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February 2013 Archives

Black Girls Run!

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Certified Running Coach Margaux Mays began running to relieve stress. As an African American woman, she says, “I did not see many Black women in the area where I ran or at races I attended. I was interested to know if there were women like myself that also enjoyed running.” After googling ‘black women running,’ she found Black Girls Run! and soon after became personally involved. Since planning her first group run in 2011, Chicago’s BGR! group has grown to over 1800 members and Mays is still happily involved. She spoke with Our Town about BGR!’s origins and Chicago specific success stories.

Our Town How did Black Girls Run! come to be?
Margaux Mays In 2009, Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks created Black Girls RUN! in an effort to tackle the growing obesity epidemic in the African-American community and provide encouragement and resources to both new and veteran runners. The mission of Black Girls RUN! is to encourage African-American women to make fitness and healthy living a priority. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 80% of African-American women are overweight. BGR! wants to create a movement to lower that percentage and subsequently, lower the number of women with chronic diseases associated with an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle.

OT What sort of issues stand in the way of fitness for black women?
MM Many of the same issues that face other women-- like body consciousness, lack of support and motivation from family and peers. As it relates to running, I don’t think many Black women are as familiar with distance running as sprinting. We may become discouraged because we are not as ‘fast’ as some runners. Some Black women struggle with maintaining our highly textured hair. But, I believe many are shedding this as an issue and learning to place health above all else.

OT Obesity among black women is a real issue. It’s also seemingly true that black women as a group appear less concerned with a thin body ideal than women of other races. How does one remedy the first without destroying the second?
MM By placing the emphasis on health. Women with thin bodies can also be unhealthy. We focus on reducing the issues that affect our community like diabetes, cancer, and heart health. When the emphasis is on health and strength, weight loss naturally follows.

OT What sort of support does BGR offer?
MM The group [provides] a medium for sharing experiences and ideas. For every issue or injury a member experiences, there is someone in the group that has had the same experience and can offer support. There is also access to fitness and nutrition resources on, and discounts on running related gear.


Education tech startup guru, Brett Singer knows how to let an idea take its natural course. His online application, Youtopia used by teachers at all levels to encourage kids to excel academically, began as fiction and blossomed into fact. Confused? Singer wasn’t. He spoke with Our Town about Youtopia’s inspiration, tips for self-starters and his time with The Oprah Winfrey show.

Our Town What inspired you to create Youtopia?

Brett Singer The story of how Youtopia came about, and what inspired us to create it is, well... a long one. Back around 2000, Simeon Schnapper and I made a feature film called Dot. It’s a mockumentary that follows 9 months in the life of a startup. Both Simeon and I pulled from our real life experiences living through the late 90’s startup bubble. Then, almost two years ago I was Facebook’d by one of the film’s rabid fans. His name is Shawn Riegsecker, CEO of Centro, right here in Chicago. Shawn had seen the film 13 years ago at a screening and had been quoting it in board meetings ever since. He said he had an idea for a new film and wanted to discuss it with his two favorite filmmakers. Many emails later, we landed upon a brand new storytelling concept for non-linear narrative told entirely via social media, anchored by a weekly behind the scenes documentary that followed a new Chicago startup. It would use satire and show what it was like to be a startup in the blossoming Chicago tech scene. It would be fiction, yet portrayed as real.

OT So, how did Youtopia become a learning tool?
BS If people were going to believe that this company could be real, we needed to make sure it was something we knew well. We stuck to business concepts that fell within our range of expertise, and what was new and excited us: Technology, Design, Education, Gamification. We were unknowingly building the foundation for a truly exciting business concept. A couple months later, after exhilarating research and interviewing potential customers, we were convinced that this idea we had invented for this story, was truly innovative and disruptive. We made the decision to abandon our storytelling adventure and to focus all of our attention on building a real company. Youtopia was born.

OT Who is Youtopia for?

BS K-12 teachers who consider themselves thought leaders, game-changers, and are looking to embrace new technologies to affect positive changes in their students. Youtopia is about bringing administrators, teachers, and students together into one productive community focused on recognition and social good.

