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Mary Morten: Putting the 'active' in 'activist'
by Paul Marinkovich
2009-05-01

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Mary F. Morten is a lifelong activist. She is president of Morten Group, a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in social change through skills development, public policy and advocacy, and has dedicated her entire career to the betterment of women, people of color and the LGBT community.

"My primary influence was my mother, who was involved in local politics as well as a lot of community organizations," said Morten on her passion for social advocacy. "She always took me with her to all the meetings, so from a very early age I started listening to people discuss what they believed and why they believed a certain way. I just grew up in a family where you were very much part of the problem or you were part of the solution and we all had something we should be doing to give back."

For Morten, that message came in loud and clear. She was the first African-American president of the National Organization for Women's Chicago chapter, served as Mayor Richard M. Daley's connection to the LGBT community as the director of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, and was the host of Chicago's Lesbigay Radio. Morten has received a myriad of acknowledgements including her induction into the 1996 Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.

With about 20 years experience under her belt, it seems fair to say that Morten knows a thing or two about working in the non-profit management world. One of her recent projects, with fellow business partner Laura McAlpine, is called the Executive Retreat for Women. This two-day workshop is designed to help women, who are in positions of leadership, work on their management skills while maintaining time to reflect.

"Laura and I realized that we could not find any opportunity for us to sit down and develop the business plans and develop goals for our business and to also focus on self care," said Morten. "We built a model that we used ourselves, so that we had time to work at our business, make goals and monitor them and to also do some self care. Women still are the primary care takers in their families and women who are in positions of leadership are really bombarded with a variety of challenges that often go unaddressed. We wanted to put something together for these women executive leaders that focused on work-life balance and gave women the opportunity to do self development for skill building, but also to do self care."

Morten is also currently working on a documentary inspired by the research of Cathy Cohen's work with the Black Youth Project, at the University of Chicago. The film is titled, "The New Blackness" and explores the attitudes, actions, and decisions of African-American youth.

"This is the first time that this kind of comprehensive report had ever been produced," said Morten. "I really felt that it would be fascinating to bring some stories about Black youth to life, to put a face on the real stories of Black youth. So often, we speak for youth; we don't hear in their own words what they have to say and Black youth are often not portrayed well in the media. I thought it was certainly important to present the full range of experiences. Not just one or two experiences, but let's look at the full range of experiences across the continuum of what it is like to be a Black youth in this country. I should mention in the documentary, I do look at queer youth'I look at all youth. I have included queer youth as well because it is very important in terms of presenting the small picture."

Morten said she never looks at what she has accomplished; instead she finds it much more meaningful to look at what has to be done and to find her role in that work. She believes that her main focus will primarily be on her work with the media.

"I think the media is a powerful tool that is an under tapped resource. Anytime we can talk about issues, whether we're doing an interview on the radio, filming a documentary or using radio to make a presentation to policy makers, I think that we tell the story in a much more compelling way and I think many more people will hear it. I think that most of my goals will focus on media work."

*****


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