Home My Medill Story

Cherubs recall most memorable summer 60 years ago

By Laird Kelly (BSJ66) and Kathleen Neumeyer (BSJ66)

Cover photo: Cherubs Class of 1961 with Professor Ben Baldwin.

Neither of us remembers the other from the life-changing summer of 1961 we spent studying journalism at the National High School Institute as Medill “Cherubs.” Odds are that we occasionally said hello in passing during our four undergraduate years. We didn’t keep in touch after graduation, either.

Kathleen Neumeyer photo.
Kathleen Neumeyer (BSJ66)

But in March 2021, Kathy was asked to help locate former Cherubs to celebrate the Medill Centennial at a Zoom Reunion. All she had to go on was a tattered original roster of the 53 boys and 56 girls, with their high schools and hometowns. No list existed of their current locations. Off-hand, she knew how to find one, and had possible leads on two or three more. Most names did not even ring a bell.

The 1966 Northwestern class directory included information on two dozen former Medill Cherubs who had graduated with her, eight marked deceased and a couple as lost, but for others there were married names, addresses, phone numbers and/or email addresses. So she began.

The first email reply was from Laird Kelly who said he had lost track of most of his Cherub pals. He spent a couple of hours on the internet, discovering that Prudence Mahaffey Mackintosh was still in Texas, a contributor to Texas Monthly for more than four decades, with several books published by Doubleday. He located an obituary for Dick Hodtwalker, another Cherub/NU friend.

Laird Kelly photo.
Laird Kelly (BSJ66)

Laird emailed Kathy his results, including links. Kathy emailed back: I am very impressed with your research and would like to welcome you as my co-chairman.

For the next four months, we were a bicoastal investigative team, and eventually found nearly all of the 109 1961 Cherubs. At least 25 have died, we couldn’t find nine of them, and three said they weren’t interested. But 70 wrote back enthusiastically describing the Cherub experience as a turning point in their lives. We sent short summaries of their life stories to everyone before an Aug. 1 Zoom Reunion to which about 35 logged in.

Laird set up a spreadsheet to help organize the sleuthing. Jack Rhodes, with 19 years experience as an editor and reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Michael R. Whitney, (BSJ66, MSJ67), who won 23 Emmys at CBS News and 60 Minutes, volunteered to track people down. Laird arranged for an Internet service providing addresses, phone numbers, birth, death and criminal records. We looked for folks on Facebook and Linked In, called their high school alumni associations, and checked obituaries of their parents to see who was listed as next of kin, with current residences. We talked to ex-spouses, siblings and neighbors.

We got an invaluable assist from Carol Muller Doig, (BSJ 55, MSJ56) who met her husband, the acclaimed memoirist and novelist Ivan Doig (BSJ61 MSJ62) when both were instructors during our Cherub summer. After Ivan’s death in 2015, Carol donated his papers to Montana State University, including notes and memorabilia from when they were Cherub instructors. She gave us access to the archives.

The more former Cherubs we found, the more gratifying (and fun) the project became. Almost everyone was delighted to hear from us, and astonished to be found.

For both of us, that summer had been pivotal. An Indianapolis native, Kathy thought she had no option but Indiana University, but after the Cherub summer, she applied only to Northwestern. Her Medill degree was like a gold card in her profession, and her marriage to her Northwestern sweetheart took her to California, where she has lived ever since. Laird used his Medill training to start a business, now in its 45th year, in the specialized field of news, television and audio programming for physicians. He called the Cherub program “a beautifully-produced announcement of the Big Wide World for this kid from Kansas.”

As Cherubs, we spent five weeks writing news, features, sports and opinion stories six days a week, crammed into a classroom on the second floor of Fisk Hall, at long tables lined with rented manual typewriters. In the afternoons we heard lectures, did more writing, got in a quick hour on the beach, and in the evenings our minds were blown by startling new ideas from Northwestern professors and Chicago journalists. We lived in dormitories with 17-year-olds from all over the country.

We took field trips to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Chicago Art Institute, a steel mill, a pharmaceutical laboratory and the Chicago Tribune. We watched future Hall-of-Famers Ernie Banks and Stan Musial play in an extra-innings game at Wrigley Stadium. Some of us saw Ethel Merman in a pre-Broadway production of Gypsy, and all of us heard a young Byron Janis play with the Chicago Philharmonic at Ravinia, and Andy Williams sing Moon River in the Empire Room of the Palmer House at Chicago Night Out.

As a pitch to attend Northwestern, it worked. A couple dozen of us graduated from Northwestern five years later. But the experience also imbued a lifelong affection for the university in the ones who did not attend Northwestern.

Jim Spears, who became an editor at Newsday, graduated from Hamilton College in New York and earned his master’s degree at that other journalism school, Columbia University, but his Cherub experience was noted in his 2017 obituary.

Bruce Buck said he “really enjoyed the Northwestern program and really wanted to be a journalist for the long term, but my father was a journalist and he encouraged me to do something that could be more financially secure.” He kept his options open during Columbia Law School by spending weekends on the police beat for the Newark Evening News, then practiced law for Wall Street law firms in London. In 2003, Buck became chairman of Chelsea Football Club, one of the top European football (soccer) clubs.

During her undergraduate years at Medill, Linda Grove (BSJ66) developed an interest in China, and earned a master’s in Asian Studies and a PhD in history from University of California, Berkeley. In 1970, Grove moved to Japan to work on her dissertation on the social and economic background of the war in China. At that time Americans could not visit China. She married a Japanese art historian, and taught for many years at Tokyo’s Sophia University, serving as a dean and later vice president of the university.

Martin Stidham (BSJ65) studied Chinese during undergraduate summers. “After graduation, I took a freighter to Taiwan and did a part-time stint with the China Post in Taipei, but soon realized that an excruciatingly slow writer is not cut out to be a journalist.” He began translating contemporary novels, short stories and poetry from Chinese, writing a Chinese vegetarian cookbook and co-authoring two books on early childhood education. He now lives in San Francisco.

