• About Us

    About Us

Our Mission

Literature for All of Us uses books and writing to facilitate circles of connection, healing and growth in the face of social inequity. By inviting participants to explore the transformative power of their own voices, we help build resilience.

Our Values

    We value
    • Literature as a means to make connections and discover strength and meaning in our lives
    • Writing as a way to access our voices, share our stories, and free our imaginations
    • Shared learning and dialogue in safe environments of mutual respect
    • The inherent strengths of individuals, families and communities
    • Equity and social justice

Our Vision

We envision a world where everyone regardless of race, class, culture, or gender identity, has opportunities to access their voices, embrace meaning in their lives and imagine possibilities for their futures.



  • Chuck BenyaDevelopment Director

    Chuck Benya

    Development Director

    Erin BrownSenior Program Officer

    Erin Brown

    Senior Program Officer

    Gabriela GarayBook Group Leader

    Gabriela Garay

    Book Group Leader

    Marty Kezon Senior Book Group Leader

    Marty Kezon

    Senior Book Group Leader

    Ruth Orme-JohnsonProgram Operations Director

    Ruth Orme-Johnson

    Program Operations Director

    Joe ShanskyCommunications Manager

    Joe Shansky

    Communications Manager

    haydee souffrantBook Group Leader

    haydee souffrant

    Book Group Leader

    Sonia VelázquezExecutive Director

    Sonia Velázquez

    Executive Director

    Erika WadeFinance and Administration Manager

    Erika Wade

    Finance and Administration Manager

  • Vanessa Álvarez

    Vanessa Álvarez joined the Board of Literature for All of Us in 2019, moved by the way the LFAOU model helps participants use their personal stories to find their voice. Vanessa’s own natural gift for storytelling forms the foundation of her professional life, in which she creates strategic digital marketing and communications plans for entrepreneurs, businesses and nonprofits, both in English and Spanish. A committed Chicago native, Vanessa’s love for her city and its people leads her to be a catalyst for its communities. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from Columbia College Chicago and an M.A. in Organizational & Multicultural Communication from DePaul University. And she is a fan of summertime in the CHI and salsa – the kind you eat.

    Emily Argentine

    Emily Argentine is a native of Ohio who joined the Board in 2018. She will be assisting the Finance Committee and Corporate Giving. She works with financial institutions to mitigate money laundering opportunities and enhance risk compliance methods. She is also a certified SCUBA diver and enjoys going to the theater as often as possible. She is a lifelong bookworm and chatterbox who loves to share the joy of reading and is excited to be working with LFAOU to share this passion for reading with Chicago and the surrounding communities.

    Libby Bankoff

    Libby Bankoff, now retired from the Clinical Psychology faculty of Northwestern University, joined the LFAOU Board in 2016. She has served on numerous civic boards and school based committees, including twice serving as President of the League of Women Voters of Wilmette. Libby was a Children’s Great Books Leader where she delighted in the growth of each child as they explored and discussed the written word. An avid reader and member of three book clubs, Libby and her husband live in Wilmette. They are taking advantage of their retirement by traveling extensively in order to experience other cultures.

    Jessica Chethik

    Co-founder of All for All Consulting, Jessica Chethik, joined the LFAOU Board in 2018. At CD Consulting, she helps connect community organizations and businesses to schools in order to open dialogue, create understanding, and break down barriers to social progress. Previously, Jessica ran educational programs for Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago (CRFC), a civic education non-profit that works with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and taught middle school language arts and social studies at a CPS school. A lover of books who feels strongly that people of every age need to feel that they are part of a community, Jessica is passionate about LFAOU’s mission and believes that coming together over literature is a wonderful way to listen, learn, share and grow.

    Claudia Espinel

    Claudia Espinel works with people and organizations committed to fostering a culture in which individuals from different races, nationalities, gender, abilities, religions, and sexual orientation feel that they belong. Currently, she applies her passion for intercultural development and global social justice at a Unitarian Universalist theological school in Chicago, where she is the Director of International Formation. She also brings to her community and professional engagements her strategic and program manager skills developed during 12 years working with organizations navigating cultural changes in Colombia and the United States. Claudia is drawn to LFAOU out of her love of reading, which she experiences as an opportunity to become immersed in a new world, to dream of more fulfilling futures, and to expand our connection with ourselves and others.

    Claire Goulding

    With a diverse background in psychology and business, Claire Goulding has owned a small business, managed practice development for a large public accounting firm, consulted with federal, state and local governments, and counseled clients in job transition. Outside of her own family, Claire’s most rewarding work has been leading an educational foundation to ignite a passion for learning with students grades K-12. Writing, photography, book clubs and empowering young women have also added rich layers to Claire’s life. She joined the LFAOU board in 2017.

