Q&A with Monica Felix, Executive Director, Chicago Cultural Alliance
The most recent Illinois Humanities grant to the Chicago Cultural Alliance was a 2021 Covid-19 Emergency Relief and Recovery grant.
Chicago Cultural Alliance (CCA)
The Chicago Cultural Alliance’s mission is to connect, promote, and support centers of cultural heritage for a more inclusive Chicago. Its vision is a city where all communities have a voice, and cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration are an integral part of Chicago’s civic fabric. The CCA was founded in 2008.
Q1: How do you see the arts/culture/humanities as being essential?
Monica Felix: I love that question. We give such emphasis to what many people see as the practical fields, the money-making fields. Forbes magazine periodically publishes the top salaries of the year, and that’s how they seem to measure success. But for me, with a humanities background, this work in arts and culture speaks to what is important: creating understanding between people. People across the world have songs, dance, and create game forms that spring up organically. These are methods for people to cooperate, compete, and challenge one another in productive ways. And that is all based on understanding, involving people from within as well as outside of the community. In other words, the study of all art forms and forms of cultural expression is the study of how communities create and express meaning. In a city like Chicago, we see people from dozens of cultures and from all walks of life converging and interacting. The outcome of those interactions can depend heavily on finding intersections between cultures and fostering enhanced cultural competence. It’s a major undertaking, but I see Chicago as a microcosm; if we can create cross-cultural understanding and collaboration here then perhaps this work can be a model for other cities as well.
Q2: What is the most important thing people should know about your work?
Monica Felix: It’s hard to narrow down to just one thing. If I would want someone to learn just one thing about the CCA, it would be our work to support our consortium of 45 cultural heritage institutions. We actually just added two new Core Members – the T.G. Masaryk Czech School in Cicero and the Abrahamic Center for Cultural Education. This represents an amazing expansion from the seven founding member institutions in 2006. Beyond the Core Members, the CCA includes 18 Partner Members supporting our Core Members – often as program partners or mentors. Although it may not sound like much, the work of the CCA is to foster communication between members of the consortium. While it may seem simple, it requires a high level of understanding of the capacity of each organization. Our staff knows which members have language programs, which ones feature community gardens, who focuses more on programs for community elders, who has programming for youth education, and so on. We have a detailed understanding of partners so that we can help them make meaningful and mutually-beneficial connections. Our programming creates several opportunities for our members to share knowledge and network with each other. This includes our monthly Town Hall meetings, regular newsletters, social media groups, annual Activating Heritage professional development conference, and a monthly “Archives Crawl” where members get behind-the-scenes tours of each other’s collections of cultural heritage artifacts. Beyond this, we work on forming connections for members who may have similar goals in mind. This can take the form of pairing members to co-author a grant or suggesting partnerships for a collaborative program if two partners are pursuing similar themes.
Q3: How did you arrive at doing what you do?
Monica Felix: I would never want to create the illusion that I’m following a plan. It’s easy to see someone with an interesting job and think that there is a set path to arriving in that role. The best I can say is that I just sought out interesting experiences and new challenges. I have a full humanities background starting with my bachelor’s degree in German and Linguistics. After graduating, I spent two years working for Chicago startups which was useful both for shoring up my administrative skills and ability to adapt to new challenges each day; it also helped me to realize that I was better suited to careers in the cultural space rather than in industry.
I was fortunate to be accepted to the doctoral program in comparative literature at the University of Chicago where I wrote a dissertation challenging traditional literary periodization with a focus on 19th-century German and Russian literature. I enjoyed doing research and teaching, but eventually realized that I wanted to get out and work with people directly.
In many ways, my interests were shaped by my childhood growing up in Milwaukee. My mother worked at the United Community Center, which focuses on empowering the Latino population. I would hear about their work helping immigrant communities, holding food drives, and furthering their educational goals as well through the Bruce Guadalupe Community School. I came from that community, and enjoyed seeing that someone had taken the time to create this organization, and to support the youth, the parents, and the small business owners.
I saw that work and realized that I eventually wanted to make a career out of finding connections between people and finding support for those who need it. I believe in the CCA and its mission and I want to help it reach its full potential.
Q4: Who makes your work possible?
Monica Felix: There are a lot of amazing people and organizations who make this work possible. We have definitely benefited from Illinois Humanities support. The Stories of Im/Migration program with the Chicago Collections Consortium was supported by a Multiplier grant a few years ago. We are grateful to the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and Driehaus Foundation for their generous support over the years. A newer funding relationship is with the Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust in support of the Cultural Heritage Curriculum Incubator program. The goal of that program is for participating members to work with interns – four doctoral candidates – who are helping to convert the exhibits to curricula that meet CPS standards and then those curricula will be paired with schools. In this first year of the program, students will learn about the Cambodian, Haitian, Hellenic, and Korean communities. They’ll learn about what those groups see as important and eventually travel to see their exhibits. Beyond that, the CCA has had so many invaluable supporters over the years. We’ve had support from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, DCASE, the Terra Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. We’ve also had support from industry partners. Most recently, GCM Grosvenor and Exelon have sponsored our annual MOSAIC gala. Kirkland & Ellis and Mayer Brown also deserve huge thanks for their sponsorship this year. We’re hoping to do more with Chicago neighborhoods and exploring businesses that care about this work.
Anything more to add?
Monica Felix: MOSAIC is our major fundraiser, and it will take place August 8th at the Chicago History Museum. We encourage people to buy tickets. It is going to be great. Our members vote on who to honor. This year, we are honoring Melodi Serna, the executive director of the American Indian Center of Chicago, and Byoung Sug Kim, the founder and executive director of the Korean Performing Arts Institute of Chicago. The gala is built around these two organizations and their cultures. There will be American Indian and Korean music and dance, and the menu itself will reflect these cultures. The cultural champions are Vanessa Vergara and Joseph Seliga who have been longtime supporters of the CCA.
About The Illinois Humanities Grantee Partner Spotlight
Illinois Humanities highlights the work of our Community Grants program partners through our “Grantee Spotlight.” It shines the light on our grantee partner’s work, offering details about the organization and the funded project, as well as a Q&A with a team member at the organization. More: ILHumanities.org/Spotlight
About Illinois Humanities
Illinois Humanities, the Illinois affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a statewide nonprofit organization that activates the humanities through free public programs, grants, and educational opportunities that foster reflection, spark conversation, build community and strengthen civic engagement. We provide free, high-quality humanities experiences throughout Illinois, particularly for communities of color, individuals living on low incomes, counties and towns in rural areas, small arts and cultural organizations, and communities highly impacted by mass incarceration. Founded in 1974, Illinois Humanities is supported by state, federal, and private funds.