More than half of the Cherubs we found had spent at least some portion of their life in journalism, as writers or in a communications-related field.

On summer break from Harvard, Stu Pizer got a job in the mailroom at the New Yorker, then worked under managing editor William Shawn, writing “Talk of the Town.” While offered a full time job at the New Yorker upon graduation, he decided to pursue psychology. He helped found a psychoanalytic institute in Boston and started a writing program for health professionals.

Jack Rossotti (BSJ66) was a reporter, producer and anchor in television news in Syracuse before going to law school, practicing law and teaching law at American University.

Susan Holly Stocking (BSJ66, MSJ67) was a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, before earning a PhD from Indiana University and teaching journalism there for more than two decades.

Kathy was a reporter for United Press International in Los Angeles, covering the trials of Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson, Daniel Ellsberg and John DeLorean, was the Southern California correspondent to The Economist, and a contributing editor of Los Angeles Magazine. She taught journalism on both the high school and college level for 40 years.

Janis Bateman (BSJ66,MSJ67) had intended to be a sportswriter, but she said that spending her summers as a Cherub instructor made her a “lifer” as a journalism teacher, at her own alma mater, Crater High School in Central Point, Oregon.

Peter David Koenig (BSJ66) retired in Buenos Aires after a career as a writer, poet, and university professor, said that the Cherub program “took me out of a small town midwestern high school, and transported me a hundred miles away from my family for the first time in my life, to the Northwestern University campus I knew only vaguely by name, and into the presence of a whole group of able high school writers and professional journalists for a summer that was for me pure bliss, and as Ivan Doig might say in The Last Bus To Wisdom, a ticket to the start of a new life.”

The Zoom Reunion, Bateman noted, had reconnected her with old friends, and “to have your social life re-energized at 77 is something special.”

Home My Medill Story

American OZ – Living the Life by Micheal Sean Comeford (MSJ83)

Classic Amusement owner George D’Olivo is a former pro-wrestler who went by Beautiful Bo Paradise in his pro-wrestling days. It didn’t take him long to figure out that a journalist working in his carnival was problematic. Carnivals are about fantasies. Journalists crush fantasies. Soon, Mr. Paradise saw me as Mr. Trouble in Paradise.

Mike in front of rollercoaster.
Michael Sean Comerford

No carnival owner will hire a writer like you, he said. And the “new face” of the American carny is a seasonal Mexican migrant worker. You don’t speak Spanish. Your traveling carnival project, he said, wasn’t well thought out. He may have even used the word “stupid.”

The more problems he raised, surprisingly, the more I felt like I was shooting sitting ducks at a carnival. Every obstacle presented a solution. Firstly, some Mexicans speak English, and I’ll get to know them. After the season ends, I’ll go to Mexico to see how they live in “winter quarters.”

If no carnival owner hires Mike the writer, then they’ll hire Mike the carny.

“Gone were the plans to spend the year with Classic,” I wrote in American OZ. “Gone too were open, honest interviews. From that morning forward, people wouldn’t know I was writing about them. Against my will, I became a spy.”

I became a “ride jockey” running rides and a “jointee” running games in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, and Florida – where I worked in a freak show but they didn’t let me on stage “because they didn’t see the inner freak in me.”

After the season, I journeyed down to the mostly lawless foothills of Veracruz, Mexico to meet with workers I knew up north. The small town of Tlapacoyan is a feeder town that sends most of its men north to traveling carnivals every year. As a result, it’s nearly empty of men most of the year.

Living on carnival wages, I hitchhiked 13,700 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Alaska to Florida. I became the #1 hitchhiker in North America that year. In all, I covered 21,570 miles via bus, train, and hitchhiking.

During the year, I wrote an ongoing blog for The Huffington Post, my own blog, and I wrote a 2013 essay for Northwestern magazine’s column “Purple Prose” I wrote the Purple Prose column at a McDonald’s outside the State Fair of Texas, where I was running a carnival game of dubious repute.

New York and Chicago publishing houses didn’t want a “carnival” book. And “hitchhiking” books still are publishing poison. I worked with a literary agent, but we parted ways when the big advance didn’t materialize.

Through six years of rejections and rewrites, the book grew more compelling until I self-published American OZ: An Astonishing Year Inside Traveling Carnivals at State Fairs & Festivals: Hitchhiking From California to New York, Alaska to Mexico in the summer of 2020. It remained a #1 Amazon bestseller well into this year.

The hidden core of American OZ became clearer to me with the rewrites. All the facts and quotes remained, but coworkers grew to represent the working poor, without healthcare, living in unsanitary conditions, and subject to labor abuses on the road. The stories fleshed out the humanity of people seeking love and meaning on the road. The year developed a story arc with deeper meanings and universal themes.

If I felt anxious about my loved ones far away from the carnival, I dug down to mine those feelings for American OZ. If I was tired, broke and feeling abused, it was a good guess I wasn’t the only one. American OZ took on an inner life.

It’s not that the book would not have seen the light of day without advances in self-publishing. George Orwell gained praise for writing Down and Out in Paris and London. Medill’s own practitioner of the “journalism of empathy,” Alex Kotlowicz, won the 2020 Lucas Prize for An American Summer, a chronicle of gun violence in Chicago. They successfully wrote about the harsh edges of society.

Yet it was the long, hard road writing American OZ that taught me that living the life made writing the life come to life.

Home My Medill Story

How I Wrestled with a Childhood Trauma and Turned it into a Book

By Ellen Blum Barish (MSJ84)

If anyone told me that a conversation I would have with a former classmate at my twentieth high school reunion would ultimately lead to writing a full-length book, I would have urged that person to consider writing fiction as the idea showed serious imagination.

But that is, in fact, what happened, and I am compelled to share the story because, after all, Medill grads are storytellers and communicators. How this moment came to be a book is, I believe, an excellent example of the surprising places where story kernels lie, waiting for us to find them and turn them into stories that touch peoples’ lives.

