Friday, September 19, 2014

A roomful of Inspiring Houston Women at HubDot Houston launch

Through my Inspiring Houston Women blog and because of my love of storytelling, I recently became involved with a new event called HubDot which was about to launch in Houston.
Simona Barbieri,
HubDot's founder

HubDot was founded in London in 2012 by a remarkable Italian lady, Simona Barbieri and it is now spreading across Europe and the US.  The central mission for HubDot is a simple one:

“When we put women together in the same space and put storytelling at the center, incredible things happen.” 

HubDot’s networking events for women of all ages, cultures and backgrounds have one striking difference to the events we have all been to at professional conferences. First, they take place in somewhere women are generally very comfortable – a clothes store – with the beautiful Anthropologie stores joining HubDot to host these events on the shop-floor in their vision, allowing wine, nibbles and shopping to form part of the experience.

Secondly, no one wears a label with her name or her job title or company.  Instead, each woman chooses from a selection of five colored dots (hence the name) which serves as a means of introduction to other guests. For example, if you wear a yellow dot, it means “I have an idea, can anyone help?” or a green dot means “I’m here to be inspired”.  This makes it easier for you to approach someone wearing perhaps a purple dot and ask, “What is your story?” rather than, “What do you do?”  

For those who are really looking for an evening with absolutely no pressure at all, there is even a blue dot for “I am here to socialize and shop”. To get the storytelling between the guests flowing and some ideas sparking, each event also has a handful of speakers, given only one minute to present their story, and also some music, often from a musician who has her own story to tell.  

Leslie Loftis,
Houston Organizer
This week saw the US launch of HubDot here in Houston, organized by a team led by Leslie Loftis, a native Texan who met Simona when they both lived in London and who decided she wanted to share the HubDot philosophy in her home town. 

I was so proud to have been one of the storytellers invited to speak by Simona and Leslie. Because we were only given one minute to share a story we wanted to tell, I focused on the amazing women I have interviewed for  

I was delighted too that one of my IHW interviewees, Anita Kruse of PurpleSongs Can Fly at Texas Children’s Hospital, gave one of the most moving speeches of the night.

Anita talked of her work with young cancer patients at TCH, helping them to write and record their own songs during their treatment programs in the Cancer Center.  She had brought along with her Christian Spear, herself a cancer survivor. Christian sang an excerpt from the Purple Songs single No one fights alone (you can watch the full music video here)

Other speakers included Dorothy Gibbons, founder of The Rose, a breast cancer charity which provides mammograms and cancer treatment to women without medical insurance. For every three insured women who have a mammogram at The Rose, they are able to give another mammogram free to a woman who cannot afford one. Dorothy told us, ‘No woman should die of breast cancer because she could not afford $150 for a mammogram.’

Another speaker, Elizabeth Pudwill, told the assembled group of her battle against a series of addictions which led her to time in jail. Determined to put her life back together again, she founded I Know Somebody – Houston, an organization which aims to connect women to each other so that someone in need of something can find help.

Simona opens the storytelling with story of HubDot
at Anthropologie City Center

We also heard from two young chef/entrepreneurs, the founder of a non-profit organization which aims to help those with chronic headaches such as migraines, and from one of the first female fighter pilots in the US Air Force who then became a stay at home mom, and then found her third vocation as a pastor.

I was not surprised to find any number of inspiring women in that room who would be perfect subjects for future interview, and I will be contacting them in the next week or so to invite them to take part.

HubDot will be continuing its events in London, Milan, Naples, Luxembourg and Houston and over the coming months, will also launch HubDot chapters in Oregon and Barcelona, as well as in South Africa and Gambia.

It was a fantastic evening, and even if I say so myself, I rather summed up the general feeling of the gathering in the last ten seconds of my one minutes speech:

“I know that I am preaching to the converted here when I say that this amazing city, and indeed, this room, is full of truly Inspiring Houston Women, so I have a long job ahead of me to talk to them all.”

If you are interested in finding out more about HubDot in Houston, or in one of the other cities above, please visit the website at

Friday, May 30, 2014

Linda McSpadden McNeil

with Mirror by Jaume Plensa
Dr Linda McSpadden McNeil is the Director of the Center for Education at Rice University and a Rice Education professor. A curriculum theorist and analyst of school structure and reform, she has written extensively on teaching and learning in urban schools, on school organization and on education policy and standardization.  Her writings are widely cited scholarly publications and national media. In 1988, she co-founded the Center for Education to support research and teacher enhancement programs to address the persistent problems of inequity and uneven quality in urban schools.  She and her colleagues in the Center for Education have for twenty-five years designed, created, funded, and operated programs to retrain urban teachers in their subject fields and in children’s learning and cultures. She has two daughters.

What’s your story, Linda?
I am a teacher, my mother was a teacher, and my grandmother was a teacher in one-room schoolhouses, so teaching is in my bones. Now I teach Rice students to become teachers, but originally I was a high school English teacher and that has led to all my current work. 

