"I just have to get up in the morning and believe things are going to happen and stay excited. The energy, you have to have it. You have to."
On the left side of the Scales of Justice, we have The People. On the right side, we have Profits/Money/The Other People. Venita Conway wants to not only tip the scales, but to completely change the balance of things; she wants the profit-based, self-interested side to break. Venita was recommended to me by a friend who worked with her through an after-school program. My friend was floored by Venita's energy, creativity, and care. Venita and I first met at a coffee shop on the South Side, where after just a phone call and a few emails, she had a fully-formed idea of how her portrait would express her dedication to justice and fighting for the people. Her experience as a manager, teacher, and lawyer all came into play when imagining this scene. I bought antique scales on eBay, painted wooden coins gold and silver, and created a crowd of people out of plain wooden toys. When I showed her the props, Venita was happy, but she smartly pointed out the one thing she would've done differently, which would have been to paint the little wooden people all different colors.
Lori: I started with the same question for everybody and it's really simple, yet really hard to answer: Who are you?
Venita: Without being too cheesy, right?
I am a go-getter. I'm just a simple girl from Detroit, raised in a two parent home. Both of my parents received their high school diploma after I had my first degree. I relocated to Chicago about eight years ago. Right now, I'm a school teacher by profession and I’m a licensed attorney in the state of Michigan. And I'm the girl next door!
What does that mean, the girl next door?
You can knock on my door and borrow some eggs. I will not act like I don't know you. If there is an emergency, you can count on me. I'm not the neighbor that's looking out the window watching something go down. I'm the one on the phone running down the stairs to see where I can help..
That's awesome. You're also one of the few people who really had an immediate and clear vision of what you wanted to do for this portrait, which really inspired me. It was great to see you get excited, and you just imagined this whole thing with the Scales of Justice. And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about this image that we set up.
Growing up on the west side of Detroit, I was part of the generation after the riots. And I really watched the Detroit public schools go into a spiral, even in the early 70s. The only good teachers that were left were the teachers who couldn't get a job in the suburbs. I had a lot of teachers that would be reading the newspaper and just give us a ditto page to do. There was no teaching going on. It was super sad. Now, we're dealing with it thirty-five years later, where kids don't matter, and it's just profit and money. And I did everything right. I graduated from high school on time. I was a teen mom, but I still graduated on track. I went to college like I was supposed to. I got an advanced degree like I was supposed to, and I'm still living just above a minimum wage lifestyle, and it's just because of the way things are set up. It's not because I'm lazy, it's not because I'm slacking, and it's not because I don't want better for myself. It's because of the way things are.
And you answered the call. The city put out a call for Chicago public teachers in inner city schools, and you went through special training to become a teacher.
That is correct. I left a comfortable job where I was making comfortable money and all I was doing was coasting to retirement. I bought into the propaganda of the newspapers, the documentaries, and the news that minorities need to go back to where they come from, the inner city, and teach their own children. When I got there, I found a lot of good people on the front lines that I had to learn from, people who were there for all the right reasons. But I got into the fight blindsided. I was even fired my first year because of money, cut backs. Not because of duty, or content, or the way I teach, but just because of layoffs. It can happen any day. Somebody in a room somewhere could make a new budget and I lose my job and I can't go back to the old job I love. I can only go back if I want to make half the salary and do twice the amount of work. And to put it in context, when I answered the call, I was ten years away from retirement. Now I've got ten years more after being in it five years, so I’ve added work to my work.
What's your favorite thing about teaching?
The a-ha moments, not necessarily for the students but for me. Teaching keeps me humble, because no matter how well I might know science, math, English, or social studies, if I can't share it with someone and if they don't get it, it's only for me, and that's not how I am. I have to share it. The a-ha moments come when I realize I need to take something from that person, from where they're at, not from what they have, and I need to honor what they're bringing to the table, to match it, and try to get from them as they're giving to me. That is what keeps me getting up in the morning, because there's something to learn every day.
And you do some extracurricular work beyond the high school as well?
I do. There's a thing called Next Generation Science Standards. We're trying to not just teach children content like "What is matter?" or "What are the four or five stages of matter?." We're trying to teach them the strategy of discovering the four to five stages, discovering matter, putting a name to it, and then being able to be innovative with that, to create something with their knowledge instead of just learning content.
That's great. That sounds really exciting. The students probably respond well to it.
They do, because we put the books aside. You do a hands-on, inquiry-focused assignment. What I do on the side is, I videotape my assignments. I videotape the discussions we have in class, and I take them to a different set of colleagues that I don't work with, and then we break that assignment down with questions like "What could I do better? What did I miss?" or "What was I really good at?," so we can share it with other teachers.
What's the hardest thing about teaching?
Not knowing if you're going to have a job. That's the hardest part. The other hardest part would be that there is a generation of non-readers. The world is changing so fast that teaching these children a strategy to learn, is challenged by them being non-readers and the need to keep up with technology. Technology is changing so fast, that what I teach them today is changing tomorrow. So, you can't really teach them something set in stone. You've got to teach them to have critical problem-solving skills so that they can keep up with the technology. That's the hardest part, because I don't want to keep up with it, but that is my reality.
Right, because to teach anything, you have to keep getting better at the subjects yourself. You need to constantly be in school to keep them in school. What else do you do? When you're not teaching, what's the other life of Venita Conway??
I go dancing every Tuesday. I teach Sunday school, I teach Bible class, and some of my Christian brothers and sisters would probably have an eyebrow raised if they knew that I went dancing every Tuesday. I not only go to dancing every Tuesday, I go to a lesson first, and then I practice what I learned after the lesson.
