January 20, 2016 by Debra Gittler


For the past six years, I’ve always felt torn. I had work that I loved with an incredible team in El Salvador. But my family and sense of home was always in Chicago. In the past 18 months, as my father declined and I was pregnant and I spent more and more time jumping back and forth between worlds, I was increasingly conflicted. It seemed perfect in my head: two homes, one in a global city and the other in a tropical paradise. Instead, I always felt divided.

For the past 10 months, since I gave up my apartment in El Salvador and moved full time to Chicago (but still always traveling), that feeling hadn’t gone away. Building the foundation to launch programming here in Chicago, I was doing the scrappy, lonely, start-up work of networking and raising money. Five years of building an incredible team in El Salvador—a team I respect and admire, enjoy professionally and personally—and now I was alone again. I worked alone from home. I spent hours and hours video conferencing. Consultants in Chicago completed tasks but they didn’t love ConTextos the way my team does in El Salvador. I was isolated. I was far from the work we do in El Salvador, and only setting the stage for future work in Chicago. I had the comfort of family, but far from the joy of seeing, touching, feeling the impact we make upon the lives of teachers, students and staff.

And then, this week, for the first time ever, it all feels complete.

For the first time in six years, I have work that I love, an incredible team at my side that is inspired and inspiring and so deeply committed to our mission, my family and my home all in the same place. This week, ConTextos became “we” as a real entity in Chicago.

Jennifer came in two weeks ago to help launch the Soy Autor program at Cook County Jail. She and I started working with Lisa, our new Soy Autor teacher who will implement at the Jail. Quickly we put the pieces together: Lisa and Jen would co-teach, an incredible balance of experience and knowledge. Lisa knows all about the Jail and Chicago, race and education in America, but not much about our methodology; Jen knows Soy Autor inside and out, but the context is a blank slate. When we went into Cook County Jail last week for our first meeting, the chemistry was palpable. The two of them with Meghann, our Development/Fundraising person (and my right hand) and I had an obvious harmony. The Sheriff’s staff told us after talking—we were a fierce team, clearly passionate and aware and experienced and knowledgable. They believed us. They believed in us. Our two teams engaged in a quick, natural rapport: two work teams that know their stuff, that work from a place of urgency and passion. Now, ConTextos wasn’t just an idea in Chicago, but an actual implementing organization that could talk and move and react and touch lives in Chicago.

Then Rebecca joined us from El Salvador. And our little group grew. We sat around the coffee table, draped in blankets to keep out the cold as we planned and strategized. We moved as a collective, grabbing each other’s phones as we streamed out the door to breakfast, reviewing agendas with mouths full, visiting bookstores and supply stores, in and out of the jail, showing off our new credentials and laughing nervously when we walked together, alone for the first time, through the winding yellow hallways of the jail. “We are ConTextos,” we explained when we got lost…

We brainstormed about when to divide and conquer and when to band together. We held hands while one cried, and locked eyes over great ideas, and shared wide smiles as we imagined the future. We said goodbye seven times without ever leaving, too entrenched in ideas and possibilities and “something to consider…” when finally, decided we might as well accept that a day of work bled into our nighttime. This team met my sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins and mom and neighbors and friends. My life and my work were in the same room. And they adored each other.

Then Danielle joined us, to focus on assessment and data collection. We all huddled around an iphone on speaker as we detailed plans and strategies with the Sheriff’s staff, determined indicators and agendas. We had an energy and a vibe. The culture of ConTextos sitting around the table. The table in Chicago. ConTextos in Chicago.

I wasn’t alone. I didn’t feel alone. I don’t feel alone.

And I don’t feel that this is the “Chicago ConTextos.” It is the Chicago office of ConTextos. Because throughout the day, we Facetime and text and brainstorm ideas and resources with the rest of our team in El Salvador. We discuss strategy across contexts, think collectively about objectives and approach. Lisa has a ConTextos email now. So does Meghann. We tell people: This is ConTextos’ Chicago Project. That’s its name (for now). The Chicago Project. ConTextos’ Chicago Project

Jen leaves on Saturday. She’ll come back in February to start classes, but I’ll be sad when she goes. And Rebe leaves on Tuesday. This intensive planning period will end and we’ll begin a routine of classes, more time apart, a technical team and an assessment team, and less time all together.

But that doesn’t matter.

Because ConTextos now exists in Chicago. It lives and breathes and impacts and transforms. Here in Chicago.

And I feel utterly ecstatic to have everything in the same place: work, team, home, family. It feels just right.

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