Jola Café was, in 2018, a locally owned coffee shop with healthy eats located in the John’s Landing neighborhood of Southwest Portland near the Willamette River. This is where a handful of members of the Portland Chapter of ASJA first met in October 2018.
The Chapter is the brainchild of Carolyn Miller, who moved to Portland from Boulder County, Colorado, in 2016. She had been a member of the Boulder Media Women and missed that connection with other writers: “I reached out to ASJA because I was a member and I said, ‘Can I start a local chapter?’…And they gave me the membership list…for Oregon and Washington. I just sent emails to all the members.”
Catherine Kolonko had moved to Portland from California and was poised to get to know people living in the area with the same professional interests that she had. Catherine attended that first meeting at the Jola Café: “I remember feeling very welcomed and comfortable…I viewed it as a great opportunity to learn from each other and share different perspectives on the life of a writer.”
Randy Stapilus from Carlton, Oregon, was keen to participate in a local chapter as well: “I remember getting coffee…finding the meeting at a table tucked toward the back. There may have been a small ASJA sign that someone, likely Carolyn, had put up for direction…There was some getting used to each other.”
James Carberry was interested in such a meeting because he, “wanted to meet fellow writers in Portland, actively participate in ASJA through the Portland chapter, and work on a project, which turned out to be the start-up of the ASJA Portland newsletter.”
Howard Baldwin was living in Lake Oswego, just south of Portland, in 2018, when he received Carolyn’s email: “I wanted to support ASJA’s regional efforts.” Howard had been on the ASJA board, was very active in ASJA and, according to the other members, Howard really added to the meetings.
Sharon Elaine Thompson says, “He had a huge breadth of knowledge…across content marketing, magazine writing, newspaper writing, editing…Howard always had something to say and to contribute to our questions…He was a very supportive force.”
Sharon lives in Salem, about an hour’s drive from Portland, and started attending meetings in 2019 when the location had moved to a coworking space at Urban Office. Sharon wanted to find non-fiction writing colleagues she could actually talk to: “I loved meeting everyone…people who had the same work issues I had regardless of how long they’d been writing, and regardless of the fact that many had far more prestigious careers than I had. It was a place I belonged.”
Michelle Rafter was among the early attendees as well. She had grown up in Portland, moved to California where she had participated in writers’ groups, and moved back to her hometown. She described why she had responded to Carolyn’s email: “to recreate that kind of camaraderie and kinship that I think is so important, especially for people who work by themselves.”
Seattleite Bruce Miller “wanted to reconnect with fellow ASJA members, especially in the Northwest and after a break from being the ASJA IT Manager for 14 years.” Bruce was so keen he made the three-to-four-hour trek from Seattle to Portland a number of times. “They thought I was crazy for driving that far… But they were welcoming.”
Minda Zetlin was on the ASJA board for 16 years and was the president for two. Immediately after her presidency, she moved from New York to Snohomish, Washington. Minda did hold some in-person meetings in Seattle and then got wind of the hybrid meeting out of Urban Office, in Portland, so she “and some other Seattleites joined virtually. It was okay, but everyone on Zoom is better than some on Zoom.”
There were technical issues with the hybrid meeting at the Urban Office coworking location and there was, according to Randy, limited success: “We had a little bit of difficulty getting everyone who was in person to participate effectively with everyone who was trying to call in. So, it was a little bit iffy. The way it’s set up now through Zoom is probably a good deal more effective.”
When these members were asked why the ASJA PNW Chapter is so successful the answer was a resounding, “Carolyn!”
Catherine: “It’s her leadership style that makes us want to continue with the group. And I know she offers, every now and then, for somebody else to take over, but I think she does such a great job that nobody ever volunteers.”
Randy: “I think Carolyn deserves a good deal of credit there for pushing forward and for steadily, persistently bringing people in and encouraging people to be involved. Something like this needs somebody who’s going to be the driver of it. And she’s done that very, very efficiently, very effectively.”
Other factors that contribute to the success of the Chapter are: the meeting structure; the newsletter; the website; members’ willingness to volunteer; and Zoom.
Chapter meetings are held on Zoom on the third Wednesday of every month at 1:00 Pacific Time. There are generally eight to twelve attendees. The meetings follow the same format unless there is a speaker booked. There have been two so far: an IT expert and a tax attorney.
