29 Mar 2023

Know Your HBS Staff: Jo Wisch


by Shona Simkin

Jo Wisch is a faculty support specialist (FSS) in the Accounting & Management (A&M) Unit. Openly transgender and nonbinary, Jo talked with us about their experience existing outside of gender norms, what their work is like day to day, and what brings them joy.

Where are you from?
I grew up in central Massachusetts in Littleton, about 45 minutes northwest of Boston. There were 79 people in my graduating class; we were the largest class at the time, and everyone knew everyone, but I've been living in Malden, MA, for the past 15 years.

What was your career prior to HBS?
I was the program coordinator for a national LGBTQ+ helpline and peer listening line for almost 15 years. I managed the volunteers who staffed the lines and trained them on topics like coming out, active listening, suicide prevention, safer sex and STIs, harm reduction, and self care. When the pandemic hit, the agency I worked for furloughed about 20 percent of the staff, including me. At the furlough's one-year mark, I got laid off due to budget cuts. I felt a little burned out working in the nonprofit world for so long, so I looked for something different to do in my next job. I've always been drawn to academic environments (I was an admin. assistant in Harvard's Astrophysics department for a year or two back in my early 20s). One of my closest friends is an FSS, and she told me her department was hiring and encouraged me to apply; I got hired and have been at HBS since September 2021.

What does your work look like on an average day?
There is no average day! Every day is different. It's a lot of calendar management, helping any faculty who are currently teaching with grading, posting and updating course materials in Canvas (our learning management system), copyediting their research papers, event planning, submitting cases to Case Services, helping to create faculty promotion packets, some travel planning—it's a little bit of everything. I like structure but I also like variety, so the fact that this is a lot of different things that I've done previously or that I do periodically, there's a routine to it but it varies every day.

What do you like most about your job?
I like when I get to interact with students. Being surrounded by so many forward-thinking minds is exciting. I also like getting a sneak peek into the cases faculty are teaching—I can read the materials and get a "behind the scenes" view. And I especially love the people I work with every day. It's a great team environment, and we all help each other out. Within the A&M unit there are seven FSSs and one unit coordinator, and we support all the faculty within that unit. We all tend to do the same types of work, and come summer, we reassess and figure out when faculty are teaching to make sure that the FSSs have an equitable distribution of work. When I started at HBS, I was supporting three senior and one assistant faculty, and am now currently supporting one senior, two junior, and a visiting faculty member. It varies.

What is something that surprised you about your job?
How nice everybody is! I went from working in a nonprofit world where I was a department of one, running the program with very little managerial support—I was used to doing everything on my own and finding answers myself. When I came to HBS it was a 180 flip where everybody is super friendly and willing to go out of their way to help if you have any questions. It was an adjustment, getting used to the fact that it's ok to ask questions! The number one piece of advice I tell new FSSs is, "Don't afraid to ask questions." It can be challenging for some folks to ask for help, but everyone working here genuinely wants to help and see folks strive to be the best staff person they can be.

You're very open about being transgender—what was that journey for you?
I came out as some version of queer when I was 19, and I started questioning my gender identity when I was 28, 29. I kind of sat on that for years and explored it internally, trying to figure out who I was and what labels I felt most comfortable using. I came out formally as trans and nonbinary in 2016 when I was 39.

With it becoming more public and present in the media and more socially acceptable for folks to openly identify as trans and nonbinary, I felt less "othered" and more comfortable and empowered to live my truth. Over time I learned more about myself as a human being and how I function and exist in the world physically, mentally, and spiritually, and being nonbinary became a huge part of my identity. It was a very slow evolution for me, and I'm grateful I was able to do it in my own time.

What do you want the community to know about your transgender experience?
It's important for people to know that everybody's experience is different. No two trans or nonbinary people's experiences are the same. Everybody has a different journey and a different identity. "Trans" is often used as an umbrella term, but there are so many various amalgamations of identities underneath that—it is a very individual experience, and each one is beautiful in its own right. I personally identify as nonbinary because while I was assigned female at birth, I don't personally identify as either a woman or a man. Neither feels quite right to me. I'm somewhere in between.

I like to exist in a gray area—for me, that's half the joy of being human. I get personal satisfaction out of challenging people's preconceived notions of gender and sexuality. I like making folks stop, think for a minute, and get confused when they try to categorize me into a box in their brains. A big part of my trans activism is living openly, honestly, and authentically. When I first came out of the closet at 19, I never ever went back in. I've been very open and out and proud because I strongly believe that visibility matters.

There's so much variety in the world, and the world is such a beautiful place because of that. There's a vast spectrum of human existence, and I think it does humanity a disservice to put people into very narrow, restrictive categories. It's crucial for folks to look outside of their own personal bubbles and learn about people and the world so that they can continue to grow and evolve.

What has that experience been like here at HBS?
From the first day I stepped on HBS's campus, my identity has never once come into question. It's been a very warm and very welcoming environment. I had some issues in the beginning with being mispronouned a few times, but that's gotten better in the year or so I've been here. People make mistakes; I think it's often just people not knowing, not having the experience, or not being educated on how to use pronouns other than she/her or he/him. It comes with practice, and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. If it continues, I'll say something, but most of the time, that hasn't been the case. Overall, HBS has been a very queer- and trans-friendly space to work. It's been a very refreshing environment to be in because I can live truthfully and honestly and openly about who I am without having to worry about my job being at risk or being looked at differently.

One of the things I find so refreshing about HBS is the diversity of the staff and students. Before I ever came to the HBS campus or learned anything about HBS, I thought it was this cis white world, and it's not. It's so much more diverse, and I think that speaks volumes about HBS and who they admit as students and hire as faculty and staff.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
When I'm not working, I like to go on adventures with my kiddo, who's two and a half, and my family. Getting to watch him grow and play and become an awesome, silly, sweet, and kind person blows my mind. I also love to bake, do arts and crafts (origami, counted cross stitch, color), and fix things around my 90-year-old house. I'm constantly listening to music (Spotify says I listened to more than 1,300 hours of music last year). The ocean is one of my favorite places to be, so I go whenever I can—it's my calming place and where I go to recenter myself. I'm very much an ambivert—I rejuvenate my internal battery by being selective about who I spend my time with. Sometimes I can get overwhelmed, and crowds stress me out, but my chosen family rejuvenates me, so I try to spend as much time as I can with them—they bring me joy every day—they bring me life.

One of my personal rules in life is to find a reason to laugh every day, regardless of how I feel or what I'm going through. It helps keep me humble, not take things in life for granted and find gratitude in the small stuff.

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