It’s been quite a while since I met Marc Stein and his sister Rose, but my first impression is still fresh. Rose is open and engaging, with a quick smile. She makes you feel comfortable. Marc is more reserved, a bit scrutinizing in a way. It’s taken some time and effort for me to feel comfortable around Marc, but it’s been worth the investment. He’s not quick to bring you into his space. He’s stingy with his words, but with a quick and sarcastic wit. His voice is a bit metallic and monotone. It’s as though he doesn’t care to give much away. He uses a power chair due to his condition of arthrogryposis, and is typically a bit slouched with one of his feet suspended above its footrest. Not the best posture, but for me it’s kind of meshed as an element of him. It seems to suit him.
Soon after we launched ITKAN in early 2008 at the TechNexus space – or original space – in downtown Chicago, Marc and Rose began to attend our monthly meetings regularly. At the time Rose was an attorney with Equip for Equality, a respected disability advocacy organization. I don’t know that I was aware at that time that Marc was more of an illustrator than a software or IT professional. In any event, he and Rose became staples at our monthly meetings, and we were happy they were there.
Change is Growth
In late 2010 I felt the need to move our meetings out of TechNexus’ space. There was a maddening HVAC hum that unfortunately created some challenges for anyone in our group with hearing loss…and some of us without hearing loss. And it was just the right time for a change of scenery. Our hosts from TechNexus and the Illinois Technology Association had been very generous, both with the space and with subject matter experts to present to our membership. It wasn’t easy to move on. Fortunately we found an incredible new home at the Microsoft Technology Center (MTC) Chicago in the Aon Tower. The MTC, while more challenging to get to for some of our members, is a world-class technology space. We have had the benefit of access to many outstanding Microsoft experts – evangelists to use their terminology – and our members have become infused with the air of being in community with other forward-thinking technologists in the open, tech-laden space with striking views of Chicago’s Millennium Park and lakefront.
The changes may be subtle in our members, but they are there. They enter the space with purpose, taking some ownership of it. And over time I’ve seen that physical shift impact a professional shift as well. Several of them have invested more in their growth. They’ve grown beyond the point of asking about jobs at every break in the conversation. More members are asking questions of the evangelists – and one another – and gradually they have bought into the premise that a career in technology – vs. a job – means being in and of the community. ITKAN is less a commitment than an opportunity to learn, engage like-minded others and grow your professional acumen. Perhaps some have even reconsidered the substance of our tag line…fostering knowledge, network and opportunity. The MTC Chicago has become our professional tree house with a view…quite a view!
During our first year or more at the MTC, our monthly meetings were conducted in one of the large multi-purpose training rooms, or MPRs. They are spacious and comfortable, but not necessarily conducive to engaged discussion. Rather, they are great classroom style spaces. Then one meeting we were introduced to one of the smaller spaces, complete with smart boards and multiple monitors. Considering that on any given month we are comprised of members and guests with an array of disabilities…and the gear and others that come with the territory – service dogs, wheelchairs, PCAs, family, etc. – this tighter space might not have been perfectly suited.
To the contrary, what we have found is that, once we get settled in the room – and that can be a puzzle on some evenings – the smaller spaces are more intimate and encourage deeper conversations. There’s really nowhere to hide and remain a disengaged guest. The more personal space aligns well with ITKAN’s mission of Developing Professionals with Disabilities into Passionate Technology Leaders.
The Family Stein
At some point Marc and Rose stopped attending our monthly meetings at the ITA. We’ve always been an open, no pressure group. We figure that if we are providing stimulating, leading-edge awareness and exposure within the technology space, members will participate. It’s been a solid recipe. In fact, we’ve had many guests join us for the richness of the content alone – including several current and former chief technology officers, civic and disability advocates, and even one or two who were looking for another meeting…and they stayed! Our members are driven by more than a wagging finger or peer pressure. They need to own ITKAN and its principles.
We never stopped inviting the Steins, and then one month over the past year Marc and Rose showed up again - and they brought their brother Mike! Mike is as intriguing as his siblings, an engineer turned neurologist with a passion for exploiting technology – and assistive technology – to support a higher quality of life for Marc and all of us managing disability. The Family Stein was growing, and adding to the level and richness of dialogue at our meetings. And as if we weren’t already blessed with our riches in this bright, engaged and supportive family, the next month they showed up with David Peasley – Rose’s husband! David brought his own very interesting backstory; he’s a local actor in Chicago’s vibrant theater community. David also publishes a sarcastic on line news blog - The Internut. And, as with his extended family, he has a bent for technology and an appreciation for the quality and depth of knowledge that Microsoft’s evangelists share willingly with ITKAN members.
Help me Help you!
Excuse my homage to Jerry McGuire, but it seems fitting. ITKAN, as reflected in the Family Stein/Peasley, is stronger when we support each other. I know this is a very evident point, but it’s heightened for the community of PWD, with our significantly lower labor force participation rates - 19.8% vs. 68.8% in the general population for August of this year, painfully higher unemployment - 12.8% vs. 6% and underemployment rates, and collective lack of engagement in our respective professional communities. With employee resource groups (ERGs) related to disability gaining greater popularity within companies, it’s critical that the business community knows we take our careers seriously and are invested in continual professional growth.
Colorful Characters…and the Communities they Serve
Several months ago Marc let us know that he was offering his artwork with the ITKAN logo embossed on everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts featuring his wonderful, colorful, quirky character creations. I love his forlorn but somehow rakish-looking cardinal peering over a bare treetop awaiting his return to school. He even created some vignettes tied to technology like his Saturnian Rite’Schwa (Right You Are!) working in the cloud in the opening image.
Marc’s characters are bold, bright, brash, one-of-a-kind creations. He seems to be winking at us with his humorous themes. They’re also somewhat imperfect, a little off – like all of us I suppose. I think that’s what I might like most about Rite’Schwa, the rakish cardinal, and Marc’s other creations. Their flaws. All communities are comprised of individuals. We have our strengths, our weaknesses, our fears and aspirations. We are colorful, one-of-a-kind and better together than on our own.
ITKAN is a better professional community with the addition of the Stein/Peasley family. And we hope they are a little better for having joined our community.