Getting Personal: Jacqueline Hannah

Each week, we offer an email Q&A with a local personality. Today, Paul Wood chats with 39-year-old Urbana resident Jacqueline Hannah, the general manager of the Common Ground Food Co-op for the past seven years.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

Mornings are about family. I get up pretty much at 6 a.m. every day because my 6-year-old insists on it. We're both early birds. I have learned over the years to make sure I put my family first in the morning, cuddling with my son, making healthy breakfasts, sitting quietly together, reading. Nothing nourishes the rest of my day more than starting with quiet time with my family.

What did you have for lunch today? Where? With whom?

I landed in Austin, Texas, about noon today for a conference on cooperative business leadership, so I got to eat lunch at a Thai food truck on Congress Avenue right after stashing my things in my hotel room. The lunch was great, but it still didn't outdo my favorite Thai food source: Siam Terrace in Urbana.

Best high school memory?

A choir performance. I love to sing, though I don't have an exceptional voice by any stretch, and at our winter concert, we'd invite all alumni of the choir to get up on stage with us for our final song. One year, the audience really got into it and pretty much everyone, not just alumni, got up on stage with us to sing "Auld Lang Syne" and "Joy to the World." The power of all those voices together was amazing. Collectively, we filled that huge room with a beautiful sound, and people who otherwise had little in common, all different ages and of very different backgrounds, were smiling at one another.

Tell me about your favorite pair of shoes.

Ha! Now that's a funny question! I work hard to embrace and love all of me, just as I am, flaws and all. That said, I've inherited some very oddly shaped feet from my family, but I love cute shoes. So, I've got one comfortable pair of shoes that I got from the great folks at Heel to Toe, just about the only pair of shoes that they could find to fit me anywhere. They are plain, black and serviceable, and on my better days I am grateful for them.

What does a perfect Sunday afternoon include?

A perfect Sunday in Chambana would have 75-degree weather and sunshine. My husband, son and I would eat all our meals together, all of them home-cooked with great local ingredients, on our screened-in porch, breakfast through dinner. We'd work in our garden a bit, play board games, laze in the sun and read, and generally enjoy each other. We might take off for a drive in the country at some point with great music, windows open wide, and sing together too. We'd end the day at Custard Cup, if we were feeling particularly decadent.

Was there one book you read as a child that you still cherish? Own? Read?

"The Secret Garden." I have a lovely hardcover copy now with the original illustrations in it that I've reread dozens of times. I love to read now, but I wasn't that big on reading as a kid. One of my dad's six sisters is a children's librarian in the town I grew up in, and she lured me into joining the summer reading program one summer when I was feeling pretty lonely and isolated. I owe her a great debt for that because on the summer reading board were pictures of certain books they wanted you to read, and I was drawn to the beautiful cover illustrations of "The Secret Garden," so I checked it out.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

I am unusual in that I don't crave to travel to foreign places really. I didn't grow up with a lot. My parents had me young, and we've always been working-class. My parents struggled for many of the years of my early childhood. My dad couldn't risk taking the time off from his job; he is a carpenter, and in some seasons, the work could get very scarce. I feel like this has given me an ability to find joy in simple travel. The first time I saw mountains, I was 33 years old, and I cried, I was just so overwhelmed with their beauty and that I got to see them in person, the real thing! My dream vacation would be to just get in a car, load in some supplies, a tent and a map with my family and take off exploring.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

I am not a pet person. I don't mind them; my husband has a cat that I like fine, but I'd rather put my energy into my fellow human beings.

Have you discovered that you are becoming like one of your parents? Which one and how?

I have my dad's impatience. With my dad, it's physical; he's a carpenter, and at 60, he can and does run circles around me. He's always got to be doing and building things. With me, its my work. I love business and community building in equal measure, and I just can't sit still, I'm always working away at something to improve what I contribute to my work at Common Ground. From my mom, I think I get my strength to see out the hard times, to not give up. You might not know it to meet her, when you meet her, she's very sweet and unassuming, but she is made of strong stuff. She's been through a lot in life, but ... has found a way to create something better. I learned from her that one of the greatest keys to success is to just get back up and be determined that it's going to get better.

What would you order for your last meal?

It's more important to me that I'd get to share it with my son and husband than what the food actually was. That said, if I got to choose the menu, it would be sun-warmed heirloom tomatoes from Blue Moon Farms, with mozzarella handmade from Kilgus Farm milk by Brian over at Art Mart, over slices of a crusty Pekara baguette with basil fresh from my garden, drizzled with some amazing balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil picked out with help of the great people at World Harvest drizzled on top. For drinks, a margarita made by Amy over at Fiesta Cafe. For dessert, whatever new wonderful thing Common Ground's baker, Mark, had dreamed up.