    Paul N. Keller

    Paul Keller joined the LFAOU board in 2017. He is a retired partner from Ancel Glink Diamond Bush DiCianni & Krafthefer where he advised and represented a wide range of governmental entities. Currently, Paul serves as Assistant Chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, is director and general counsel of the Kuling American School Association, and is on the board of The Lady Elgin Foundation. Paul values helping people connect to their inner life and to their community through reading and writing. A certified scuba instructor who enjoys playing multiple musical instruments and reading his favorite poetry. Paul lives in Lincoln Park.

    Liz Lassner

    Liz Lassner joined the LFAOU Board in 2019. She is a Chicago-based real estate broker with @properties. Liz's interest in social justice spans back to her days as a student at the University of Michigan where she began her volunteer work at shelters serving women and children seeking safety from abusive environments. She has served on several volunteer boards and was a founding strategic advisor for the human rights education nonprofit, Unsilence. Prior to her career in real estate, Liz worked in the nonprofit sector in fundraising, as well as strategic planning and budgeting positions. A native of Michigan, Chicago has been Liz's home for 25 years. She lives in Bucktown with her wife and dog, Chloe, and loves to travel and enjoy the outdoors.

    Katie Martin

    Katie Martin comes to the “Big Board” after her tenure serving on the LFAOU Junior Board. Katie was drawn to LFAOU out of her passion for creating opportunities for young people and her love of literature. A strategic thinker who enjoys working with people, Katie brings her skills to project management. Katie and her husband are parents to their dog and she is a fan of the french fries at Hopleaf.

    Liz McCabe

    A longtime volunteer, Liz McCabe joined the board in 2018 after several years on the Junior Board and 9 years as the LFAOU coordinator of Chicagoland’s Poetry Out Loud contest (a program of the Illinois Arts Council, the Poetry Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts). Liz holds a Ph.D. in English from Northwestern, where she now leads the faculty cohort of the Chicago Field Studies program and works closely with the Center for Civic Engagement. Her teaching and research interests range from Victorian literature, to representations of labor and office culture, to political theory, Chicago history, and social justice frameworks. She shoehorns poetry into all of her courses and endlessly celebrates the communal power of people coming together around poems and books.

    Tamara McKnight

    Tamara McKnight joined the LFAOU board in 2017 and is serving as Treasurer. A lifelong community volunteer, Tamara was taken with the mission of LFAOU after learning about the organization at a fundraising event. With degrees and certificates in Computer and Information Science and accounting, Tamara is SVP of a Life Sciences consulting firm, The Evanston Group. Tamara is an avid reader who loves to travel. Empty nesters, she and her husband live in Lakeview in Chicago.

    Walter Taylor

    Walter Taylor, NBCT (National Board Certified Teacher) is responsible for the strategic planning, development and implementation of Chicago Teachers Union Foundation (CTUF) Quest Center’s Professional Development Division. He has taught in Chicago Public Schools, facilitated professional development (PD) for public education teachers and provided training on a range of topics including: Restorative Practices, Differentiated Instruction, Questioning and Discussion Techniques, Cultural Competency, Classroom Management, Critical Race Theory and more. Walter loves to read essays and novels and to read and write poetry. He also enjoys playing tennis, fine dining and traveling. Walter is beyond thrilled to join the Board of LFAOU, as literacy has always been a passion of his.

    Julie Victor

    A career social worker, now in private practice, Julie Victor joined the LFAOU board in 2013 and currently serves as President. Passionate about personal growth and community development, Julie worked in Chicago Public Schools where she experienced the profound impact that school based opportunities can offer children and teens. Julie and her family live in Chicago where they love taking advantage of the many unique and diverse experiences living in the city of Chicago has to offer.

    Lindsey Wade

    Lindsey Wade reduces recidivism and delivers economic empowerment to the prison reentry population and other underserved groups as a Case Manager and Instructor at Howard Area Community Center. She is also a graduate student in the Master of Public Administration program at University of Illinois at Chicago, where she's centered her research on criminal justice reform and on families. As an alumni of LFAOU's teen mom book group and witness to the transformative power literature has on healing, Lindsey was driven to give back to the organization through service work and leadership. She resides in Evanston with her three children and three pets, and enjoys being active in the outdoors during her free time.

    Newlin O. Wollaston

    Newlin O. Wollaston has been in the financial services industry for over 20 years and is currently a Private Client Advisor for JP Morgan Chase. He also serves as the Assistant Pastor of his local church located in Chicago's southside inner city.

    Cheryl Wooten

    Cheryl Wooten is a native Chicagoan who has a background in the insurance and financial services industry as well as counseling psychology. She provides compliance education/oversight, risk management and securities supervision for State Farm Insurance Companies. Cheryl is also passionate about helping others discover and realize their full potential by providing counseling, coaching and consulting as a licensed professional, nationally board certified counselor. An avid reader at heart, Cheryl was drawn to LFAOU’s mission and work due to the positive impact literature has made in her life and those around her.