OT What are some examples of ways teachers can use Youtopia to enliven classroom learning?

BS Youtopia is an incentive and engagement platform that provides instant access to plug-and-play gamification tools (points, badges, and leaderboards) and powerful analytics. It's a true classroom management toolkit. Youtopia dovetails perfectly with efforts that already exist within schools; we just make it more fun, more accessible, and more reportable. In K-8th grade schools, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports already employ simple gamification techniques (acknowledging a child positive behavior with tickets, or rubber bracelets). With Youtopia, those activities are more transparent to the students, parents, teachers, and administrators and their rewards don’t get lost in the wash, but are saved on a student’s Youtopia profile. Activities can be connected to academics like, “Complete your homework on time,” or more social behaviors like “Random Acts of Kindness.” In High Schools, administrators use Youtopia to track their students Service Learning requirements. They can also build badges around their service requirements, inspiring their students to go beyond what is required. 
On the university level, Greek organizations are using Youtopia to track their chapter’s recruitment, fundraising, and service hours.

OT You worked for 14 years on the Oprah show, what was that experience like?

BS For the most part, amazing. I was there quite a while and saw the show, and Ms. Winfrey, evolve into something truly incredible. What struck me most about my time at Harpo was the level of professionalism that everyone exhibited, all the time. At 3 a.m. after working 30 hours in a row for a live show in a few hours. Very few people got rattled there. Hundreds of people made that show work every day, under incredible, inconceivable pressures at times. Even on a bad day, being a part of something that unique meant a great deal to me. Everyone who worked there was just so very good at their job. Which made you want to be that good too. There was literally no problem that could not be solved. Yes, money buys a lot, but money alone does not make things work. It’s the people behind those solutions that was always exciting to me. I can’t tell you how many times I was in a room where some concept was proposed (either creative or technical) and someone would say “Well, how have other shows done it?” And 9 times out of 10, the answer would be, “No one’s done this before.” And then a group of really smart people would go about figuring out how to make it a reality. You didn’t feel bad not knowing the answer because, often times, no one did. And, it didn’t hurt that we rarely heard, “We can’t do that, it costs too much money.” Also, I have to say that I retain a tremendous amount of pride in being a part of something so important and impactful. Her show was truly a mission and I was honored to be a very small cog in the very large machine that made that show tick.

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Diet and heart health--obviously the two go hand in hand. Or mouth and blood-pumping organ or...something like that--I’m not a doctor! Luckily Our Town spoke with Roberta Clarke Jenero, MS, RD, LDN, a licensed dietitian and author who founded Figure Facts, LLC, a website for nutrition-conscious individuals. Clarke Jenero is also a spokesperson for the American Heart Association. In honor of National Heart Month (or as I like to call it, National Blood-pumping Organ Month), she spoke with Our Town about her nutrition Apps for teens, whether she practices what she preaches, and tips for heart health.

Our Town What inspired you to work as a dietitian?
Roberta Clarke Jenero I wanted to be able to help people understand how to fuel their bodies for health and weight management. As a teenager, I participated in competitive tennis, swimming and recreational ballet and jazz dance, and taught aerobics in college. I remember thinking it would be great if I knew how much I should be eating to maintain a healthy weight.  In the athletic off season, my activity level would decrease, but often my appetite soared and I would gain weight because at the time, I did not understand how to adjust my intake and how to use food to help control my appetite.

OT What are the biggest stumbling blocks for someone trying to improve their eating habits?
RCJ Choosing to go to the extreme to change your food plan. The extreme change in what you are eating may work for a while, but ultimately leads to abandoning the plan and reverting to old eating patterns/habits. Some other stumbling blocks may be: thinking that your favorite foods are forbidden, eating less by skipping meals.

OT Do you always practice what you preach?
RCJ I really do! What I preach is not a diet, but I live it.  I live it every day and can honestly say I have not struggled with my health or weight since I have learned how to fuel my body.

OT Take us through a day of meals.
RCJ I follow the gluten free diet for health reasons:
Two cups of water before breakfast.