What can you not live without?

I want to say my boys, my husband and son, but I don't really believe there is anything we can't live without. It's a matter of if we'd want to keep living without certain things. We get one shot at this life thing; I want to experience it, to see it through, no matter what.

Who do you have on your iPod?

Whatever my husband, Mike, puts on it. Mike loves music and loves to make mix after mix for me of my old favorites and new things he thinks I'll like. He names the mixes after trips we take or times in our lives, and they come to represent those times for me, to be a special time capsule of sound. I cherish them.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

Looking deep into my son's eyes. When he was born, he was given a 50/50 chance of survival, then the doctors told us he'd likely be a vegetable. But my boy beat the odds and came home with us 40 days later, breathing and eating on his own. Unfortunately, the trauma had taken its toll on me, and I suffered from pretty severe postpartum depression, and my son — we didn't know it at the time — was born autistic and was often very distant and crying as an infant. There came a point somewhere around his 18th month of life that I came out of the depression and my son emerged a bit, too, from his challenges. And something happened between us, I feel like what so many moms talk about happening the first time they get to hold their baby finally happened for us. We just bonded. I didn't think it was going to happen for us after all we'd been through, and then it did. Now my heart leaps every time he wants to lie down next to me and look deep into my eyes to confirm I am there and that I love him with all I have. There's nothing like it.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite?

I am a giant geek for the cooperative business model; I believe it is the most powerful tool we have right now for creating a more empowering, just world. I would sit down with my friend Keith, who is a researcher specializing in the cooperative model who has the most infectious enthusiasm and determination to create positive change in the world, and any other two of a list of great cooperative leaders I could rattle off. And we'd joyously debate and brainstorm how to create a better world in our lifetimes all night long. It would be invigorating and full of laughter.

What's the best advice you've ever been given?

I don't feel I've directly received much great advice. But just this past Sunday, right before I was about to present the big news to the owners of Common Ground that we are now looking for a Champaign location, a good friend of mine knew I was having a case of the nerves and walked up to me, gave me a huge hug, looked me in the eye and said, "You can't please everybody. You won't please everybody. All you can do is your best and stand by what you believe is right." It was so perfect for me, so perfectly addressed my fears in that moment. I've put it up on the wall in my office.

What's your best piece of advice?

Don't ever give up on yourself. You are going to screw up, you are going to fall down and the more spectacularly you do it, the more you have the chance to become something amazing. Let your failures make you humble, compassionate for others in their epic screw-ups and only more determined. But do not let your screw-ups embarrass you or shame you into not trying again. Our culture is not forgiving; it does not believe in second and third chances, not really. But we all deserve them.

Your first job and how much did you make?

My first job was baby-sitting, just about every girl's first job, in the '80s, I think. I loved it. I've always loved kids. I'd bring special games, dress-up clothes, the works. I think I earned $10 a night, so something like $2, $2.50 an hour.

What was a pivotal decision in your career?

To interview for the general manager job at Common Ground. I was six months pregnant, the primary breadwinner in my household and a close friend of mine said I should interview for this job at this great place she was working at. I decided to look Common Ground up on the Internet, and their website had up a copy of their 2005 vision plan that they'd drawn up with dozens of Common Ground's owners. I read it and was just floored. Here's what I had been longing for: a job where I could use my business skills not to make profit to line the pockets of others, but to enrich a community, to make my community stronger. I decided all they could do was say no, so I applied and they chose me. It has been an amazing journey that has forced to me grow as a person in so many ways. It was very, very hard at times in the first three years I was there, and I would not take back a minute of it now.

Do you have a bad habit? What is it?

I have a lot of bad ones that I am not going to talk about, but my one good one is seeking to not reinvent the wheel if I don't have to. I reach out to others with more experience and wisdom than me and turn as many folks as I can into my mentors. Some amazing people work in my industry and have done it all before me and far better than I could have, so I make a habit of befriending as many of them as I can so I can learn from them.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

I've often handled them poorly, but after almost four decades of working at it, I've finally started finding my ways. Turns out the cliches are true. Breathe. Deeply. Don't immediately react. Reach out to mentors with more experience and wisdom than you for advice. Give your key staff your trust, give them authority and autonomy of their own so they become great leaders in their own right and you can turn to them for help or even to entirely solve the problem. And, finally, after you've calmed down, try listening. Its not a popular solution in our culture; we're not trained at all how to do it, so it's very hard work for us, but I find 95 percent of the stressful situations that come up in my life have human beings at the center of them. Try imagining the situation from their perspective, ask questions and do your best to listen, not defend.

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