Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ten down, how many still to go?

A huge thank you to everyone who has visited, read, commented on and Liked my first ten days of interviews with eleven amazing and Inspiring Houston Women.  I promised a festival of inspiration to launch the blog and I think that’s what we’ve had, but now it is time for a calmer routine to begin! 

From this week, I will aim to post one interview every Friday as I follow up all the inspirational women suggested by each woman I have interviewed.  As you can imagine, I already have a long list in my notebook of women who inspire them, inspire me and I know, inspire many others.  

As Tina Hultén said in her interview last week, “What I like the best about Houston is that people want to do the best they can.  I think people work hard but they really have a desire for quality.”  I couldn’t agree more, Tina.  In this city, people seem to strive constantly to do better for themselves, for their families, for their communities and for their city. Somehow, I don’t think I will ever run out of women to interview.  And that’s all good.



Friday, October 25, 2013

Elaine Green and Fran Wilcox

Elaine Green (left) and Fran Wilcox
Elaine Green and Fran Wilcox are the Special Education teachers at Lamar High School. Together they manage a class of students with a variety of learning and physical disabilities. They also work closely with their students’ parents to plan for the transition into further education or employment after graduation. Elaine has been a teacher her whole working life, but before teaching, Fran was a professional musician, playing the horn in orchestras and bands internationally.

What are your stories, Elaine and Fran?

ELAINE – When we both first came to work together at Lamar, I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. We’d met once because we both worked in Special Education, but to be honest I was a bit leery. We would be sharing this classroom for eight hours a day and what if we didn’t share an educational philosophy? It could not work out well, but actually, it has.

FRAN – Our strengths are totally different and it is totally brilliant the way we work together. Green’s a detailed person…

ELAINE – … and she’s a global person. There are times when I say, “I just can’t see that…” but she just gets it immediately. It is almost a marriage made in heaven. We haven’t had a spat yet and this is our 15th year together in this room. Strangely enough we found that we both have the same teaching philosophies and these days, I can say something and she will have been ready to say the same thing or vice versa.

We had met once before. I was at Fondren Middle School for about 100 years – ok, for 23 years – and we used to put on this little dance at Christmas which the kids loved. We we invited the participating high schools and that was when Fran was at Lee High School, and the day she came over for that was the only time we’d met before we had to work together.

FRAN – Yes, and you had on that really nice dress. I remember thinking, wow, she’s very dressed up. Maybe I need to tidy up my act a bit!

ELAINE – We both decided to come to Lamar at the same time and we’ve worked out well.  At first, we had a struggle because people expected us to do the same thing as the previous teacher. But I’m sure when we leave here, people will say, “Miss Green and Miss Wilcox used to do blah blah” too.

Anyway, I’m a native Houstonian. I am a mother of two, a widow of ten years, and my kids are 33 and 28. One is in Dallas, he’s an artist and works for the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth as an educational curator, so he somehow got into education too. My other one went into architecture. He’s a project manager in construction here in Houston. I take a lot of pride in them both. You know, you want your kids to be happy first of all, whatever their area is. I do take a lot of pride in knowing that they are ok and that they’ve found their niche.

When I was at school, and before I even graduated from Westbury High School, I just knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was in the Future Teachers of America back then and so I went to college to train and somewhere along the line I thought that I’d like to do Special Education. I didn’t have a cousin or a sibling with special needs, I didn’t know anyone, but I just really wanted to do that. Then I decided to get certified in Special Education and Elementary Education at the same time. When I started teaching Special Ed, I thought I’d do that for a few years and then go to teach elementary. Well, forty years later, here I sit. I’ve never done anything else. But she’s got a much more interesting story!

FRAN – I was born in New Jersey and had an undergraduate degree in Music Education, K through 12. I wanted to have performance degree but my parents would not allow me to do that, they said I had to have something to fall back on. But I knew was never going to be a Band Director. I did my student teaching with the band and I had no patience. I was really fortunate when I did my student teaching that I got to work with some students with hearing impairments and I absolutely loved that room. The kids in there were great and asked if I could do that full time instead, but they wouldn’t let me. But I knew right then that if I could never play my horn again, I would want to work with kids with special needs, I just knew it. But I went to Rice with a music fellowship and then played professionally in Colombia, South America, for a while. When I came back, I played with the Houston Ballet, substituted with the Houston Symphony and did the Opera tour. Then I developed Bells’ Palsy in my face and that pretty much ended my career overnight. I was 31.

I still play in a Czech band – my dad’s side of the family is Czech so it’s one of those ‘get in touch with your roots’ things – but these days I’m at the back only playing the up-beats. I put the PAH in the oompah! I think I could keel over back there and nobody would notice!  You see, because the Bells’ Palsy affected the nerve at the front of my face, sometimes I sound horrible and sometimes I sound great and think, hey, I wish I could still do this!

So I needed to find another career and it was always in the back of my mind that I had really enjoyed those kids from student teaching. I ended up working in vocational rehab and from there to managing a workshop for adults with hearing impairments and addictions and some folks with mental health issues. It was there that I was really introduced to the Life Skills population. I didn’t really enjoy it, but two women I worked with asked why I didn’t become a self-contained teacher because I loved working with all the clients, but I wasn’t very good at managing the staff. I did my Alternative Certification instead and ended up at Lee, then Houston Community College, and then I came to Lamar and that’s history.

On a personal level, because I was a musician, it took a long time for me to really settle down, but now I have a very important relationship in my life, and my sister and her family are down here and they are super important to me. I’m very close to my nieces, my sister and her husband and then I have my family at home in New Jersey. I’m the oldest of six. My sister Cathy is a teacher’s assistant working with special needs kids, and I am very proud of her.

Why do you do what you do?

ELAINE – At the moment we have 20 kids in the class, but we’ve had 34 at one time, it was nuts in here! We’ve never wanted this classroom to be a ‘holding tank’ so to speak. Our goal is to get the kids involved with the school and not to be the ‘group down in the basement’. We want to make them as independent as possible and that’s been our goal from the very beginning.  I guess if you get to the point where you don’t get some kind of gratification from that work, then it’s time to say ‘hang it up’, but we still both do. When one of the kids does something wonderful, it’s still very rewarding, and that’s the bottom line. We do it because we both love it.

