April 2, 2020 by Debra Gittler

Not a chapter that will end; the prelude to a new book

It’s been over two weeks since we left our offices at the Chicago Literacy Alliance. We got the “urgent” email on Thursday March 12, gathered within hours, had through the weekend to pack up before they cut off our key cards.

Two weeks seemed like it would be an eternity. Remember back then– when the idea of cancelling everything for two weeks seemed impossible? Remember what we didn’t know looking forward, that we know now looking back? Each day, yesterday’s rumor becoming truth.

The following Monday CPS held the final day of classes. Exactly two weeks ago when I first wrote this. Two weeks and some days since I’ll decide to share it publicly.

It’s been over two weeks of settling into this new normal. This newness that doesn’t at all feel normal. And then, in moments, it also feels just fine…

On that first Monday, while kids were still in school and we were on workday one without an office, the Chicago team connected via Zoom for the first time. We brainstormed a myriad of items but immediately agreed to that each day, at 2pm, we would write together.

And we have. Every. Single. Day. At 2pm. Weekend, weekday, rain, shine, feeling optimistic, can barely bear the news… and not just our team; authors, donors, partners, board members, strangers… people cycle in and out. While so much has quickly changed and evolved, 2pm is our standard bearer. I’m just finishing our CyberCircle now– today there were tears of frustration, visceral anger, remembrance of those who have passed, celebration of those who are overcoming this depression, reflections on a hangover…

One of our first 2pm Cyber Circles

It was three days in to shelter in place, when we weren’t sheltered in place, yet, just working from home for two weeks while our offices would be closed, when the conversation about financial stability came up. I’d been prepared to wait two full weeks before broaching the subject, but staff were curious, concerned. As they should be. 

ConTextos is lucky (knock on wood, salt over the shoulder, spit spit) to have sufficient cash on hand to maintain payroll–full time, part-time, hourly; Chicago, El Salvador–for at least a few months. And extra lucky that it seems the stimulus package will apply to small business non-profits.

We like to joke: we build it as we fly. That’s the only way ConTextos knows how to roll. Yes, in Chicago, we’re still starting up. But across borders, ConTextos is agile AF. Small non-profits have no other way to be! We duck and weave, find strength in flexibility, move with the winds. We have learned how to meet funders’ needs without sacrificing the mission; to stay mission driven and get funds without having to be funder driven while adjusting the mission. Over the years, we’ve learned to pivot quickly. It’s part of our DNA.

Within a week, community-based Authors Circles moved to Zoom. We’ve been working closely with the Sheriff’s staff so that Authors in Cook County Jail, where programming is suspended, get letters and writing prompts. Their publication celebration scheduled for next week will happen digitally over a course of days: 28 newly published illustrated memoirs–28 first time published authors!– and one alumni compilation will be released later this week. And our Authors in IDOC are getting letters and emails, invitations to keep writing and keep sharing– 

One thing I’ve learned quickly, those who have spent time incarcerated know plenty about lockdown. They have essential insights to survive, thrive, and come out stronger. 

We’ve been on phones with lawyers as some Authors are released due to the crises in jails and prisons. We’ve been on constant calls with partner organizations looking for programming for their constituents. We’ve been connecting with other non-profits to see how they are coping. We’ve been on calls with Authors to see what they need, and how we can help. We’ve presented financials and contingency plans to the Board. We’re building new alliances, preparing for what things will look like when this is all over. We are strengthening our community using our mission as a vibrant tool. 

Because at ConTextos, our mission isn’t to implement programs, but to support curiosity and questioning, reflection and healing; to use reading and writing and engaged dialogue as tools to build community and challenge our assumptions– about self, about each other.

“My priority is to pay your salaries,” I told the Chicago staff, before ever presenting numbers to the board or touching base with our accountants. I know our Board, this is their priority too. “But we cannot just go with momentum. We need to keep providing programming and reaching those we serve. Our job is not to keep doing what we’ve been doing. This is our chance to imagine what we want the work to look like after… whatever, whenever after may be.” 

It’s no secret that at ConTextos, we’re frustrated by the status quo violence prevention landscape, educational landscape, reentry landscape, non-profit landscape… As a collective and individuals–in fact, perhaps what brought this powerhouse team together, a team more family than colleagues– is this rejection of status quo. 

“What would it mean to do the highest quality work, to support our mission? To take all of the insight we’ve garnered over these years and increase our impact…”

We joke about ‘Rona Reading and Writing… What is the power of these most human–and humane– tools for story to build community and connection not despite, but because of social distancing?

More writers have joined our 2pm calls.

Now that the national timeline is expanded, that there’s another month (at least) I feel a sort of relief. I’m not glad that this is happening, but I’m grateful to take the time… 

And we have built something new. We are building something new. Each day at 2pm, when we take the time to write together. To give feedback. To share about how we’re feeling now, to share about past feelings that reemerge, to imagine the future, to make connections– to the past and what might come and to each other. Two pm has become an anchor, it orients the day. And each day, we complete something. This one thing gets done, during this time when everything feels in constant flux… We write together, we complete a writing. We share. I’ve written with people I’ve never met before. I’ve made new friends, celebrated their successes, shared grief, laughed.

During Saturday’s Cyber Circle, Markolm, an Author from Roseland, and Darrius, a facilitator with Circles and Cyphers, attended our 2pm shared writing for the first time. Darlene McCampbell, my high school literature teacher, preparing for her own transition to digital learning for her current students, joined for the second day in a row. 

These three, total strangers until that moment, from different backgrounds, different neighborhoods, different generations, connected so profoundly over their brief writings. From a poem in rhyme, to homemade parables, to reflections upon loss and strength, their writings were so different, and brought them together in such powerful ways. 

“This is how we are supposed to live,” Lisa Kenner, ConTextos Co-Director of Programs and Partnerships reminded us. “We are supposed to live in intergenerational community.”

Last week, John from Australia was with us–a friend and potential partner that we’ve never had the time to connect with before. “In each of these writings, we are seeing and breaking down walls. This is the essence of good writing…” As we are stuck in this eternal moment– sheltered in this place, these new rules– we all look back to navigate the feelings we have now. We make sense of the present through the lens of past experience.

In this time of collective trauma, it’s also a time for collective healing. So we can create something new; not wait-out this COVID-19 chapter, but begin to write the prelude for what we hope to see, to be.

Want to join our 2pm Cyber Circles? Click here to fill out this form! All are welcome 🙂

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