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Get to Know Our Officers - Featuring Our Vice President, Lara (Zara) Espinoza!

JETAA Chicago officer elections are coming up on March 1st! In light of this, we wanted to take the time to shine a spotlight on our current officers (election term from November 2019 - March 2021) in order to get to know the people behind the headshots, and to learn more about what they do in their roles as officers. This will be an 8 part "Get to Know Our Officers" series in which we will highlight each officer leading up to the elections and come to know their motivations, values and legacy.

Last week we introduced our Secretary, Jocelyn Russell. Last but certainly not least, we would like to introduce our Vice President, Lara (Zara) Espinoza (she/they), who was an ALT in Shiga Prefecture from 2010-2011!

Tell us more about your JET experience.

My JET experience is a big chapter in my Wonder Woman origin story, and it made me the human-centric leader I am today. Being a multiracial, multiethnic, queer, femme non-binary, internationally adopted person of color (cultural heritages: Mexican-Asian), living and working in the Kansai region of Japan of Shiga Prefecture on JET was a mix of ups, downs and in-betweens that made everyday an adventure. From teaching a variety of students (mainly junior high school and elementary) and coaching my colleagues by day, to training and performing in Japan’s professional hip-hop and street dance scene at night - I overcame a lot of challenges, built relationships despite the language barrier (I had minimal Japanese language ability) and found some of my forever family/second home country that will always be a part of me.

When did you join/how long have you been on the JETAA Board? What positions have you held?

I have served as a JETAA Chicago officer for the past EIGHT years...since 2013: Vice President 2018-Present, Outreach Coordinator 2013-2018

What inspired you to step up as a leader and join the JETAA Chicago Board?

Upon returning from Japan I wanted to be in community with fellow JETs to expand my professional/personal networks and of course to have natsukashii moments with all our Japan/JET-isms #ESID. I also wanted to coach and train future JETs for success to be more prepared and connected than I was before living/working in Japan. So when I moved to Chicago in 2013, I immediately stepped forward and reshaped a new officer position that I could flex my talent acquisition/development skills in, the Outreach Coordinator. In this role, I co-founded our chapter's largest initiative and mentorship program, the Survival Series for onboarding Outgoing JETs, and led it for five years. As VP I've been proud to pass the torch to two of my JET kouhais/mentees who’ve taken up the Outreach Coordinator mantle and made it their own, including leading the first remote/virtual Survival Series for its 7th year in 2020!

Describe your officer duties and what you have enjoyed about said duties.

During my time as VP - I’ve had a central role in keeping the chapter focused on JETAA Chicago’s mission, set expectations and goals of increased transparency when sharing information, fostered deeper connections with our subchapters & greater JET community, all while embedding a culture of belonging and equity to support our alumni community. It’s been exciting to help guide the revamp, reboot and redesign of the chapter’s leadership, culture and operations that grew the Nov. 2019-March 2021 board from three to eight officers who are all aligned in our values and commitment to leading in and alongside our alumni community to better our organization. I’ve partnered closely with all board members, especially the President and Treasurer to engage, onboard, mentor and support all initiatives, new leaders, and fellow JET alumni. My skills and experiences working as a Human Resources/Talent Management Professional in the tech industry has definitely been impacted and influenced by my career as a JETAA officer.

What could be a healthy and/or needed culture add to JETAA Chicago?

I’m looking forward to the JETAA Chicago Leadership continuing to build on our hard work and momentum towards and for a more open and inclusive chapter culture. I think continuing to improve on our internal framework and cadence will better help sustain and grow the chapter with a better impact on leaders and members. Of course, this has to be in balance with the external output to promote balance with other professional/personal things. I’d also love to have more alumni from our region, including the Illinois Suburbs/Indiana & Wisconsin Subchapters to partner with officers and be involved a step above general membership level and action; such as helping to host virtual/in-person (when safe) meetings, contributing and/or growing their professional skills by getting involved with chapter operations even if with little (and still important!) things like writing a website blog article, small projects and committees, etc.

What is one highlight, accomplishment, and/or something you're proud to have been a part of during your time serving as an officer?

Over the past 8 years as an officer, there have been so many! It’s been a privilege and honor to be able to accomplish so many things with so many people, especially the first 5 years of the Survival Series for Outgoing JETs and then presenting about it to leaders across the US, Canada and Japan at the 2017 National Conference/JET 30 Reunion in Washington DC as a JETAA Chicago delegate. Definitely a highlight as I’ve also helped coach many other alumni leaders to create their own iteration of the onboarding initiatives. It was exhilarating to return as a presenter at the 2020 National Conference, this time to coach on how we can foster more equity and belonging in our alumni community beyond the JET experience. This past year, in addition to organizing our Community Code (of Conduct) & Agreements and our #BlackLivesMatter Kansai webinar, I’ve been most proud of my team of fellow officers who have, since November 2019 to March 2021, dedicated their time, energy and efforts to truly change JETAA Chicago’s culture for the better - all while supporting our regional, national and sometimes global alumni communities during a global pandemic. You all amaze and inspire me to be better leader and person as we #JETogether.

For you, what sparks joy?

• Wonder Women

• Pilates & Dance (I have trained and/or used to compete in break dancing [bgirling], Modern, Ballet, Afro-Caribbean, Tap, ballroom (rumba, swing/jive, salsa, samba, waltz, hustle are some of my faves), and various other hip-hop and urban dance styles including whacking, locking, and vogue)

• Movies (pre-pandemic I would go to watch a movie in theaters monthly)

• Food & Travel adventures with chosen family & friends

• Pop Culture: Comics, video games, and board games

What is your favorite Japanese "thing" near where you live now (and/or in the Midwest)?

In Chicago's Lakeview/North Halsted (formerly known as Boystown) area I enjoy supporting the local sushi restaurant, Matsuya. It originated in the postwar resettlement of Japanese Americans in the 1960s. I also enjoy the communities the Japanese American Service Committee & Japanese Culture Center bring together in Chicago. In the suburbs, besides Mitsuwa Marketplace and Tensuke Market, I enjoy going to relax and recharge at King Spa & Sauna. Although it is a Korean-style spa, it is the closest thing I've been able to find in the USA similar to the sentos and onsens in Japan that I loved frequenting during my time on JET.

Connect with Lara (Zara) via LinkedIn!

(If you connect with Lara (Zara) on LinkedIn, please include a message that indicates how you know or why you are reaching out to her/them)

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