May 20, 2020 by Debra Gittler

The Luckiest Girl in the Zoom

I once was told to aim to be the dumbest person in the room. To surround myself by people who are smarter, passionate, motivated. And use their energy to fuel my own.

When we recruit and hire, in El Salvador and Chicago, I tell every potential employee the same thing. In candor, in truth, if we are excellent at our jobs every single day, we might really change the lives of most of the people we work with. So maybe we touch most of those we reach, and maybe we actually change the lives of many… And while we can’t make promises about 100% of those we serve, we can– I can– make promises about 100% of those we employ. 

So I tell every potential employee, that they are expected to do their best every day, to change the lives of as many as possible. And my job is to support them to do so.

I’m the daughter of a Union Attorney. In my house are handwritten notes in my father’s scrawl with rules. They are signed “Management” which is then crossed out and written, “Labor.” I was raised on the ethos that the workers are the heartbeat of any organization. I know they are at ConTextos.

I try to take seriously that commitment, to provide a job that supports quality of life, that doesn’t just ask that our people show up every day with that passion and spark and thoughtfulness, but also provides the environment, salary, benefits, the opportunities for leadership and freedom for experimentation. This commitment to economic justice for within our team reflects our commitment to the idea that we just practice what we preach: if we aim for thriving individuals and communities, we must provide the opportunities for our staff to thrive. 

So every Monday, when the Chicago team gathers for our weekly touchpoint, the one time we’re all together– just like in the office, the one day of the week (or at least one morning) sacredly reserved from programming– I sit in awe… 

I just can’t believe I get to be their boss.

I have said, each time we are hiring, that we’re looking for a unicorn. Now we have a stable.

We are small but fierce; little but mighty.

Mensen, Coordinator of Communications and Authors Circle Facilitator, came on part time just before COVID. Her resume is just ridiculous, the kind of national projection that, frankly, is restricted to the Coasts, but the humility of a Midwest spirit (even if she doesn’t know about pizza. Yet…) This woman not only facilitates Circles, but she uses language that paints pictures, builds bridges and gently knocks down assumptions to build inquiry. AND she’s a bad ass artist who has an aesthetic so different from my own but a commitment to team work and iteration that means we’re just producing, growing, evolving. During COVID, she’s launched Femmoirs, a national CyberCircle for women and femme survivors of trauma and/or violence, she’s been building our communications strategy, developed GIFs, and art and imagery… 

Johnny Page, Co-Director of Programs and Partnerships. This morning, as I walked the dog, I listened to Johnny read his recent blog aloud on the Complicating the Narrative podcast. The tone of his voice, the tenor of his experience was such a clash with the scenery. He spoke of prison lockdown and stocking up as I looked over the spring’s ever blooming green. Every time he says it, every time he mentions that he spent 23 years inside, and has just 5 out, I’m blown away. How to explain that his experience in the world makes me so aware of how small my own life is, but his character and engagement make me–and I think so many others– feel bigger and stronger. We talk a lot about Credible Messengers in Chicago– folks who have experienced the systems as mentors to those currently navigating it. Johnny is no Credible Messenger for young bucks; he’s a Credible Messenger for all of us. During COVID, he’s been supporting Authors in community–navigating the courts as they exit County, find and transition to housing, and survive day by day on ankle bracelets or looking for work or navigating family and the violence that continues to plague their communities– and he’s launching new Cyber Circles–some in partnerships with Circles and Cyphers–to utilize the arts, for those on house arrest or who have experienced reentry, as well as facilitating Circles for workforce development programs sheltered in place on the South and West Sides.

dr. moore, Authors Circle Facilitator, PhD in African American Literature and future Mayor of Markham, IL. We poached Dr. Moore. Not that I’m boasting. It certainly wasn’t great for the professional relationship with her former employer, but it was worth it completely. The first time we met dr. moore, it was palpable that she had that essence, that magic, that makes her fit with us. No list in a job profile of characteristics or previous experiences can capture the vibe of someone who is a natural teacher, who naturally emotes, who enters every space with a toolbox of elite knowledge and insight into the canon. On top of that, dr. moore brings vulnerability that prioritizes humanity and human connection, to lift language as a tool to facilitate those connections, and individual and collective growth. During COVID, she leads the facilitation of the Every Single Day at 2pm Open Circle, has built an incredible national community of writers, while working with Suzy Weinberg’s storytelling community to launch ConTextos’ first live storytelling event, and overseeing the editing, design and publishing of the latest memoirs and compilations.

