Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Decade of Vision

On April 19th Coopera Consulting, one of the companies Warren started while we were married, celebrated ten years. I was unaware. The new CEO tagged me in a post on Facebook that wished the firm a happy birthday and posted a video that I have embedded below. 

Reading that it had celebrated ten years reminded me of the many nights Warren and I stayed up late writing and revising the business plan and marketing strategy. But more than that, I had a vivid image of a conversation he and I had about why he wanted to start Coopera. 

When I met Warren he ran the Latino Leadership Project, a non-profit designed to empower Latino high school students through leadership and community service. Ultimately, his goal was to see these students graduate from high school and be successful in college. He knew he had an incredible privilege in having been able to do so himself, and he wanted that for others. Over the years he took his advocacy to the school board where he worked on an initiative to keep Latino youths in school, and he partnered with other educational support and leadership development groups that served Black youth. In his time working with the students and their families he discovered that the biggest barrier to their education was not that they lacked motivation, familial support or the smarts to do it. He saw financial independence as the key factor.

Families were in survival mode. Parents were working 12-14 hour days and barely earning enough to feed their families, let alone be there for PTO meetings, and playing an active role in their kids' education. Many had risked their lives and left everything behind to give their children better lives, yet their kids were not achieving their educational potential. Students felt pressured to alleviate their parents' financial distress by getting jobs and putting in as many hours as they could. This eliminated their time to be in sports, arts or other extra-curricular activities that would create a strong college application. This also meant that the students' main motivation was to join the workforce as soon as possible, even if it sometimes meant not finishing school.

This realization broke Warren's heart. He loved the students he worked with and wanted them to have more than he had. He went to Grinnell but wanted Harvard for them. He fought and explored various options for scholarships for them. If he had access to an internship, he wanted each of his students to experience at least three. This pushed him to think beyond the students and look at the systemic measures that contributed to their economic disadvantages. 

He and I, along with many of our friends and family had numerous discussions about ways to turn this around so students could focus on the path to higher education and not on finding and keeping jobs. In his quest, he talked to everyone he could think of who might shed some light. If anyone recalls Warren, they know that he was not afraid to call on anyone who shook hands with him and he was forever networking. He called the CEOs of local Fortune 500 companies and the presidents of local banks. 

From those discussions, plus some of the life experiences he, his friends, his family and his students had, came the idea for changing the way financial institutions served Latinos. His idea was that if Latinos had a partner in making their money work for them, they could begin to build financial independence and stop living paycheck to paycheck. Their kids could focus on education and build a path out of poverty. 

It was a long road before Coopera came to be. Warren shopped his idea to banks and got a lot of resistance and very little understanding. He grew frustrated but that fueled his determination that a partnership was out there and that he would find it. It took about three years before he found his niche with credit unions. 

I didn't know anything about credit unions when he first started working with them. I thought they were private institutions that only served exclusive members ages sixty and above. I also had no clue that they were non-profits. The more Warren shared about them, the more perfect the partnership seemed. Their values aligned. Both were most interested in the people, not shareholders. They believed that when the community is financially healthy, everyone benefits and those benefits are measured in more than just dollar signs. 

It all happened quickly. Warren worked his hustle that took Coopera from a local consulting agency to one that served all of Iowa, and soon after, the entire US in less than five years. He added employees, became a partner with the Iowa Credit Union League, and launched a series of products and services aimed at helping Latinos become economically stable and begin to accumulate savings that could one day lead to wealth. As we learned more about financial stability and saving, we also got our own financial affairs in order, for which I am eternally grateful. Shortly before his death, Warren visited Panama with several of his credit union colleagues. His vision had outgrown the US and he wanted to make it easier and more affordable for Latino credit union members to support their families abroad. He was excited and reinvigorated by the willingness he saw within the credit union movement.

I joke and say that Coopera was the mistress in our marriage. She was often his last thought before falling asleep and the first thing he thought about when he woke up. I would tease that he spent more time caressing his keyboard than me as he worked late into the night to grow Coopera and make it profitable. But to Warren it wasn't work, it was a passion so I loved it as much as he did, even though it pulled him away from me and our daughter more than I liked.

I would like to say that Warren is proud of these ten years but anyone who knew him knows that by now his vision would have expanded and he'd be more focused on ensuring Coopera is around for the next ten plus years, serving the next generation of Latinos and looking at ways to ensure that Latinos and their families felt as supported by their credit unions as he had.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I [heart] the 90s

Most of my teen years were in the nineties. They were a mixed bag of times. I had the highs of a Sweet Sixteen, getting my license and graduating high school, along with the lows of my first broken heart, solo navigation of the college application process and trading everyone and everything I knew for life as a college student 300 miles from home.