What kind of lessons are you taking?
Stepping. It's really ballroom, but in Chicago, they call it stepping. It's an eight count dance. I absolutely love it. It is the highlight of my week.
What's a moment in which you feel the most powerful?
When I make a connection between the community, the parent, and the student, that triangle. In the triangle, the student and I are together, the parents are another part of the triangle, and the community is the other part. I feel powerful when every part of the triangle is working together - no learning happens without all of that.
What's a moment when you feel not very powerful?
When I turn on the news and something has happened in the community that I teach in, with one of the students I have taught, or am currently teaching, or who I walk past in the hallway every day. That is a helpless feeling when I've turned on the news and one of my students has been shot in the head. I've turned on the news and seen that one of my students was joyriding in a car and had a terrible accident. I've turned on the news and somebody whose paperwork I've filled out, because I'm a Special Ed provider, committed armed robbery, and I know this person couldn't even comprehend what they were doing. That is my weakest moment. I have no control over that.
That must be so hard. When we were setting up this project, you kept bringing up the word justice. What’s your relationship to the idea of justice?
Earlier you asked me who I am. I always saying, "I am the kind of person who believes that if my family needs help, I'm going to do everything I can to get it." Now, with that being said, please believe, my family is not just who I grew up in a house with. My family is the people I work with, the students I teach, my neighbors, the people I go to church with, and the people at the laundromat where I wash my clothes every Saturday. Tuesday, when I go dancing, that is my family. My family is mobile. When I think about justice and what it meant as a child and now here I am at fifty, and what does it mean today? Webster didn't change the definition in the book. Other definitions have changed, but you can go back to justice and what it meant in '66, it still means the same thing in 2016. However, our society acts like it has forgotten the meaning.
Well said. How does Chicago fit into your life? Is there something special about Chicago? Will you stay here for a long time?
It means a dream come true to me. As a teenager, I always wanted to live in Chicago. I had a family early on. By the time I was nineteen, I was married and already had two children. It was a dream delayed. However, when I did get here eight years ago, it wasn't the dream that I thought. I just pulled up my sleeves and made it happen. It's really turned out to be a great experience. No, I don't see Chicago as forever. I definitely see it five years from now, but not forever. It's been a great experience. I relocated here with Ford Motor Company. I worked twenty years at Ford Motor Company and then after I got here the auto industry was not doing well. I took one of their educational buy-outs, switched careers, and I switched to teaching. That's basically what happened.
We're shooting this video at the University of Chicago in the Classics building. When we talked before, you had told me a story about the University of Chicago, that when you were growing up...
Yeah, this is super full-circle. I fell in love with Chicago in 1982, I even remember the year, I could remember the songs, as well, at 51st Street and Martin Luther King Drive. We're here at Ellis and 59th Street. My family never went past 55th street, and I never knew the whole world, the hub of education was only ten blocks away and two blocks over... Well, I'm exaggerating. Maybe five blocks over. I never knew that this amount of culture, and history, and people from all over the country were being educated here. I didn't know how close it all was when we were running in the streets, doing what teenagers do, getting into anything that we could while our parents weren't watching.
That's all I'll say to incriminate myself, but I will say we did illegal things. I didn't know that I was less than a mile away from an experience that could've changed my life and put me on a totally different course. But I'm just so grateful for how when you have something inside you that's genuine, no matter what path you take, it's going to take you back to where you belong, and here I am.
Yeah, I was really happy when this worked out as the location because of that story you told me. Another thing that connects all of this together is Gwyneth Anderson, someone who worked with you at an after school program…
She was working for Columbia College with a program called Columbia College Conversions, where we were converting technology into the lesson plans. She and I did a unit on momentum. She helped me shoot some scenes where I had my children kicking a ball back and forth to each other. And then we showed that to them on video and had them calculate how fast the ball was moving based on the distance that the ball went, the weight of the ball, etc. She also helped me make a film for my students when they had to design bumpers. She came into the class and pretended to be a buyer from an engineering firm that was going to pick out which bumper they needed. It was really, really cool. We did it as a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) project.
In this sort of STEM project you start with a phenomenon, and our phenomenon was car crashes. We looked at how to build cars better or how to build bumpers better to prevent the car crashes. Then we created a real life situation in which an engineering firm was looking for a better bumper, that’s where Gwyneth came in. She was the buyer. She would come in and look at the kids' work and act like she was checking things off for me. I had a letter that I said came from her company, on company letterhead. They didn't even really know that she wasn't a real person who would buy those bumpers. They didn't want to know, but it was cool.
When Gwyneth nominated you for MOVING, she wrote this really wonderful text. She said that your energy was amazing, that the students loved you, and you always wore bright colors, and you were always ready to teach. She said that after you worked on this bumper project together you told her that you had worked for Ford Motor Company and she asked you what part of the car you worked on and you just lit up and said "Bumpers!" in a moment of realization.
Yep! It was like an a-ha moment. It wasn't something that was planned. I didn't lay down at night and say, "Okay, I'm missing Ford right now. I missing putting a bumper on a car. What am I going to do?" It's just like me being here. When we talked at Starbucks, we didn't say that we were going to meet at the University of Chicago..
No, I had no idea that this room even existed. I'd never seen it before.
Yeah. That is the story of my life. Fate is working in my favor. I just have to get up in the morning and believe things are going to happen and stay excited. The bright colors I wear are so that I won't go to sleep and bore myself while I'm teaching. The energy, you have to have it. You have to.
If you were to call yourself something that isn't just your job title, like "Venita Conway: ___________," what would be a term for you that exemplifies you as a whole?
I would call myself Justice. I would, yeah.