WHEN LIFE gives you a pandemic, make a pivot. That might be the motto of these Las Vegans who lost their jobs because of COVID — often after devoting years to their chosen career — but then saw an opportunity to pursue exciting new projects. Las Vegas photographer Claire Hart made them the subject of her ongoing photo essay, in which she cleverly captured these resilient locals in their new and old occupations in one image. Here are some outtakes from her series, which she plans to update on her website. Writer Allison Duck conducted the interviews from which the quotes are taken.
“I’ve always done interior design in the background. My husband and I combined our creative insights into one common goal. When Le Rêve closed, we just kind of dove in head-first to see what would happen. I’m still mourning the loss of my previous career and the financial comfort. I’m trying to create a new career in a matter of months, and the pressure is a little bit overwhelming at times, but we’re doing it! When you’re pitching a design or a proposal, it’s a show — and you’re selling. You need to be able to be ‘on’ and perform. That’s something I learned from being on stage and interacting with strangers.”
ON A MONDAY afternoon in May, a few dozen tweenage girls tumble out of five rooms ringing the open central area of the John D. “Jackie” Gaughan Boys and Girls Club and sit cross-legged on Xs taped to the carpeted floor. After a day of taking state standardized assessment tests, they’re chatty and restless.
With their pink backpacks and pouffy ponytails, they look like any other girls their age, but they’re part of something unique, a program that’s shown success in other regions and has now come to Southern Nevada. It’s an all-girls, tuition-free charter middle school designed to help close the gender gap, that quaint phrase used to describe the inequity of women lagging men in everything from average pay to science careers. Called the Girls Athletic Leadership School, or GALS, it opened in August 2020.
“Last reminder!” shouts a young woman in a T-shirt, sweatpants and sneakers at the front of the room. “If you haven’t turned in your laptop yet, we need it now!”
“We’re just finishing up the SBACs (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium),” Jennifer McCloskey explains, as we continue our tour. “It determines the star rating. Since this is our first year, it will be interesting to see how many stars we get.”
McCloskey is the executive director of the 501(c)3 behind GALS. She'd struck a deal with the Gaughan Club to operate her school in the building between its open hours, roughly 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., during its incubator year. Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the club’s community service, the school became its sole occupant.
“We wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for the Boys and Girls Club,” McCloskey says. “This is an affordable space for us to get our feet under us.”
GALS’ charter allows it to have up to 400 students, and McCloskey has signed a lease for a building several blocks east, where it will have room to grow to that size. This year, GALS has just over 100 students — five classes of 20 students each — half of which opted to attend in-person and half online. Next year, it’s expecting 160. Students rotate among Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, and GALS classes.
That last one is part of what defines the school, beyond its all-girls focus. The “GALS” class is, essentially, the social-emotional component of a model meant to teach not just academics, but also physical and mental well-being: mind, body, heart.
A woman named Liz Wolfson developed the GALS model around a decade ago in Denver, and there’s now an affiliate in Los Angeles. The Vegas site makes three. The idea was to provide girls, at a critical time in their development, with a supportive environment free from the distractions of mixed-gender schools. The hope is that they’ll gain confidence in themselves, becoming strong self-advocates who make choices based on what they want and need, rather than others’ expectations.
McCloskey describes it this way: The “G” is for “girl”— as in, all-girls school, where boys, who tend to be rowdier at that age, don’t soak up most of teachers’ attention. The “A,” “athletic,” may suggest sport, but is actually more about physical wellness. At GALS Las Vegas, each day begins with 40 minutes of movement, anything from yoga to sprinting, so girls can experience a variety of activities and find what helps them feel good in their bodies. And the “L” is for “leadership,” a catch-all for the social-emotional component, also taught five days a week.
… Which sounds great but raises some questions. Like: How do you define “girl” (or take public funding for education if you’re discriminating based on gender)? McCloskey answers this way: “We are an open school, and we would absolutely enroll a boy if they wanted to attend. No boy has applied, but if one did, we would explain to their parents that we specialize in and cater to the needs of adolescent girls. If that works for them, then it works for us as well.” She adds that other GALS schools have had both boys and transgender girls.
Another question: Is it a disservice, socially, to teach girls coping skills in a carefully controlled — and, thus, unrealistic — environment? McCloskey says GALS probably isn’t the right school for someone who believes that. In any case, she is convinced of the need.
To illustrate, she gives the personal example of her own middle school-aged daughter, who was constantly bullied and harassed by boys in her accelerated science classes.
“They basically told her that her place was in the kitchen,” McCloskey says. “The only thing I can think of is that these boys were threatened by her intelligence and wanted to hold her back. … You know that happens frequently, right?”
She says her daughter “muscled through the oppression,” but not every girl can do that, and none should have to.
Twelve-year-old Jamya, whose last name we were asked not to use, says GALS was her mother’s idea, but she was happy about it. “All the schools I’ve gone to are boys and girls,” Jamya says, “The boys are the problem. I’ve been bullied from them for two years in a row.”
Krista Yarberry, GALS’ Head of School (their term for “principal”), adds that harassment is sometimes physical, too.
A 30-year educator, Yarberry says her favorite thing about GALS is the community it serves. In the heart of the 89119 zip code, the school’s student body comprises 85 percent children from surrounding neighborhoods and is more than 90 percent BIPOC. “I love, love, love what we’re doing here,” she says. “I feel like it can really make a difference.”