I was a high school teacher in a district that had taken twenty years to desegregate its schools. I quickly realized an incredible tension between what they wanted kids to learn and what they didn't want them to know. I thought they had hired me to be the best teacher I could be, to be like the teachers who had inspired me to teach.  A cohort of us in the English department had that same vision for the kids and yet we were being told, “Don't teach Black poetry – that’s political.” I learned then what I've come to call the tension between knowledge access and knowledge control.

When I had the opportunity to pursue a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, I began with the questions I had faced as a teacher: “What counts as school knowledge?  What factors shape the ways schools make knowledge accessible – or inaccessible – to kids? Whose knowledge is of most worth?”  These questions took me into classrooms for long stints of ethnographic research, looking first at the interactions of teachers and kids and then into the school setting itself.  

I observed the dynamic between the teachers and the students, seeing what kinds of questions were being asked, and what was being left out.  This kind of research came naturally to me because I inadvertently became an ethnographer at a very young age.  My dad’s work as an Amoco engineer of the generation that drilled the West Texas oil fields caused us to move frequently.  As the new kid at five different elementary schools, I always began by observing:  who might be a new best friend, which teacher would be kind and interesting.  My experiences, from being a child in some very remote schools to being a teacher who was being told by the administration what not to teach, converged in my doctoral studies and my first book, Contradictions of Control: School Structure and School Knowledge.

I arrived in Houston just as standardization was being imposed on schools, first from the district level, then from the state and, now, nationally.  Suddenly, the curriculum was not being shaped by the teachers in the classroom, but by “the system.”  Teachers were no longer valued as curriculum developers.  Because I was already doing research in classrooms, I was one of the first witnesses to the harm standardization was doing to the quality of schooling.  As multiple-choice standardized tests started to drive what could be taught, I documented huge curricular losses as the tested subjects were watered down into multiple-choice formats, particularly math, reading and writing in those early years. Other subjects were set aside, or their teachers made to replace lessons in the arts, physical fitness and science with test prep drills for math or reading.  Teachers were being forced to dump complex writing assignments, the reading of novels, lab experiments, field trips to arts performances and coastal estuaries, as well as lessons related to the cultures of their students, to drill on the generic content of tests that would be scored by computers.

That was the beginning of twenty years of “school reform” in Texas which has brought us the very top-down, centralized, standardized form of schooling most people look on as a testing system. The testing is really just the tip of the iceberg. The test scores are indicators in a management compliance system that ties everything from students’ graduation to teacher’s pay, administrators’ bonuses and even the closing of a neighborhood school, to scores on a computer-scored test.

I never thought I would be studying standardized testing.  But even as that first wave of testing came in, it became clear that the big investments in “education reform” would not be for perpetually underfunded schools or scholarships to recruit young people into teaching. The financial – and political – investment would be in the testing system. Despite all the research to the contrary, despite reports from teachers and child development experts, none of the arguments on behalf of children could be heard above the domineering voice of the testing industry. Testing companies have lobbyists; third grade children don’t.

I believe, however, that it’s up to all of us to do everything we can to create the professional, political and moral space in which good teachers can make magical things happen every day for the children in their classrooms.  It was this belief that prompted the two strands of work I’ve been doing.

The first was to create the Center for Education, with programs in support of teachers’ development. And the second was to embark on a series of research studies that could inform not only educators, but also parents and policy makers, about the impact of the standardized accountability system on children and schools. 

Even before the testing became so ubiquitous, my colleagues and I were very concerned about the anti-teacher climate in the press and in politics. We were, after all, preparing bright, dedicated Rice students to teach and we wanted them in schools hospitable to knowledgeable, caring teachers.  So Ronald Sass, now an emeritus scientist professor, and I created the Center for Education to be a base for teacher development. We had generous funding and incredibly wise advice from Maconda Brown O’Connor, our first board president.  A trustee of the Brown Foundation, she was a social worker who counseled boys in juvenile detention.  As she helped the boys connect back to their schools, she could see the ways schools could be nurturing or could exclude these youth as “problem kids.”  To Maconda, every child had promise, and her support of our work came from her own sense of urgency that all teachers needed support to be able to help all kids thrive.  She was a “practical visionary” whose lessons continue to teach us.

Our idea was not to give quick Saturday teacher workshops. All of our programs were long-haul, addressing serious deficiencies in the schools. A key example is science.  Very few middle grade science teachers had been science majors in college, and even fewer had ways of connecting with the city’s extraordinary scientists.  We created a teaching laboratory in an urban middle school where teachers came for an intensive year of study and exploration with scientists from Rice and industry, learning how to engage their students in the questions and ‘aha’ moments that make science so powerful.   We had financial support from individuals, corporations, local foundations, the National Science Foundation and ultimately the school district itself.  And now, after so many years, the “Model Lab” science teachers continue to be valued leaders. And out of that original lab, new programs were created first for high school teachers, then elementary teachers, as well as on-line curricular resources for science inquiry across the grades.

