Spotlight: UNESCO director shares passion for literature


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Jeanette Pilak’s love for literature and books began in her childhood.

“My mother instilled in me a passion for reading and literature at a very young age,” Pilak said.

When she was younger, the now 57-year-old’s mother would encourage her to read books that college students were reading. And now that her office is in a library, Pilak goes home with a few books every day.

As the executive director for UNESCO City of Literature in Iowa City, she is able to weave her lifelong passion with her career.

Her main tasks involve promotion and fundraising. City of Literature is part of UNESCO, a worldwide organization that works to promote and maintain the cultures of cities. Iowa City is one of 27 UNESCO cities and one of four City of Literatures; the others are Edinburgh, Scotland, Melbourne, Australia, and Dublin, Ireland.

Pilak said she believes that this designation is something residents of Iowa City should be proud of.

“We’re the only City of Literature in the country — that’s some bragging rights,” Pilak said.

Iowa City Public Library Director Susan Craig has been a “neighbor” to Pilak, in the sense that their offices are housed in the same building. Craig said that Pilak is fun to be around because of her wide interests, big smile, and enthusiasm for the work she does.

“I think it’s amazing how many people she has personally connected with since she began this job last April,” Craig said. “I think it would be hard for someone to live in Iowa City and not had an opportunity to see her. I think that speaks to her energy.”

For Pilak, being able to read is to understand the world. She continually works on ways to maintain Iowa City’s reputation as a literary city by promoting such projects as July’s Book Festival, the City of Literature iPhone application, and international writing programs. She aims to create ideas that maintain the availability of literary work to everyone.

“The thing about Iowa City is you can sit down in a coffee shop and sit next to some famous or soon-to-be famous writer,” Pilak said. “It’s not just the graduates from the writing programs, it’s the seniors in the retirement homes who are self-publishing, it’s the kids in the schools who are in the young writers’ programs.”

Chris Rossi has had the chance to work with Pilak on various projects in the promotion of City of Literature. He describes Pilak as a diplomat, a forward thinker, and collegial. Rossi said she truly gets the idea that the City of Literature is a collaboration of the many efforts of people in Iowa and beyond.

“She’s an innovator. She’s capable of tying together disparate strands and building and creating tight knots,” Rossi said. “She’s capable of pulling different people together and getting them to move in the same direction, which is an essential requirement for steering the future course for this upstart organization.”

For 25 years, Pilak worked in nonprofit management in arts and culture. The following 10 years, she worked in economic development. When Iowa City posted a job for City of Literature with nonprofit management, economic development, and cultural programming, she said she felt as if the job was made for her.

“I love the work I do. I’m very passionate about literacy,” Pilak said. “To have a job that blends my skills and experience with my passion, I just love what I do.”

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