It all began in the front hall of my high school during a conversation with a fellow alum with whom I’d lost touch. We had been friends until one terrible day in the spring of 1972 when, sharing a ride home from school in her mother’s car, we were hit by a Mack truck. That day forever changed her life. I just lost a tooth. But a silence typical of the early 1970s blanketed us, and life went on without us ever speaking about it.

That conversation could easily have been the end of it, but when I discovered a mouthless clay figurine on a shelf in my father’s house that I had made in high school art class, I became consumed with finding out what had happened. It sparked an emotional and spiritual detective story that enabled me to return to the event and the feelings of that 12-year-old girl, and, ultimately, repair a lost friendship.

The story first saw print in a monthly column I was writing for a parenting newspaper two years after the reunion focusing on urging parents to save their children’s art objects (that figurine!) A few months later, it aired as a radio essay, illustrating the way we are silenced. In the years that followed, the story still stalking me, I wrote it as a short story, a long-form personal essay, a poem and in 2015, as a story for the stage.

After all those variations, I thought, I’m done. How much more could I possibly squeeze from this story from my life?

But the story wasn’t done with me. The following year, in 2016, two words seem to fall out of the sky and into my lap: seven springs. It was a title, an organizing principle; a way to tell the story with a longer arc, to dig into the themes of trauma, silencing, friendship and mystery across a twenty-year period. It was then that I first considered that the story wanted to be a long form, a memoir.

The writing began. In 2017, I hired a writing coach. By the summer of 2018, I had a completed first draft and secured an agent. After six months, with no bites from the 15 publishers she queried, we amicably parted ways. I gave some thought to letting the project go, but writer friends encouraged me to stick with it, to consider revising. I revised, sent the manuscript for another set of eyes and revised again. I would revise seven times, which strikes me as appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs, don’t you think?

By May of 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, I sent out what I considered to be a final draft of the memoir, acting as my own agent, to about 15 publishing houses. A month later, two presses made offers. My book found the perfect home at a small independent publishing house, Shanti Arts, and is scheduled for release in May 2021.

The whole process, from that conversation in 1997 to the book’s release this spring, took 24 years. It relied on many sets of eyes. Long stretches of writing, including a two-week residency. Seven drafts. Thirty-plus rejections. A good many tears and more than a few sighs.

The wrestling led to a comforting end. It helped me transform a childhood trauma into something I can call art made of words. The story settled, integrated inside of me. I had made some meaning from it.

A noble purpose for a story that could have easily been missed or set aside.

Maybe even a good reason to go to that next reunion.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Plunkett










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.

Home My Medill Story Uncategorized

Q&A with Thomas P. Schaffner (MSJ80)

Tom Schaffner shares his Medill story, from starting his own communications firm to starting a new company with his daughter.

Why did you come to Medill for graduate school after getting an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Kansas, a pretty good journalism school?

I had been working for three years at an entertainment-oriented public relations firm in Chicago but wasn’t doing the kind of writing I wanted to do.  I decided that the nine-month path to an MSJ at Medill was the perfect way for me transition from a non-writing job back into the world of journalism.  I was told many times by teachers and journalists that an MSJ was unnecessary for someone already holding a BSJ.  For me, the MSJ was a necessary step to get myself back into the world of writing and editing, something that I missed and was more comfortable with.

What was your area of concentration? Favorite courses?

My undergraduate degree at Kansas was in newswriting, so I thought I would concentrate in something different at Medill.  I chose the Magazine sequence and thoroughly enjoyed Professor Peter Jacobi, his classes, teaching style and, of course, his legendary trip to New York where we visited the staffs of top magazines at their offices.  I also particularly enjoyed ethics and media classes taught by Richard Schwarzlose.  He would start with a simple dilemma but keep adding complications so that by the end of class, everyone saw the issue from a completely different perspective.

What was your first job after Medill?

Shortly after graduating from Medill (1980), I accepted a communications specialist position at the National Live Stock & Meat Board, a Chicago-based organization that conducted programs of research, education, advertising and promotion on behalf of the nation’s beef, pork and lamb industries.  When I left six years later, I had been promoted to Director of Communications and was responsible for developing and implementing internal and external communications programs to trade and consumer audiences nationwide.  I learned two very important things at the Meat Board, both of which had a profound influence on the rest of my communications career:  1) almost any transaction or project underway at a company or business organization has a communications issue at its core and 2) there is an inexhaustible need for people who know how to communicate effectively at these very same companies or organizations.  These gems were the inspiration I needed to become an entrepreneur.

Before you opened Schaffner Communications, you created a newsletter called the Chicago File. Can you talk about your mission and how you did it?

When I was a freshman at Kansas (1977), I subscribed to the Chicago Daily News (newspaper) so I could keep up with everything that was happening back home.  Unfortunately, the newspaper, which traveled to me via the U.S. Postal Service, usually arrived about 10 days late and came in bunches of about five or six at a time.  I remember thinking at the time that there had to be a better way to keep up with news from Chicago.  I filed the thought in my mind and eight years later developed and produced a sample newsletter for former Chicagoans that became known as the Chicago File (for Chicagophiles).  The sample issue evolved into a monthly publication that contained news and features about what was happening in Chicago — buildings going up and coming down, the latest indicted politicians, new transit lines being contemplated and the most popular feature, a column called “Only in Chicago” which highlighted quirky events, bizarre activities and odd news items that could only happen in Chicago.  Subscribers were former Chicagoans, people who no longer lived in the Chicago area but wanted to know what was going on there.  At its height, the Chicago File had several thousand subscribers around the world and received a lot of coverage and publicity from major news outlets across the country.  Its cult-like following and popularity was, in essence, my 15 minutes of fame.  I continued to publish the Chicago File for six years and although it was breaking even financially, I decided to shut it down in 1991, literally at the dawn of the Internet.  Today I am recycling much of that 35-year-old Chicago File material into an online blog for my newest entrepreneurial adventure, L Stop Tours.  It’s deja vu all over again.

When did you launch your own firm?

