Medill News

Medill professor Brent Huffman releases documentary on Uyghurs in Pakistan

By Jude Cramer (BSJ23)

Medill professor Brent Huffman never shies away from touchy topics as a documentarian, and his most recent work on Uyghurs in Pakistan is no exception.

“I’m attracted to difficult projects. And this one is an extremely difficult one,” he says.

Brent Huffman.
Brent Huffman.

In addition to being a working documentary filmmaker, Huffman teaches documentary theory and production at Medill. His short-form documentary “Uyghurs Who Fled China Now Face Repression in Pakistan” was posted to the VICE News YouTube channel on March 3. It has since garnered over 150,000 views.

Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group native to the Xinjiang region of China. The Chinese government has reportedly detained over 1 million Muslims, the majority of them Uyghurs, in so-called reeducation camps, an act the United States has declared genocide. 

Huffman’s documentary shows that the oppression of Uyghurs doesn’t end at the Chinese border. Those who have fled to nearby Pakistan are also victims of violence, persecution and cultural loss.

Huffman was led to this topic by following a thread from his previous work, the acclaimed 2014 documentary “Saving Mes Aynak,” which tells the story of Afghan archaeologists working to save an ancient city from destruction by a Chinese copper mine. That mine was a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a modern reimagining of the Silk Road in which Pakistan is a key player.

“In some ways, the persecution of the Uyghurs is part of this massive economic project,” Huffman says. 

He was also drawn to the issue because of its challenging nature.

“A lot of the stories I’m attracted to are human rights stories or social justice stories, but they’re also stories that, you know, people tell me they can’t be told. ‘It’s too difficult, too dangerous, no one will talk to you, you can’t do this,’” he says. “I have some dysfunction in me that, instead of listening to that, that makes me motivated, and it makes me passionate and makes me feel like, ‘Well, then, you know, that’s my role. I have to tell the story, right?’”

So far, Huffman has traveled to Pakistan five times to film. Each time, he’s faced roadblocks including acquiring work visas, filming in restricted locations like the Confucius Institute in Islamabad, and connecting with hard-to-reach sources like controversial Chinese politician Zhao Lijian. 

“Every subject was just extraordinarily difficult to get on camera, to give me permission to talk to them,” he says. “Part of these films is just not giving up, even though all these doors are constantly slammed in your face.”

Brent Huffman filming in Pakistan.
Huffman filming in Pakistan.

One particularly fraught aspect of covering such a volatile topic is protecting vulnerable interview subjects. Being featured in a documentary could put Uyghurs in Pakistan at risk, but they appear in the film because Huffman says it’s essential that the Uyghurs have a voice in their own narrative.

“I’m trying to facilitate this way for them to have their story heard,” he says. “That’s the trick: keeping them safe, but keeping that emotion so audiences can relate to them and feel something for this really tragic story.”

The video released by VICE News is about 20 minutes long, but Huffman plans to complete a full-length version of the documentary once filming can safely resume given the pandemic. Raising awareness of the Uyghurs’ plight is incredibly important, he says.

“This is a genocide that’s occurring, and people need need to know about it. I just hope this is a way to introduce audiences and, again, get them emotionally invested in the subjects and get them to care and get them to want to help. I think that’s my biggest goal,” he says. “It’s an incredible privilege to be able to meet these subjects, to be a part of their lives and to be able to help tell their stories.”

“Uyghurs Who Fled China Now Face Repression in Pakistan” is available now on YouTube.

Medill News

Medill professor Ava Greenwell releases documentary “Mandela in Chicago”

By Jude Cramer (BSJ23)

Apartheid may have taken place in South Africa more than 8,000 miles from Chicago, but the two locations, their activism and their social dynamics have much in common. This is the phenomenon Medill professor and alumna Ava Greenwell (BSJ84, MSJ85) set out to capture with her thought-provoking documentary “Mandela in Chicago.”

Greenwell’s film premiered on WTTW on February 14. It tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s 1993 visit to Chicago and its repercussions, but more broadly, it explores the connection between Chicago and South Africa in terms of activism, racism and power.

