thanks for your passions and good causes.

Postscript: WEAR BRIGHT COLORS, reads the phrase used on the blog notice for the Sunday funeral. “We will have a service, go to the cemetery, then back to the temple for food. For those who have generously offered donations for Lani’s funeral, you can send a check to Lynn Jacobs, 207 King St., #706, SF94107. You can call 650-400-1000 or 831-595-5514.


From Sandy Close, Executive Editor of New America Media:
Lani started contributing to Pacific News Service sometime in the late 1970s. She wove herself into the fabric of our office, and my life — a raw nerve of justice signalling an abuse she’d discovered, a voice she wanted to magnify, an event she wanted to promote. She listed her occupation on FaceBook as an activist. It fit. She had skills as an artist, interviewer, oral historian, journalist, filmmaker, speaker—but what she felt most comfortable doing was engaging with people in some collective effort. I knew almost nothing of her private life — her passions were all about the public realm. Her activism was driven by an almost cosmic empathy. Irritating at times like any gadfly — she talked too much, sometimes seemed too earnest and caring — nevertheless when she came to the founding dinner of the Chauncey Bailey Project, I was thrilled. Once she sunk her teeth into an initiative, I knew she’d never give up. That was the Project’s great good fortune. Her passing is both an intimate and a collective loss.


From Mike Oliver, Projects Editor, Bay Area News Group:

 I believe most people have an innate sense of injustice. And some have a highly tuned antenna for it. But only a very special few stand up and consistently do something about it. Lani Silver was one of those people.
 I have to admit at an early meeting of the Chauncey Bailey Project, as we were going around the room introducing ourselves, some of us so-called traditional journalists (print, TV, radio), cocked our heads a bit when Lani said she was an oral historian. We wondered, how’s that work?
 Over time, I got to know Lani and came to learn about her work, the Holocaust Oral History Project, the James Byrd Racism Oral History Project. I admired her energy, her enthusiasm, and most of all that keen sense of justice. 

 I saw her at the SPJ dinner in the fall, ravaged somewhat by the cancer, but still she sat and chatted enthusiastically about the Bailey Project and the work we’d done. It came as no surprise to hear her sister, Lynn Jacobs, at Lani’s memorial service, tell the story of Lani in the hospital one day trying to get medical staff to remove IV tubes from her arms. Why? Because she was scheduled to speak at a protest rally. More power to you Lani. We miss you.
By Kamika Dunlap for The Oakland Tribune:

OAKLAND — Lani Hanako Silver always stayed true to the causes she believed in.

Family and friends say she was a committed, beautiful and wonderful political activist who gave her life to the Bay Area community.

Silver was surrounded by relatives Wednesday when she died after a short battle with brain cancer. She was 60.

“She was a true humanitarian until the last minute,” said Silver’s sister Lynn Jacobs. “She gave everything she could and she said she wished she had 20 more years because she had more to do.”

Silver was born March 28, 1948, in Lynn, Mass., and moved to San Francisco with her parents and two sisters when she was 2 months old.

At 19, she traveled to South Africa and learned about poverty and civil rights issues. The trip changed her life, and she began working in the Jewish community upon her return to the Bay Area. In 1981, Silver traveled to Israel and that same year founded the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, coordinating l,700 oral histories with 1,400 Holocaust survivors and witnesses. She was also Steven Spielberg’s first consultant for his Shoah Foundation for Visual History, which gathered 53,000 oral histories of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

Silver also served as the director of the James Byrd Jr. Racism Oral History Project, a program of the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing. She worked to raise awareness about James Byrd Jr., who in 1998 was chained to a truck by three white supremacists and dragged for miles down a road in Jasper, Texas. Through her project, she helped collect 2,500 oral histories about the impact of racism.

“I can’t remember ever a day in her life that she wasn’t doing something political,” Jacobs said.

After Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey was killed in 2007 while working on a story about the financial troubles of Your Black Muslim Bakery, Silver joined a media coalition to investigate his death. The Chauncey Bailey Project has won several awards recognizing its efforts, and colleagues say Silver helped out any way she could.

“She was very passionate about civil rights issues,” said Bob Butler, an independent journalist and member of the Chauncey Bailey Project. “She was helpful in learning about what Chauncey was doing when he died. Her biggest strength was being an advocate.”

Silver earned a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s degree in government from the University of San Francisco. She also received a master’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago.

Sandy Close, a longtime friend of Silver, remembers when they met about 35 years ago. Close said Silver gave her a pictograph she made that was eloquently drawn with lots of detail.

“She was artistic and she could write and do art and do public speaking,” said Close. “She couldn’t fit in one niche because she was so energized and determined.”

Silver held extraordinary views of social justice, Close said.

“She was like this raw nerve of justice that would flinch and react and set off all sorts of activity,” Close said. “She made everybody complicit in her effort to correct wrongs, and not in a way that was just political, but much more personal.”

Even for colleagues who may have only known her a short time, Silver still left a lasting impression.

“Lani was one of those people who just made you feel better about yourself,” said Oakland Tribune Editor Martin G. Reynolds, who worked with her on the Bailey Project. “She was so warm, so enthusiastic, so committed to whatever cause she undertook.”

Although she was diagnosed in September with brain cancer, Silver’s relatives say she was busy and active until two weeks ago. She went on outings and to museums to see art by Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol.

Jacobs said the last rally her sister participated in was a protest against the effort to ban gay marriage.