The School Writing Project addressed the persistent low quality of children’s writing nationally and locally – a problem made worse by multiple-choice test drills and formulaic writing required by the state.  The School Writing Project brought small groups of teachers together in intimate seminars to work on their own writing as well as the teaching of writing and sharing samples of their students’ work.  Over the years, these seminars branched into specialized discussions of teaching English language learners and of integrating the teaching of writing with the other creative arts.  Many teachers have told us that they have remained in teaching, and remained in urban schools, because of the professional community they found in School Writing Project.

The focus of these programs, and others such as Asia Outreach, created by Rice history professor Richard Smith, and our early childhood programs, has always been on empowering teachers.  We have worked to make teachers more knowledgeable about their own subjects and the many ways children learn, and about the cultures of the children in their classrooms.  We don’t just advocate for “teacher professionalism” in the abstract, but support teachers to make their teaching engaging and their classrooms places of inquiry and equity.  Our research in schools has informed our work with teachers. And, maybe even more important, we have learned from teachers what we should be investigating in our research.

Our research is the other “half” of the Center’s mission:  studying what is taught in schools, who is being well-served or underserved by our schools, and what factors in the community and in the policy arena are shaping children’s education.  When I began studying what is taught – or not taught – in schools,   those were classroom studies with me as the solo researcher.  What I found in classrooms led me to take a hard look at the administrative practices in schools and the policies controlling them.  For these larger studies, I’ve had the great benefit of working with smart colleagues who share my vision of research in the public interest. Our research looks a bit like a set of concentric circles:  from classrooms, to systemic problems such as dropouts, to democratic schooling itself. 

After being in classrooms documenting the curriculum losses – what I think of as the “real learning” – under standardization, we looked at where this was coming from.  This got us into policy analysis. Our next finding was even more disturbing. We discovered that schools were triaging out of school the students they saw as weak, those they saw as putting the school’s scores in danger, and they were doing so in ways that were technically legal. 

It was from teachers and principals we knew well that we learned the real story behind the “drop out problem.”  The myth of the standardized accountability system was that it would raise academic standards and close the racial “achievement gap” in Texas schools.  But as we spent more time in schools, particularly in high poverty, urban high schools, we saw that the huge dropout rate – more than 100,000 kids each year from Texas high schools! – was not a separate problem from the testing system.  The gap, in fact, was widening.

As the state’s system of accountability became ‘high stakes’ for administrators, directly tying their job contracts and pay bonuses to the test scores of the kids in their schools, they began to triage out of school those students whose scores were likely to lower the school’s accountability ratings.  These students came disproportionately from African American, Hispanic, immigrant and high-poverty communities.  Students literally came to be seen as “assets” or “liabilities” to the school ratings, with the “liabilities” triaged out prior to taking the test. 

Many schools were reporting dropout rates as low as 2% or 3%, yet when those same schools had one thousand entering freshmen, with only 350 of those students end up in the senior graduating class, you have to ask questions. My colleagues and I started noticing that the school ratings were higher if the dropout numbers were also up. The greater the number of low-achieving kids dropping out, the higher the school’s test score rating. Frankly, it took us a long time to figure out how to write about this because it shows that our state’s education system actually rewards principals who “lose” kids. 

In the end, we never had to make the accusation that principals were deliberately triaging weaker kids out – the principals did it for us. They told us they felt caught and but felt the system left them little choice.  We designed a study to find out if these schools were exceptions, or if this represented a pattern that could explain the thousands of kids being “lost” from our high schools. We were able to show, by race and grade level, how the “losses” of students enhanced their schools’ ratings—and those bonuses. We published our findings as Avoidable Losses in a peer-reviewed on-line journal.  It has had almost 20,000 hits and been used by parent advocacy groups, teachers, and legislators organizing against the high stakes testing system.

Having documented the losses of both high quality curriculum content and of students under standardized accountability, my research team and I are now studying and writing about the threat this system poses to democratic, public education itself.  The test score numbers generated by the standardized tests mask old inequities and create new ones. Low scores are being used to justify closing neighborhood schools and shifting taxpayer dollars to charter chains and others who would destroy the public’s schools.  There are political and for-profit forces working together to replace this essential democratic institution with a market of privately owned, but tax-payer funded, “schools.”  This push to de-democratize schools is important to understand because the public’s schools are a vital venue for maintaining a voice for democracy itself.   This is the book we are currently working on and we hope it becomes more than just bearing witness to this anti-democratic-schooling movement.  We hope it helps foster an even stronger public discussion already underway about re-claiming the billions of testing dollars for classrooms and high quality instruction in the public’s schools.

My original research question, “What is shaping our kids’ access to knowledge and to ways of learning in schools?” has led me into amazing classrooms where kids are thriving and into the current policy fray that frankly seems hostile to children.  I couldn’t be more grateful for the teachers and colleagues who keep reminding me why we need to keep asking these questions.

What is your Houston story?
I’ve been in Houston for thirty years.  I was born in California and grew up in the oil fields of West Texas before we moved to Tulsa.  Although my dad became Amoco’s international corrosion expert, he was the kind of engineer who was a real craftsman and didn’t easily fit any organization chart. I think I inherited that sense of craft from my dad and from my grandparents, and I carried it into what I think about teaching. 