In 1985, while still working at the Meat Board, I had the opportunity to work with first-time ever desktop publishing software and a newly invented HP laser printer.  I immediately saw the future of publishing — writers, graphic designers, typesetters, layout personnel and printers could now be combined into a single person and, by so doing, could speed the publishing process and remove significant costs from the system.  For someone like me who spent much of his career producing time-intensive newsletters, the new design software and printers were a game changer, they represented a tremendous new business opportunity for anyone willing to take the plunge.  I decided to open a communications firm, Schaffner Communications, which was incorporated in July 1986.  I was 30 years old at the time.  My first corporate act?   I ran out to a store and bought a Macintosh computer, Pagemaker design and graphics software, Microsoft Word 1 for the Mac, Filemaker (database software) a laser printer, a daisy wheel printer (for envelope labels) and a few other miscellaneous items for $15,000.  Today, a MacBook Air laptop computer and a laser printer alone cost less than 10 percent of that amount.  Too bad I couldn’t delay my purchase for 35 years — I would have saved plenty.

What was the mission of Schaffner Communications?  What did your business focus on?

Schaffner Communications was designed from the get-go to be radically different than other firms in the marketplace. For starters, we positioned ourselves as a communications consulting firm and not a public relations firm because we wanted to portray ourselves as experts in the field of communications.  More specifically, our area of expertise was to help businesses — large and small — build and maintain effective communication systems that delivered important and timely messages to key corporate audiences consistently, effectively and efficiently.  For us, quality corporate communication belonged in the hands of skilled professional journalists — so we made it company policy to hire account personnel with only those qualifications.

How did your Medill skills contribute to the success of Schaffner Communications?

Journalists know how to write, communicate, develop creative solutions to problems, gather information, ask questions, edit copy so that reads better than the previous version, and much more.  I honed all of these skills at Medill and put them to good use at my consulting firm.  At Schaffner Communications, we used our journalistic skills to improve the quality of communications at businesses and corporations across the country — sharper, crisper editing of key corporate documents, improved media relations with more transparency, faster periodical production cycles with upgraded equipment and technology, increased collaboration at all levels of project management and a host of other techniques and initiatives.

You were the agency of record for a $4 billion wholesale grocery cooperative for many years. How did you not only maintain that business, but grow it? What were your secrets of success?

This Los Angeles-based firm outsourced all of their communications (internal and external) to Schaffner Communications for 19 years (1994-2013), they were one of our largest and longest-tenured clients.  One hundred percent of the clients served by Schaffner Communications over the past 35 years came to us via a referral, and this particular client was no exception.  We were recommended to the senior management team by friends of mine who had worked there as labor management consultants.  While it’s true that quality work speaks for itself, a good referral gets you in the door and provides you with an opportunity to prove yourself over the long haul — and working anywhere over the long haul is a sure way to grow the business.  Another reason we were able to hold onto this client for such a long time is because I worked hard to develop a strong, dynamic relationship with the chief executive officer of the company, as well as the senior management team.  With their constant and unwavering support of our efforts, it was relatively easy to develop and maintain effective and efficient communication systems and programs throughout the company.

Can you talk about your next chapter – “L” Stop Tours? How did it come to be and how’s it going so far?

A little over a year ago, I started a new business with my daughter, Lindsay, a Chicago tour company called L Stop Tours.  We’re only in our second season but already the business is tremendously successful.  Our tours are different — we utilize Chicago’s elevated transit system (the “L”) to travel to interesting neighborhoods throughout the city and, upon arrival, explore the history, culture and food of the area via walking tours.  We believe that you haven’t seen Chicago if you haven’t been to the neighborhoods and we are the only company in the metropolitan area that travels to these areas via the L.  All of our tours start in the Loop and then head to such neighborhoods as Pilsen, the Prairie Avenue Historic District, Chinatown, Wicker Park and Fulton Market.  We also have special tours that go to Andersonville, Evanston, breweries along the Blue Line and another that visits historic Chicago taverns.  I do the vast majority of the tours because I love Chicago, have lived here my entire life and know a lot about city’s history, culture and traditions.  At age 64 I finally found my dream job!

Photo: Tom Schaffner (right) with daughter, Lindsay McNaught, co-owners of L Stop Tours, on the El platform, of course!

Features Home My Medill Story

Hannah Gebresilassie (MSJ16) celebrates positivity with HannahJoyTV

A “leap of faith” has taken Hannah Gebresilassie on a journey from working as a television reporter in a small-town in Illinois to launching headfirst into developing her own media brand.

Late in 2018, Gebresilassie launched HannahJoyTV  and the and the Promote Positivity Movement, combining her passion for entrepreneurship and her love of storytelling to share uplifting news and promote a message of worldwide peace and unity for her followers across social media platforms.

Today, her personal brand and her company are still growing and evolving in ways she never expected.

“It’s taken its own form, honestly,” said Gebresilassie. “I went from just focusing on the storytelling aspect to releasing a brand, like a whole merch line that goes along with it. It went from just sharing positive stories to sharing a positive message in many forms.”

At the end of February, Gebresilassie was the keynote speaker for Project Africa, an annual event hosted by the African Student Association at Georgia Tech, her alma mater.

HannahJoyTV is simultaneously a celebration of Gebresilassie’s Ethiopian-Eritrean heritage and universal content that “anyone and everyone” can enjoy. This duality is reflected in HannahJoyTV’s logo: four hearts of green, yellow, red, and blue, from the colors of the Ethiopian and Eritrean flags.

The design reflects the desire for unity and peace between the two countries that Gebresilassie says she and many members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities hope for.

“But it’s also the same colors as Google, if you think about it,” Gebresilassie said. “I wanted to create something neutral that anybody could relate to.”

The daughter of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants, Gebresilassie grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. After earning an undergraduate in business administration from Georgia tech and a master’s in journalism from Medill, Gebresilassie fell in love with telling stories and became a television reporter for WSIL-TV in southern Illinois in the summer of 2017.

In her first year, Gebresilassie brought global perspectives to her local TV audience that rippled out across social media. After just a few months on the job, her coverage of an Ethiopian New Year celebration went viral. Not long after, Gebresilassie wore a traditional braided hairstyle on air that again caused a buzz.