FRAN – Yup, we just love these kids.

At a Lamar High School Pep Rally - October 2013

What advice would you give to someone coming new to teaching in Special Education?

FRAN – Volunteer first! Because Green and I have such a good relationship, we can spell each other.  Sometimes if she needs to do paperwork or call a parent she’ll go into our office, and I’ll cover the class room. We figured that out for each other, but if you were just a single teacher, I’d don’t know how you would do it.

ELAINE – That’s right, keeping on top of the paperwork can be very daunting. There are so many state requirements, even for the regular teachers. My niece came and volunteered in here with us a while ago and then decided she wanted to become a teacher too. Because she had volunteered first, she knew what she was getting into. I guess that would be my advice, you need to know that all of the stuff, the paperwork etc, can take away from what you want to do. Sometimes I say in meetings, “If we didn’t have the kids, we could keep up with all the paperwork! These darn kids just get in our way!” I’m joking of course, but that’s how it feels sometimes. The kids must be our priority, and although this other stuff is essential it must come second with us.

FRAN – I’d say if your passion is to work with our guys, just keep it pure. And you do have to have a passion – we both still have that passion. Even on days when we know we are dragging, the kids just spark us and we get so much from them. To share their “Aha!” moments and their laughs if they get a joke is just wonderful. We had a few minutes spare today and we played Hangman together on the board. Everyone was involved and laughing, it was great.

How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?

ELAINE – We both have friends, but we are also friends with each other outside school too. We go out together sometimes after school and have Mexican food and a margarita. We talk about the day and try to work out how to fix things. We’ve even, at a restaurant, got a napkin and drawn up a list of pros and cons for a problem.

FRAN – Sometimes we get our toenails done too!

ELAINE – We also take yoga, and that’s our gift to ourselves. We don’t let anyone interfere with our Tuesday afternoons. We have a group of ladies that get together to do yoga and then go get dinner after that. We all get our balance and then we get our food!

FRAN – As well as that, I love to ride my bike and I used to run marathons, because of that I have this whole world of friends. I’ve just bought a kayak so that’s a new adventure. I paddled to the Christmas lights down in Dickinson last year – you decorate your canoe and paddle at night which was the most fun thing. And I love bird-watching. I’m real diversified and I have all sorts of groups of friends.  I’m really not a wild child or anything, but I don’t stop still very often.

What does Houston mean to you?

ELAINE – For me, it’s roots. I didn’t pick Houston, I was born here, my parents were here and my husband’s parents were here, so it’s about roots. I met my husband in high school and when we got married after college and I guess Houston means family to us. We bought a house ten minutes from where we each lived because we wanted to be around our parents as they got older, which we were. We were just a phone call away and we had many of those between the two sets of parents as they got older.

Now my children may break the link to Houston, but that’s ok, I want them to be happy. They are both of them looking further afield, and that’s fine because it’ll give me some nice place to visit.

FRAN – I loved playing my horn because it allowed me to travel. I travelled around Europe on a rail pass with a brass quartet and we travelled all over. I also love all things British and I did once apply for a scholarship to a school in London. I had a dream of living in one of these little villages where Miss Marple would have lived, where you could ride your bike and there were flowers everywhere, that would have been my ideal, even if New Jersey was always my home. At first Houston was just about my job, but now I have a lot of friends here, and I like Houston now, though it took a while for me to settle.

Where is your happy place in Houston?

ELAINE – Probably at my home with my family and my dogs, that’s my happy place. And also on my yoga mat. It’s very easy for me to find a happy place at yoga. For ten years we’ve been doing it and we consider it a gift to ourselves. It took me about two years to get to that point where things weren’t buzzing around my head, but now I find that spot on my mat and all of that other stuff outside is gone for an hour. Occasionally I have to fight to get it out but most times it’s just gone.

FRAN – I have several. On the couch, just being quiet, or sitting on the back porch watching the birds at the many bird feeders we have. We feed the hummingbirds and we see all the migratory birds come by, which is really cool. And I love being out on my bike in the country and actually, I’m happy in the classroom too, and also with my sister and her kids. You know, I have lots of happy places, I’m just quite a happy person.

What is your favorite restaurant?

FRAN – Carmelita’s on Bellaire Boulevard is right between both our houses, and then there’s El Ranchero and …

ELAINE – Basically, we just love Mexican neighborhood restaurants!

What is your Houston secret?

ELAINE – I think a secret that many people don’t know about is the beer can house. I saw it years ago as a child and then again recently with the kids. It’s off Washington, right in the middle of all these homes and people come from all over just to see it. The man who made it has gone but it’s still maintained by the same people that run the Art Car Parade – and that’s another Houston secret that everyone should know about, it’s fantastic!

And of course, there are the bats on Waugh Drive. Unlike in Austin where the bats go away on migration, our bats never leave. Bats all year round! Aren’t we lucky?

FRAN – It’s not really Houston, but a great day out from here is to Brazos Bend State Park to see the alligators, it’s just fantastic, and there’s amazing birdlife too. Also, there’s the Azalea Trail here in the spring which is also a wonderful thing to go to. We rode our bikes one year, and ate at every stop! The azaleas have such a short blooming time, it’s really worth going to see.

If you could change one thing about Houston…

ELAINE – the summer heat, it’s just too hot. When even the kids can’t go out to play, it’s just too much, even for us natives.

FRAN – Absolutely right, and because it’s hot most people don’t get to know their neighbors very well because we stay indoors for the greater part of the year, which is a shame.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Anne Chandler

Anne Chandler is the Director of the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston.  Before she joined Tahirih in 2009, she was Clinical Professor for the University of Houston Law Center where she served as the Interim Director of the Immigration Law Clinic. Anne has three sons, Ben, Jacob and Alex.

