Meet The Perennials: Isabel Gonzalez Whitaker
We met Isabel González-Whitaker almost a decade ago when she was the features editor at InStyle. Though we met only for a brief moment during a pitch meeting at her offices in Manhattan, we had an instant connection that grew over the years with friendly e-mails. Isabel is resourceful, thoughtful, and a natural connector–someone who stays in touch, which is refreshing in this age of overwhelm. After all, how often have you felt a spark with a new acquaintance only to let it drop out of laziness? Last month we caught up over dinner and learned about her recent move to Memphis and her journey from TV producer to cookbook author to fashion editor and now Presidential Leadership Scholar. Perennials are people of all ages who constantly push up against their growing edge and Isabel is as Perennial as they come.
Tell us about your path as a writer/editor–from food to fashion to music–and how the NYC publishing scene has changed.
IGW: Actually I started in TV, booking and producing a wacky-genius show for the Cartoon Network called Space Ghost Coast to Coast in which an old school cartoon super hero named Space Ghost interviewed IRL celebs like Metallica and Beck. It was a blast, to say the least, but having grown up an avid magazine (and newspaper lifestyle section) reader, I wanted to figure out a way to pivot in that direction. I fortuitously met Tony Paris, the editor of the local alt-weekly, Creative Loafing, and on the spot pitched him a nightlife column. He gave me my shot and I received a rigorous and incredible journalism education under him. Eventually I headed to New York where I worked first at Teen People as a generalist editor covering lifestyle, fashion, hard news. At Time Inc I made a great friend who was also my editor at Time, where I was contributing small lifestyle pieces. Together she and I authored a fun Latin cookbook called Latin Chic that was published by HarperCollins. That experience took me out of the teen realm and into Hispanic lifestyle which prompted Hearst to reach out to me to edit an upscale Latin women’s magazine. About a year later one of my favorite magazines called: InStyle. I was there for 8 incredible years producing features and cover stories while wearing that very specific and chic fashion editor wardrobe that I’m not sure I’ll ever wear again. After that, my last NYC gig, was as Deputy Editor of Billboard where I oversaw political coverage, lifestyle and co-executed breaking news across platforms. I love that every job I’ve had has expanded my skill set and challenged me while keeping me close to pop culture. Without question the publishing landscape has changed in the 20 years that I’ve been in it. Newsrooms are smaller, journalists must be able to create content across platforms, and there has to be an awareness of the company’s business needs. I moved to Memphis recently because my husband got a job here working for the NBA team and I’m open to seeing what comes next. I’m a trained content creator and that doesn’t necessarily mean traditional journalism anymore.
Write a Tweet in 140 characters about your latest endeavor.
IGW: The Sara J González Park, the first Hispanic memorial park in Georgia, enriches the community by celebrating Atlanta’s diversity with culturally inclusive education, sports and arts programs.
My mom, Sara J. González, was a prominent and well-respected Hispanic, immigrant and minority rights advocate in Atlanta whose work especially around economic betterment for these communities extended beyond city limits to include the State of Georgia and the South. Prior to her ascent in civic leadership, Sara owned and operated one of Atlanta’s first Cuban sandwich shops in the 1980s which was located next to Coronet Way Park where I used to play.
In 2010, with help and support from neighbors, individuals across the community and city government, I had Coronet Way Park renamed two years after my mother’s death. When I am in town, I always bring my son to play at the park as a way to connect with the community and to the grandmother he never knew. At a time when Confederate Memorials are being toppled in the region, the Sara J González Memorial Park has the honor of being the first Hispanic Memorial Park in the State of Georgia. The park is a green space and playground that enriches the community at large by embracing and honoring the diversity of Atlanta with culturally inclusive education, sports and arts build outs and programs. Specifically, the park will include playground equipment for special needs children; the green space and playground will be ADA-compliant; a soccer field will be created (a cultural touchstone for many immigrant and Latino communities); the legacy memorial will artistically honor the cultural diversity and inclusiveness of the city. The park services a growing and upwardly mobile neighborhood, which includes many families and a strong Hispanic and minority presence. Once inaugurated the park will serve the community through enrichment programming including but not limited to soccer and other sports clinics targeting young children and families.
You’ve recently moved from Manhattan to Memphis. How are you acclimating?
IGW: I love it! New York was amazing in so many ways. I always say that my husband and I did well by NYC and NYC did well by us. We were there for 17 years. It saw me through career growth, marriage, death of loved ones and the birth of my son. It’s where I lived longer than anywhere else. But New York, though it rewards the hustle and feeds your soul with glamour, can be exhausting especially without family nearby. We knew it was time for a graceful exit and we were lucky to have one in the form of my husband’s job offer. Memphis brings us back South, and it’s a cool, funky town with history, soul, character — for me, those are city non-negotiables. Plus, we can afford our first house and provide a backyard for my son, something that we always wanted to give him.
What would you like to learn this year?
IGW: I have the honor of being a Presidential Leadership Scholar this year, 1 of 59 across the country. This is the fourth year and the program brings together community-engaged individuals across sectors to learn about civic leadership through the lens of the experiences of Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson (whose organizations support the program). From the program and my new peers I know I will learn leadership best practices and how to effect change in our communities. My mom’s park and creating a template for memorials that have cultural resonance is my project.
A life lesson you reference most?
IGW: It’s become a cliche but the marathon-not-a-sprint approach really does work. Case in point: My mom’s park. When she died I knew I wanted to memorialize her in some significant way. But I was mourning, trying to get pregnant and had a full-time job. My brother also died tragically shortly after my mother passed, so there was that terrible loss too. One of my mantras became: do a little at a time and eventually something big will manifest. So I started out dedicating just 15 minutes a week — all I could spare logistically, emotionally, spiritually– to my mom’s park researching and then campaigning and then fundraising until finally, about a year later it was done. From little steps it was born and it became.
Your most recent thrill?
IGW: Being accepted as a Presidential Leadership Scholar!
How do you let off steam?
IGW: My ultimate indulgence is getting a massage. I don’t do it nearly enough, so I settle for a long soak in the bath. Also good for my soul are nights out with my girlfriends. This also doesn’t happen nearly enough.
What’s the last great book you read?
IGW: A brutal, beautiful and important novel about war called The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. It was a National Book Award finalist and Kevin happens to be married to my cousin. It’s inspired by his time in service in Iraq.
What are you curious about?
IGW: I’m curious about most things. My mom used to call it being nosy. As a journalist it’s a good quality to have, but I appreciate it can also come off as an obnoxious trait.