Silver underwent several cycles of chemotherapy and, through it all, maintained a positive attitude, family members said. She created something she called “joy therapy” and refused to talk about cancer or dying. Instead, she sat with people, making art and posting it on the walls of her room. Jacobs said the last picture she created was a self-portrait made from colorful collage paper.

Silver was a political artist and a singer/songwriter who produced three albums listed on iTunes: “Don’t Talk to Me if You Voted for Bush,” “Spare The World” and “A Hero Walks Among Us.”

Silver’s family was at her side when she died.

“She had a profound effect on people’s lives,” said Jacobs. “She did a lot of good in the world and she died peaceful.”

She was not married and was the oldest of three sisters. She is survived by sisters Lori Silver and Lynne Jacobs; nieces Sara Silver Jacobs, Brette Silver Jacobs and Lauren Shaber; nephews Jose Jacobs and Justin Shaber; and brother-in-law Syd Shaber.

Silver’s funeral will be at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way, in San Francisco. A burial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. at Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, 1301 El Camino Real, Colma.

From Deidre English:

Last I saw her, Lani was in full bloom, looking gorgeous, laughing and
relaxing in the sun. Our walk over, neither of us was ready to end the conversation.

Since then, a winter ago, I had been out of touch with Lani and so I am still
shocked to learn of her death. I never saw or knew of her decline.

I will always remember Lani from the short time I knew her, when during just
a few walks and conversations, phone calls and emails, she charmed and
impressed me.

I met her at a party and was drawn to her beautiful face and intelligent
talk, and a week or so later met her for the first of just two long walks along
Crissy Field. She played me some of the songs she’d just recorded, and
talked with great excitement– and humility —about what music-making was
meaning to her.

I learned she was in a time of recuperating from her years of absorbing the
pain of so many holocaust memories, and carrying the responsibility of
preserving such heavy but vital stories.

This had been an enormous labor of love, faith in the future of a caring
humanity, and respect for the sacredness of the individual. But it took a
tremendous toll on Lani, she told me, and when I met her she was deep into
exploring her next phase of life, when she walked hours every day and
dropped dozens of pounds of accumulated stress. She usually was kept company
on her walks by her ipod and cell phone, so she was never lonely, but was
alternately dipping into the creative well of music and networking with her
many friends and fellow activists.

When we talked, she engaged immediately with the “honor,” as she put it, of
connecting my mother—a holocaust refugee whose tale of rescue and flight had still never been recorded—with the people now running the project. The oral history was
recorded over two days, was deeply meaningful for my mother and for me, and
I have Lani to thank for it. Even if these recordings by aging European
Jews, of times long gone by, were to someday be tragically destroyed, the
value of the verbal transmission itself would still have to be among the
most profound adult experiences, I am certain, for many thousands of parents and
their progeny.

Lani had many parts and passions, I learned, but the part I’ll remain
closest to is the way she became this great bridge for the Jews of old
Europe to cross, not with their suitcases but with their stories, to find
listeners and peace at this side of the bridge. Through Lani’s work, they
arrived, fully, at last.

That she experienced this bridge building, as much as possible, as an honor
and a joy was a gift from her noble soul.

And now our bridge, our Lani, is broken.

Lani was someone who I easily could imagine having made a great old lady someday.
Great old ladies treasure the past, appreciate even the simplest pleasures of
the present and look with undimmed curiosity to the future. The best of them are both the wisest and the most youthful among us, since they are drawn to what has most value —-and some measure of that is pure pleasure. The pleasure of holding a bright light up to darkness, and the great strength and obstinacy to be able to do it, was what Lani excelled at.

She will never get to be that grand old lady. But I for one will remember
Lani as a fully flowered human being.

It was a great blessing that she lived, and that she chose to live as she

One response to “Remembering Lani Silver, 1948-2009”

  1. Laurie Huff says:

    I just learned of Lani’s death and cannot believe she is gone. She was a hopeful old soul with an innate sense of justice and one of the most peaceful people I ever met. I am blessed to have known her.

    I first met Lani while working as a newspaper reporter in San Luis Obispo, on California’s Central Coast. She had come to town to speak about her Holocaust oral history work at Cal Poly. Our interview — one of the best conversations I have had — stretched to over two hours on the back patio. Long after I filed that story, I thought, I want to keep in touch with her.

    Lani must have been thinking the same thing. As a reporter, I had few relationships with sources, but most sources weren’t Lani. She called me from time to time just to say, “How are you? I just want you to know I’m thinking of you and hoping all is well.”

    After I moved to the Bay Area and, because of economic reasons, left my job at the Contra Costa Times, I thought of Lani and wondered how she was doing. I called her and expressed interest in getting together, to which she said, “It may have to be later this year — I’m working on events to honor James Byrd Jr.” She suggested the work was all-consuming, to which I asked whether I could help her. It was my great fortune that Lani said yes.

    Over a few months, she and I crafted a plan to reach media about events she was organizing in Texas and San Francisco. I enjoyed hearing her ideas and working with her, and the events went as she had hoped. At the San Francisco event, I remember watching Lani greet dozens of people with a hug and a kiss and think, What a lovely, caring woman.

    Lani emanated compassion, was a patient listener and accepted people as they are. Her legacy isn’t just her work — it’s small, individual acts of kindness that, added together, lead our world toward becoming what she wanted: a better place.

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