A Quiet Advocate

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Melinda Chow walks the walk when it comes to community involvement.

Here’s what you’ll learn about Melinda Chow within a few minutes of meeting her: She is very thoughtful. She is very passionate, albeit in a quiet way, about contributing to social good. She is modest and a self- professed nerd. And, she really loves novelty socks.

That’s not to say that Chow, an administrative associate with KUT Radio, is the kind of person who likes tooting her own horn. In fact, it’s not easy to get her to talk about herself. Luckily, her wife, Theresa Zelasko, has no problem singing Chow’s praises.

Asked what’s most important for L Style G Style readers to know about her, Chow, her response given with a smile, it should be noted, said that “just being profiled freaks me out…. I hate to be obtuse and postmodern about it, but I don’t think you can get to know someone through a profile. I think people just need to know me.”

“She’s so modest. She’s awesome!” Zelasko said, on the heels of Chow’s comment. “I think Melinda is incredibly humble. She works so hard, and when she commits to something, she really commits. If she says she’s going to do it, she does it. That and she’s a fantastic cook. And the mother of my three furry children, and now four chickens.” (Those chickens, named after the four Golden Girls, have developed some personality traits aligned with their respective namesakes. Sophia, for instance, is the escape artist.)

Chow may not like talking about herself, but she’s not reticent when it comes to the work, both paid and volunteer, that she does. KUT is her day job, but it’s one that she feels committed to and that has meaning beyond the salary.

1-1In her role at KUT, Chow is involved in administrative and development projects, as well as community outreach. She also works closely with KUT general manager Stewart Vanderwilt. Zelasko lovingly calls it cat herding. Vanderwilt calls it a sometimes “ill-defined job” with many components. Chow, he added, struck him as thoughtful, professional and unflappable when he first met her and offered her the job.

“In addition to her knowledge and skills…she seems to have this innate understanding that each person’s personality, attributes and idiosyncrasies come from the sum of their life experiences,” Vanderwilt said. “She deals with people as she finds them. And she’s not judgmental; she’s not thrown off in any way by the characters with whom she has to work. And in the sphere in which she works at KUT, there’s a lot of characters.”

Some of Chow’s ability to multitask interactions with different types of people comes from working in her family’s store as a child. Chow and her two brothers–she’s the middle child– were expected to work in the family grocery store with their parents and grandparents. In fact, it would have been almost impossible for the store not to have been a big part of life for her. The family lived in a two-story building, with the grocery store taking up all but a kitchen on the lower level and the living area on the upper level.

“There would be times I would watch my parents balance helping a customer with working with a vendor or deliveryman, while also taking care of something one of us kids or another family member needed,” Chow said. “As I got older and had more store responsibilities, I did the same thing. Multitasking interactions comes up a lot on the many busy days here at KUT, and in general, in my work and community life. The fact that my family–and I grew up with my extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles, around me all the time–is full of a bunch of characters, almost none of which are wallflowers, I think also added to this ability.”

Chow is also board chair of Girls Rock Camp Austin, which is affiliated with Girls Rock Camp Alliance, of which she is a board member. Girls Rock Camp Austin seeks to empower girls, encourage development of life skills, and provide leadership opportunities through a musical environment.

Chow has been working with nonprofits since her time in graduate school. The anthropology graduate program she attended at the University of Memphis encouraged students to go beyond academia and become involved in the community.

“While I was in Memphis, I was involved in various community organizations there as well. I just bought into that, I guess. More than that, if I think about what’s worth doing, what do I want to spend my time doing 40 hours a week or more? If I’m sitting in an office, to what end should that go? I can’t really see myself doing other types of work. I have to feel like it has some social good to it.”

The most important aspect of her work, Chow said, is collaborating with and listening to the people she’s working for. Beyond that, Zelasko said, Chow is passionate about social justice.

“She is always trying to educate others in an easygoing, engaging way…she’s a wave-starter of goodwill,” Zelasko said of Chow. “She’s very engaged with what she’s doing. Her passion stems from (believing) everybody deserves to have a full and dignified life.”

Who does Chow most admire? Anyone who works for social justice, she said. “She’s an equal opportunity admirer,” Zelasko added.

Chow and Zelasko are newlyweds–they tied the knot last November–but have been together for 13 years.

“We were together in college,” Zelasko said. “We were pretty darn out. We went to school at Mississippi State, and I tell this to people–no one believes it–but that town in the mid-‘90s was kind of a Bohemian paradise, definitely for that area.”

Nonetheless, both women say Austin has a spirit of tolerance beyond that of many other bigger cities. They’re glad to live in a city where gay issues and topics are considered on a city level, Zelasko noted.

Having said that, Chow added that Austin can’t rest on its laurels. As a city that’s constantly praised for its progressiveness, it sometimes doesn’t acknowledge that there are diversity problems, she noted, citing the attack of a gay man in December 2010.

“I think what makes Austin a little different than other places…is that here in Austin, there’s not the gay district,” Chow said. “There’s 4th Street, where there’s a couple of clubs. But in Austin, gay people live everywhere. I think that’s a good and a bad thing. It means we’re more integrated, but it makes us a little less visible.”

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