What’s your story, Anne?
First, my family – I have three boys. Ben is 24 and after college he moved back to Houston and is now a CPA. Then I have Joseph in high school and Alex in middle school. I have always enjoyed being active and having fun with them. I coached them in Little League, YMCA soccer and West U soccer. Of course, my two younger ones are now at an age where they don’t even want me near them! You know how it goes, “If you are going to sit on the sidelines, Mom, please be on the end… and be quiet!” So I guess I have a shifting role now, but perhaps I might get that role back when the grandchildren come, so we’ll have to wait!

I came to Houston from Sonoma County in Northern California for law school because the University of Houston and the University of Texas offered a joint Public Health and Law degree. Also Texas had the border with Mexico and I always knew that I wanted to do something cross-border. After I graduated, I stayed on here and met my husband, Seth, who is originally from Houston. We have been married 15 years and he’s a law professor at the University of Houston, as I used to be.

My career has been working in under-privileged legal groups, specifically immigrant refugee populations. That quickly turned into a focus on unaccompanied women and children. I had the opportunity to teach and run an immigration law clinic at the UH Law Center which I did for seven years. We developed an academic focus in working with women who’d been trafficked and with vulnerable children who had been abused, work which enhanced our students’ skills in representing immigrants as they fight deportation. I loved that.

I knew of the Tahirih Justice Centre in Washington DC because we had collaborated on some cases and when Tahirih decided to open a second office in Houston, I decided to leave the Law Center and dive back into the world of representing the most vulnerable immigrants. That happened four years ago and I have not regretted it one bit. It meant learning a lot of new skill sets, such as managing an office and doing fundraising work, but I’ve enjoyed every second.

The Tahirih Board chose Houston because they wanted to have more impact on protecting immigrant women who were fleeing severe forms of violence. Though they were doing a good job in DC, with quality fundraising and representation, they knew from a public policy standpoint on legislation, they would still be speaking from the voices of women only in the DC area. In choosing Houston, they looked at the strength of the legal community because we partner with law firms who take on cases on our behalf. Although we work closely with them, the majority of client time is with these volunteer attorneys. The Board also looked at demographic need, and their ability to raise funds in that city. Although they looked very seriously at Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, Houston rose to the top, mainly because of the demographic need, but also because the outstanding hub of law firms here. Once the Houston decision was made, they wanted to hire someone locally, someone who knew the landscape, and that’s I how came to join the Tahirih family.

In the very early days we only had one social worker and a legal assistant – I didn’t hire another attorney until Year 3 – but then we started getting grants and other support, so now we have four attorneys who liaise with the clients and the volunteer attorneys. Though our attorneys are relatively young, because a lot of our cases have complex legal patterns, both in client management and in having novel legal things to consider, I am always there to support them. Not that I necessarily know the answers immediately, but because of my experience, I can identify and reach out to the networks of people who will know. So I sit in on all the major case acceptance meetings for cases that are heading towards litigation and also if there’s a bigger situation such as a trafficking bust.

We work with all levels of law enforcement, from the Texas Rangers to the FBI and Customs and Border Patrol, the Houston Police Department to the Sherriff’s office. The way that immigration laws work is that in cases of domestic servitude, debt bondage and trafficking, it is pretty critical that an immigrant woman be willing to work with law enforcement if she is not to be deported. But sometimes the women that we work with aren’t quite ready to do that, because of trauma, distress or fear, so we work with the women to get them to the stage where they can work with the law enforcement agencies and rebuild their lives in safety. Sadly, sometimes the law enforcement officers meet with our clients and say that there’s nothing they can do because of a technical aspect of the law. Other times, however, they are already working on the case because our client is only one of many women and indeed, sometimes they will bring a case to us. Many times they’ve already done the investigation and then come to us for legal assistance for the women involved.

Trafficking is one of the types of harm that our clients have faced. One of the more significant, in terms of attorney hours, is a combination of cases where women have fled some atrocious violence abroad and their primary fear is of being returned to their home country. In such cases, we are working with the international refugee definition which was drawn up in the aftermath of World War Two. That definition says that we, as a nation state in the international community, shall protect individuals who have suffered persecution or who face persecution if they are returned home. The way it was written, it protects people from persecution because of their religion, race, nationality, social status, political beliefs or because they belong to a certain social group, but not specifically because of their gender.

In subsequent years, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada set up gender guidelines to the refugee definition, but here in the United States, no guidelines were ever confirmed, despite Janet Reno’s best efforts when she was Attorney General. Therefore our judges literally have nothing to work with except for case law, and that is sporadic, confusing, and dubious at best. It was, in fact, this problem that led originally to the founding of the Tahirih Justice Center.

Layli Miller-Muro, now our Executive Director, handled a case when she was a summer intern during law school. She represented a young lady who was fleeing Togo under threat of an arranged marriage and female genital mutilation. Though her father had always protected her and wanted her to have an education and a career, when he died, the rights and decisions about what would happen to her shifted to an uncle. He was horrified that she hadn’t already been subject to genital circumcision and also that she still wasn’t married. Her mom and sister helped her escape to the United States, but here the immigration officials offered her two options, to get back on the plane or go to jail for a long time. The girl chose to stay and go to jail.

When she appeared in court requesting refugee status and told her story, the judge denied her case, stating that this was a cultural family matter and had nothing to do with the refugee definition. Layli argued that women in certain cultures who defied that culture’s rules by refusing genital mutilation should be construed as a “particular social group”. They launched a big press campaign in DC about female genital mutilation, discussing the horrendous statistics of the psychological and physical damage caused from such mutilation. They also argued that the arranged marriage to a much older man would be tantamount to rape. Ultimately, the higher court found that the young lady from Togo was fleeing persecution on account of her membership in a particular social group of young women of the Tchamba-Kunsuntu Tribe who had not suffered female genital mutilation and who opposed the practice. The girl's name was Fauziya Kassindja and after three years of being in detention in different jails, she was free and new case law was developed based on her fight for justice. She and Layli wrote a book together, Do they hear when you cry? and the proceeds went to establish our Center.

In Houston we also have also dealt with a number of honor killing cases out of Pakistan, Iran and Libya, where a woman has been perceived as defying or shaming her family. We have also represented other women fleeing female genital mutilation, a forced marriage, or severe forms of domestic violence. In cases where the violence occurs within a family relationship, we have to show that there is nowhere a woman is able to go within that country to be safe and that the police and the court system will not protect her. Those are really difficult burdens of evidence to show.

