Staff and Board

Jessica Keller

Executive Director (she/her)

Jessica is a voracious reader and avid traveler who has lived all throughout the country, as well as China and Japan. She has a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing from the University of Idaho and a Master’s in Public Administration from Northwestern University. She’s been a teacher, recruiter, program director, and a whole lot of other things in education and writing before joining the team at StoryStudio Chicago.

Jessica thinks you should read: Raymond Carver –“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory.”

Fun fact: I am unafraid of insects, arachnids, and rodents.

Author photo Makkai #2 '18

Rebecca Makkai

Artistic Director (she/her)

Rebecca Makkai is the author of the novel The Great Believers, a finalist for the National Book Award and one of the New York Times’ top ten books of 2018, as well as The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the story collection Music for Wartime. She has taught at the Tin House Writers’ Conference and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University.

Rebecca thinks you should read: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. You think you know how fiction works, but you’ve never seen it work quite like this.

Fun fact: I spent two years of my childhood trying to teach my dogs to talk.

Sara Cutaia

Director of Signature Programs (she/her)

Sara is originally from Texas, but is proud to be a Chicagoan currently. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine Arcturus; she teaches undergrad writing at Roosevelt University; she is an Editor-at-Large for the Chicago Review of Books; and she is currently working on a short story collection and a novel.

Sara thinks you should read: The collected works of Flannery O’Connor.

Fun fact: During dinner, I once arm-wrestled a Pulitzer Prize-winning author over the last piece of sushi.

Sarah Kokernot

Program Curator (she/her)

Sarah Kokernot’s writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, Front Porch, West Branch, The New York Times, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories. Sarah has worked as an educator for over a decade and has taught students from ages four to sixty-four.

Sarah thinks you should read: The classic, Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo.

Fun fact: Someone once told me that my last name comes from the Dutch word for “coconut oil.”

Jennifer Coffeen

Events Director (she/her)

Jennifer writes historical romance with The Wild Rose Press (Priceless Deception, A Deal with Lord Devlin), along with short stories and flash fiction. Her short story “Tooth” was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize. She is a founding member of the kates and performed with Live Lit shows including Write Club, Story Club, Serving the Sentence, and Guts & Glory. Jennifer is currently working on Season 2 of Creepy History, a weekly podcast she co-hosts with Fraser Coffeen.

Jen thinks you should read: Just an Ordinary Day by Shirley Jackson

Fun fact: I was once a fire-eater in the vaudeville show Numbskull the Human Blockhead.

Greg Zimmerman

Marketing & Communications (he/him)

Greg is a lifelong reader, writer, storyteller, and Midwesterner. He grew up in a small town in Ohio and holds a degree in Writing Intensive English from Marquette University. His writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Book Riot, the Chicago Review of Books, and the Chicago Tribune. He moonlights as a part-time bookseller at RoscoeBooks. 

Greg thinks you should read: Americana, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Brothers , by David James Duncan

Fun Fact: Zadie Smith once asked me if I played college basketball. She laughed when I told her no.

Sahar Mustafah

Youth Programs Manager (she/her)

Sahar Mustafah is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, an inheritance she explores in her fiction. Her first novel The Beauty of Your Face was named a 2020 Notable Book and Editor’s Choiceby the New York Times Book Review. Her collection of short stories Code of the West won the 2016 Willow Books Fiction Prize. She writes and teaches outside of Chicago. 

Sahar thinks you should read: LaRose by Louise Erdrich

Fun fact: Queen Latifah refused to take a selfie with me when I spotted her at Big Sur one summer. She did graciously shake my hand.

Czaerra Galiciano Ucol

Administrative Assistant (they/she)

Czaerra Galicinao Ucol is a queer Filipino writer from Chicago. A 2020 graduate of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program at New York University, their work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The OffingLocked Horn PressMarías at Sampaguitas, and beestung. They are a Best New Poets 2021 and Best of the Net 2021 nominee. Their debut chapbook Pisces Urges is forthcoming from Sampaguita Press in Summer 2023. They are also the Programs and Communications Director of Luya, a local grassroots poetry organization centering people of color, which was nominated for Best Poetry Organization in Chicago Reader’s Best of 2021 Awards.

Czaerra thinks you should read: 

Fun fact: 

Angie Raney

Events and Fundraising Assistant

Angie is a graduate of DePaul University, having studied English, Spanish, and Anthropology. After interning for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame and joining their Associate Board, Angie began working for StoryStudio as the Marketing and Events Intern. A native of Hopkins, Minnesota, she has been fortunate enough to call Chicago home for four years and is so excited to join the StoryStudio community!

Angie thinks you should read:

Fun fact:


BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Jill Pollack • Board Chair

A dramatic arts-trained refugee from the corporate world, Jill created StoryStudio Chicago—a creative writing school—in 2003. As the school grew, she continued to expand StoryStudio’s reach, community, and offerings until 2019 when the school became part of the nonprofit Stories Matter Foundation, a philanthropic entity Jill created in 2015. Currently, Jill is board chair of the Foundation.

A serial entrepreneur, Jill has created or co-founded several companies and organizations. These include Story Mode (www.instorymode.com), a unique program that trains, coaches, and advises people on using the power of storytelling and creativity at work, Content Jam, Chicago’s largest content marketing conference, and the Chicago Literary Alliance.

A writer and author herself, Jill has published three books for young adults: Shirley Chisholm (named a Best Book by Science and Film Magazine), Lesbian and Gay Families: Redefining Parenting in America; and Women on the Hill, a history of women in Congress. 

She is a frequent speaker on storytelling science, and the power of stories in our personal and professional lives. When she hoards time for herself, Jill works on her own stories.

