Meet the Team

The team at the heart of Open Books are energetic, entrepreneurial, and just slightly eccentric book-lovers from a wide span of backgrounds and with a vast spectrum of interests. Collectively, we have decades of experience in business, education, retail, development, finance, writing, and pursuits of all kinds.

Leadership Team

Jennifer Steele
Executive Director

Jennifer Steele has served the young people and communities of Chicago for nearly 20 years through her work in education, nonprofit leadership, and partnership with community organizations and cultural institutions across Chicago to ensure that young people have access to opportunities and experiences that allow them to be dreamers and change-makers. She most recently served as the Executive Director of 826CHI, a youth writing and publishing organization. She previously served with Digital Youth Network and Chicago Public Library’s Teen Services in both the establishment and expansion of its YOUmedia program along with leadership of other partnership programs including founding the ChiTeen Lit Fest, a two-day storytelling festival for-teens-by-teens and coaching Youmedia’s Rooted and Radical Youth Poetry Slam team. Her work has included education and program strategy, design, and implementation which has brought her so much joy in having the opportunity to be a part of the bright and bold journeys of many of Chicago’s young people. She has had the honor of working with and presenting for other local, national, and international educators through the Chicago Learning Exchange, YOUmedia Network, Mozilla Festival, and National Endowment for the Arts.

In addition to her passion for young people and arts education, she is a poet, writer, and the author of the chapbook A House In Its Hunger (Central Square Press, 2018). She is a Callaloo Fellow and Poetry Incubator Fellow, and the inaugural recipient of the 2019 Lucille Clifton Creative Parent Award from Raising Mothers Magazine. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Review, Callaloo, Another Chicago Magazine, Columbia Poetry Review, Wherever I'm At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, and notable others. She is a proud graduate of Howard University and Columbia College Chicago where she received her MFA in Poetry.

While she is an east coast girl (and still puts ketchup on her hot dogs), she has grown a Chicagoan’s heart. She is a proud mother, emerging triathlete, and board game nerd, and one of her favorite Chicago beaches is Pebble beach where she can be found in the Summer swimming with friends out to the ship wreck.

She is absolutely thrilled to continue serving Chicago students and families through the joy and power of reading with Open Books and is grateful to be so warmly welcomed into the Open Books community.

Ryan P. Jackson
Managing Director

Ryan has spent the last two decades immersed in the used book world, and is very excited to be part of the Open Books team. He grew up in New Jersey and North Carolina, coming to the great Midwest to attend the University of Chicago. While there he tried to read everything that was assigned (seemingly impossible), somehow graduated, and today continues to try to read everything he is interested in (definitely impossible). When he’s not meandering through the store or opening random boxes in the warehouse, you can find him in his basement in Portage Park building furniture, searching for odd records, hanging out with his wife, son, and dog, or playing 16” softball.

Chelsea Ridley
Director of Community Engagement

Chelsea Ridley is a leader in community engaged practice in art and non-profits and has worked at organizations such as Chicago Cares, the DuSable Museum, and Mikva Challenge. In 2020, she joined the Open Books team as the Project Director for the North Lawndale Reads program and now serves as the Director of Community Engagement. Outside of her work at Open Books, Chelsea is also the co-founder of the Lawndale Pop-Up Spot, a community museum in a shipping container. Chelsea holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Russian Studies from Illinois Wesleyan University and a Masters Degree in Museum and Exhibition Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was awarded the MUSE Social Justice Award. Chelsea was also a Civic Leadership Academy Fellow at the University of Chicago in 2023.

Paula Santos
Program Director

Paula Santos is an arts and culture leader and educator who has devoted the last 15 years of her career to making non-profits, museums, and other cultural organizations more equitable. She has worked at major cultural institutions in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, including Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Most recently she was Senior Manager of Learning and Engagement at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago. Paula is also a founding member of the Museum Workers Relief Fund, a mutual aid fund that has raised over $120,000 for museum workers adversely affected by Covid-19.

Alison Gerber
Development Director

Alison grew up in the west suburbs of Chicago, after which she attended Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN where she graduated with a BA in History and an ultimate frisbee obsession. Shortly after, she made her way back home to Chicago to serve as a college access coach at Bowen High School for two years before joining the Open Books team in 2017. Since then, Alison has expanded her role to manage Open Books' individual giving, corporate engagement, and institutional grants, as well as oversee volunteer engagement across Open Books' programs and retail operations. She has served as the organization's Associate Board liaison since 2018, managing special events and supporting young professional leaders in their efforts to drive awareness and funding to Open Books' mission.

Vashti Emigh
Director of Finance and Administration

Vashti is passionate about mission-driven work and the finances and resources that make it all happen! Vashti has over a decade of nonprofit management experience in education, fundraising, and finance at various Chicago organizations including Emerald City Theatre, Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, and Lifeline Theatre. Vashti studied theatre, history, and environmental studies at Williams College and received her M.B.A. from the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business at DePaul University with concentrations in Applied Economics and Leadership and Change Management. Vashti is an avid reader, sports enthusiast, gardener, and budding baker.

Volunteer Engagement

John Pendleton
Volunteer Coordinator

John was born and raised in Grove Hill, Alabama. With southern hospitality and a pro-Black approach to life, Chicago has been an easy joy to call home for over a decade. His time in Chicago began with heavy volunteerism in various organizations and then managing volunteers and youth programs with partner organizations in Chicago Public Schools. With this background and his passion for art, he looks forward to bringing creative engagement with Open Books volunteer opportunities.Though never a varsity athlete, John also enjoys powerlifting and is a very mediocre, at best, triathlete.