The documentary includes fascinating archival footage, as well as interviews with Chicagoan and South African activists. 

“I want the people who were on the ground to be able to tell their own story instead of having somebody else narrate it,” Greenwell says. “You know, so often there are documentaries out there about a group, but members of that group don’t get to have a say in how that story gets framed.”

Greenwell was inspired to create the documentary after taking on the role of co-director for Medill’s South Africa Journalism Residency Program. 

“My predecessors would occasionally bring in people from the Chicago area who had connections to South Africa. And it really got me to thinking about, well, what was the Chicago connection here?” she says.

The Chicago connection runs deep, it turns out. In speaking to local activists, Greenwell discovered a little known history, including the travel of enslaved African Americans to South Africa as sailors and performers in the 19th century, and South Africans boarding in Chicago in the 20th. This research arose, in part, from Greenwell’s time in Northwestern’s African American Studies graduate program.

“A lot of the readings and a lot of the work I did in the doctoral program in many ways informed my interest in the historical aspect of this era and this time,” she says.

Greenwell approached the film not just as a Northwestern alumna, but as a Medill professor. Many of Greenwell’s students helped with the film by providing transcriptions, footage and other work.

“Where possible I tried to involve as many Medill students in the project as possible, because I felt as though it’s not just my work, but it’s the work of the entire Northwestern community,” she says.

Northwestern is present on camera as well as behind the scenes. Many of Greenwell’s interviewees have affiliations with the university or other academic institutions, having become education professionals since working as activists in the ‘90s. She refers to these subjects as scholar activists.

“In some ways, it shouldn’t be that surprising that a lot of these people who were so interested in anti-apartheid and what it took to eliminate it were also studying. They were students of the movement, if you will,” she says. “A lot of what they had to do to really get Chicagoans to take notice, is they had to teach.”

Greenwell hopes that the documentary can reintroduce the story of apartheid activism and its principles to a new generation of Northwestern students and Chicagoans, and for them to form connections with South Africans across the Atlantic.

“I would love to have this film be a catalyst to reignite interest in each other, and also begin to think about, how can we finish the work that was started?” she says. “You know, how can we think about all the economic inequities that still exist, both in South Africa and in the United States, and begin to work on solving those problems?”

Ultimately, “Mandela in Chicago” is a love letter to Chicago’s activists, and a testament to the power of journalism as storytelling. 

“Don’t wait to tell your story. Now is the time,” says Greenwell. “And when you tell it, knowing that you can tell it from your own perspective is just ever so gratifying.”

“Mandela in Chicago” is available now on WTTW.

Home Medill News

Medill creates new scholarship in memory of Darran Simon (MSJ04)

Medill is creating a new endowed scholarship in memory of alumnus Darran Simon (MSJ04) who died April 9, 2020.

Simon was a prolific journalist with a specialty in trauma reporting. He once noted, “I am drawn to writing about suffering and trauma because I am in awe of the human spirit’s ability to persevere.”

After getting his master’s at Medill, Simon’s career included roles reporting on minority affairs at the Miami Herald, covering education for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, as a crime reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, as a general assignment reporter for Newsday and as a senior writer with CNN Digital in Atlanta. His most recent role was with the Washington Post, where he covered District politics and government.

“Darran was thoughtful, curious and always went out of his way for others. It’s what made him a dear friend and phenomenal person to learn alongside. He took the role of being a reporter seriously and pushed himself to be great at it,” said Jessica Rodriguez Falcon (MSJ04), a friend and classmate of Simon’s. “It’s just not something you see every day.”

Simon was unafraid to tackle difficult topics in his reporting, including covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and profiling the spiritual leader of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, after a brutal terrorist attack by white supremacists.

“The essence of his whole career is not forgetting about the people that news trucks have driven by after the big story has left,” said Allissa Richardson (MSJ04), another friend and classmate. “I think that it’s beautiful that he was able to do exactly what he set out to do.”