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
My two daughters – one is a psychiatrist and the other is a veterinarian who does international public health work. They are both just amazing – funny, smart generous, caring – and always inspiring me.

The greatest influence on my work here has to be Maconda Brown O’Connor, who was fierce and more than a little angry about what was happening to children and youth in the justice system and in some of our schools. Maconda’s idea was that if you sit in a place of privilege like this university, with a base from which to work on problems, then you have no excuse not to. And if one thing doesn’t work, try something else.  She helped us create the Center for Education and also created the Greater Houston Collaborative for Children, an organization of advocacy for young children. She was not shy about giving advice, nor hesitant to give support.

Here at Rice, there is Neal Lane.  Neal is a scientist. He was our provost in the early years of our work and one of those rare people who is just so wise. 

I’m also inspired by people whose courage seems to them to be just common sense.  Our friend Joe Elder in Wisconsin, who as a Quaker peace negotiator took desperately needed cardiology equipment to the hospitals in Hanoi while US bombs were dropping on the city.  The young people who ten years ago started No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes to provide relief for immigrants in peril of dying in the Arizona desert.   The Black teachers who were assigned to integrate that white high school where I first taught, and in doing so became my teacher as well.    My professors at UW-Madison who asked important questions about education and power and tolerated my decision to do the messy and inefficient research in classrooms . This question is bringing to mind how many people I am grateful for – people I need to thank more often!

What advice would you give to someone new to the education system?
Find kindred spirits.  Find people who value what you value.  I tell my students to seek out other teachers who care deeply about the kids and who are willing to try things and to share ideas with you.  I’ve given that advice to my students and to my daughters as they start new jobs.  The same holds for kids starting out in a new school – and for parents as they build a common cause with other parents.  Sometimes it might be someone you work with very closely, or it might be colleagues around the country who are struggling with similar issues and situations, as we are now seeing in the movement to undo the harm of standardized schooling and get back to focusing on kids and learning.  Institutions are always in flux and the world is so chaotic right now that kindred spirits both anchor and energize us.

The countryside near Linda's cabin
in New Mexico
How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
Through my daughters and through my friends, particularly those friends who have been in our lives so long that we are a part of each other’s stories.   

In terms of place, we are fortunate to have a small cabin in the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico.  It is in a remote area my parents took us to when I was a little girl.  It’s on a narrow dirt road with few neighbors.  Once we’re up there, it’s all sweatshirts and jeans and rain on the tin roof, hiking, fishing, or just watching the hummingbirds.  It is our family’s spiritual home.  As poet Wendell Berry says, it’s that one place that we have to know over many years and know by a particular tree or shifts in the stream to be fully alive on this earth.

What is your happy place in Houston?
The homes of good friends and my porch swing on a spring evening at dusk, when the night herons and other birds are coming “home.”

The Rothko Chapel and Menil complex are both energizing and restorative.  Think about the time period in which John and Dominique de Menil started bringing all of these things together in one of the most competitive, materialistic cities in the world. They were saying to Houston, “What about human rights?  What about the spirit? How can we bridge our differences?” I had the honor of meeting Mrs de Menil on two occasions. I don’t think she really felt what they were doing was courageous.  Yet they created this extraordinary Chapel so that Houston would not lack a sacred space dedicated to human rights, to social justice, to collective envisioning. Just amazing.  And it was a Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero Human Rights event that introduced me to Dolores Huerta, whom I was honored to host in my home, another of the inspirers in my life.

What is your favorite restaurant?
One of the greatest gifts of Houston is that we don’t have to decide!  It’s wonderful that the fourth largest US city has so much that is local.  We can shop at a locally owned dress shop, and a local hardware store where they can answer every question, and we can eat food from all over the world in restaurants owned by families who brought their grandma’s recipes to our neighborhood.   Just about any local Mexican restaurant is my favorite!

What is your Houston secret?
People who have never been here think that it’s going to be rather desolate but end up surprised at how lovely many parts of the city are – especially the trees.  And although the reputation is oil and gas and real estate, or space and medicine, the real Houston is in the mix of people who are from literally everywhere. And if I have a secret, it’s probably that I eavesdrop to try to improve my Spanish!

What would you change about Houston?
Houston is already a truly international city.  The children of this city and the families coming into the city are the changing face of America.  That makes it even more important for us to get education right, to get children’s health care right. Houston should be competing with Seattle in the race to bump up the minimum wage.

We are now the most diverse city in the US, which is certainly something to celebrate.  But I am concerned that diversity without equity is not progress.  Diversity without equitable political and economic power is not yet democracy. While I love all the international restaurants and hearing all the different languages on the street, I am starting to think that people are looking at diversity as an exotic accessory rather than “This is who we are now.”  Everyone is talking about how fabulous diversity is, but few seem to be thinking aloud about the growing concentrations of wealth and poverty, about what diversity means for the city’s infrastructure, for mass transit into all the parts of the city, cleaning up the superfund pollution sites and creating parks everywhere. The possibilities are endless if diversity can enact a new political imagination.

