Comparative Literature alumna Mónica Félix, AM’13, PhD’17, is the executive director of the Chicago Cultural Alliance. Tableau spoke with her about supporting small cultural nonprofits and how her humanities background informs her work.

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What does the Chicago Cultural Alliance do?

The mission is to support and promote Chicago centers of cultural heritage. It started as a Field Museum initiative in 1998, founded by two anthropologists whose vision was to connect the many different cultural centers and historical societies throughout the city and give them a voice. That’s why we refer to ourselves as a “first voice” organization. We don’t attempt to speak for anyone. We help channel the narrative that they want to present about their communities and put them in touch for knowledge and resource sharing.

At first it was a series of lectures to bring people together to get to know each other and have cultural touch points. Then it was formalized as a nonprofit with a more focused mission of sharing connections, resources, and mentorship. It started with around 20 organizations. Now we have 49 of what we call core members, which are all centers of cultural heritage, and more than 20 partner members that are supporting culture, arts, or nonprofit work in Chicago.

What kind of help do the member organizations need?

You would be amazed by the range of programming that our members have. They have dances, cooking classes, movie screenings, rotating exhibits—but small budgets. These organizations follow a similar pattern. You have immigration to the city and some founder who’s very enthusiastic about forming community around their group. They establish a center. It starts out as a place that maybe offers a few social services, translation services, a small collection of items relevant to the culture. And over the years it grows and blossoms as the neighborhood flourishes. But these are not people who are coming to this with a business degree or any sort of management training. Without formal training it’s difficult to negotiate questions like, How do you write a grant? How do you launch a capital campaign and expand your building? How do you write a job description for a marketing manager? We help with those questions.

What do you focus on in your job?

It’s important to be aware of the grant cycle. There’s the logistics of managing a hybrid work environment, which is a new challenge that a lot of companies are facing. But the fun part of the work is working on the programming. We hold our Activating Heritage conference every year in March. It’s designed to appeal to nonprofit professionals—specifically from smaller nonprofits with a cultural focus. We hold some great workshops like an introduction to launching your own oral history project, or low-cost solutions to collections management. When you arrive at the conference, you’re going to meet a few friends and have a new connection on the way out. And that’s really what we are about: building those connections and the sense of community.

I also stay engaged with our member organizations. For example, I went to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture and took a class on making šiaudinukai, straw Christmas ornaments. Those are really the moments that stay with me and make the work worthwhile. We also just did a lot of work supporting the Filipino American Historical Society of Chicago. Their founder had passed away, the home where their 400 boxes’ worth of cultural heritage collections was being held was sold, and they had to pack everything up. So, we helped get volunteers to catalog and triage the collection.

What other events do you do?

Every other year we organize a festival of sorts called Journey Chicago during October. It’s designed as a monthlong series of cross-cultural events. In 2022, we had 11 events with 23 collaborating institutions in 10 different neighborhoods, including one in the Chicago suburbs. The goal is to bring together cultural centers that haven’t collaborated in the past to explore something between their cultures.

One of the events was called “Drums Are the Heartbeat of Our Community,” which brought together the Trickster Cultural Center, who hosted a Native American drumming group, and the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, who invited a group of traditional Taiko drummers. They were exploring the function of traditional drum-playing from very different perspectives. The Taiko drummers were an all-women group. They take classes and write down the musical form, and it’s very precise and practiced. The Native American drumming is taught person to person, usually within a family or very tight-knit community. They don’t write it down. And women are not allowed to participate. When we had a Q&A session afterward, it was actually the drummers themselves who had the most questions for each other, so it was a real exchange of traditions. But there was also a wider group of folks who came out from all around. We had people from Wisconsin, from the city, from the neighborhoods.

You also worked for the American Comparative Literature Association, which seems quite different.

Yes. The ACLA has about 1,000 members—largely academics, a few independent scholars, and contingent faculty. The main focus for that organization is the annual meeting.

It’s been a time of exploration ever since finishing my PhD and trying to figure out how can I find a pragmatic application of the skills I gained along the way. Ultimately, I transitioned away from ACLA because I would like as many people as possible to benefit from the direct application of the methodology or the main principles from my studies in day-to-day life. How many times have you seen articles about the crisis in the humanities? It’s because we haven’t done a great job of making our case when it’s so obvious. It’s like the air that we breathe.

How does your humanities background inform your work?

A lot of my education was on cross-cultural intersections. I learned how to work with original sources, whether paper or digital. It is incredibly valuable to understand that act of translation, of finding information and then presenting it to different audiences. I think it’s something that a lot of alums overlook. They think, “Well, my research was on depictions of the color purple in Novalis. Who’s going to hire me to do that?” They won’t hire you to present that, specifically, but you’re able to read and interpret. You can write a paper and then present it to different audiences. You can go ahead and study Novalis, but also add in translation theory, go to a few networking events, and join a few professional groups, so you have those contacts in your pocket in case you do decide to pursue that after graduation.

Your first full-time job after your PhD was at DANK Haus German American Cultural Center. How did you navigate the transition out of academia?

I remembered the DANK [Deutsch Amerikanischer National Kongress] Haus from when I moved to Chicago in 2008. I lived in the Lincoln Square area, and I used to go there for their weekly neighborhood night. It was a fun place to practice my German. When I saw the job open, I thought, Let’s give it a shot. Some of the best advice I got was don’t apply only for the positions that are an exact match for job titles you’ve held or skills you have—just give it a shot. They were impressed with my training in German language and literature. My experience working at the Reg in the interlibrary loan office was very helpful, because DANK Haus has a library.

I did some fun things while I was there. I launched a museum intern program, brought on several folks, and then created a little curated tour of cultural exhibits. I created the international game night, a day for people to come from different cultural centers and present a traditional game or popular game from their community. I think that really is the future of societies like that, where they have a dwindling immigrant population. They’re constantly struggling with the question of “How do we stay relevant?”

Could you discuss your UChicago volunteer experience?

I started out on the University of Chicago Alumni Club board for the city of Chicago. I was on that board for, I think, three years. I was surprised to be invited to apply to the University-wide Alumni Board, but I recently joined it and just went through my first board meeting. This is the main alumni board that in many ways helps set the tone for the regional clubs. And what a powerful resource! I’m really excited about that, because one of my great passions is career training. I had to find my way through since I didn’t really know what to do with a PhD. I didn’t have a lot of connections, and I wasn’t going to become a professor. Wouldn’t it be great if someone assembled resources for humanities graduates to help make that a shorter learning period? I’m always happy to connect with people to offer whatever advice I can. That’s something I’d like to bring to the Alumni Board.

Photo Creds: 
Photography by Michelle Reid