Once the scholarship fund reaches $100,000, it will provide a generous award to a talented and deserving student, each and every year, in perpetuity. Northwestern will continue to accept additional gifts to grow the scholarship in the years to come. In tribute to Simon’s commitment to thoughtful and sensitive trauma reporting, the scholarship will support students with a focus in social justice reporting.

The Darran Simon Memorial Scholarship will help address one of Medill’s greatest needs in offering support for graduate students. “Graduate scholarships are essential if we are to continue attracting top candidates to Medill,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker (BSJ80, MSJ81). “Darran was a supremely talented and compassionate journalist, and I can think of no better tribute to his life and work.”

Richardson said she thinks Simon would be honored and humbled by the scholarship dedication. “He would probably suggest it be named after someone else. For his incredible love of history and reading, he probably would have cited a historic person. But he is history. He is Medill history. He’s American history. He’s Black history. And I’m just so glad that he wrote down all that he cared about, and he wrote down to really speak up for other people. And that kind of thing will always outlive you, you know — the arts, our words, what’s written down, is immortal,” she said.

Gifts to the Darran Simon Memorial Scholarship may be made online (explore “Search School and Program Funds”).

Alternately, those wishing to support the fund may send a check to:
Northwestern University
Alumni Relations and Development
1201 Davis Street, Suite 1-400
Evanston, IL 60208-4410

Please make check out to Northwestern University and note the Darran Simon Memorial Scholarship in the memo or enclosure.


Home My Medill Story

After a Devastating Loss Last Year, I Began Running — and It Transformed My Life

By Michelle Edgar (BSJ05) for POPSUGAR

The last words my stepfather ever spoke to me were uttered between gasps of air from his hospital bed this past January: “Will you move on with your life already?”

Less than two weeks later, I received a call from my mother that my stepfather had gone into hospice. I flew from California to New Jersey to spend his last days together as a family. He passed peacefully in our home, as we held his hand and sang Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye.” It was one of the most profound moments of my life.

His poignant last words had penetrated me to my core, and now — having sat with them for a few weeks — I knew I needed to find a way to honor him. Still, this was the first significant loss I had experienced in my life, and I needed time and space to heal. I returned to Los Angeles feeling scared and uncertain, knowing my path would inevitably change, though I wasn’t sure how. I prayed for healing and clarity, hoping to find some answers.

On the surface, my life and career appeared stable and successful. As a record executive at Epic Records, I had been working in the music business for more than a decade. I was a doer and goal-oriented, but eventually, I realized I wanted more for my life than just a career. When I got married, I had hoped to be together for a lifetime and to build a foundation to start a family — but now my marriage was in trouble.

My stepfather wanted me to tap into my strength and make the necessary decisions to take control of my life and manifest my dreams. He was trying to tell me to stop fighting a losing battle. I wasn’t yet ready to move on from my marriage, but I decided to make other big, disruptive changes in my life, just as he had challenged me to do. I started asking myself some tough questions: if being married and starting a family wasn’t my path to happiness, what is?Michelle Edgar going under a hurdle.

I chose to focus on taking care of myself. I wasn’t sure what I wanted long-term, but I knew in the short-term, I just wanted to feel happier and more connected to my mind and body. I wanted to feel whole again, and focusing on my physical health seemed like a good place to start. Up until that point, my commitment to fitness had been marginal, as I had other priorities. So, I began attending yoga classes up to a few days a week and working out at the gym weekly.

I realized after my very first workout how cathartic it was to get moving. My brain chemistry had changed, and I knew I needed more of this. What started as an experiment developed into a habit and then a lifestyle. I adjusted my routine to make fitness a priority, climbing into bed by 9:30 so I could get up for my daily training sessions at 6 a.m. before my workday began. When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered gyms, and I could no longer meet with a trainer in person, I began running. Up to eight miles a day. Exercise made me happy, and I was determined to stick with it, even if I had to do it on my own.

In early April, my trainer challenged me to a 50-mile virtual run with 20 people on the Nike Run app. I was hesitant at first, but then I realized I could probably knock it out in a week. So, I decided to put myself to the test. I made Spotify playlists to fit my mood, so I had something to look forward to each day. Running became my therapy and a way for me to heal. I finished those 50 miles — the first of many I’d run throughout the year.