Breakfast sandwich on GF roll with one egg, one slice low fat cheddar and one slice maple turkey.

Two Sunsweet Ones Prunes, 1/2 cup soy milk mixed with 1/2 cup 1% milk.

A cup of butternut squash soup and a smoothie made in my Nutri-Bullet containing: 1/4 cup cottage cheese, 1/2 cup yogurt, 1 Tbsp ground flaxseed, 1/2 peach, four leaves of romaine lettuce, 1/2 banana and 1/2 cup blueberries.

Handful of potato chips before dinner
Salad with Romaine, two beets, eight Sunburst yellow tomatoes, five black olives,  1/2 cup diced cucumber and juicama salad w dill and cilantro, 1 Tbsp Olive oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. 3 oz of cranberry pork tenderloin 2x3 inch piece of GF carrot and walnut cake with 1Tbsp whipped honey almond cream cheese for the frosting!
One piece of dark chocolate and 1grapefruit after dinner.

OT Any guilty pleasures?
RCJ Dark chocolate, cookies, brownies or cake are the items I will make room for in my healthy food plan on occasion. I do try to make these items more nutritious by choosing ingredients lower in saturated fat and higher in fiber, Omega 3's and monounsaturated fats. The carrot cake for example, had chopped walnuts, 1 cup of shredded carrots and 1 apple made into applesauce in my blender, 1 egg, water plus the cake mix.

OT What led you to found 
RCJ I realized as a dietitian that my clients were having life-changing results by making agreeable adjustments to their food intake, without feeling like they were dieting. I wanted to automate the nutrition tracking process taught in their sessions to get detailed food records for use as a teaching tool. FigureFacts is a one-stop database that showcases the good, delicious foods that can make up a tasty but healthy diet. Food can be healing and therapeutic to the body, and FigureFacts helps people keep track of everything they take in and need.

Shine On

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After battling infertility, Katie O’Connor knew she wanted to help other women facing the same struggle. The result of that impulse? ShineChicago, an infertility support group. Membership includes an open forum for discussion and access to guest speaker seminars as well as exclusive discounts from select local businesses. O’Connor spoke with Our Town about her journey and what she hopes ShineChicago will provide.

Our Town What inspired you to create ShineChicago?
Katie O’Connor My personal journey through infertility and pregnancy inspired me to create Shine. The experience affected my whole outlook on life. I was open about my infertility journey, and the more I opened up, the more I noticed women opening up to me about their story and questions about the process. I knew infertility support was something that was needed and it was something I was passionate about.

OT Can you talk a little about what it was like to grapple with your own personal infertility issues?
KO I had several close friends go through infertility struggles before me, so when my husband and I decided to start trying to get pregnant, we almost expected to have trouble. It was still difficult to handle, very stressful at times, and the process became all-consuming. I struggled the most with the side effects from the different hormones and medications. I didn’t feel like myself and it was hard to be as active as I liked. However all the challenges made me that much more appreciative to hear the words “you are pregnant” and much more ready for the most important role in my life - “mom”.

OT Do you feel like there’s still a stigma attached to such struggles?
KO I don’t know if I’d say there is a stigma, but there is definitely a silence associated with infertility. It is an issue that is often only discussed between the couple and their doctor. Women are still apprehensive to share what they are going through with family, friends, and co-workers because of infertility’s intimate nature, for fear they won’t understand, or will be judgmental. I think women get to a point where they feel they want to open up and find support, because it can be so stressful to keep all the emotions, fears, and anxieties to themselves. That is where a forum like Shine can be so valuable.

OT How does ShineChicago work?
KO Sessions are designed to be comfortable and welcoming, a place to feel secure sharing your thoughts and asking questions.  Meetings provide peer support through open discussion and professional knowledge from guest speaker seminars.The goal is to create a community that allows women to laugh and cry side by side while celebrating the successes and battling the challenges of infertility, as well as provide members with knowledge to feel empowered throughout their journey.