We also protect immigrant women who are living in a violent domestic relationship here in the greater Houston area. For example, a woman might live here with a husband with an immigrant visa, but if she leaves that relationship, her status is gone. So when there is violence in those relationships, it is difficult for a woman to know what to do. But that’s where we can help with getting recognition of her own immigration status and getting her the power to work before she goes into a deportation or custody hearing.

Why do you do what you do?
Our work is heartbreaking on a daily basis, but it feels so good that we are there. I look at the women who come to us and I wonder if I was in that situation, would I have that courage? Probably not. So usually, I am both touched and really motivated to serve. It is their strength that keeps us all doing it. At Tahirih, we have a 99% litigation record which is incredibly satisfying. It’s a great feeling to take a call from a woman and be able to say, “The law protects you and we can help you access that law.”

To watch these incredibly generous pro bono lawyers step up and take each case is also amazing, and I’ve had lawyers come to me and say, “This is why I went to law school! How can I support you more?” The attorneys I work with are incredibly giving and gracious and bright. And of course we also get to work with academic experts all over the world who help us explain to a judge what cultural reasons prevent a woman being safe if she is forced to return to her home country. They too give us their time for free, as do the medical professionals who help us document injuries or give support when the safety net of free medical care breaks down. Every day I have a lot of reasons to be grateful that I am going to work.

What does Houston mean to you?
Houston people are incredibly generous and kind in a way that I haven’t experienced in other places I’ve lived. Whether it’s the heat that makes everyone slow down a little, I don’t know, but it’s a very open city and welcoming to new individuals and to new endeavors. And Houston sucks you in very quickly! I would not leave now, and I can even say that in August!

Who has been the greatest influence on your life?
It would probably be my mother though she passed away at a younger age. She was a theater teacher in a high school in California and she had a lot of spark and a commitment to helping folks around her, and she was persistent. I remember coming home one day and there was a boy sitting at our table who was perhaps 14, and she said, “This is now our new son!” It turned out that he was being beaten at home and he’d written an essay about it, so mom helped him get out of there.

She always taught me, “We don’t have to accept this if we can change it.” For example, I remember as a kid shopping with my mom and she realized that the boys’ tailoring was free but for the girls’ you had to pay, so she made a huge fuss about it. She demanded that alterations to a pair of pants were done for free.  By that time, I didn’t even want the pants, I just wanted to get out of there! But there was such integrity within her that I learned about achieving justice for people. She had such a love for the community, it really has influenced me.

What advice would you give to someone new to the law?
Don’t forget about balance. Your career is one thing, but it doesn’t lead to happiness. You’ve got to follow some true caretaking advice and ask yourself how are you going to be part of a larger community, because at least for me I’ve seen what really makes you happy is your family, your community and giving back.

So how to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
I’m blessed that at Tahirih we value flexibility in order to have harmony between work and life. So I would say to a newcomer, don’t forget that – family is critical to happiness.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
On the soccer field! I play for various teams in Houston and it’s fun. It’s just a great bunch of friends running around together! Being in a team does something for me.

What is your favorite restaurant?
There are so many to choose from, but I would say Goode Company Barbecue, though we must sit outside and it has to be at least October!

What is your Houston secret?
Houston is so demographically rich, and the Hua Xia Chinese School is one of the many amazing Chinese Mandarin schools in town. Everyone there is incredibly welcoming and friendly, and it offers the most amazing teachers for foreign languages. I first found Hua Xia when Joseph and Alex were attending extended day at their elementary school. A teacher came in from Hua Xia to teach them Mandarin, but he disguised it as teaching them origami and my boys both loved it and the teacher. So when he left, they demanded to follow him to Hua Xia so they could continue to learn from him. I tried to learn Chinese too, but I was really bad!

If you could change one thing about Houston…
We have a fantastic community here in Braes Heights – our ball fields, our YMCA, our library and our great elementary and middle schools. But I’d love there to be a way that we could extend some resources to help other communities to have that same cohesion. We have a very strong neighborhood association and we have a strong Constable so the neighborhood’s safe. If I don’t get home on time and my kids are in the house, I’m not worried. A lot of other communities are almost there, but I wish we could recreate all those essential elements in many more neighborhoods in the city, in particular the type of neighborhoods that my clients come from, where they are too scared to let their kids leave their apartment building.

For more information about the work Anne and her team do at the Tahirih Justice Center, visit

Do they hear when you cry? by Layli Miller-Muro and Fauziya Kassindja is published by Delacorte Press (1998)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Diane Zola

Diane Zola is the Director of Artistic Administration for Houston Grand Opera (HGO), having joined the company as Director of the young artist program, the Houston Grand Opera Studio. She also assisted the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow create its own young artist program. She began her career as an opera singer and continues to give masterclasses to singers at major opera houses and music festivals all over the world and regularly served on the judging panels for prestigious international vocal competitions.  In 2012, she suffered severe injuries when she was hit by a car, but continued her work for HGO throughout her recovery in hospital and her rehabilitation period at home.

What’s your story, Diane?
My grandparents emigrated from Ukraine to Canada and both of my parents grew up as Canadians. My mom had been teaching in the States and when they got married they decided to live in the States permanently. My parents became US citizens after my sister and I were born. I think having that heritage is really important in everything I do. We were very ethnically-oriented and committed to the Ukrainian Catholic Church; I grew up with a mother and a father who felt it was essential to give back and to do things for people and to help someone who was down. I think that has impacted my life tremendously.

I grew up in Detroit at a time before the city started its downward spiral, when it was an exciting city with a lot going on. Ours was a really musical family, my poor mother was my first piano teacher and I think I caused her probably more agony during those piano lessons than any other pupil she taught. My dad had a wonderful tenor voice and sang in the church choir with me and my sister.  I played the piano and the violin – I also played the trombone for one year in my senior year at high school, learning just enough to be the third trombone in the jazz band.