It was around this time that I decided to have the difficult conversation with my partner about our future together. We decided it would be best to part ways. Getting divorced is hard, and doing it in the midst of a pandemic is harder still, so I took every opportunity to channel my energy into something positive.

I had received a message from UCLA Law School about a new master’s in legal studies program and decided to apply. It was an exciting opportunity to advance my career trajectory, and I was up for an intellectual challenge, in part inspired by my stepfather, who was a chief assistant district attorney. Between the stress of mediation and applying to law school, I needed an outlet — so, I made another commitment: to run on UCLA’s track for an hour each morning. I wanted to see what it would feel like to be a student again, and I guess I hoped I could somehow manifest my acceptance into the program.

In early June, after two weeks of showing up to the track every day, I was approached by Richard Rucker, the head coach of the UCLA Club Track and Field team. I had watched his practices from afar and admired the work he was doing with his athletes. When he asked what I was training for, I said I didn’t know. “Wrong answer,” Coach Rucker said. “Life.” That’s when our journey began.

At age 38, I started training with Coach Rucker for two hours a day. He helped me discover and develop my athletic ability and taught me that it’s never too late to try something new. (“It’s not the age, it’s the stage,” Coach always says.) Two weeks into our training, he handed me a paper with a breakdown of the sprints and said, “How about competing? You ready?” I had never competed in sports before, but I’m always up for a challenge, and I wanted to make my coach proud, so I replied, “Let’s do it.”

I ran the Trojans vs. Bruins Masters Challenge, where I competed in the 50-, 100-, and 500-meter sprints. Soon after I ran my first cross-country race at an elevation of 1,200 feet. By the end of the year, I had run more than 1,000 miles, and I felt stronger, happier and healthier than I had at any point in my life. I was accepted to UCLA, too, and I’ll graduate in two years, with a focus in entertainment and media.

I share this journey in hopes of showing others that even the most challenging times can be a catalyst for change and a source of inspiration, if you allow them to be. You don’t need to take off on an “Eat Pray Love”-style vacation to learn who you are and find your path to health and happiness. You don’t need to run 1,000 miles or go to law school, either. While that was the direction my life took, the opportunities are endless. You simply need to look inward and take care of yourself first, and you’ll find the energy and power to dream again and break new ground.

I’m grateful that this past year gave me time to reflect, to be present, and to appreciate each and every day. Instead of driving to and from work, I was able to take time to grow in new ways, on the track or in the classroom. I no longer rush through my days but take the time to listen to what my mind and body need. I honor my time every day, and I’m very intentional about what will move me closer to achieving my goals and seeing my dreams come to fruition.

I don’t yet know what 2021 will hold — though I’m committed to continuing to train, in hopes of reaching All-American status — but I know that when you allow yourself to be open and step out of your comfort zone, good things happen. If there’s anything these times have taught us, it’s that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so start living the life you want today.

1960s Legacies

Constance Byrne (BSJ60)

Constance Byrne (Connie or “Momo” to her grandchildren), age 95, passed away peacefully on Sunday, January 31, 2021. She married the love of her life, Frank Owen Byrne, on May 2, 1947, who preceded her in death in 1986.

She was a wonderful mother, a strong, independent woman, a true role model in the days when it was not customary to juggle family and career.

Some 14 years after her marriage and six children later, she returned to school to finish her journalism degree at Northwestern. 10 years after she completed her degree and another child later, she returned to school again to become an Illinois-certified teacher. She taught at the Westmoor Elementary School in the Northbrook School District 28 until the age of 69. With hands-on activities and by teaching real life skills, she showed learning could be fun and meaningful. She also managed to serve her community as vice president and program chair of the North Shore Auxiliary of the Chicago Child Care Society and served on the Girl Scout Board.