“It was actually pretty crazy that I was reporting on this international situation in this little rural town in southern Illinois and people actually really appreciated it,” she said.

By the end of her first year she was in charge of WSIL-TV’s “Going Global,” a news segment where she could report and share stories about immigrant communities in southern Illinois.

“I just saw what I could do,” Gebresilassie said. “When I was working as a reporter, a lot of my stuff went viral. I just kind of said, ‘if I can do this here, what I could do on my own?’”

Gebresilassie said that what inspired her to transition to create HannahJoyTV was gaining a new perspective on the potential that was in front of her.  The biggest challenge Gebresilassie faced was money— she moved from Southern Illinois back to Atlanta, Georgia, where her parents live.

“I’ve been the brokest I’ve been since undergrad, to be frank,” Gebresilassie said. “But I’m happy. I’m happy with the flexibility that I have and I’m thankful.”

Gebresilassie took on side jobs that were easy on her mental health as she developed HannahJoyTV— washing dishes and babysitting.

“I always tell people, everyone doesn’t come from the same type of financial situation,” she said. “And it’s okay to take jobs that can fill the gaps in the meantime.”

But in the past months, Gebresilassie has seen a burgeoning income from emceeing at events around the country and freelance projects she found through connections she made at Medill.

And she has developed an expert eye for cost-saving opportunities to promote her brand— in 2019, she organized a pop-up tour across eight states, around her existing travel plans to visit family.

But managing her time to address every aspect of her platform is also a challenge for Gebresilassie.

“The to-do list never seems to end,” she said. “For me, it’s like my mind goes in sometimes a hundred different directions, so I’m still working on building a structure and making sure that I’m just taking care of everything equally.”

But Gebresilassie has never doubted the direction she is taking— and for that she acknowledges her time at Medill.

“My time at Medill really prepared me to be the ultimate journalist…you’re at Medill with these incredibly talented people from all over,” she said. “And I found my niche while I was there. I found that my heart was in the community.”

Features Home My Medill Story

Medill Alumni Making a Difference During the Pandemic

As the COVID-19 battle rages, Northwestern alumni are reporting daily from Washington, New York, Chicago and numerous other cities hit so hard by this pandemic.  NBC correspondents Gabe Gutierrez (BSJ05), pictured, Peter Alexander (BSJ98) and Sam Brock (BSJ05, MSJ07) are reporting practically 24-7 on national television. Christine Brennan (BSJ80, MSJ81), one of the nation’s foremost Olympic experts, has been interviewing members of Team U.S.A. about the postponement of the 2020 Games.

Medill alum Justin Kerr (BSJ93) shifted the McKinley Park News toward coronavirus coverage and features starting in early March when the effects of the pandemic first started hitting the neighborhood. The publication, a micro-local news website covering Chicago’s McKinley Park Community Area and Central Manufacturing District, updated its neighborhood event calendars, de-listing canceled events and adding a coronavirus-specific community schedule, including senior shopping hours and food distribution for families of Chicago Public Schools students.

“We changed our coverage, too,” Kerr said. “Some articles in development had to be shifted aside to focus on more immediate coronavirus news.” This has included a directory of neighborhood restaurants staying open for delivery and take-out, published immediately after Illinois Governor JB Pritzker’s order to shutter in-restaurant dining, and a local fabricator’s efforts to manufacture 150,000 face shields for Chicago’s first responders and front-line medical workers. All news and event content published on the McKinley Park News has been freely available and will remain so, Kerr said.

The coronavirus pandemic also inspired the relaunch of the publication’s community forums, including the new McKinley Park Support Network, a set of discussion boards designed to support fast and easy coronavirus communication. Kerr said it’s been a handy channel for him to quickly aggregate and share general info that might not have a neighborhood-specific hook to justify a news article, but that’s still important and relevant for the readership of the McKinley Park News.

“All of our members — including participating local Institutions — have access to participate in the McKinley Park Support Network,” Kerr said. “Access to this and other features on the McKinley Park News is automated and available at no cost.”

Kerr noted how the publication’s progressive privacy practices support coronavirus dialogue. “Our member privacy policies and tools are best in their class,” he said.

According to Kerr, this ethos will help the McKinley Park News weather an environment of economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic. “Our operating costs are designed to be dirt-cheap,”  he said. Kerr noted his own currently unpaid role as the publication’s sole staffer. “Where the pandemic will hurt is expanding our revenue to enable staff compensation and look at business expansion into adjacent neighborhoods,” he said. “However, I strongly believe in the demand and business potential of high-quality local news: When the pandemic ends, surviving local news publications will hopefully have even more opportunities in what’s already a mostly ignored, wide-open market.”

Leigh Ann Winick (BSJ84) is a medical producer for CBS News based in New York who is helping shape the network’s coverage of the pandemic. Since January, she has produced frequent segments on the emerging virus, fronted by the network’s practicing physician contributors. With the first U.S. death in late February, the medical team became command central for the network’s multi-platform coverage. Then, on March 11, two colleagues were diagnosed, and the entire CBS Broadcast Center was emptied in one afternoon. Since then, everyone based in New York has been working remotely.

“It’s taken a lot of improvising,” Winick says. “We no longer obsess over camera angles or lighting. Travel restrictions have increased our reliance on cell phone video. There’s an urgency to convey the latest information – which can literally be life saving – and if that comes via a phoner or a Zoom interview from a scientist’s hotel room, we’ll use that. We are  finding many ‘real people’ stories through social media. While I’m working harder than ever, I’ve been fortified by the basic skills I learned at Medill, and the hope that we  are positively impacting millions of lives during this heartbreaking time.”

Alumni journalists, however, aren’t the only Medillians making a difference during the pandemic.

Preeti N. Malani (MSJ91), MD,  is the Chief Health Officer for the University of Michigan and a Professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. She, too, is working on the front line against COVID-19. Rather than covering the pandemic for news outlets, her work in infectious diseases is taking her to the bedside to help care of patients who are sickened with COVID-19.

