Drawing the line that connects wanting to change your community for the better and actually making that change is a difficult task. “Since I was a kid, I was taught about doing what we can for the public good, and I was really interested in public service,” said Allison Silberberg, formerly vice mayor and now the mayor of Alexandria, Virginia, a city of 150,000 just across the Potomac River from Washington.
Silberberg has worked in community leadership and public service for over 25 years, including eight years on her city’s Economic Opportunity Commission.
YALI Network members will know Silberberg from her YALI Network Online Course, “Strengthening Public Sector Service,” in which she discusses topics such as being an effective public servant and establishing professional ethics. In the last year, Silberberg got to live those principles in both her campaign and her election. She started as mayor on January 1, 2016.
In the primary to determine who would run as her party’s representative in the general election, Silberberg defeated two opponents, one of them the incumbent mayor, who had served four terms. Her victory came down to 300 votes. In November, she won the mayorship with 63 percent of the vote.
“It was a very old-fashioned, grass-roots campaign,” she said. She is proud that her staff was entirely made up of volunteers. “We stood at farmers markets. I went to as many events as I could. People hosted me in their homes, which was lovely.” She spent nearly every night of the campaign season at meet-and-greets. Not all of them were well attended, but Silberberg feels the face-to-face nature made a difference. “It might seem like small potatoes to be talking to 10 people or fewer,” she said. “Well, all those people go out and they [tell other people]. They ask questions, and there’s no one standing between me and the people. I have no idea what they’re going to ask me. It was all very unrehearsed and real.”
Among the issues that appear to have attracted voters was Silberberg’s insistence that officials not be allowed to vote on proposed development projects if they had received campaign donations from the developers of those projects. She has promised that her first action as mayor will be to set up an ethics commission to advise the city council on such conflicts of interest.
Silberberg remembers, from when she was 7 years old, her mother asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I was sitting there with my after-school snack and my dog at the kitchen table. I said, ‘I think if someone needs glasses because they can’t see at school or a coat because they’re cold, it would be really great to be helpful to them.”
In university, Silberberg was an intern for Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy. “He was very inspiring,” Silberberg remembered. “There was a great sense of mission in his office every day when I arrived. And I thought, ‘I want to have that sense of mission in my life!’”