She remained very active during her retirement years, travelling as far as Egypt with a church group, being an active member of the North Shore Senior Center, and enlarging her circle of lifetime friendships. Family trips also took her out to California, Texas, Australia, Austria, Mauritius, the Reunion Island and back to her roots in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

Her motto was, “You are never too old.” She even formed a chorus when the Vi at the Glen, a senior living facility, opened in 2002. She saw this as an opportunity to create harmony, with both song and friendship. She never lost her love of music. As a child she saved her milk money for singing lessons. It paid off, as she sang for many years at the OLPH choir and organized annual Christmas caroling parties. As a close family friend put it, she is having a great time singing in the heavenly choirs. She knows she was loved and cherished.

Her greatest joy was her family. She was the loving mother of Connie Meek (Brian), the late Debbie Bakanec (Larry), Wendy Dubreuil (Alain), Melanie Smith (Ronald), Lisa Byrne-Prescott, Frank Byrne Jr. (Arlene) and Mary Prochotsky (Dave); the cherished grandmother of Chris (Nina), Amanda (Matt), Lexi (Steven), Allison, Brett (Jessamyn), Catherine (Frank), Eric, Stephanie (Michael), Charles (Robin), Jessica (Brian), Jonathan (Makenna), Andrew, Michael, Robert, Kimberly (Ty), Sidra, Josh (Paige) and Jenny (Garret); and adoring great grandmother of Ella, Lucas, Oliver, Claire, Leo, Mathew, Gracelyn, Gabriel, Mathis, JT, Olivia, Owen, Liam, Abigail, Eleanor, Ethan, Alex, and Mila.


1980s Legacies

Kathryn Esplin-Oleski (MSJ83)

Kathryn Esplin-Oleski, age 68 of Belmont, Massachusetts, died of pancreatic cancer on Sunday, August 16, 2020. She died at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.

Kathryn was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to her father, Dr. Don Esplin, and her mother, Billie Leigh Esplin. She was married from 1986 to 2020 to Dr. John Oleski, clinical psychologist with a principal practice in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

In 1968, her family moved to Montreal, where her father was a professor at McGill University. Kathryn completed high school in Montreal, then earned her CEGEP from Dawson College before entering McGill, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English with honors.

Kathryn briefly lived and worked in Toronto and Chicago, Illinois, before moving to Boston in 1979. In 1983, she earned her master’s in journalism at Northwestern University. This included an internship in Washington, D.C., where she reported on politics and other subjects.

A highly talented writer, editor and journalist, the first part of Kathryn’s career was spent reporting, writing and editing on the rapidly growing field of digital technology. This included a job at Digital News and another one at MIT, consulting to W3C. During this latter job, she occasionally met with Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

In 1998, Kathryn was editor for one of the first books on HTML, authored by famed British computer scientist Dave Raggett.

Kathryn loved reading and writing, being in nature, painting, running and other exercise, and family vacations in the White Mountains, Montreal and Europe. She traveled extensively in the United States, Canada and Europe. She had a special fondness for cats, including her beloved Cheddar, who was with her for 17 years.

She is survived by her husband, Dr. John Oleski, her son Stephen Oleski and his wife Isabel Tran, her daughter Kristina Oleski and her partner Basil Syed, her sisters Debbie Esplin and Mari Rogers, and her step-brother Peter Zablocki. She is also survived by in-laws, nieces, nephews and their families in the U.S. and Canada.

1950s Legacies

JoAnn Pizer-Fox (BSJ50)

JoAnn Pizer-Fox, age 89 of Raleigh, North Carolina, died on Sunday, August 30, 2020. She was born November 5, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois.

Joann was the third daughter and youngest child of Ella Goldman Kousnetz and Dr. Selig B. Kousnetz. She attended von Steuben High School, graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 1950, and later studied graduate English Literature at the University of Chicago.

In 1951, she met and married Wilfred Halperin, a Chicago businessman and patron of the arts, with whom JoAnn spent many happy evenings in the halls of Chicago’s resident theater and music companies. They lived in Europe for a few years and, upon returning to Chicago, in time became the parents of Carl and Michele.

After Wilfred’s untimely death in 1962, JoAnn met a local pediatrician, Dr. Morton E. Pizer. In 1966, she married him, moving south and having children William and Ellen. She and her second husband were indisputably a local “power couple,” and they are highly regarded still, long after Morton’s death in 1989.