Yarberry describes the school’s administration, staff, and families as a tight-knight group. She knows every student by name. Parents have her personal mobile phone number and use it. It’s intense, she says, but some of the pressure will let up once the school gets up to full speed, there are more resources and staff, and the need for constant, anti-COVID cleaning and sanitizing ends.
“I do not recommend opening a school during a pandemic,” she deadpans. “It’s stressful. But it’s worth it.”
McCloskey agrees. A few years ago, after being diagnosed with cancer, she left her job as a Bureau of Reclamation Deputy Regional Director. She found she couldn’t care for herself and two daughters as well as she wanted to with such a demanding career in such hostile surroundings.
“Honestly, the federal government is not a very good environment for women,” she says. “I think that’s pretty commonly known.”
As her health situation improved, she decided opening a school was something she could do to make a difference.
“I look at my mom’s experiences,” she says. “I look at my life. I look at my daughters, and how frustrated they’ve been with gender issues and discrimination. And I felt like, I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to break the mold. My legacy has to be doing something about this.”
1. LET'S HAVE DESSERT first — I mean, we’re grownups here. This sweet interview with John Swartzwelder, legendary writer for The Simpsons, is overloaded with charm, humor, creative insight — his advice about writing and rewriting, too long to quote, is especially wise and funny — and behind-the-scenes glimpses into The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and other comedy touchstones. Swartzwelder is famously media-shy, so the length and wide scope of the interview are noteworthy. There are chef’s-kiss moments galore, on everything from his childhood (“When I told people I didn’t want to carry cement for a living, I wanted to write comedy and be a national treasure instead, I got some odd looks”) to the vivid violence of Itchy & Scratchy: “We could show horrendous things to the children at home,” Swartzwelder says, “as long as we portrayed them being shown to the Simpsons’ children first. Somehow this extra step baffled our critics and foiled the mobs with torches. We agreed with them that this was wrong to show to children. ‘Didn’t we just show it being wrong? And, look, here’s more wrong stuff!’” A surefire mood-lifter.
2. Speaking of more wrong stuff: Donald Trump may be reduced to hogging the mic at Mar-a-Lago wedding parties, but his followers are determined to not only keep his white-grievance cuddle party going, but to double down on it. From a Newsmax TV promo: “This is our country. We conquered it, we built it.” Around the nation, red-state politicians are banning or attempting to ban the teaching of critical race theory. Folks, that’s the kind of brand loyalty only systemic racism can buy. So this is an especially propitious time for a chewy longread on the meaning of “whiteness,” and journalist Robert P. Baird is here with an excellent one. If you’ve ever been confused by what it means for whiteness to be “socially constructed,” Baird clears it up with a compelling piece that stretches from the 17th century — when skin color had little to do with categorizing humans — through the slavery era, all the way to our very fraught now. You won’t be surprised to learn that economics and Christianity play major roles in this grim saga, but there’s much more to it. Now, if it sounds as though Media Sommelier is insisting you eat your spinach, that’s not it. Baird has an intellectual’s mastery of facts, context, and nuance, but he writes with clarity and patience. Recommended.
3. In case you missed Daniel Rothberg’s recent report in The Nevada Independent about how state officials let a mining company dictate the meaning of “good science” — to the company’s advantage, natch — in the matter of a toxic cleanup near Reno, well, now you can give your outrage glands a belated workout.
4. Privacy — it’s hard to remember what it was. Nowadays, everything from our smartphones to our smart fridges, from social-media platforms to government facial-rec programs, has their siphons plunged not only into our business, but down into the innermost jellies of our psyches. And we’re mostly okay with it. “The self, the private self, the part of us that we’re taught in school is special because it’s where our art projects come from, the part science tells us we’re seeing during sleep when our eyeballs start to jiggle, is mostly occupied territory by now.” If you couldn’t tell from that sentence’s distinctively sardonic mouthfeel, that’s novelist, essayist, and noted contrarian Walter Kirn; it’s from Unbound, his intermittent newsletter. Like many of these Substacked efforts, Kirn’s has a casual, riffy intimacy — in this case, pinging from the betrayals of his phone to modern life’s insidious tradeoffs between surveillance and convenience. Sounds heavy, and it does have a few weighty moments, but it’s funny, too, and in the closing passage Kirn comically implicates himself in the erosion of his own privacy because he’s too impatient to wait in line.
5. Unless you read literary Twitter, the departure of Joshua Wolf Shenk from UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute hasn’t gotten much above-the-fold attention around here; it took the Review-Journal several days to follow up on the Los Angeles Times’ original piece last week. It seems Shenk accidentally exposed himself during a February Zoom meeting. His version of what followed, as reported in the Times and the R-J, is that he left the organization to spare it further embarrassment as it continues its important literary work. (And it’s worth noting that neither story quotes other individuals who were on that Zoom.) But an anonymous letter, posted on Medium by BMI staffers, refuses to let Shenk off the hook: “We see this act as the culmination of a years-long pattern of inappropriate and disrespectful behavior that belies a chronic lack of care and concern for the comfort, boundaries, and safety of the staff ...” The letter further criticizes UNLV for failing to publically address the situation while not letting them speak out. The staffers posted anonymously, the document says, out of fear of reprisal from the school. (Full disclosure: I recently did some freelance work for Black Mountain Radio but had no conversations with anyone there bearing on Shenk’s situation.) Scott Dickensheets