We also had a real interest in other countries and other nationalities’ customs.  I couldn’t understand how you could live in a city like Detroit and not go over the river to Canada. There were so many people I was at school with who had never been to Windsor, or had never taken a trip to Toronto which was less than four hours away!  The one big regret in my life is that I didn’t learn to speak Ukrainian fluently. It was not because our parents didn’t try, it is a skill I really could have used later in my life, especially now with my work in Eastern Europe.

I wanted to be a singer from the time I was 16. Before that I wanted to be a teacher or a nun, or both. I remember my mom saying, “If you’re going to enter the convent, then you are going to go to university and live out in the world first.” Then by the time I was 16, I had realized that I had a talent that people said was somewhat special and after that, I just wanted to sing.

I was maybe at times a little too focused on just the singing, I could have broadened some horizons, but I put everything I had into it. I struggled for a lot of years though I had some success.  Because I had played the violin for so long, I had a big interest in orchestral music and chamber music and I used to go to all those concerts while I was in school. I feel it helped round me out to be the person I am and gave me what I bring to work in my job today.  I have a rounded esthetic for singers and music-making, about how voices carry, how well I hear someone singing a role and how different it is to sing Strauss as opposed to Verdi or Wagner to Mozart.  I have an understanding of all that.

However, I had a voice that people didn’t know what to do with. I had a really high voice, but I also had what I would describe as an Eastern European sound with steel to it. I was floundering for a year after getting my Masters, so I cooked in a monastery in Toronto for a year while I lived with my aunt and uncle. These wonderful priests had known me since I was young because my uncle belonged to the order. They ran a high school and there was another lady from the Ukraine who cooked too so when I wasn’t cooking I did proofreading for the Ukrainian English magazine. It was a fascinating year for me, but I was still struggling with what to do vocally, so I started my doctorate at the University of Texas. My parents so wanted me to finish my doctorate because everyone felt that I could teach then, but I really didn’t want to teach in a voice studio. So finally I said, “That’s it!” and I moved to New York so that I could struggle with a lot of other performers there!

I worked in a law firm and I actually worked alongside Renee Fleming who is now an internationally-renowned soprano! We both worked there along with about 25 other singers and they’d let us come and go. So I’d go to Europe for a while and then come back to New York and there would still be a job for me. Finally though, one has to face reality. I had certain dreams – I wanted to be married, I wanted to have children and I wanted to sing – and none of those things were happening! Finally a job came up at Columbia Artists Management. I was someone who helped a lot of people.  With my singer friends, I took care of them, of their mail and their personal responsibilities when they were away, and I went to performances like crazy so I knew voices and the repertoire.  I ended up being an artists’ manager for ten years, at Columbia Artists for a while and then I founded my own management. In that time, I also travelled for a while with mezzo-soprano, Dolora Zajick, as her personal assistant and I also drove Tatiana Troyanos, who was my personal idol. I think she was one of the greatest singers who ever walked the face of the earth.

I was then bought out by a medium-sized management and as much as I loved the work I was doing with the singers, I found it challenging and at times disappointing. As an agent, you are never really part of the artistic process and that bothered me. If things went well, you never really had a part in it, and if things didn’t go well, it was all your fault! OK, I can be the bad guy up to a point, but let’s be realistic, if you didn’t sing well, it’s not my fault!

Diane Zola giving a masterclass to young singers at the
Cincinnati Conservatory of Music residency in Spoleto, Italy
(photo by Betsy Kershner)
During that time I was managing a number of singers from the Houston Grand Opera Studio so I was in Houston a lot. One of my dearest friends, Gayletha Nichols, was Director of the HGO Studio at the time – we had met in Germany during the 1980s when we were both doing auditions. Gayletha and I would visit about what we wanted to do with our lives and I said, “I really want to work for a company and be part of a family where everyone is a team, and if things go well you are part of that team and if things go badly, you are part of that team also, not just a third wheel.” Then Gayletha received an invitation to go to the Met to be director of the National Council Auditions and she said, “I really think you need to do this job.”

I already knew HGO’s General Director David Gockley, so I applied for the position and it was quite a process to go through and then, all of a sudden I was moving to Houston. I never thought I would leave New York City, but on my birthday, July 31st, 2000, I moved to Houston to be the Director of the Houston Grand Opera Studio.  It’s been an amazing trip. I can’t believe I am in my 14th season at HGO.

When David Gockley left Houston for San Francisco, he took the Artistic Administrator with him. So in September of 2005 I become HGO’s Artistic Administrator. It was extremely challenging at first as I continued as the Director of the HGO Studio for an additional 6 months, and tried to adapt to my new position at the same time.

It was a challenge to let go of the Opera Studio in a lot of ways, but as time has gone on, it’s has become easier.  Plus I found another way that I can still work with young singers. I have been going to Moscow since 2001 to work with young singers there and had brought a number of the young singers to Houston to be members of the Studio. Then the Bolshoi Opera decided to start its own young artists program and asked me to act as their consultant to help develop a business plan and launch their studio. That was so exciting.  I make maybe three trips to Moscow each year. I’ve also been very active in judging vocal competitions, whether it’s the Metropolitan Opera’s competition in New York or competitions elsewhere in the States or in Europe. I was recently in Warsaw to judge the Moniuszcko Competition.

Why do you do what you do?
It’s exciting to be at the very beginning of the process of a production, talking about who the artists are going to be and talking to the directors and conductors about the singers they want, then trying to put all the puzzle pieces together. To watch it bloom like a flower on the stage is so rewarding.  I love what I do – most of the time! We do sometimes have our disappointments.

I have a great team that I work with, starting with Mark Lear, who is the Associate Artistic Administrator.  He is an amazing support. Without Mark, I would truly be lost.  People like Mark are not working for themselves, they are working to make HGO the very best we can make it, it’s so gratifying.

Diane Zola as La Duchesse de Crackentorp in
HGO's La Fille du Regiment in 2007

Sometimes I think I’m a little selfish, and then I think, “But you are bringing such beauty to the world, a beauty that the world needs.” Not everyone can be a doctor and save lives, but I think maybe we save a soul or a heart once in a while with the music we put on stage. It sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but that’s how I feel.

