Chicago House Speaker Series Coming Soon!

By Dannie Levine

I teased about an interview about the Chicago House Speaker Series in yesterday’s Fashionably Femme post with Janessa. We sat down to talk about Chicago House as an organization, the event, and the process of selecting speakers, and more. I can’t wait for you to learn about this AMAZING organization and equally amazing speaker series. Read on!

Chicago House Speaker Series Logo

Fashionably Femme: Tell me about Chicago house. Its mission, past work, future plans, etc.

Janessa Butler: Sure! So, Chicago House is a great organization that serves the LGBTQ community and those who have been disenfranchised. We offer housing, medical services, employment, jobs, clothes, anything and everything you need. We also help those who have been affected by HIV/AIDS, getting them their medication. We started out as an organization that served as a hospice but now that HIV/AIDS no longer has a death sentence, we are working on giving people sustainability tools so they can sustain a normal life.

FF: Cool! What do you do at Chicago House?

JB: I am the Special Events and Communications Associate for all of two weeks. I used to be the toner services associate and then this job came up, I told Kate that I was not going to have someone else doing the work that I’ve already done so she was like you want the job it was like sure, so now I get to play with social media for work. And I get to plan great events like the Speaker Series. So what I do here: we’re rebranding so I’ve been rebranding since about January; I do special events of course; any communications with social media, and all that good stuff.

FF: So speaker series, which you mentioned a little bit and which is why we’re here. This is super awesome and I didn’t know that it existed until [a colleague] reached out to me. So what should my readers know about its history and where it has gone? Because you guys have some awesome names. I’m like WHAT.

JB: The speaker series has been around for about ten years. And what the Speaker Series has tried to do is create this intimate portrait with people in the LGBTQ community who, even though they’re celebrities, they’re on social media and we see aspects of their lives every day. It’s sort of a conversation because a lot of times we start to think that those who represent us on a larger scale are sort of out of touch because they are celebrities. So it’s an intimate conversation about: even though I have this status, I’m just like you. It’s also a reminder to the community that even though we’ve come far in our rights and legislation, that there’s still work to be done. We as a community have to do it together no matter the tax bracket or what we do for a living and that we’re stronger when we have these conversations. We’re better mobilized. So the speaker series is a reflection of us of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and we hope that everyone leaves with a hopeful outlook for the future.

FF: The theme this year is Authentic Selves. What past themes have you guys had?

JB: We’ve done the political route when we had Hilary Clinton and we’ve focused on trans life when we had Laverne Cox. I think Authentic Selves is not necessarily focusing on a theme but the two headliners that we have [Adam Rippon and Wanda Sykes] are being true to who they are in their respective fields.

Wanda is a black gay woman who is in the [entertainment] industry and Adam who is a gay athlete. So I think Authentic Selves has flown from our headliners but also reinforcing the idea that these people are celebrities they are still trailblazers and still have their own battles within their respective fields.

Wanda Sykes for the Chicago House Speaker Series

FF: How does your work let you showcase your authentic self?

JB: I’ve been in the field of development for 8 years and I’ve worked for just about every sector underneath the sun. I started at a really big medical hospital in the South and I was the first black gay woman on staff. That took a lot of footing. Then I came to Chicago and I worked at Navy Pier and even though – out of the South and into the Midwest [where] one would think it’s more open – there were still ways that I had to conceal parts of who I was in the workforce. Definitely cannot be this bald working at any other organization that was bigger. So I was really excited that I got to work for an organization that served clients that looked like me. That allowed me to be comfortable with who I am on the day to day. And I feel like it’s honored and celebrated throughout [Chicago House] because we are all LGBTQ affirming people who have been looking for a home much like our clients. And even though it’s our workplace, it’s no different than them. Chicago House really fosters and cultivates that idea of everybody having a home here and being able to come home and be yourself.

Adam Rippon for the Chicago House Speaker Series

FF: How do you guys find these speakers? You’ve got huge names. You dropped Hilary Clinton and Laverne Cox as well. So how do you find these speakers and what’s the process like for finding people to come talk to the community here?

JB: Chicago House has been around for over 30 years. We’ve had a long standing history in the Midwest. We’ve made some great connections. Luckily, we have some great people in political office on our side. I like to call it Chicago’s best kept secret, because we’re not as big as Howard Brown but we still [have] the same sort of interactions. We sit down as a development committee and say, “Who do we want?” If we had no [limit to our] budget who would we want? We wean it down and narrow it and our team does a great job of asking us who aren’t at the table who we would like to see. We all throw out ideas. That list gets narrowed down. And we work with the Speaker’s Bureau. And we’ve had this event for the past ten years so they know when it’s coming up.

We’re choosing people based on what’s going on in current times. What does our legislation look like? What are we fighting as a Non-Profit Organization? What do our constituents need to hear? What do we need to hear? We usually narrow that down and work to see who we can get and build from there. People in the industry know about Chicago House through the Speaker Series and so if we mention who we’ve had, then it doesn’t sound like we’re just here just asking for big names.

FF: What are you most excited for?

JB: I’m most excited because this is my first Speaker Series. I’m a little nervous but I’m mostly excited. I’m excited to be in a room with all people from all walks of life. We’ll have some program staff there, numerous political forces in Chicago, we’ll just have so many demographics in one room. And it’s really hard in this day and time to see such diversity and inclusion in one room because we’re so divided. So to see everybody in one room, because we all share the same beliefs, that’s the sort of thing that makes me want to get up every day and do my job, aside from the clients. Because a lot of times in development you’re so focused on the money that you sometimes lose sight of what comes out on the other side. That’s been my source of inspiration as we go into the holiday season and get more resources for our clients.

FF: Thanks for sitting down with me today. I’m really excited!

JB: Thank you so much!

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