Not long after, JoAnn renewed acquaintance with Stanley H. Fox of Oxford, North Carolina, a man who had also recently lost his spouse of many years, and in 1992, they married. She and Stan had 27 joyous years together traveling and enjoying their blended family. Ultimately they relocated to Raleigh, where Stan passed away in 2019.

JoAnn was an avid needlepointer, miniature enthusiast and dedicated tennis player. She served a term as president of Beth Meyer Synagogue’s Sisterhood, where she proved invaluable in the commissioning of art works to enhance the beauty of the building and its sanctuary.

As a former member of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Museum of Art, she was a founding co-chair of the Friends of the Judaic Art Gallery, the museum’s permanent installation of Jewish ceremonial art objects, one of only two such collections in the nation.

Along with her late husband Stan Fox, JoAnn was presented with the state of North Carolina’s highest civilian honor, membership in the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, awarded by Governor Bev Perdue in 2012.

JoAnn is survived by her children Carl Halperin, Michele Pizer, William Pizer and Ellen Pizer, her step-children Susan Fox Robinson, Debra Fox Tenenbaum and Martin Fox, her grandchildren Micah Pizer, Levi Slotkin, Sam Pizer, Gideon Slotkin, Naomi Pizer and Mira Slotkin, her step-grandchildren Ryan Robinson, Mark Robinson, Julie Robinson Sheffer, Brittany Tenenbaum, Megan Tenenbaum Bearman, Scott Tenenbaum and Christopher Fox.

JoAnn also leaves behind 27 devoted nieces and nephews, great-grandchildren from her third marriage, several first cousins, and her dearly-loved sister, Marian K. Kaufman. She was predeceased by her sister, Carol K. Sterkin.

1990s Featured Legacies Legacies

Benjamin C. Williams (BSJ96)

On Thursday, September 17, 2020, Benjamin Charles Williams, beloved husband to Jill and devoted father to Ashley and Joel, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 46. 

Ben was born on April 14, 1974, in Houston, Texas, to Chuck and Debbie (Matteson) Williams. He attended Cypress Creek High School, where he made lifelong friends in the band and graduated in 1992. He loved to write and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in 1996. Shortly after graduation he joined the ranks of the Houston Police Department, graduating with Cadet Class 171 in March of 1998, and eventually achieved the rank of sergeant. On June 5, 1999, Ben married his childhood friend and high school sweetheart Jill McCormack. Ashley Rose was born on February 3, 2004, and Joel Benjamin on October 12, 2008. 

Ben was an encyclopedia of movie trivia and could settle any debate about anything movie-related. He was a steadfast Astros fan. He also had a heart for animals and was always bringing home or threatening to bring home a stray kitten, dog or any other species. 

Along with Jill, Ashley and Joel, Ben is survived by his father Chuck and wife Lisa, mother Debbie Ellisor and husband Gene, sister Erin Williams Lowery and husband Aaron, sister Allison Williams Reeves and husband Zac, stepbrother Don Ellisor, mother-in-law Pam McCormack, father-in-law Jack McCormack and wife Nicole, brother-in-law Mike McCormack and wife Suzana, and brother-in-law Heath Harrington and wife Kim. He also leaves behind many aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and pets.

Home My Medill Story

Q&A with Amanda Salhoot (IMC11), VP of Business Development and Partnerships at Chill Anywhere

Amanda Salhoot (IMC11) is the current vice president of business development and partnerships at Chill Anywhere, a meditation app that combats the current mental health crisis. Amanda has previously worked at Chicago Ideas, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Performics.

Since graduating from IMC, you’ve worked in marketing communications (marcom) for both nonprofit and for-profit companies. How does your approach differ, if at all, between working for a children’s hospital and for a digital marcom company, for example?