Who has been the greatest influence on your life?
Overall it’s my mom because she was someone who just loved learning and loved people.  It was never too much to add one more person to the family, whether it was an exchange student or a friend staying with us while they were ill. This went on my whole life and that was part of both my mom’s and my dad’s belief in being good Catholics, good Christians, and that again has impacted me.  You know, my father was a saint! It would be one old lady after the next who was put in the spare bedroom and he never complained! He would say to Mom, “We’ve got to do this.” You know, one time they went to the station to pick up an exchange student from Switzerland and when they got there, there were a handful of kids from Liberia with nowhere to go, so they took one of them home. I grew up with that esthetic, I was so fortunate.

What advice would you give to a young singer who was perhaps struggling, like you did, to find their place?
I always say that there is life after singing. Like a lot of young singers, I felt my life would be over if I couldn’t sing, but life isn’t over at all. If you want to stay in the field, there is so much to do, whether it’s teaching or mentoring or working in a school or opera house. You know, what’s wrong with putting together contracts and schedules?  It’s exciting and fulfilling.  I think that the biggest thing is to keep your options open, don’t ever think, “I’ll never do that” because you should never say never. I learned that the hard way!

How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
It’s something I still struggle with.  It’s really easy when we are in the heat of production to have no balance at all. All you do is come to work and go home and that doesn’t make for someone who uses their time well. So I’ve been much more committed to making sure I am exercising, especially after the two accidents I had.I was badly injured when I was hit by a car last year and I struggled to recuperate. When I was finally fit to travel again this spring, I went to Europe and I fell, breaking my foot and my wrist. All that has given me a lot of pause for thought about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. It has also helped me think a lot more about finding balance in life and remembering that you have to take time to smell the roses.

Exercise for me is now about building my body back. I have always struggled with my weight, but now I am back on the Weight Watchers program and I’m really being conscious of what I’m eating. I turned 60 this summer and I have to think seriously about living alone, taking care of myself and trying to remain as healthy as I possibly can. Sometimes that means giving up that piece of cake or that hamburger – and I really love good hamburgers, and the French fries and the glass of wine with it, but I was enjoying all of that a little too much in the last year!

But balance is also about saying, “I’m turning the cell phone off right now for the rest of the evening.” I never take a day when I don’t look at emails, but though I still struggle with putting work away, I’ve made a commitment to put the cell phone away when I go out for dinner with a friend, and that’s a big step. If we are in production, it’s a little different because if an artist gets sick they need to be able to contact me. But when we are not in production, it’s fine.

I also made time this summer to go out to dinner and lunch more with friends – you say all year that you are going to do it and then all of a sudden it’s September and the start of the opera season, and then suddenly it’s May and you haven’t done any of it.  So I’ve been putting myself out there a little more. I’ve also been making myself go to bed a little earlier so I can read more. Reading is a real source of peace and it takes me to another world which is really fabulous.

What does Houston mean to you?
I’m sure so many people are going to say this but, as a community, the generosity of Houstonians is unbelievable. I saw this first hand when I moved here in 2000, people took care of me and introduced me to the city.  Then last year, through my struggles after the car accident when I couldn’t do anything, the help that I received was truly incredible. I’ve also watched how people help the young artists that come to Houston. I’m not talking about the people that give money, though of course that is greatly appreciated, it’s about the people who give their time, the people who do an extra ride into town to pick someone up to go to the airport or take them to a doctor. You don’t see that generosity of time and generosity of spirit in a lot of places.  I think that is what Houston means to me.

Houston Grand Opera's AIDA
with Dolora Zajick and Liudmiyla Monastyrska
Photo by Lynn Lane
Where is your happy place in Houston?
That is the hardest question!  One of them is in the Wortham Theater. When a production works, when it is just going, it makes me so proud. Not proud of myself but proud what we have brought to the public, bringing a composer to life or a singer that we are introducing to everyone, that’s a happy place for me.

Another happy place for me is to go to church at St Anne’s. I find real peace there, even when I’m really pushed. We can go to mass a million different times between Saturday night and Sunday night, but there’s a certain peace that I find by going and just sitting being quiet.

I also used to love to go to Memorial Park to walk, enjoying the trees and the wildlife, but of course I can’t do that right now and I miss it. I would still enjoy it, even with all the trees that are gone.

What is your favorite restaurant?
That’s hard too, because Houston is so full of so many good restaurants, but I love Backstreet Café. It’s in my neighborhood and I love that I can sit in a comfy cozy room there or in the sunnier back room or, when the weather is beautiful in January and February, I can sit outside. I love the food there, and I love to go to Barnaby’s on Shepherd for hamburgers! I have French fries and a glass of red wine and that for me is absolute heaven!

What is your Houston secret?
I think that the red beans and rice at Treebeards restaurant on Market Square just says “Houston” to me, even though I know it’s really Cajun and from New Orleans.

If you could change one thing about Houston…
The summer weather, without a doubt! I know people say that the humidity is good for your skin, but I just can’t stand it! I’d rather just spritz my face! Yes, the weather would be the one thing I’d change, along with getting more people to know about Houston Grand Opera!

For more information about the Houston Grand Opera’s performances, of which Diane is so proud, please visit

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Susana Monteverde

Susana Monteverde with part of
Skywriting by Daniel Anguilu & Aaron Parazette,
a mural on the north wall of the Lawndale Arts Center
Susana Monteverde is the owner of SuMo Art, specializing in art education.  Susana seeks to build rich connections between people and contemporary artworks.  She is also the President of the Friends of Women’s Studies at the University of Houston. She is married to William Grimsinger and has one daughter, Isabel.

What’s your story, Susana?
I was born and raised in Mexico City.  When I graduated high school, I came to the University of Texas in Austin to study Theater. I thought I was going to make a living in the theater, but halfway through the degree program I realized that I did not have the all-encompassing drive that such a career takes.  The other courses I really liked, however, were in Art History, so I thought, “Maybe I’ll work in a museum, that sounds interesting.” 