Like many regions of the country, Michigan is developing contingency plans to care for large numbers of patients (well beyond the usual capacity of our hospital), according to Dr. Malani. She is part of a large multi-disciplinary group involved with the planning of a temporary field hospital to help care for the anticipated patient surge from across the state.

As Chief Health Officer, Dr. Malani advises the university president on all aspects of health and well-being for students, faculty and staff.

“In rapid sequence, we had to make decisions on bringing students home from overseas education, suspending face to face instruction, moving day to day activities to remote locations, and how to support students who can’t leave campus,” she said. “There are numerous administrative issues that require creative solutions as there is no playbook to address this situation.”

Dr. Malani adds that in her role as an associate editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), she has written a series of summaries directed toward clinicians and helped review and edit a number of time sensitive manuscripts that have helped inform patient care, public health measures, and general policies.

“Instead of writing the news story, I’ve instead given dozens of interviews, and have been asked to provide guidance to several lawmakers including Michigan’s governor,” she added. “My Medill education continues to pay dividends in unexpected ways. Always grateful for what I learned so many years ago.”

David Charns (MSJ11) left his morning anchoring job at WMTW in Portland, Maine, in January for a new challenge, but his search quickly slowed due to the pandemic.

“I wanted to continue working my craft while searching for a new full-time broadcast job,” Charns said. “With 24/7 news of this national emergency on many different topics, I have found there was and is a need for concrete, ‘Here’s what happened, here’s what’s next’ coverage to easily communicate important information news consumers want. I had talked to many people who said they were tuning out because the nonstop news was so grim.”

Charns set out to provide quick, daily roundups of all of the major coronavirus headlines across his social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube). In three weeks, he said, these videos have garnered tens of thousands of combined views.

“I am now branching out with interviews with people impacted by this emergency, which will be posted soon along with the news of the day.”

IMC15 graduate Sunny Williams and his team at Tiny Docs are responding to the urgent need for child-friendly content about the pandemic with Covid-19 health information just for kids.

Tiny Docs, co-founded by Williams in 2015,  produces “Health Caretoons,” — animated cartoons that teach kids about their health in a fun, relateable, and easy-to-understand way. The library covers medical procedures, chronic health conditions, and general wellness. “All Tiny Docs content is vetted by our board of pediatricians, child life specialists, and nurses to ensure the information is medically accurate and beneficial,” says Williams.

“To help kids manage Covid-related stress and anxiety, we released a caretoon on mindfulness. Our Tiny Comic: A Kid’s Guide to Covid-19 teaches kids how to be healthy, how to manage their feelings, and how to be kind during this time of challenge and uncertainty. We’ve also released several Covid-19 related blogs by experienced and passionate pediatric professionals. And more free caretoons, blogs, and comics will be released in the coming weeks.”

In the United Kingdom, IMC alumna Jacine Rutasikwa (IMC10) and her husband, Paul, have converted their rum distillery, Matugga Distillers, into a production house for hand sanitizer to help combat the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created a very uncertain landscape for communities and small businesses. With your help, our small family-owned distillery in Livingston can support our local NHS and care workers while building our company’s resilience during challenging times,” Rutasikwa told supporters in a March e-Newsletter to supporters.

“The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our way of life is still unfolding, but it is profound,” she said. “From the uncertainty and chaos, new norms will emerge. And therein lies the big opportunity for our resilient community – to reshape new realities. Above all, now is the time to pull together, look after one another and refuse to let our spirits drop.”

Finally, on the student side, the Northwestern News Network team created a great segment on COVID-19 coverage. And,  The Daily Northwestern, under the direction of newly appointed editor Marissa Martinez (BSJ21), has been producing COVID-19 coverage with the help of Daily staffers sheltering at home nationwide. Martinez is interviewed in this Chicago Public Radio station story. First year Medill undergrad, Andrew Rowan, successfully placed his first professional story in Teen Vogue: “With college mental health centers closed, many students are working out the kinks of online therapy,” which came out of research he began in a class in the fall quarter.

Photo credit Gutierrez – MSNBC
Photo credit Malani – University of Michigan 
Photo credit distillers: Stewart Attwood

Home My Medill Story

Malika Bilal (BSJ06) – Host/Producer, Al Jazeera English

By Arudi Masinjila  (BSJ21)

Malika Bilal had always known that she wanted to be a journalist. As a child, she would cut and paste pictures from magazines to make her own for the readership of her younger sister. “I don’t know if I knew what journalism was, but I definitely knew this field of writing and producing was something I wanted to do,” she recalls.

Born into a family with a documentarian father and an elder sister in broadcast, the field was not foreign to her. When the time came to apply to college, Northwestern University was her first-choice school. With its journalism program and proximity to home, it felt like a perfect fit, despite people’s reservations about it.

“At the time there weren’t a lot of places that offered a journalism undergrad program so people didn’t really understand how you could go to a school and get a journalism degree afterwards. It was like, ‘you’ll go to school for something and then you’ll go to graduate school for journalism.’ I already know I want to be a journalist. Why would I waste that time?” says Bilal. “I knew that I wanted to go there then it became everything I wanted it to be.”

While at Medill, Bilal was on the newspaper track, in line with her ambition to work for the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun Times. “I’m from Chicago so those are my two hometown papers and it just made sense,” she says. Though she was sure that she wanted to do newspaper, she also dabbled in other mediums as an intern at Northwestern News Network, the school’s student-run broadcast station, and reporter for the alumni magazine.

But when she graduated in 2006, her certainty turned into doubt in the face of an impending recession that made it difficult to find a job. “I’m freaking out because I’m thinking, I’ve just spent so much of my parents’ money on a journalism degree, I probably should’ve become a doctor because then there’s a guaranteed path to what’s next. And here I am, I can’t find a job,” Bilal recalls. She eventually found a paid radio broadcasting internship in Washington D.C. with Voice of America. Despite it not being exactly what her heart was set on initially, she credits it as one of the best decisions she’s ever made. It introduced her to the world of international news and was a steppingstone towards other opportunities in the field. “I loved [it] so much and then that led me to a job on a website, so doing online journalism, but also international news. It was like a domino effect and just spiraled from there,” she says.