I became a full-time IMC graduate student after working for about 10 years. My background was in marketing, specifically in the magazine publishing industry. In addition to my full-time work, I was very active philanthropically serving on boards and volunteering for organizations focused on empowering women and children. While I enjoyed magazine publishing, the philanthropic work was what made my heart sing. I went to IMC with the objectives of merging my professional and philanthropic experience and then working for a nonprofit or social impact organization upon graduation. Plus, marketing had evolved since I studied it in undergrad — digital media, analytics and consumer behavior — so this was my opportunity to really immerse myself and sharpen my marketing skills. 

I’ve found that while the mission and the “customer” of a children’s hospital foundation and a digital marcom company may be different, each organization must put the customer at the center of what they do to be successful. For Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago Foundation, I developed donor-centered marketing strategies to advance a spectrum of fundraising initiatives through individual giving, corporate cause marketing campaigns, foundational grants and fundraising events. During my interim role at Performics, I was internally focused and developed employee engagement strategies for colleagues in offices around the world. 

What are some of the essential skills you took away from IMC and how have you used them in your career to date?

In addition to instilling in me a customer-centric viewpoint, IMC really helped me become much more driven by both qualitative and quantitative data. I now turn to data and consumer insights when developing marketing strategies and measuring the success of initiatives. While not every initiative will be a wild success, there are still insights to be gleaned that can then help shape the next thing you do.

Also, from an organizational management perspective, it is essential to set data-driven goals for your team to ensure that we are all working towards similar objectives and to measure progress along the way. It is fun to look back during a quarterly or annual review to celebrate what individuals and the team as a whole have accomplished.

Lastly, IMC strengthened my ability to work with cross-functional teams. Having the chance to collaborate with people who have different areas of expertise helps strengthen you as a marketer and also takes your work to a higher level.

During your time at Chicago Ideas, how did that organization’s concept evolve and what did you enjoy most about being part of a platform for open discussion and change?

Chicago Ideas was developed to make ideas accessible by democratizing them. For $15, you could go to the Harris Theater to see Hillary and Chelsea Clinton speak, see a DJ set with Questlove or get an exclusive tour of EY’s forensics lab. While stage programs and in-person experiences were the foundation of Chicago Ideas, we realized that content and going into the community had the power to reach even more people to inspire and activate change. For content, we invested in a content team and technology to make it possible to create videos, develop a podcast and really leverage the power of social media. For community, we had always had a youth program that engaged high school students from under-resourced communities.

In 2018, we grew the community engagement team and made a commitment to Chicago Ideas becoming a platform for the entire city. We did this by not only featuring diverse voices in our stage programs, but by having organizations throughout the city host events, by committing to having 25% of our audience come from low socioeconomic neighborhoods and by creating content about organizations and people throughout the city. In 2019 alone, Chicago Ideas partnered with over 140 nonprofit organizations.

One of my favorite initiatives the team worked on was called The 77 Project, a storytelling and media project in which we created a unique piece of content on an organization or individual in each of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. As the head of corporate and individual fundraising, I was able to connect with the country’s most forward-thinking organizations and individuals across industries. Together we would develop mutually beneficial custom partnerships that advanced their specific business objectives while supporting Chicago Ideas’ mission as a nonprofit. 

Can you talk a little about your new job at Chill Anywhere and why this technology is so relevant right now?

Chill, a modern meditation studio across the street from the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago, was founded three years ago by Kellogg alum Laura Sage. We wanted to create a space of respite where busy professionals could go for a quick chair massage, a meditation or yoga class or to take a workshop to deepen their practice. Pretty quickly, businesses started to approach us to help with their employee wellness initiatives ranging from a single private session to a whole mindfulness curriculum. Since then we have worked with over 300 organizations ranging from global consumer packaged goods companies to law firms and universities, developing sessions exploring themes such as stress and anxiety management, mindful leadership and collaboration, and rest and relationships. 

Given that most of our partners are global and have employees around the world, we started to livestream the sessions. This then inspired us to create our app, Chill Anywhere, which we started to develop at the beginning of 2019. Chill Anywhere allows us to extend our mission by helping even more people “live less stressed, more mindful lives.” Users will find a growing library of over 400 on-demand meditation and yoga sessions, daily livestreamed classes and a journal to reflect on their practice and track personal goals.