Deirdre Garcia
Program Manager

Deirdre is a Chicago native who spent over a decade teaching in Chicago Public Schools after graduating from Loyola University. Working with educational programs for years showed her the impact educators can have outside of the classroom, and she hopes to design effective programs that empower young readers and assist teachers in the massive job of teaching children to read. She earned her MA in Community and Teacher Leadership from Northeastern Illinois University, engaging in research on diversity (and lack thereof) in children’s literature. Her free time consists of crafting, trying to tackle a massive TBR pile, watching a select few shows on repeat, and taking endless pictures of her cats being cute.

Valeria Osornio
Early Childhood Literacy Coordinator

Valeria was born and raised in Pilsen, she grew up volunteering and working in the Community of as a mentor and coordinator assistant. She obtained an Associate in Arts degree from Chicago Community Colleges in 2015. While initially continuing school to pursue a career in music education she was able to reconnect with her passion for books and graduated with a Bachelors degree in English Literature from Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 2018. Since then she continues to nurture her love of music, by sharing videos of herself singing on her Ukulele, and working on her goals which are to make a difference in her community and to finish writing her very first Latino Science Fiction novel.

Stores - Open Books Pilsen

Chris Salmon
Book Operations Manager

Chris was born in Denver, but grew up outside of Detroit. After living in Ann Arbor while completing his BS in philosophy (with a minor in literature) at Eastern Michigan University, he moved to Chicago in the fall of 2001. His life in the book business began with part-time work while in college and has continued to this day, almost uninterrupted. When not managing the Pilsen store and warehouse, he can be found running tables at a nearby pool hall or futilely trying to catch up on all of the books that he's intended to get to over the last 25 years.

Jeremy Leithold-Patt
Book Coordinator

Jeremy (AKA the Book Monster) has been volunteering with Open Books since 2012 and has been a staff member since 2015. He is thrilled to have a job where he can spend his days with books and forward the cause of literacy. When he is not at work he is either reading science fiction, gardening, or re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Marlo Koch
Book Donations Coordinator

Marlo holds an MFA in Studio Art from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a practicing writer originally from the suburbs of Chicago. She has previously worked as an academic editor, and is currently the Managing Editor of Chicago Artists Writers, a review publication focused covering smaller, overlooked exhibitions and projects in Chicago. She is always excited to talk to people about books and writing. As the Donation Coordinator, she enjoys fostering connections between Open Books and other organizations, companies, and individuals who are passionate about literacy.

Jane Merker
Book Coordinator

Jane Merker is an ex-suburbanite and liberal arts graduate with a love of the spoken and written word. When not at work she can be seen in various coffee shops or heavily wooded areas.

Stores - Open Books West Loop and Logan Square

Zylon Tokash
Senior Manager of Retail Operations

Zylon graduated with a major in English and minor in linguistics from SUNY New Paltz in 2013. He spent his last two years working at his college’s library. A few weeks after graduating, he moved to Chicago, transitioning from a world where he was literally and figuratively immersed in books to a new city, where his Ikea bookshelf served as his only connection to the literary world. He missed working at the library and talking to patrons and the environment of books, so when he found out about a volunteer opportunity with Open Books he was ecstatic to get started.

Kelsey Cambpell

Kelsey grew up in Rockford, IL and completed a bachelor's in Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's in Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Once out of school, she was (finally) able to prioritize reading for fun while also working in the service industry in Chicago. Throughout all of her experiences, reading has been a constant love. Now she is able to completely engage with the world of books while supporting access to books and literacy programming in the Chicago community.

Joey Shapiro

Joey grew up in Pasadena, California, raised on a steady diet of Goosebumps books and sub-par Adam Sandler comedies. After graduating from Oberlin College with a BA in cinema studies, he moved to Chicago without much of a plan or any friends in the city. He quickly found a second home in Open Books and a rekindled love of reading after years of not having time to read for pleasure in college, and he's beyond thrilled to be able to share that passion with other book-lovers at the West Loop store.

Peter Ginn

Peter was born in Chicago, and but for a few satellite educational efforts has lived in and around the city his entire life. Before and for a long time after eventually graduating from Columbia College he worked in retail logistics, organizing things and getting them to the people who wanted or needed them. At some point menaced by the many, many books he’d (mostly) read and (often) loved, he began donating the overstock to Open Books, eventually doing so at the Pilsen warehouse, the glorious sight and mission of which inspired the thought, 'This is a place for me.' He has volunteered in the warehouse and store ever since, and is now honored to work-work at the West Loop location, where he will occasionally slow down enough to enjoy the wonderful books flowing through the space, and the customers who so clearly love being there.

Meghana Kandlur

Stay tuned for their bio!

Board of Directors

Stephanie Vasconcellos - Chair Mayer Brown
Rosa Carrillo - Vice Chair The Chicago Community Trust
Denise Schwartz - Secretary EpsteinSchwartz Legal Search
Josh Leavitt - Treasurer Longford Capital Management, LP
Brian Acks Embroker
Alex Breland CDK Global
Christopher Claus JP Morgan Chase & Co.
Will Collins Surge Institute
Brandon Copple Descript
Stacy Crook Advisors Asset Management (AAM)
Colleen Foley Horizon Therapeutics
Gajanan Kasbekar KPMG
Matt Kreis Center for Community Progress
Sara Gilley Krivoshia Cornerstone Research
Khadeejah Lasuc-Lewis Chicago Scholars
Anne Matz inquirED
Megan McCoy Equity Group Investments
Christina Steed Agents & Strategies, LLC.
Evan Trent Adtalem Global Education
Laura Wylie PwC