Sponsor Spotlight: Debby Bussel/Shepard Broad Foundation

Debby Bussel is the president of the Shepard Broad Foundation and the principal of Bussel Philanthropy Associates. She grew up in Miami and has deep ties to the community, where she lives with her husband, Steve Goldin, and their 16-year-old daughter, Lily.

Your foundation supports a lot of critical causes, but budgets are finite and no single organization can fund all of the work that it would like to – why have you chosen to support Miami Book Fair?

Shepard Broad was my grandfather and the founder of the foundation. He had quite an immigration story, from Russia to the United States. He left at 13 and by the time he arrived in North America he was 14. He was an orphan who managed to get himself, by walking and train and ship, horse and wagon [laughs] – you name the mode of transportation – from Russia to Antwerp and then ended up in Canada, in Quebec City. He got on the wrong boat; he thought he was going to New York.

He was placed in detention because he was what we’d now call an unaccompanied minor, and this was in 1920, over 100 years ago. And he was going to be deported – and then a volunteer from the community, from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, was visiting the detention facility and saw my grandfather. He plucked him out of detention and sponsored him, and basically saved his life.

Wow, when are you going to write that book?

I know, it’s quite a story. And this man, who was from Montreal, marched him down to the Montreal Star newspaper offices, where he was interviewed. We still have that clipping.

That’s amazing.

I mean how rare is that? We actually have a description of my grandfather upon arrival. And it talks about this scared Polish boy – they called him Polish [laughs] – who spoke no English, and that he’d been starving in Russia and his parents were dead. And then he managed to get to New York and in seven years’ time had a law degree. He won a big case there in the late 1930s – the client took a chance on him as a young lawyer – and as a thank you, this man was a pilot, he flew him down to the Dry Tortugas for a fishing trip, in December. And my grandfather from Pinsk, Russia, was like, this is December? With this beautiful weather and water? Forget New York! And he picked up his family and moved to Miami.

His is a dramatic story, and we at the foundation focus on, in his honor, immigration. We like to fund organizations and programs and leadership that work toward embracing immigrants into the community. We’re focused on that connection and the relationship between established immigrants and new arrivals – and the acts of kindness extended to them along the way.

And that’s where the support for Miami Book Fair comes in?

Yes, it’s directly related to this focus. My grandfather’s story from 100 years ago could be the same story – maybe a different country of origin, a different ethnicity, a different race, unaccompanied minor, had to leave where they were from in order to survive – for someone coming to this country today. So we think it’s important to get the stories and voices of the immigrant experience in our country, and in Miami specifically, told and heard.

Looking at Miami’s community and cultural landscape, what do you think Miami Book Fair contributes to that, and why is it important?

When Book Fair started, Miami was in the grip of cocaine and drugs and money laundering and that 1981 Time cover story about paradise lost. So there was a local tourism campaign that was launched in response to that and people were asking themselves, what kind of community do we want to live in?

It was a moment.

It was a moment! But at the same time it was also the beginning of seeding some cultural institutions and infrastructure that hadn’t existed before. So the whole art deco preservation effort in Miami Beach, Miami City Ballet, New World Symphony – all this stuff was happening, and right in the mix was Book Fair. There was an intentional move to recreate and redefine the culture, and Miami Book Fair was a huge part of that, a key player. You can’t imagine Miami now without it.

You sponsored several sessions at last year’s Fair, including Sandra Cisneros. What about her work – and the other authors you helped us present – resonates with you?

The sessions we sponsored were very targeted to understanding and highlighting the immigrant experience in the U.S. Most of the authors we sponsored were unknown to me until we sponsored them and I read their books. Sandra Cisneros was not unknown to me and my family, in particular my sister-in-law – my brother’s wife, who’s a professor at Barry University focusing on Latinx literature – I think she wrote her doctoral dissertation on her, so there was an added interest. Maria Hinojosa, the NPR journalist, she was a natural fit for us, too. We also sponsored Javier Zamora and Ly Tran.

We need to hear these stories. I know how powerful my grandfather’s story has been to my family, and these stories are so incredibly important for the community. People need to know about human resilience.

As a sponsor or as an attendee, what’s an MBF moment or experience that really stands out for you?

There are a few. One was when my daughter was maybe 7? Or 5 or 6? We were at the Fair and I saw Cornel West walking into Chapman and I said, “Lily! We’re going over here. I want you to meet somebody. You’re going to meet this person and you’re going to remember that you met him all your life!” And I took this little kid and dragged her over and I said to him, “Mr. West, I want you to meet my daughter Lily, because I told her that if she meets you now, she’ll remember you all her life.” And he was so nice; he just said, “Well, Lily, it is a pleasure to meet you!” I think he called her his precious little sister and gave her a hug. Fast forward to now and my daughter is in the 10th grade and writes an English paper about being the only child of older parents – and she threw us under the bus a little bit [laughs] – and one of the positives was “my parents always want me to experience things; they take me to museums, they take me to concerts …” And something she talked about was meeting Cornel West and then later seeing him on TV.

Mission accomplished.

[both laugh]

I’ll be waiting for that book about your grandfather to hit the shelves, but in the meantime, I’m wondering what the title would be if someone were to write a book about your life.

I can get very impassioned about certain things, especially if I see injustice, and one of my clients has seen me go from what she describes as very sweet and personable to, you know, hit me in the wrong way and I’ll just come at you. So she calls me sweet and sour. So, Sweet and Sour Sauce, colon, A Life. [both laugh]

Interview by Elisa Chemayne Agostinho; responses have been edited for space and clarity.

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