Dedicating a lifetime to those in need while skillfully maximizing her influence for the betterment her beloved hometown, Pittsburgh’s own Elsie Hillman is the living embodiment of what sociologists describe as a “skilled social actor.”  She is a nationally renowned civic, political, and philanthropic leader, and – having worked for and with her for the past twenty years – I have learned more from Elsie than I could ever in a lifetime impart to others.

Yet perhaps the most important lesson she has taught me and countless others is what, exactly, it means to be a skilled social actor.  It means:

  1. Helping diverse groups and individuals recognize that they share some of the same overriding values, and framing the stories that unite them;
  2. Brokering cooperatively behind the scenes to convince one group after another that a particular agenda will benefit them.  This often means helping people understand that what they can get out of a deal is actually what they’ve been looking for all along;
  3. Seizing opportunities that arise and being resourceful, using whatever is on hand to benefit the organization;
  4. Forming alliances with disparate groups, including people with few other choices or who are outside the institution.  These groups can in turn become the center of the growing network they helped build, serving as a valuable “source of information and coalition-building.”
  5. Trying to do more than it seems possible to achieve.  Skilled social actors know (1) that action creates excitement, which can in turn create an environment that allows individuals to be part of a movement, and (2) that people forget losses in the wake of even a few victories.1

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most successful civic campaigns are led by exactly this type of “skilled social actor.”

Over the last three years, I and many others worked to capture Elsie Hillman’s story, which was published this year in a book from the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics entitled Never a Spectator: The Political Life of Elsie Hillman.  On May 17th, 2012 an event was held to celebrate the release of the book and honor its remarkable subject.  Now you can watch a special 30 minute program from WQED that focuses on the book, the event, and this skilled social actor – Elsie Hillman.


1. Neil Fligstein’s “Social Skill and the Theory of Fields,” 1997.