Bilal’s next major career move came three years later, when a friend from her junior year study abroad program in Cairo encouraged her to apply for a job at the then relatively new Al Jazeera English station headquartered in Doha, Qatar. “I had been watching the headlines since they opened; I knew that I wanted to work there. That was my dream job so as soon as he messaged, I was like, ‘this is a sign,’” she says.

She applied and got the job and after many months of visa processing and paperwork, moved to Doha as an online producer. But the decision to move was not an easy one, as her initial excitement at pursuing her dream job was temporarily dampened by some of her peers’ skepticism about her relocation. “I got so much feedback from people like, ‘you’re gonna move across the world? How are you gonna get married? Are you gonna find someone over there? You’re really ruining your chances. This is the time you should be looking for a husband, this is not good for you.’ And that really scared me,” Bilal says. Deciding to not let this deter, she took up the opportunity.

She was promoted to assistant editor within a year, and later moved from web to broadcast as co-host and producer of “The Stream,” a daily panel-style program on current events. She considers this one of her career milestones, not just because she began hosting a show much earlier than she expected, but also because she was the first person at the channel to wear a hijab on screen. She had anticipated this would arouse some controversy, though it turned out not to.

“I was so nervous cause I’m thinking, ‘maybe one boss didn’t notice that someone gave me a job and they’re going to come in and say no we don’t want her on air’ or they’re going to get lots of feedback from people saying, ‘why do you have this girl in a scarf presenting the news? She’s biased or we don’t want her,’” she says. “But none of that ever happened so I think that was the biggest milestone. It’s hard to top that one.”

Aside from providing a platform for discussion, the show also offered a chance for citizens to hold people in power accountable. “My favorite stories are when we gave people a chance to speak to their elected representatives and have their say when they would be no other platform and no other way for them to do that,” she says.

After an eight and a half year run at “The Stream”, she switched mediums again and now hosts “The Take,” a news podcast, from Washington D.C. “I’ve now worked in every single medium that there is in journalism, which is great, I love it!” says Bilal.

Arudi Masinjila is a rising senior at Medill. She is passionate about using journalism for positive social change.

Home My Medill Story

Kelly Brockmeier (IMC19) How a start in news production led to an IMC degree

By Kelly Brockmeier (IMC19)

My mom used to tell me, “you can’t feed the neighborhood.” I was born a helper. I have a heart for the underdog, the disadvantaged, the lost—you get it. I’m still an idealist in many ways. I was also the kid that asked “why,” a LOT. I was destined to be a journalist, and boy was I good at it.

In my late 20s, I inadvertently landed an Executive Producer role. I never set out to be in management, it just happened. And not long after, I advanced to Assistant News Director. If you’ve worked in news you understand the job IS your life. The hours are grueling, and the pay can be really poor but that’s not why you sign up for this. It’s a calling.

In 2004, my news career suddenly ended. I didn’t know it was ending forever but it did.

Long story short, my boss told me it was either me or him. Brutal right? That’s the news business. My sudden unemployment opened a door to consider all my possibilities and I did just that. Somehow despite being fearful of doctors and needles and healthcare in general, I found myself smack dab in the middle of an academic medical center. My news skills translated nicely in the PR world and then eventually into a marketing leadership role. My secret sauce? The ability to identify and tell great stories across mediums, platforms and positions.

In 2015, I began interviewing for C-suite roles and most called for an advanced degree, something I did not have and honestly did not want. I was not keen on going back to school to check a box. I investigated lots of MBA programs and knew it was not the right fit. I even met with various universities. I had all but given up when one night I was served an online ad from Medill IMC. I knew about Northwestern as a journalist, it was a top program in the country. Additionally, my brother-in-law had played football at NU. He died suddenly in 2012 and there was an emotional tie to the university thanks to Coach Fitzgerald and his incredible staff and team who honored Leon Brockmeier by wearing his initials on their helmet that season. Without much thought as to how I would pay for this degree, I hastily applied as I sat on the couch one evening. I remember telling my husband what I had done, he sincerely thought I was joking.

As I waited for word on whether I had been accepted, I recalled the University President speaking at a pep rally during a bowl game in Jacksonville, Fla.,in January 2013. He talked about the academic prowess of NU. My brother-in-law often reminded us that his bachelor’s degree from NU was equivalent to his wife’s master’s degree from Florida State University. As we sat and heard Morty Schapiro list off stats on the student body we suddenly realized Leon hadn’t just been bragging—it was legitimate. I had hoped that maybe someday my son might go to NU to honor his uncle, but NEVER did I think it would be me. In 2013, I had zero aspirations to go back to school and even if I had, NU did not seem attainable.

Fast forward to 2016 and I get an acceptance letter. My NU journey began at age 45! To date it’s the largest single investment of time and money I have ever spent on myself and it was worth every penny. In the summer of 2019, I walked across the same football field my brother-in-law called home with his cardiac Cats. This time the heart attack was all mine as I donned the purple and officially graduated from NU with a master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications. It’s equivalent to a Ph.D. in some books! I still pinch myself, but the pictures prove it happened—I did it!

Immediately after my last class ended at NU in San Francisco, I took a job with Wounded Warrior Project as their national Director of PR & Social Media. My new chapter is well underway and I’m doing what I do best—telling meaningful stories and helping those most in need. The cool kids call that #winning, or so I’m told.

Learn more about my career journey by visiting



Home My Medill Story

Q&A with Wendy Sachs (BSJ93), Co-Director and Producer of SURGE

SURGE is a feature-length documentary about the record number of first-time female candidates who ran, won and upended politics in the historic 2018 midterm elections. It will be released on Amazon Prime on September 1 and will premiere on Showtime’s new channel SHOxBET on September 8 @ 9pm ET and available on VOD platforms including Amazon and iTunes on October 21.

Watch the trailer.

Can you talk a little about your Medill experience and how your time at Northwestern helped prepare you for your career?