    Najolie Wright

    Najolie Wright joined the board of directors in 2018. She came to Literature for All of Us as a book group participant in 2004. Her book group experience fueled her passion for reading and writing leading her to become a teacher. Najolie enjoys offering her skills and passion while learning alongside her students and their families. Najolie lives in Evanston, IL with her two children. She plans on returning to college. In her spare time, Najolie loves to read and write and being a stage performer.
  • Kathy Bresler Sue Brodarick
    Marilynn J. Cason Patty Coghlan
    Carol Lynn Connell Barbara Disko
    Susan Doctors Howard S. Dubin
    Noreen Edwards Mary Erickson
    Tom Figel Rozellyn Gibson
    Carol Gifford Jennifer Grau
    Mildred Harris Keri Holleb Hotaling
    Susan K. Kaden Lissa Karron
    Judy Keller Ann Lagory
    Lisa E. Lewis Nancy Liebman
    Chic Marasa Iris Marreck
    Casandra Melton Leslie J. Millenson
    Helen Moshak Bonnie Oberman
    Ann Ohlrogge Johnson Michele Pockross
    Elizabeth Posner Roberta Rubin
    Sandra Shane-DuBow Eileen L. Share
    Rob Simmons Debbie Smith
    Susan Sneider Linda Stevenson
    Eliseo Thorrens Rekha Tobaccowala
    Angela Valavanis Jan Valukas
    Bernice Weissbourd Denise Philip Winter

  • Sandra Cisneros
    Aaron Coleman
    Abby Geni
    Jane Hamilton
    Joy Harjo
    Cristina Henriquez
    Nami Mun
    Sara Paretsky
    Diane Seuss
    Barbara A. Shapiro
    Anna Solomon
    Gail Tsukiyama
    Dawn Turner
  • The purpose of the Junior Board is to further Literature for All of Us' mission by building awareness of the organization with young people, supporting outreach initiatives and organizing small fundraisers. Members are people who value literature, philanthropy and social justice and are typically between the ages of 20 - 40.

    Timothy Avant
    Nathalie Lagerfeld
    Katie Martin
    Liz McCabe
    Katie Shatto
    Karen Shimmin
    Rebecca Stevens
  • Our Founder

    Karen Thomson

    Karen Thomson is the founder of Literature for All of Us and served as our first Executive Director.

    As a professional book group leader, Karen has been making literature come alive through book groups discussion since 1981. In 1997, she created Literature for All of Us to bring her work to at-risk youth.

    Founding Literature for All of Us was an adventure of the heart. She began with a group of fourteen teen mothers on welfare who were enrolled in a Chicago’s Southside G.E.D. program. Karen introduced these young women to using literature as a means to look inward, to understand themselves better and to create relationships in which it was safe to share these discoveries. Personal resilience was built and interpersonal relationship were made. Karen intuitively created the model that Literature for All of Us uses today: opening each book group meeting with a ritual, reading aloud out from culturally-relevant literature, having a facilitated group discussion and writing poetry from their personal reflections. The impact was profound. Program attendance on Book Group day doubled. The young mothers returned to the nurturing circle of the book group week after week to read books, (to) write poetry, and to discuss their struggles and triumphs. The GED program requested more groups and Literature for All of Us came into being.

    Literature for All of Us now offers over twenty book groups sin Chicago and Evanston reaching over 700 low-income (young) people each year, including young parents and their children. Until her retirement as Executive Director in June 2018, Karen continued to facilitate book groups at Literature for All of Us.

    Karen has trained educators, community service providers, and others to replicate her transformative, life-affirming literacy education model. She has facilitated women’s literary retreats for girls and teen mothers. She has created and taught literature courses for community colleges. Karen holds a B.A. in Literature from Wheaton College and an M.A.T. from Northwestern University. Karen is a published author, writing on book group leadership and the Literature for All of Us program.

    Her most recent honors associated with her work in Literature for All of Us include:

    • Lifetime Achievement Award, Chicago Writers’ Association, 2015
    • Inspire Award, Circle Foundation, 2012
    • Mayor’s Award for the Arts, City of Evanston, 2009
    • Harlequin More than Words Award, Harlequin, 2009
    • Those Who Make a Difference Award, Family Focus of Evanston, 2003
    • Mercedes Mentor Award, Mercedes-Benz USA, 2002
    • Rosa Williams Women in Ministry Award, Lake Street Church, Evanston, Illinois, 2000
    • Studs Terkel Humanitarian Service Award, Illinois Humanities Council, 1999
    • Nominee, Hartstein Award for Academic Excellence in Teaching, Oakton College, 1991

    Karen traveled to the White House in January 2006 to receive the “Coming Up Taller Award” for excellence in programming from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

    A mother of four and grandmother of three, Karen loves to read, study, and write poetry for which she has won awards. Karen continues to lead adult book groups.