This past weekend I got to take a trip down memory lane via the I Love the 90s Tour. It featured some of the hip hop artists I remember blasting from my car as a new driver and was one of the best concerts I have ever been to. What I loved most about it was that every song held a memory. I was taken back to so many moments from when I lived in Chicago. With some songs, I was driving along Fullerton Avenue in my 1992 teal Ford Taurus with the windows down and the music blasting way too loud. Other songs were coming out of passing cars as my neighbors, friends and I sat outside on our porch steps. The song would instantly stick in our heads and we would start singing along, hoping our parents wouldn't call us inside anytime soon. 

Salt N Pepa, Coolio, All 4 One, Color Me Bad, Tone Loc
The music videos of the songs played in the background while some of the artists performed and I was back on my beige couch, on the second floor of my childhood home, watching MTV and trying to read their lips so I could learn the words to the song. Seeing how much the artists had changed and aged was a little amusing, as was seeing men in their forties and fifties doing synchronized boy band dance moves. But, I appreciated that they put their heart and soul into their performances. They looked like they were having fun, so the crowd responded likewise. It felt as though everyone there wanted to be there. The performers were thankful for fans that continued to support their music, and the fans were excited to relive good times through the songs they knew and loved. 

Reflecting on the concert, I realized that I associate a lot of memories to music and songs. For some people, memories are triggered by smells, or tastes. For me it's audio. Music is my time machine. Play old school salsa and I am five years old again, my dad teaching me how to dance salsa to El Gran Combo and Celia Cruz songs. It was time to clean when my mom played oldies, but I didn't mind so much when the music put her in a good mood and she sang along. Hymns remind me of Christmas services and Sunday school at my childhood church. Too many songs to list remind me of the various stages I went through in high school, from wearing my Cross Color extra baggy jeans and memorizing every word to Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre's Nothin' but a G Thang, to rocking my favorite hunter green flannel shirt and listening to Green Day in the art room, and playing Selena songs over and over again, dreaming of finding a red lipstick as badass as hers. During the concert, I wanted to turn to my date and share a memory for every song, but I didn't want to stop singing along or interrupt the show for him, so I kept them to myself and enjoyed the nostalgia. 

I sang every single song and danced moves I hadn't done in ages. It was great to forget about adulting for a few hours and get lost in simpler times when hip-hop spoke to me in a way it rarely does anymore, and my worries were so much lighter than they have been in years.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Getting Back to Words

For the last several months I have had made very little time to write. I could post blog after blog of reasons excuses but none of them matter. The point is that I should make time for writing more often and I haven't done so. I missed my stories and characters. Neither were ever far from my mind. I was stuck on one story and thought I was finished with another. I debated between starting something new or continuing on one of the other stories I have yet to complete. I couldn't decide so I did nothing. Bad choice on my part. The longer I go without writing, the less qualified I feel to do so. 

Remember that story I thought I had finished? Something compelled me to look it over. I don't know what triggered it but the main character started talking to me again and I knew I would be working on it. I hadn't done anything with that story for almost a year. I was intimately familiar with it but it felt newer in my mind going over it this time. As I made edits here and there I began to connect with the character more and more and realized how much I missed her and the world I had created. I wanted to re-engage with her, relive the scenes and explore her more deeply. I found connections that I hadn't seen when I had been working on that story non-stop. I thought I loved the protagonist before, but I found a new level of love this time around. 

What really stood out to me this time was the dialogue. Throughout different revisions, I struggled a bit with the dialogue in this story. Sometimes I made the conversations redundant, other times I couldn't decide the point of the exchange between characters and I used it as filler when I knew I should be adding action but wasn't sure where to go with it. This time around, I felt more comfortable with their thoughts and it helped me express them in a way that was true to the characters. I challenged myself as to whether more should be said, or less was better. I asked why the character wanted to say something, or if I was using the character as a means to tell the reader something through dialogue that could be better shown through other writing techniques.