My last undergraduate semester, I decided to take a class with Sue Mayer, who taught Museum Education.  When I told her that I was from Theater, she said, “I love Theater people! Come!”  Her class was called Methods of Art Presentation. A boring title but it was an unusual course geared towards future art teachers, taught in what is now the Blanton Museum at UT.  All education students had take a public speaking class and Sue thought it was ridiculous to have teachers, and art teachers in particular, taking just a standard public speaking class. Why not teach them about art presentation in an art museum?  When I took that class, my world opened up.  It was brilliant, like Technicolor!  And I did it well!  So in graduate school I studied Art Education with a specialization in museums.

As I finished, my husband William was coming out of law school.  We knew we wanted to stay in Texas because William had passed the Bar here, but where did we want to go that would offer both of us opportunities?  We decided that Houston was that place because he had done a clerkship here and the museum scene in town is amazing. 

I started out as a freelance art educator, working with arts organizations and on projects all over the city. I worked for the Houston Center for Photography, writing curriculum and teaching a program called Girls Own Stories for 3rd and 4th grade girls in under-served communities.  We would do autobiographical portraiture with them and it was so much fun!  I was able to use not only my art education training but my theater training too. 

I also worked at the Contemporary Art Museum at the inception of their Frequently Asked Questions program.  Contemporary art can be very challenging at times, not least when the Museum presented Andres Serrano and his best known piece, Piss Christ, which had a crucifix submerged in a beaker of urine.  The photograph is so beautiful, the color and the atmosphere it creates is gorgeous, but it was obviously very upsetting to a lot of people.  The Museum was very concerned about protests, so they created a Frequently Asked Questions team.  Instead of having docents giving tours, they would have the FAQ team placed around the gallery ready to discuss the artwork with anyone who had questions. And it worked! In fact, it worked so well there was no controversy and they decided to keep the Frequently Asked Questions team on hand for subsequent exhibitions. 

I then worked at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston as the liaison officer between the museum and Talento Bilingüe de Houston.  It was an experiment, set up to build stronger ties between the museum and the East End.  This arts center is located in an industrial area that was not really intended for people to live in – full of warehouses, train tracks, derelict buildings, etc – a tough neighborhood where children were growing up in a very precarious environment.  My job was to set up an after-school art program and a summer camp – very challenging but very rewarding.

I have done a lot of pilot projects, that is my strength; I much prefer initiating rather than maintaining programs.   So another pilot project I helped develop was the seed for what would eventually become the Young Artist Apprenticeship at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Museum.  It involved bringing high school students into the university to make art on a daily basis so that they would have a relationship with the university and with an artist mentor, culminating in their own exhibition.

Because of my work at Blaffer, I was invited to be part of a team which painted a huge mural for Frank Stella in the Opera Hall at the Moores School of Music.  We worked on it for about nine months and I learned an awful lot from many outstanding artists.

Frank Stella's mural in the Moores School
of Music at the University of Houston
I left the mural project to become the Director of Education at Blaffer and was there for four and a half years working under a really amazing director, Don Bacigalupi. We had a great working chemistry, and his populist philosophy fit right in with mine.  Our staff was very tight knit and we did some very challenging artwork. We worked hard, but we played hard too.

I loved it at Blaffer but just as the leadership changed, I gave birth to Isabel.  I had never really thought about what I would do as a parent.  I just assumed I would be a working mom, but something happened when I had Isabel.  When I went back to work, it was hard for me to hand my baby over to someone else, but what scared me more was that while I was at work, I found that I wasn't thinking about my baby at all.  It was terrifying. 

William is a tax lawyer, and around that time, his salary had increased so suddenly that I had the option to stay at home.  It wasn't anything we had discussed and William was rather shocked. It felt rather regressive.  I am a feminist and I understand all the politics, the power and independence that comes with earning your own money, and yet, here I was, putting myself and my child in the hands of my husband.  That took a lot of trust.  It was hard for William too, suddenly having the responsibility for us all on his back.  In retrospect, though I wouldn’t advise young women not to make a similar choice, but I would advise them to have those discussions beforehand!

I have continued to consult since then, but very informally and by word of mouth. Recently I formalized my business, which is called SuMo Art.  As I’ve freelanced this past decade, what I've realized is that I love, and I am good at, is teaching people about contemporary art.  I also enjoy connecting people both to art and to one another.  It feels like I’m connecting people to what makes them human, to that part of themselves that is creative, thoughtful, introspective, aware.

Last month I launched a trial program, Art Explorations, which is a seminar consisting of five visits to different galleries, museums, artists’ studios and the like.   After every visit, those who wish to join me are invited to lunch and further conversation.  We began the series at Moody Gallery, where Betty spent an hour regaling us with stories of starting an art gallery in the mid 70s when there were few women in the business. She showed us to the "secret" room (aka the kitchen) where she stages upcoming exhibitions and showed us brand new work, never seen before.  

The other major part of my life the last few years has been serving as President of the Friends of Women's Studies at the University of Houston, heading up a board of thirty amazing women, most of whom are breaking ground in their field, whether that is in energy, medicine, finance, philanthropy, academia etc.  Friends is the community organization that helps raise funds for the Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies program to pay for scholarships and fellowships. We have dreams of expanding our two-year postdoctoral fellowship to include two or three post docs, thereby creating a community of scholars dedicated to studying women and gender issues.

Friends also supports the Carey Shuart Women's Archive and Research Center at the university library which collects the papers and ephemera of notable women and women's groups in the Houston area.   To date we have over 50 different collections which are available to the public to study and learn about the women who have shaped this amazing city of ours.

Friends is very much a hub for women.  Through our community programs, we connect the University to the community, facilitating direct contact between scholars and the women they study with information flowing in both directions.  For example, our newly-named Barbara Karkabi Living Archives series invites panels of women for round-table discussions about any number of subject areas involving women, most recently, Women’s Activism, Then & Now.

We also connect women to each other, most notably with our signature fundraising luncheon, Table Talk.  Every year we invite fifty amazing women to host a conversation, each at a table of ten women. Maybe this would happen in every city, but every year we have a wealth of riches in possible conversationalists to choose from.  We are now working towards our 2014 Table Talk and we know it will be incredible and that we are going to blow past our fundraising goal.

