Nina Utne Finds Her Voice


| January/February 2000



Twenty-some years ago, in a conversation with a new boyfriend, I alluded to a song he didn’t know. He asked me to sing it. I don’t sing, I told him; I’d always been told I was tone deaf. He insisted that I try. About an hour later, tearful but triumphant, I mustered the courage to squeak out a phrase.

Last night, when Eric Utne, now my husband, and I were doing a dishwashing-kitchen-cleaning dance, he turned to me, slack-jawed, and said, "I heard you singing just now and thought you were a CD!" In the intervening years, I’ve been gaining the courage to put my voice out into the world.

Writing this note is a signpost on my journey. When Eric founded the magazine 16 years ago, I was sounding board and support staff: I wrote, hosted salons, combed through letters late at night. I’ve spent untold hours eating, drinking, and sleeping the magazine, going off on family excursions that found their way onto its pages, and otherwise growing up with it. After Eric’s sabbatical a few years ago, we stepped back into active involvement together.

Now another chapter has begun. As I sit writing at an outdoor café, listening to dry leaves scratch the pavement on a rogue Indian summer day, Eric is tending an ailing child, meeting with the tree trimmer, assembling Halloween costumes, and figuring out dinner. We’ve done a do-si-do. He has stepped out of day-to-day magazine operations, and I have stepped in.

I am simultaneously a repository of the magazine’s history and completely new to it. As I feel my way, I’ve been flummoxed by what to call myself: Chairman? Chairwoman? Chair? Sofa? Chaise? (Other suggestions: Goddess, Queen, Humble Servant.) I’ve also been trying to understand just what it is I am stewarding.

Two recent encounters gave me a glimpse of the role Utne Reader plays in our culture. At the Social Venture Network, a conference for entrepreneurs committed to social responsibility, I met Keith Cylar, whose Housing Works, Inc. serves 2,500 homeless people living with AIDS/HIV. "What’s it like to be on the cutting edge of trends?" he asked. When I gave him a perfunctory answer, he verbally grabbed my lapels and gave me a shake. He counts on the magazine to inform him, he insisted; I needed to take that seriously. Then Jim Slama, who co-founded Chicago monthly Conscious Choice and has galvanized public response to organic standards issues through Sustain, his PR firm, echoed those sentiments: "I want you to know that I do what I do because I was inspired by Utne Reader."