Lisa Lucas’s Novel Way to Change the World
April 12, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
In 2016, Lisa Lucas became the executive director of the National Book Foundation, signaling an exciting shift in the publishing world: She was the first woman, the first African American, and the youngest person (at just 36) to step into the role. Up to that point, her career had entailed working as a fundraiser for theater companies, as a program director for the Tribeca Film Festival, and as the publisher of arts-and-politics magazine Guernica. In each role, Lisa had been driven by not just a love of the arts, but a love of sharing the arts and promoting inclusivity. Below, she chats with us about ‘90s hip hop, her brush with John Lewis, and why books matter.
THERE WERE BOOKS EVERYWHERE when I was growing up in New Jersey. Someone was always reading to me. I remember being really freaked out, but also compelled by, a book called The Lonely Doll. My paternal grandmother was a schoolteacher, and she was really excited to help me learn how to read. I was an only child until I was 13, so reading was a way to entertain myself. I’ve always loved stories.
I’M EXTREMELY BOOKISH AND EXTREMELY SOCIAL; I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. Ever since my friends and I started reading The Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike, and Judy Blume, I’ve thought of reading as social. We would share books and talk about them at camp or school. Even though reading can be a solitary activity, books always felt like a communal thing—a conversation starter.
I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WANTED TO BE when I grew up. I have one of those jobs that most children don’t even know exists—I certainly didn’t spend my childhood saying I wanted to be an arts administrator. I found my way into this career by working in proximity to things that I liked: the arts, theater, storytelling, film, books. I followed the trail of my personal interests, and it wasn’t a straightforward trail. But when I finally arrived at the National Book Foundation at age 36, I thought, “This is why I did all those previous jobs. They led me here, and this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
IN 1995, I WAS 15 AND I HAD MY FIRST INTERNSHIP AT VIBE MAGAZINE. It was such an exciting moment in hip hop and R&B—Tupac and Biggie were around. I remember when D’Angelo’s first record came out, and everybody was listening to “Brown Sugar” in the office. Everyone at VIBE was so smart and energetic. I worked in the advertising department, so I don’t know that my tasks were all that interesting, but I was wowed by being in proximity to all of that talent and collaboration. I felt saturated in culture, and I loved watching people at work.
MY FIRST JOB AFTER COLLEGE WAS PRETTY WEIRD: I managed the telefund for the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. I was 21 years old, and I oversaw a team of callers, many of whom were much older than me. It was a crash course in managing people—and in learning how much I didn’t know about managing people. But I loved being part of the larger development team at a nonprofit. That job set me on my course; I’ve been at nonprofits ever since.
PROFESSIONALLY SPEAKING, I REALLY BECAME MYSELF during my time at the Tribeca Film Institute. I had been working in marketing and development, but that’s when I got a chance to actually create programs, specifically those that helped young people get excited about filmmaking. The Tribeca Film Festival seems like a fancy, glitzy thing, and I understand how a high school kid in the Bronx might think, “That’s not something I can be a part of.” But it is, and I loved connecting students to tools and resources they might not have been aware of.
WHEN I HEARD THAT THE NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION was looking for a new executive director, I didn’t think of myself as an option. I was 35, and the outgoing director was in his sixties, so I assumed I wasn’t experienced enough. I got a phone call from a recruiter asking for ideas about who might be a fit for the role. I rattled off a bunch of names, and then she said, “What about you?” I realized I did have a lot of ideas for ways to build on the Foundation’s work. In my head, I was like “you could do this and that and this and that…” That was a sign to me that I might be more ready than I thought. I applied and ended up getting the job.
IN MY FIRST YEAR AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, I was at our National Book Awards and Congressman John Lewis won for a book called March about the civil rights movement. I remember sitting in the audience while he talked about being a child in Alabama and not being allowed to use his local public library. And here he was, winning a National Book Award. It was very emotional, and I cried a little. I was thrilled that he won, and I was proud to be part of something that honored him.
SOMETIMES I PULL BACK AND THINK, “WHY DOES THE BOOK MATTER?” Books give us both information and empathy, and we need these tools to wade through the complicated world we live in. There’s so much going on—political division, environmental shifts, even just the increasing speed of the digital age. Whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, books help us explore the past, present, and future. I feel so lucky to spend my days sharing literature. Sometimes I’m still surprised that I’ve been able to make a career out of something that is so joyful to me.
Photographs by Matthew Priestley. Styling by Liz Young.