Why do you do what you do?
I’m not an artist. My passion is in educating, in having that conversation which enthuses people and sets them grappling with art. As a result, I come to art education from an intellectual and educational approach rather than from a studio background.  In fact, I was always very anxious about my art.  I was one of those children who knew what I wanted my art to look like, but I just couldn’t get it to come out right so I would walk away. I enjoy helping other people get beyond that obstacle, to have a relationship with art whether they are makers or not.  People can have a connection to art as viewers, as consumers, as “understanders”. That experience can be shut off for a lot of people because they think, “I’m not an artist. I’m not an art historian. I don’t know what I’m looking at. It has nothing to do with me so I’m walking away.” But what I love to do is to bring them back in.

This presents me with two challenges, one which is posed by contemporary art itself, finding meaning and building interpretations of intriguing works of art which often times have not been studied or written about very much.  The other challenge is facilitating a deep connection between the viewer and the work of art, engaging people in a dialogue, honoring the questions that arise when they are looking, and bringing to light the wealth of information embedded in the work of art.   People are often amazed when I mention that works of art are as loaded with information as are books. We've been taught how to glean information from books, but we haven't been taught how to do that with art.  So that’s what I am teaching.

I help my students to be comfortable looking and asking questions.  I want them to find answers, but more often than not, to find more questions without definitive answers. I want them to be comfortable with using their own formal and informal knowledge to create satisfying interpretations of artwork that otherwise they may just walk past and not give a second thought.  Now that for me is exciting!

Who has been the greatest influence on your life?
My parents loved going to museums and they were friends with artists.  Mexico took in a lot of ex-pats from the US during the McCarthy era and so I grew up around a lot of lovely left-wing people.  Neither of my parents were artists but they spent time with this group of international people, artists and teachers, and that all had its effect on me. Also, my mother was an excellent teacher in her own right and I learned much of what I know about teaching from watching her at a young age.

Working with Sue Mayer at the University of Texas was very instrumental to my career. She helped me see that I had a lot of skills that could be brought to bear in education and she opened a lot of doors for me and honed my skills. I co-taught classes with her and did a lot of training of museum docents with her.   Sue was one of the people who helped professionalize art education in museums.  Museum education, up until the 70s, was something that was done informally and by volunteer groups of women who would act as docents at the museums.  Sue articulated the need for professionalism and for pay.  She pushed for this position to be equal to any of the other positions in the museum hierarchy and to have a museum educator who had studied and really thought about pedagogy.  From a feminist perspective, that’s an example of women doing work that was not recognized officially and Sue said, “No! This work needs to be officially recognized.”

What does Houston mean to you?
Houston is the kind of place that has porous boundaries which means very deep conversations about art are possible where in other cities it might not be the case.  In Dallas or in New York, perhaps, it would be “If you need to ask, you don’t need to know”. I think there is much more of a divide. Something about Houston allows for real interaction. Maybe it is that there is less snobbery, maybe it is that if you have the enthusiasm or the idea, Houston says, “Go for it!” and it doesn’t matter where you come from or where you studied, or whose money is backing you.  I’ve always found that very interesting.

The other neat thing about coming to Houston is that it is so open-armed.  You come here and people immediately welcome you into their circle and introduce you to their friends.  The art community here is no different, it just welcomes you in. 

How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
I am fortunate that William and Isabel are very supportive of me and they are not stingy with time or with encouragement, so that’s one thing I don’t have to battle.  I do make sure I make time for myself in different ways.  One is that I like to swim and do yoga and I walk the dogs.  So I find bits of time, mostly in the morning.  I know that if I don’t get it done in the morning, the rest of the day takes over. If I am not physically active – swimming or doing yoga – I am not a happy person.  And a happy mom is a good mom!

Also having a network of women friends is so important.  I have been able to establish several networks of women friends in Houston.  Isabel and I are part of a mother/daughter book club which is just incredible.  I love it for the reading aspect and for teaching our girls the habit of reading and talking about books, and also because it teaches them how to engage intellectually with friends, something which I don’t think kids in this country see modeled very much.  A lot of times, social interaction between adults is segregated from the kids.  We find babysitters and go off to do social things with our adult friends, but it’s different with my friends who are not American.  We have big family dinners with the kids around and they hear us talking politics, science, art or whatever it is.  Oftentimes they join our conversations. With this book club, I not only love that I have a friendship with these mothers, but also that our daughters have solid connections with these women too.  These are women that Isabel can access, that she can bounce ideas off and that, as she encounters challenges in her life, she can go to and share and get feedback from, knowing that they are women that I trust and that she can trust too.  I think that is so important.

I have also been part of another book club, with some of my closest friends, for 12 years or so. Until I joined this book club, I didn’t really read for pleasure. I read for school and for work, but never just for myself.  It’s a really interesting group of women who all somehow or other find themselves outside of the mainstream. We are all pretty outspoken and we are all capable of fighting for our time and space to speak, and we are liberal of course.  It is important for me to be in groups of people where I can express my social and political beliefs without having to censor them.  Living in Texas, that is not always the easiest thing.  You do encounter people who are way more conservative or way more religious than I am, so it’s nice to find that group of people where you can have an exchange of ideas and those ideas can be heard without it feeling divisive.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
In the pool.  The day can be hell, but if I am in the water, I am just transported away.

What is your Houston secret?
It’s surprising, but Houston has something like the third largest working artist community in the country.  Houston has a vibrant community of working artists, museums, commercial and non-profit galleries and it is a treasure.  It makes it possible for me to do what I do.

What is your favorite restaurant?
Right now, it’s Pondicheri, owned and run by Anita Jaisinghani. She serves Indian food into which she integrates Gulf Coast ingredients.  On her menu she might have crawfish curry or spiced okra during season.  Her food is always so surprising.  It’s just a revelation in your mouth.

If you could change one thing about Houston…
One of the things that I miss from living in Mexico City is that there is not a walking culture in Houston.  I love the connection you have with a neighborhood and a community when you are on foot.  Zipping past everything in your car, unless you have a destination in Chinatown or wherever, you don’t know these neighborhoods even exist.