And in the schools, although diversity should be a great asset to connect all our children with the global community, we still sometimes hear that distinction between educating “our kids,” and “other people’s children,” suggesting that we will not make the same investment in some children’s education. 

Houston has the chance to become a very robust international city because everything here is truly globalized.   We have a chance to gain a real understanding of the world by learning from the human connections within our city’s communities.

Linda was nominated as an Inspiring Houston Woman by Pansy Gee.

For more information about Linda’s work at the Rice Center for Education and for her publications, visit the Center's website.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Susan Fordice

Susan is the President and CEO of Mental Health America of Greater Houston.  Susan grew up in the Midwest and graduated from South Dakota with a degree in psychology. She resided in Los Angeles and Chicago before moving to Houston twenty years ago.  She worked in development at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Rice University before joining Mental Health America, this area’s oldest mental health education and advocacy organization.  She works to change attitudes about mental health and mental illness and advocates for good public policy and access to the effective treatments that are available for mental disorders.  

Susan is married to Jim and has three daughters, a stepdaughter and a stepson.  She is the grandmother to ten grandchildren.

What’s your story, Susan?
I was born and raised in South Dakota and have lived in several Midwestern states.  After the end of a 14-year marriage, I changed my life in earnest and moved to Los Angeles.  The next stop was Chicago.  The opportunity to relocate to Texas came a few years later.  We heard the weather in Houston was “tropical” which suited us just fine.   

Most of my career had been in hospital development and fundraising, working with regional medical centers and medical schools.  My first employer in Houston was MD Anderson Cancer Center.  I will always be grateful for that experience, they are only the best in the world.  In the mid-1990s, I joined the development staff at Rice University and continued to travel nationally.  Assigned to bio-sciences, bio-engineering and nano-technology, I had the unique opportunity to know and work with Professor Rick Smalley following the awarding of the Nobel Prize. 

When I once again decided to make a major change in my life, I joined Mental Health America in the late 1990s.  I left a development office of more than one hundred staff members to become a shop of one.  Like so many of us working in nonprofits, I felt called to support something that was personal and in an area of great need.  Sixty years ago, Miss Ima Hogg founded MHA in Greater Houston to be a voice for people who had no voice.  It is such an honor to be here and continue this work.

Why do you do what you do?
Susan and her mother
I have generations of reasons to care about mental health. Without going back too many generations, I lost my mother at the age of 59 when she died from complications from alcoholism.  In fact, she suffered with major depression. Because of stigma, we never called her illness a mental illness.  I used to wonder how people died from alcoholism and, sadly, I found out.

I do think that if we had called her illness by its real name and treated it differently, she might have lived to enjoy her grandchildren and see her great grandchildren be born.  We all missed so much by her not being here.  That's not an uncommon story.  It is a story shared by many. 

Not surprisingly, I have my own story and I feel it’s immensely important to call it what it is.  In the mid-1990s, I was also dealing with depression.  Even with my family experiences, I didn’t realize it at the time.  Our family had experienced some difficulties and losses and I just thought that profound sadness was situational.  One day, I went to see a new internal medicine doctor for an annual medical and all of a sudden I was sobbing. I didn't see it coming, not a clue. After talking to me for a while, she said, “I think you are depressed,” which made me laugh.  She suggested I try a medication and if I didn’t feel better within two weeks, we would dig a little deeper.  Three days later, as I'm driving down 290, I suddenly said, “Oh my gosh! This is what normal feels like!”  I was absolutely euphoric just to realize that I felt normal.  I called her and said, “I am such a lightweight, it only took me three days!”

I have three beloved daughters.  They have six children and each generation has its own stories.  How they manage their challenges makes my heart soar.  The power and beauty of a family is in the love and support we can provide to one another.  By virtue of the work I do, I know and have heard from so many people who have struggles, so many.  We know they need understanding, support and proper treatment.  Treatment works.  Early intervention works.  We need better public policy and access to care for everyone in need.  It’s not just what we are all called to do as a caring community, it is a benefit to the community. It is more cost effective to help people recover their lives rather than cycle in and out of jail, shelters and emergency rooms.  It is really difficult to believe and absolutely impossible to accept that this still happens way too often.

The last legislative session was a good one for mental health.  There seems to be a realization that you can’t sweep mental health under the rug anymore.  We made progress, but there is much more to do.

An example of our current work is a school behavioral health initiative, which involves a large number of independent school districts in the area.  It can take as long as fourteen years for a diagnosis following the onset of symptoms.  Think about the difference in the trajectory of a child’s life, not to mention the reduction in suffering, if we identify kids earlier and they get the help they need.  Legislation from the past session will help make that a reality by providing training for teachers and administrators and also by adding training to recognize signs and symptoms of behavioral health problems in educator preparation programs.  Remember, there isn't a blood test for these illnesses and there is a lot of denial along the way.  These accomplishments were supported by a passionate and effective group of stakeholders, including teachers, counselors and nurses from our independent school districts, parents, grandparents, community organizations that serve children, advocates and others.  We need to support educators and make sure they have knowledge, tools and resources. 