Gracey. Ms. Grace Cooper, whose official title is program coordinator, but is really the Jack of All Trades, who writes grants and posts daily and sends our email blasts to a wide audience and snail mail to Authors in IDOC, and managed set up a PO Box and a mail system for us during Shelter in Place, who participates in every meeting as the cohesive factor between communications, development, programming and administration. Grace stays in touch with our volunteers and interns and Alumni Authors; she’s the sticky sticky so nothing falls between cracks. And while she does all that, lately in a leopard skin fuzzy bathrobe–these Generation Z know that it’s what’s inside that counts!– she also manages to keep us older folks on the team honest and reflective, reminding us not with scolding but constant questions that the arc of justice is always bending, and the younger generations are the ones who pull that arc toward the future. 

And Dimitri Hepburn, Authors Circle Facilitator, Podcast Producer, and Multi-media Coordinator. Dimitri is such an introvert in a team with so much extrovert (and I know that others on the team will insist that they, too, have tendency to introversion). He is, in my mind, the kind of Credible Messenger that we need more of. I’ve gotten to know Dimitri mostly through his own writing, a handful of stories that he comes back to over and over. Locking eyes with a police officer outside of a 7-eleven. Living in the Giuliani Stop and Frisk era. Born in the Bahamas, raised in the Bronx, raising a bicultural daughter. Dimitri is not Chicago in his story– that international diversity, Caribbean underbelly is so prevalent in NYC, but here in the midwest, it’s a reminder of how much more Blackness can be than the narratives that our work swims in. And Dimitri–in his podcasts and videos and conversations and writings and facilitation and the quiet that he carries even while he’s talking–reminds us that messages are credible because of what we say, not just who says them… During COVID, he facilitates podcast production with Lil Charlezzz, facilitates Circles with high schoolers, leads video creation and special projects, and is planning to expand our reach through schools.

Darrius. We met in Open Circle at 2pm a couple weeks ago, and now he’s part of the team! Like Johnny, Darrius’ story humbles me. And like Johnny, so does Darrius’ generosity. I’ve learned about white guilt and privilege, both in the classroom and in context. But Darrius, like Johnny, teaches about responsibility and opportunity, not guilt or shame. He has a firm willingness to be vulnerable and open, to share his past as he forges toward the present. On Zoom calls, his kids crawl all over him (also like Johnny), and he tends to them with so much care. Young black men. Formerly incarcerated young black men. Darrius reminds me that I don’t have to work harder to help him, I just need to get out of the way. During COVID, Darrius is on-boarding, learning to run Circles, working with THRIVE, a Westside organizing project, and working with Johnny to launch our collaboration with Circles and Cyphers, a CyberCircle mixing writing and rhymes, music, literature and spoken word.

And then there’s Lisa Kenner. Mic drop. I can’t capture Lisa in a paragraph, but you can see it in a writing I did the other day at 2pm. During COVID, Lisa leads the team, and me. She, as always, asks probing questions and encourages us to consider an array of options through a variety of lenses. She doesn’t work, she lives the cause, and takes our work into her graduate school course at night and her community engagement on the Westside, amplifying our mission and informing our programming. She peppers every engagement with metaphors and anecdotes, carries Buckminster Fuller in her back pocket, and reminds us that when the time comes for a chick to escape his fragile shell, we can’t intrude to help; if you try to break him out he will die. The chick–like all living beings– must break free on his own. We can provide the conditions, the love, the support. And in time, the bird will emerge healthy and well. So during COVID, like every day, she facilitates Circles, she texts as she takes phone calls, she juggles logistical challenges and emotional challenges with ease, and personally cares for me and everyone else on this team, as well as dozens more who have flocked to her over the years. 

There are more. Our part-timers. Emma Marsano, our superstar researcher, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met with a lens so strongly focused on justice as it may be, not as it has been or is. Anne “Annie” Ruelle, who writes the grants and one-pagers and having worked with me in El Salvador and now Chicago, has learn to take my mumbled jumbled ideas and turn them into seamless presentations, to uniquely poise ConTextos in such a variety of environments, and every time to leverage us for funds and success. Both Annie and Emma are also full time graduate students. I tend toward cynicism so it’s a relief to know that the future, under their watch, is in good shape. And Charles “Lil Charlezzz” Woodhouse, who is a published Author and the co-Producer of the Complicating the Narrative Podcast. Charlie falls down and keeps getting up again, willing to look back to help us all imagine something better in the future. He’s learning to walk the walk, and his path to date hasn’t been easy, nor is the path he’s carving for himself now. These three, in the free time they eke out amongst other obligations, work to push our mission forward, to amplify ConTextos’ voice, to build programming and institutional strength that defies the status quo.

This team.

This team.

During COVID, I’m working every day to support this team so that they can continue to be the small, mighty, fierce, passionate, inspired and inspiring, committed, engaged, smart smart smart leaders that they are.

I can’t believe I get to be their boss.

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