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Chicago musicians Andrea Bunch and John Mead know something about multi-tasking. Both teach at The Old Town School of Folk Music, Andrea composes for film, John works as a visual artists and the two gig with a number of bands. Not only that, but they’ll be releasing a new album, Ever Changing Hours, with their band, Crumbs Off the Table. Our Town spoke with Andrea and John about their influences and whether a formal music education is necessary.

Our Town Who are your influences?
John Mead I've been influenced more than anything else by classic-era Rolling Stones, 70s soul (Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, etc) and Bob Dylan--all my other influences probably stem from those original sources. Because of that, what I aim for in my projects is density of texture--vocal harmonies, guitars, keyboards, and horns when I can get them. I also shoot for evocative lyrics--usually a little dark, though I seem to tend toward nature imagery--and good, funky rhythm.

OT How would you describe your sound?
Andrea Bunch Crumbs Off the Table, with John Mead, Cheryl Lawson, Mike Mann and Jennifer Macagba sounds like Soul and Rock and Roll.  We all lean towards funky rhythms, electric guitars, organ and piano and a heavy rhythm section.  After we release Ever Changing Hours, I'd like to focus on adding back up singers and horns to the fold for some shows.

OT Is formal musical training necessary?
AM I don't think formal training is necessary, unless you want to play classical music. I studied composition at Columbia College.  I was totally new to music at that time, and I didn't really play an instrument.  By the time I graduated, I could read scores and compose 30 track midi sessions on Pro Tools and analyze Beethoven, but if you asked me to grab a guitar play you a song, I couldn't really do it.  When I started to sit with other musicians and learn how to make music in a more immediate, personal way, I finally felt like a musician. It helps to know basic music theory.  Through that, you come to understand that the harmonic world is pretty small.  Most songs are made of the same 3 or 4 chords. If you can learn enough music theory that you feel the musical world sort of shrink, that's a very useful thing for learning other songs or writing your own.

All photos by Barbara Nitke

To say that photographer Barbara Nitke shoots porn, although accurate, grossly underestimates what she does. In the early 80’s she began taking publicity stills on porn sets; however, what began as a lark grew into a serious passion. Over the years, Nitke has dedicated herself to using photography to humanize sex workers, fetish communities and porn stars. She spoke with Our Town about her new photo memoir, American Ecstasy.

Our Town How did you get into shooting on porn sets?
Barbara Nitke My ex-husband produced a famous porn movie in the 1970's called The Devil in Miss Jones.  In 1982, when he produced the sequel, I asked him to let me have the stills job.  I had just taken up photography as a hobby and thought it would be fun to work on the shoot.  He talked the director, Henri Pachard, into taking me on.  I became Henri's preferred still photographer from that shoot on.  

What was it like for you to shoot on a set for the first time?
BN The first day we worked around sixteen hours, and it went by in a blur.  Actors forgot their dialogue - one of them couldn't produce the money shot - it was boiling hot on the set - the crew people made jokes - everything that happened just piled onto the next thing.  The shoot was ten days long (which would be unheard of in today's porn world) and I was sorry to see it end.  I was scared, but also exhilarated, and I knew I had been given access to an underground world.   

How did your experience change over the years?
BN As the years went by I became comfortable around all the sex, and I gradually got to know the "talent.”  I would chat with the girls in the morning while they were getting their makeup on, and listen to the actors gripe about how much dialogue they had to learn.  I'd give new girls advice about which producers to look out for, who was cool. I got to know them all as people, and not sex machines.  I'm still friends with a lot of them.

OT You write that shooting on porn sets made you realize you wanted to be a photographer. Why?
BN I was hired to shoot enticing pictures that looked hot and publicized the porn movies, which was pretty straightforward and easy.   I'm sure I would have gotten tired of shooting just those images in a couple of years.  But what I realized was that there was so much happening on a very human level when the cameras weren't rolling.  I'd look over and see a couple of girls huddled up together, gazing off with thousand yard combat soldier stares, and I could just quietly press the shutter and hold onto that look forever.   I wanted to be a photographer in order to do justice to those moments.

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