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
Susan with her grandmother,
before the car accident which disabled her
That’s an easy one for me. As a young child, I spent several years living with my grandparents.  When I was five, my grandmother was in a horrible accident when their car skidded on ice.  Other people in the car were killed and my grandmother went through the windshield of the car. She had a traumatic brain injury which left her paralyzed from the neck down and unable to speak.  They expected her to die so they let me in to see her to say good-bye. To everyone’s surprise, she survived and lived another seventeen years.  However, she lived in constant pain and had limited medical treatment for pain or for recovery.  Over the course of those seventeen years, the paralysis gradually improved leaving her paralyzed from the waist up on her right side and able to speak with the vocabulary of a very young child, though this followed many years of no mobility or ability to speak.    

We lived in a small town in South Dakota, population 400, with one doctor about thirteen miles away.  There were no social services, though neighbors did bring food for a while and visit.  We had never heard of physical therapy.  It’s difficult to recall, let alone describe.   

In all those years, never once did she ever complain. We knew when her pain was most severe because she would close the drapes and just lie on the sofa with an ice pack on her head. This was a woman who had every reason to withdraw from reality, yet she got up every day and gave that day her best.  If I had one grain of her strength and courage, I'd be something special.

We did have adventures when I got a little older and she was more mobile.  When I was fourteen, we had a Sunday morning ritual of watching the television ministry of Oral Roberts.  He healed people and at the end of his show would ask people at home to stand and hold up their right hand and ask to be healed.  I helped her with that hand every week.  We were so unsophisticated and we were looking for a miracle, so one day we ran away from home to go see Oral Roberts.  We waited until I was fourteen and could drive legally with my farm permit.  I had eight dollars in my pocket and I didn't read a map, so we stopped at every gas station and asked for directions.  Unfortunately we had a little fender-bender and my grandfather was called.  He had to come and lead us back home and we were in big trouble! 

Undaunted, we waited a couple of years and devised a new plan.  We had heard of the Mayo Clinic and it was only 250 miles from home.  Once again, with less than ten dollars in my pocket but a lot of hope in our hearts, we quietly slipped away.  When we went through the doors of the Mayo Clinic with no money and no insurance, they found a home for me to stay in and did a full assessment of my grandmother.  They told us about physical therapy, which would have been so much more helpful if done earlier.  They referred us to a physical therapist in a town fifty miles away from home, which we thought was just amazing.  Of course they had to call my grandfather and we were definitely in trouble again.  He told us to get home on our own, which we did just fine.   

What advice would you give to someone new to working in the mental health field?
Never compromise your integrity.  Never.  And treat others as you wish to be treated, which is just about as solid and simple as it gets.   When you have an opportunity to work with colleagues and other organizations, always be a good and generous partner.   Together we can have a greater impact so treat those relationships as a sacred trust.  Give more than you hope to get and forget about who gets the credit.  That is much easier in a good relationship.  Not so easy when you get burned, but you can’t let the bad experiences keep you from doing the right thing.  Be the good example for others even when it’s hard.

Susan with
Blake and Addie,
two of her ten grandchildren
 and with Rikr, her dog
How do you find balance in your life?
I love my job but my family is everything to me. I have three daughters, a stepdaughter and stepson. Plus I'm the grandmother of ten.  Six of my grandchildren live here and four in the Midwest. Every weekend gives me balance because nearly every weekend, I have time with my grandchildren.  The Houston grandkids range in age from 6 to 18, so our activities are very different.  We love going to the theater, musicals, movies, shopping, antiquing, football games, or we may just shoot baskets in the driveway.  If I’m really lucky, I will get some time with my busy daughters. 

I also love dogs and have a few, mostly rescues.  My favorite is a big, beautiful white German shepherd named Rikr. He's my shadow and follows me around the house.  My dogs make me laugh every day.  

What does Houston mean to you?
I came here with all the stereotypes of Texas in my head. I didn't know what to expect and I was just so surprised. Houston has the best of everything!  Some of it is so unusual – a house covered in beer cans and an art-car parade, yet we also have the best medical care in the whole world in our backyard.  People who have health challenges do their research and this is where they come.  I love the people.  Like where I come from, there are such wonderful characters.

I miss Southern California and there are things about growing in rural America that I miss, but I do love Houston.  I am not leaving.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
I love my backyard.  People sometimes ask me where I’m going on vacation and I'll say, “To my backyard.”  Also, my husband Jim and I go to Carrabba's every Friday night. With busy lives, it’s the one time when we actually get to catch up and have a real conversation. That it always our time.

What is your favorite restaurant?
I enjoy Carrabba’s and I love Pappadeaux’s, but can’t think of favorites without mentioning Paulie’s shortbread cookies.

What is your Houston secret?
One of the things I enjoy most is when the West Texas peaches appear in Houston. Being a Midwesterner, I've done a lot of canning and preserving in my life, but I have never had such a heavenly smell in my house before.  It’s such a treat to be able to give those little jars of jam as gifts and I absolutely love the sound of the lids popping when they seal to the jar.  