In doing this exercise, I uncovered a side of my character that had only been on the surface. She became more real to me, which I did not think was possible after working on her story since 2012. But that's the thing about stories. They will continue to change and evolve as the writer evolves. When I started the story I held a lot of feelings back. I had just been through some traumatic events and I was guarded. That came through in the character development. When my characters spoke, it felt as though there was a lot they should have said, but did not. Advisor after advisor worked with me on digging into the characters and creating believable, complete dialogues. At times I got it, other times I couldn't crack it. I was too close to the story and way too afraid of tainting it with the jumble of feelings I battled to keep away in order to stay sane.

Five years later, I am stronger. I have grown into a different person. I deal with my pain and PTSD completely differently. Seeing my characters and this story through this new lens has unveiled layers I didn't see before. This time around I am able to allow myself to take the interactions to a place I couldn't before. I felt closer to the feelings my characters would be expressing and it flowed more naturally. My comfort with my own emotions helped me shape theirs, which in turn created opportunities for them to interact with each other in a broader way.

When I look back at the version I put away last year, I feel like I did that story a disservice by believing it was done. I am glad my protagonist allowed me a break but then held me to the fire to tell her story from a place I hadn't allowed before. She is persistent and bold, and I can learn something from her. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Why I Keep Doing This

Since Warren died I have been part of a group that brings live Latin music to Des Moines. I have blogged about it before. It's a labor of love for everyone involved. We spend months brainstorming, organizing, and networking. We also meet for hours at each others' houses, coffee shops and other kid-friendly places around town to get all the details just right. We do this aside from raising our kids, running businesses, working full-time jobs, and the other pulls of life. There is no payment involved, it is one-hundred percent voluntary and often we are learning as we go. Before the first concert, none of us had put together a concert. We did the best we could and continue to do so. The reward is that every year we put on an event that Warren would have loved, and we are fulfilled seeing people enjoy themselves - even those who have no idea who Warren was or what he meant to us.

Before the fulfillment comes lots of work and for me, lots and lots of stress. Every year I tell myself it's my last year, that I cannot do it again. It is emotionally draining, even after five years and every event comes with a wave of sadness for Warren missing yet another event that would have brought out that smile I loved so much. Aside from that, the more unfamiliar faces I see at the event, the more it hits me how much has changed since his death and how many people never met him or have any idea what he did to make Des Moines the kind of place that would even be receptive to a Latin music festival that welcomes all ages and celebrates the beauty of Spanish music.

Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, or more likely, I have grown to love the other side of this event. I love that it has brought me a community of people who are as driven and optimistic as Warren was. Some of the committee members never met Warren, yet are dedicated to the cause. Others don't speak Spanish but love the idea behind the event and share their talents as a passion of their hearts. Volunteers come out to support it because they believe in what we are doing to contribute to the music scene. Their energy is infectious. It comes from a genuine place of wanting to add to the musical landscape of our city. It is hard to walk away from that. 

On the other hand, the event has come with personal expenses beyond the emotional ones. Every year I call on everyone I know and practically beg for their support to donate their time, talents, and other resources. I don't like doing that. I much prefer being the one who is giving than the one who is asking. When I've exhausted my networks I reach in my own pool of resources. Aside from the time I commit, I also purchase a lot of the odds and ends needed to run the event. Those add up. It was easier when I was working two jobs but that is no longer my situation. When I gave up my other job I knew it was going to mean that I would have to stop making so many personal purchases for the festival and that was not an easy decision to make. Unfortunately, I was being stretched way too thin and aspects of my life were suffering because of it. I had to make some tough choices. 

Something that helped me decide that it was OK to step back from making so many personal gifts to the festival is its potential to grow beyond myself and the committee. Being in Des Moines makes it difficult for those who loved Warren and want to support me from afar to do so and there hasn't been a place for their desire to help. This year I decided to try to make one. For the first time ever I created a GoFundMe account to replace my out of pocket contributions to the festival. I have made contributions on GoFundMe but have never set up a campaign. To be honest, I am nervous about it. I want to meet my goal, but I feel bad reaching out for help. It's probably all in my head, but it's hard not to think that people are tired of hearing about ways I want to honor Warren. After five years it is easy to move forward and want to leave the past behind. For me, that is not possible. Warren may be gone physically but he remains a part of my everyday life. I often live my life through his eyes, wishing he could see what I see and be part of everything like he used to be. 

All that to say, I am trying something different, crossing my fingers and wondering what Warren would think about this whole crowdsourcing thing. He'd probably be trigger-happy and give to all the causes that came across his feed. I hope that generosity lives on and that this campaign is successful so the festival can live on. If you would like to help, please give at:

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