Carolyn starts each meeting by addressing Chapter business and then moves into members’ News and Needs, when participants share what they are doing and discuss any needs they may have. This could mean help with sources, advice on how to deal with a recalcitrant client or editor, how to get paid in a timely fashion, how to ask for more money, etc.
Carolyn explained how she came up with the idea for the News and Needs segment of the meeting: “It just popped into my head, probably in part because I thought about what I might want. I’m also a pretty seasoned facilitator and I love alliteration so, there you go!”
It was also Carolyn’s idea to have a newsletter and a website, both elements that have contributed to the success of the Chapter: “They just seemed like the next logical step, and we had the talent and willingness of members to take those tasks on.”
James was the first editor of the newsletter, followed by Howard. Maxine Cass took over in September of 2020. These were the stories in the November 2018, edition:
– Welcome: Carolyn Miller
– From Blogging to Tweeting: Michelle Rafter
– Why I Hired an Editor: Howard Baldwin
– Will More Writers Use Crowdfunding?: Randy Stapilus
The newsletter was originally in a PDF format. It morphed into a WordPress publication under the guidance of Bruce Miller.
We would all echo Michelle’s sentiments on Maxine’s work on the newsletter: “We have an awesome newsletter and Maxine does such a wonderful job and is so thoughtful about it. It’s really a professional-level newsletter and she really puts her heart into it.”
Randy put the first website together about a year after the meeting began: “The one that I put together was…within a standard template that WordPress had put together. And it was very simple. It was enough to put up kind of a basic reference to who we were, but its capabilities were very limited.”
Bruce set up the current website with its own URL, so it has more capability than the original one.
As an aside, on February 2, 1996, (the early days of the Internet) Bruce had the foresight to secure the domain asja.org for the Mothership, as Carolyn calls it.
Skin in the Game:
“I think part of what makes it successful is that the members have buy-in and part of the reason they have buy-in is because…I’m always surprised by how willing they are to volunteer. And again, very selfishly, I don’t want to do all the work,” says Carolyn, who is not afraid to ask for help when needs arise. The current roster of volunteers is:
– Carolyn Miller: President
– Sharon Elaine Thompson: Membership Chair
– Randy Stapilus: Webmaster
– Bruce Miller: Tech Advisor
– Maxine Cass: Newsletter Editor
– Catherine Kolonko: Newsletter Proofreader
– Darlene West: ASJA PNW monthly meeting coverage
– Michelle Rafter: Digital Liaison
Those who do not have official positions also often volunteer for various projects, such as Joanna Nesbit currently looking for an AI expert to be a guest speaker, and myself writing this fantastic article!
Trying to create a successful hybrid meeting before COVID turned out to be a blessing, according to Howard: “I really wanted to emphasize those efforts that we made pre-pandemic to bring people to Zoom…We learned a lot and we were knowledgeable as a result of it once the pandemic hit.”
Carolyn says that Zoom “was actually a blessing because we got more members involved and even the Portland members, who would drive across town to meet, liked meeting on Zoom too, because it saved them all the traffic time.”
According to Catherine, Zoom “actually helped us continue through the pandemic. If we didn’t have that, we might not have stayed together.”
Not only did the Chapter stay together, but it actually expanded its membership when COVID-19 hit in 2020. It was suddenly possible for members to actively participate from southern Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. This resulted in a name change from the ASJA Portland Chapter to the ASJA Pacific Northwest Chapter, which now has about 40 members.
Although that is a tidy way to wrap up this piece, I feel I need to give the final word to Minda. She says it’s the character of the people in the group that help make it successful: “That is a pretty varied group in terms of what we do by way of writing, and it still really works. To have that connection with other local writers, even if it’s mostly by Zoom, is really wonderful for me. It is still really precious to me to be in this group.”
Rosemary Keevil is a journalist and the author of “The Art of Losing It: A Memoir of Grief and Addiction.” She has been a TV news reporter, a current affairs radio show host, and managing editor of a professional women’s magazine. She has a master’s degree in journalism and is currently working on her second book: From Grief to Addiction to Relief. Rosemary lives in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, with her partner and her two sheep-a-doodles. Learn more about her at www.rosemarykeevil.com