If you could change one thing about Houston…
When I moved here twenty years ago, I wondered, where are the trains? We had three different types of trains in Chicago to get you anywhere and everywhere.  I’ve now been commuting down 290 for twenty years, so I would love to see some trains or some diamond lanes at least.  I will never understand a barricaded HOV lane.  Really!  You get stuck there behind one of those smoke belching buses and think you’ve found a new hell.  The other thing I would change would be the air quality.

Susan was nominated as an Inspiring Houston Woman by Sarah Fisher.

To find out more about the work of Susan and her team at Mental Health America of Greater Houston, visit the MHA website.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Kate McLean

Kate McLean is the chef de cuisine at Tony’s, one of Houston’s best fine dining restaurants. Recently named as one of the 2014 Top 5 Rising Chefs in the US by Gayot Restaurant Guide, Kate learned her craft in restaurants in Colorado, Seattle, Hawaii and in France, before returning to her native Houston in 2010.  She was sous chef at Tony’s for three years before being appointed chef de cuisine in the fall of 2013, the first woman to hold that position in the restaurant’s fifty year history. She lives in Midtown with her boyfriend, James.

What’s your story, Kate?
I've always loved food. Always. My mom is a great cook and my grandmother too but really, I just really love food. Growing up, everything I did revolved around food. If I was ever rewarded, I would choose food, something like a Reese's peanut butter cup, because having something that you love is total satisfaction.  Food makes me happy.

Although I was born in Houston, I grew up in Dallas and then El Paso, before coming back here when I was thirteen.  I never thought of being a chef until I was in college and went to work for the summer in a lodge near a lake in Colorado.  I got the opportunity to work in the kitchen, doing things like prepping the salad and I discovered that I really liked the creative aspect of thinking and working with my hands on a dish.  Unfortunately, the chef there was a real jerk.  I've always been rebellious and have never liked being bossed about.  So one day when he was messing with me, I ended up breaking down in tears.  The lovely sous chef, Timmy, came and asked me, “What do you want to do?  Do you really want to do this?” Then he started asking me more detailed questions and that really started the ball rolling for me.  It made me think that maybe I actually did want to cook as a career and knowing that Timmy was willing to help me was real boost.

I knew I didn’t want to work in an office, even though I was in business school studying marketing. I had always had businesses growing up. At eight years old, I sold rocks. They weren’t painted or polished, they were just rocks, but people actually bought them, probably because I was an eight-year-old girl! So though I liked business, that conversation with Timmy was the turning point.  When I went back to school, I got a job working at a burger and pizza place. It was really fast-paced and always packed. It was so much fun – the routine and the tickets and the heat and I don't know what else, but it felt great. I fell in love with cooking, with the intensity of it.  Of course, it was quite a high-end burger company, not McDonald's, though that might be a better story!

After I graduated, I moved to Seattle to live with my cousin Caitlin.  I found a job and worked my way up in a bakery which shared a kitchen with a really nice restaurant, the Dahlia Lounge. But after a couple of winters, I decided that Seattle was too cold for me and since all my friends were moving to Hawaii, I moved to Hawaii too and that was super fun.  I loved the people there and I learned a lot working at a seafood restaurant.  The owners were vegan and gave me the chance to really hone my creativity. I was grill chef by then and I got to create the specials every night.

I knew I wanted to do fine dining because it's beautiful and it's tight and it seemed like the perfect goal for me.  I wondered then if I needed to go to culinary school in order to move to the next level.  Then an email arrived inviting me to apply to work in a bed and breakfast in France. 

Les Carmes is near Avignon in Provence and was run by an English couple.  Their son was the chef and was trying to get a Michelin star so it was very intense and gave me the chance to experience service on a whole new level. I learned so much, though it was a hard season to get through.  It was a mix of French classic cuisine, along with English and Spanish, but the main thing that I learned were the flavor components he would come up with. I've always been rather rebellious about flavor.  I love to create something weird, something that you haven't heard of before, but something that works. 

Tony's Restaurant
A picture window connects the kitchen
and the main dining room
At the end of the summer season, I went travelling around Europe with some friends and when I came home, of course, I needed to get a job. I was lucky enough to get coffee date from Mr Vallone [owner of Tony’s] during which he asked me to do a tasting menu for him the next day. I was allowed to pick whatever I wanted from the pantry to make four dishes. I remember that I did an avocado and crab salad with pancetta, a really tight little salad, and I did lamb with braised fennel.  I also crusted tuna in lava salt from Hawaii and served it with beach mushrooms in a cognac sauce.   My last dish was burrata cheese but I didn't really know how to use the broilers. In order to warm it up a little bit, I put it on parchment paper under the broiler and of course, it caught on fire! The cheese did get a little covered in ash, but I sent it out with a pasta chip and a sauce vierge, and it can’t have ruined it completely, because they hired me.

When I started working here, I would work a number of different kitchen stations. Then they made me sous chef and then in November of last year, I was made the chef de cuisine.