Ansley Schrimpf • Vice-Chair

Ansley Haman Schrimpf is a federal trial attorney and former national award-winning newspaper reporter who has lived and written on three continents. She’s witnessed the power of stories firsthand.

A native of Spring City, Tenn., Ansley began her career digging into public corruption in East Tennessee, where she worked on a team whose reporting led to the ouster of 13 elected officials. Their work earned three national awards for service to the First Amendment. She also spent time on the staffs of the Scripps Howard News ServiceKnoxville News SentinelChattanooga Times-Free PressHGTV Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal

Since leaving journalism and moving to Chicago, Ansley has been an attorney for the National Futures Association, Baker McKenzie, and Mayer Brown. She is now a trial attorney for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. 

Ansley lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and her two middle-grade readers, who convinced her to begin writing stories for them at night. As a fiction novice, Ansley stumbled into StoryStudio Chicago and hasn’t stopped taking classes or believing in its mission since. 

In addition to serving as vice-chair of the Stories Matter Foundation board, Ansley has been co-chair of the Chicago Bar Association’s Futures & Derivatives Law Committee and a board member of her neighborhood association. 

Deborah Walters • Treasurer

Deborah Walters works as the Executive Vice President and the CFO of EXP. Visit her Linked in page.

Rodney Jordan • Board Member

Rodney Jordan is an experienced global leader, senior communications professional and strategist with over 20 years experience building and leading global, award-winning communications teams for UPS, Coca-Cola Enterprises, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and McDonald’s.

He holds a BA in English Literature from Morehouse College, an MS in Technical and Professional Communication from Southern Polytechnic State University, and an MS in the History and Sociology of Science and Technology from Georgia Tech. He is also a certified Professional of Human Resources and a graduate of the LEAD Atlanta Class of 2010.

In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, having visited over 20 countries, and eating his way through as many restaurants as he can.

Heather McClelland • Board Member

In addition to careers in publishing, education, and creative writing, Heather McClelland has twenty years of experience with arts education nonprofits in executive director, committee, and board roles. Heather earned her B.A. in English from Dartmouth College, completed the Radcliffe Publishing Program (1992, now Columbia Publishing Program, New York) and earned a dual degree in creative nonfiction and poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  

Heather has been writing for thirty-five years and is currently a part-time English and Creative Writing faculty member at College of Lake County. She completed StoryStudio Chicago’s Novel in a Year program in 2020, the StoryBoard poetry workshop in 2021, and is a member of the Casual Union of Working Poets through Poetry Forge. Heather believes that finding supportive guidance and a welcoming community is critical to developing, crafting, and sharing vital stories. She is honored to be a part of Stories Matter Foundation’s mission to provide these opportunities.

Heather divides her time between Chicago and Grayslake, IL, where she writes and teaches, redesigns and weeds her gardens, listens to punk and jazz, and provides freshly baked cakes for the backyard horror film festival curated by her partner. 

Andre Smith • Board Member

Andre Smith is a tax transactions lawyer where he advises corporate and nonprofit clients on various tax structuring matters.

Andre is originally from Indiana and, after attending law school in New York, moved to Chicago to pursue law and be closer to where he grew up.

Because of a lifelong interest in reading and foreign language learning, he is excited to work with Stories Matter Foundation to better achieve its goal and mission of supporting people and communities in communicating narratives they want to share. 

Gerald Nowak • Board Member

Writing is an avocation for Jerry.

A serial collector of graduate degrees, he is currently in the MFA program at Northwestern, to add to his BA from Michigan State, MBA from Auburn University and JD from the University of Michigan. In Jerry’s professional life, he’s been a magician, a musician, a truck driver, a bartender, a ski bum, a computer programmer, a military officer and now a corporate lawyer with Kirkland & Ellis for the last 27 years, which he compares to winning the Hunger Games 27 times in a row.

For the record, he believes writing well is even harder than that. 

Laura Fisher • Board Member

Laura Fisher is an employment lawyer who started her career in Chicago at Seyfarth and later moved to Tribune Company where she was awed every day by the Hall of Inscriptions in the Tribune Tower lobby. After the newspaper business fell on hard(er) times, she went to a work-from-home-gig, which made for an easy commute and more time with the kids, but no storied lobby or chance to brush shoulders with real life beat reporters.

Still, Laura’s love of story lives on. These days she’s hoping to realize her dream of becoming a book store employee or, better yet, owner. At the very least, some official capacity will make her tendency to offer unsolicited recommendations to book store patrons less weird. Until Laura’s dream comes true, she curates a Little Free Library and manages its social media presence and reads books, reads about books, and is excited to work with Stories Matter Foundation to support those who have stories to tell.

Laura has a BA in English from the University of Michigan and received her JD from The George Washington University Law School. She currently serves as Vice President, Associate General Counsel for United Therapeutics.

Find Laura’s book recommendations on Instagram @forestavelibrary.


CORE FACULTY MEMBERS

Core faculty members are experienced StoryStudio instructors. They’ll be serving two-year terms, each in their own specialty genre – both as highlighted regular instructors and as advisors on staff, curriculum, and genre-specific outreach. We’re excited for the ideas, energy, and connections they’ll bring to the studio, and (as these positions are rotating) we look forward to welcoming many other beloved instructors into these roles in the coming years.

  • Cyn Vargas – Short Fiction
  • David Welch – Poetry
  • Michael Zapata – Novel
  • Julia Fine – Genre Fiction
  • Juliet Bond – Young Adult & Middle Grade
  • Sahar Mustafah – Youth Programming
  • Dionna Griffin-Irons – Performance
  • Megan Stielstra — Memoir & Personal Essay

WANT TO JOIN THE TEAM?

There are no current openings for staff positions. However, you can always email us to learn more: info@storystudiochicago.org