I’m fairly sure I never got an A in any of my Medill classes. I would actually love to look at an old transcript and confirm that bit of my academic history at Northwestern. But I think because Medill was so small, rigorous and competitive and because I was not one of those exceptional standout students or particularly beloved by my professors, I became even more scrappy, ambitious and determined to prove myself outside of the classroom. Crazy enough, I landed my first job as a Capitol Hill press secretary before I had even officially graduated from Northwestern.  I had enough credits to finish a quarter early and I was worried about taking on more college loans, so I got the press secretary job spring quarter of my senior year. It was an incredible time to be in Washington, DC – a few months after Bill Clinton was elected into his first term. I can proudly say that I was the youngest and lowest paid press secretary on Capitol Hill in 1993.

When was it when you realized that you were ready to weave your experience into a book and can you briefly talk about how writing a book differed from the content creation you’d done before?

I’ve written two books – “How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay at Work Moms” (Da Capo Press, 2003) and “Fearless and Free—How Smart Women Pivot and Relaunch their Careers” (Harper Collins, 2017) The expression that you write what you know couldn’t be more true. Both of my books were inspired by what I was personally and professionally experiencing at those times. I wrote my first book after I had my first child and I was struggling with how to continue with a high-octane career while also being a fully present and engaged new mom. “Fearless and Free” comes from a very personal place. I had lost my job in 2014. Traditional journalism and media, where I had spent my career working was on life support. I was over 40 and felt like if I didn’t get a job at one of the bright and shiny media startups in New York City sometime soon, I would become a dinosaur. I was afraid of becoming irrelevant.  It also became clear that for many jobs in my industries – media and news – I was too expensive. These industries can hire young and cheap talent. It was after one particularly depressing interview when a bearded Millennial was turned off by that Capitol Hill experience, the job that used to open doors for me, when I realized I needed to switch things up. I needed to re-craft my pitch, hone my story, lean into my skillset but probably learn something new. I also understood that I might need to take a step backwards before I can move forward again.

The SURGE project is three years in the making.  Can you summarize how you got involved in the documentary and how the team came together?

The origin story of SURGE really begins with Hillary Clinton. I had worked with a group called Filmmakers for Hillary right before the 2016 election. My friend Tanya had founded the group. For months, after the first Women’s March in January 2017 there were dozens of stories about women announcing that they were running for office. Many of these women had never imagined that they would run, but now they felt compelled to take the leap.  I reached out to Tanya and told her that I wanted to do a documentary about these first-time female candidates who were running in uphill battles. Coincidentally, Hannah Rosenzweig, who had also been part of Filmmakers for Hillary, had also reached out to Tanya about the same idea. Three years later, Hannah and I just finished directing and producing SURGE. It’s my debut as a film director and producer.  A little footnote – but really important to us was that we only hired female cinematographers to shoot SURGE. This was extremely challenging in places like Texas, Indiana and even Illinois where we were filming. Women make up only about 10 percent of film DPs (directors of photography) and they are largely based on the coasts, but we were so committed to shooting with only women that we jumped through all sorts of hoops to make it happen and to locate talented, local camera women. We are incredibly proud to say that the film was literally shot through a female lens.

How did you select the candidates you chose to follow? 

To find characters for SURGE, we started by casting a wide net. We knew we wanted to follow only first-time candidates – women who were running for office for the first time. But we also wanted to make sure we had diversity among the women we followed, geographically and racially and also in their personal backgrounds. Our first shoot was at the bi-partisan Women’s Campaign School at Yale during their week-long boot camp training in June of 2017. At first, we thought the film would be the story of both Democratic and Republican women running in 2018. But rather quickly, we saw that the surge was on the Democratic side. The story of the 2018 midterms and the hundreds of local and state races that year would be about a blue wave of women running and winning.

What do you want viewers to take away from the film? 

I want viewers to feel empowered and inspired by the film. SURGE is not only a story about women running for office but it’s the story of women getting behind women running for office. It’s about grassroots activism. It’s about taking a risk and not waiting your turn or to be asked. It’s about saving our democracy. It’s about the power of elections to create real change – and not just at the congressional level – but at the state and local level. I want girls and women to watch the film and see themselves as leaders in their communities. One of the themes of the film is that you may not win the first time. It’s important to remember that even Barack Obama lost his first race. Women often don’t like to take risks because they are afraid of failing and of not being perfect. This film blows up the idea of perfection and failure. Having the audacity to run and speak out, and to make a difference in your district and community — that is success.

Why is it so important to chronicle this momentous midterm election and how do you think it will help inform the coming election?

It’s important to chronicle the 2018 elections because it was a historic, barrier-breaking election. More women and women of color ran, won and upended politics than ever before. Like 1992, the 2018 election was also coined “The Year of the Woman.” But this phrase feels dismissive. Why do women only get a year? It’s important to dig into that and question whether the enormous energy and momentum surrounding this “pink wave” is sustainable. Getting women into the pipeline is critically important, so what do we need to do to make sure this isn’t just another blip on the radar. This is why a theme of the film and a question we asked nearly everyone we interviewed was whether this was a moment or a movement.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I am a modern multi-hyphenate – an author, writer, Emmy-Award winning TV producer, media relations executive, editor in chief of a website, Capitol Hill press secretary, and now filmmaker. I have had more pivots in my career than most but the through line to my career has been storytelling and women’s issues. Directing and producing SURGE has been the most challenging but most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I’ve worn more hats than I can remember. I’m not only the co-director and producer on the film but the booker, chief fundraiser, publicist, marketing executive and fulltime hustler. But most importantly, I’m incredibly proud of the film we’ve created and am in awe of the women who we followed who put so much on the line, all in the name of trying to save our democracy at a critical time in our history. It’s incredibly satisfying to feel that we’ve produced not just a time capsule of what was happening in America between 2016 and 2020 but that this film can live on and hopefully inspire girls and women to run for office and create more gender parity and diversity in politics.

Photo: Sachs (middle) pictured with Lauren Underwood (D-IL) (right) during her 2018 campaign and SURGE cinematographer Margaret Byrne (left).