Day to day, I’m usually in the restaurant by nine. I'll change into my whites and, depending on the day, I have a few tasks such as the preparation of that tomato ravioli filling.  Also, I’ll give some thought to new dishes. I pick up ideas randomly from all over the place.  I have five or six books that I look at, for instance The Flavor Bible which is a great tool for any chef.  It has, say, green grapes in there and then it lists everything that goes really well with green grapes in alphabetical order. It’s fantastic.

So if I have a new dish to present, I will write up the recipe and get it ready to show to Mr Vallone and to our General Manager, Scott Sulma.  Some mornings, I'll be tasting stuff or teaching people how to do a new dish, or I'll be checking on the parties and events.  For example, we are about to do a Wine Dinner in partnership with winemaker Paul Hobbs.  He will feature a bunch of wines and we'll prepare food to go with them. It's the first one I've done and I think it'll be fun.

Tomato fonduta ravioli, braised Texas rabbit with a white asparagus sauce
“This is Texas rabbit which our supplier gets direct from a farm.  They send us rabbit legs and we braise them. The white asparagus is from Holland and is in season only three months of the year which makes this a very special springtime dish.”
People start coming in for lunch from 11.30 and we’re really busy through till about two, though we are open all afternoon. Though we all try to get to break in the middle of the day, I do my orders each afternoon for produce and bread.  I don’t have a standing order because I want to decide each day what we need.

In the evening, it's always busy, particularly on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, though we are closed on Sundays.  We’re open from about 5.30 until ten, or until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, so that makes for long days.  We do have seasonal rushes, of course. December is just crazy and Valentine’s Day lasts a whole week!  This year, we were busy through January and February which is good because those are normally slow months.

During the service, I don't actually cook, I do the expediting. I get the tickets and I tell the line chefs when to fire things. Once the first course has gone, we still have that second course hanging on the board so it’s up to me to keep track of the tickets and where everything is. Once the food is ready, I make sure that everything is right, put it on the tray and send it out. I don't taste everything for every table but I do taste all the purées and sauces before service starts so I knew that we're good to go. I don’t get to eat until probably about 10.30 or 11pm.  Sometimes I'm so tired I can't even put anything in a box. I just want to go home, but usually I look forward to eating at the end of the night. It's a treat for me, especially if my boyfriend stays up to eat with me.

Gjetost, lemon honey crème fraiche, toasted almonds 
and chilled green grapes
“Gjetost is a Norwegian cheese.  They slowly boil sheep's milk until it caramelizes. It’s a little weird because you expect it to be sweet but it's not. This dish is a palate cleanser and although it looks like a dessert, it is on our menu as a cheese course. The green grapes rather taste like a sorbet because there's so much sugar 
in them when they freeze. They’re fun, almost like eating a slushy.”
James and I have been together two and a half years. We met when he was a catering waiter and he's wonderful.  Sometimes it's hard for him to deal with my ridiculous hours and it's been rough at times, but he is very understanding.

The other thing I really enjoy is writing so perhaps that is be something I might do more of in future. Of course time is always the issue, but luckily, writing is something I can do alongside my job.

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
I think God has been my greatest influence. I'm not a model Christian by any means, but I don't think I would be here without Him. I feel like I've been following on a path. I didn't expect to do all this but it didn't happen by accident.  I didn't ever quit because He helped me not to. He makes me want to be a better person and He helps me deal with the stress.

What advice would you give to someone new to a restaurant kitchen?
Don't give up, ask questions and work hard. That’s it.  It really should be that simple.  The kitchen can be a crazy place and you can be very exposed and vulnerable, but still don't give up. I’ll admit though that there were times I wanted to get fired because I simply refused to quit!

How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
I don't know that I do. I try to look forward to little things, I guess, like being with James. He is how I find balance because he has so much love and he is such a great person to be around.  Even though we don't get a lot of time together, when I am with him I'm not thinking about work or stressing out, I'm balanced.

What does Houston mean to you?
Houston means home, but it also means somewhere to explore. I'm crazy about exploring the city. We like to walk around different areas, like Montrose or Downtown.  Sometimes we’ll hear about really cool places and we’ll go check them out.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
On the 59, when you take the spur-road exit towards Downtown, there is the best view of the Houston skyline. That is my happy place because it means I'm almost home and it means that I’m in Houston. Sadly, it’s hard to get a photograph of it because you're driving on a two-lane highway!

What is your favorite restaurant?
This probably sounds annoying but my favorite place to eat and drink has to be our apartment. I love being home with James, eating with friends and having dinner parties in the courtyard.

What is your Houston secret?
I can't tell you exactly where it is but just off I-10, hidden back in that little area by Target near Downtown, there's an artists’ work-yard.  There are ten or twelve huge presidents’ head statues.  You can drive round and see them all. It's really cool.

If you could change one thing about Houston…
I would move the ocean closer because I love the beach. And I think it would be have to be ocean rather than the Gulf.  The Gulf’s okay but it's not the same, so perhaps it could be the Caribbean Sea, but with the waves from the Pacific. That would be perfect.

For more information about dining at Tony’s, click here.