For employers, Chill Anywhere is a scalable resource to help with the current employee mental health crisis. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most employers (66%) identified mental health as the top clinical priority to address by 2021, according to the Willis Towers Watson 24th Annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey. This level of employer focus was driven by the rising prevalence of mental health conditions prior to the pandemic — around three in 10 employees suffer from severe stress, anxiety or depression, according to the 2019/2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey. As expected, further research collected during the pandemic indicates a worsening state of mental health among workers: over 9 in 10 employees (92%) now report some level of anxiety, with 55% indicating a moderate or high degree of anxiety. While counseling is a good reactive intervention, most organizations still don’t have a plan to proactively address mental wellbeing. The technology and online community of Chill Anywhere is a cost-effective and scalable resource for employers. 

What are some of the goals for the company/app?

COVID-19 forced us to close our physical studio and allowed us to fast-track the development of Chill Anywhere, which we always planned to be our sole business focus. While we have experienced great growth in our first three years, fundraising remains our top goal. We are currently in our next round of fundraising and plan to use those funds for technology product enhancements, marketing expansion and partnership development in specific corporate verticals.

Our other main focus is growing our user base through business development. Mindfulness and meditation, expected to be a $2 billion market by 2022, and corporate wellness, expected to be a $66 billion market by 2022, are converging. We believe that Chill Anywhere is positioned to be a leading vertical solution for that intersection. With three years of in-person studio experience and three years of in-person corporate programming, Chill Anywhere has the ideal foundation for bringing mindfulness and meditation to the corporate wellness market. B2B competitors can’t strike the balance of consumer brand and institutional solution, while B2C competitors are attempting to scale consumer meditation mobile apps into an enterprise space. With the pandemic being an uncertain time resulting in stress for organizations and individuals, we feel that the work we are doing is more important than ever. We are committed to helping as many people as possible. 

What advice do you have for IMC students about to graduate in December? Any hints for success?

My biggest piece of advice is to grow and cultivate your network. It will be your most valuable resource. I have secured all of my postgraduate roles through my network, three having ties to IMC. Right after graduation I had an interim role with Performics where many of their senior leaders were IMC alums. My next role at Lurie Children’s came to fruition because I was having an informational coffee with an IMC alum who worked for Feeding America. While there was not a current role at Feeding America, she asked me if there were other roles or organizations that I was interested in. I mentioned that I saw a marketing role with Lurie Children’s Foundation. She knew someone on the team and sent over my resume, and I had an interview a week later. Lastly, a former IMC faculty member, Dan Gruber, invited me to a small Chicago Ideas book club discussion he facilitated back in 2012 where I met Bonnie, a Chicago Ideas staff member. After the event Bonnie and I had coffee and stayed in touch. In 2017, when the perfect role at Chicago Ideas came up, I reached out to Bonnie who then submitted my resume.

While I know entering the job market in the midst of a pandemic may be scary, lean on your network. Your connections will be your biggest supporters and will likely play an important role in each step of your professional journey.


1970s Featured Legacies Legacies

Deborah W. Hairston (BSJ75)

Deborah Williams Hairston passed away the morning of Wednesday, September 9, 2020, at Jersey City Medical Center from complications of a stroke. She was born in September, 1953, in Washington, D.C. 

Deborah was a graduate of Calvin Coolidge High School & majored in journalism at Northwestern University. Deborah received a master’s degree in public administration from New York University. Her journalism career included roles as a freelance writer for Black Enterprise Magazine, editor for the McGraw Hill Chemical Engineering magazine and editor-in-chief for Pristine Processing, a publication Deborah founded. She then went on to teach and mentor students for 20 years in the English department at Saint Peter’s University. Deborah was a lifetime member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church which had deep roots in her family. She found her lifelong home in Jersey City, New Jersey, across the street from Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church where she was a dedicated member for over 30 years. 

Deborah is survived by her husband Rodney, children James and Jackie, and siblings Sheila and Russell. Deborah Jean was beloved by many. Her countless friends, students, colleagues and family will miss her joy for life, sharp wit and infectious personality.