We had the good fortune of connecting with Tobi Harper and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Tobi, what role has risk played in your life or career?
Every decision is a risk, a chance that your efforts will be for nothing, that you will be rejected for that date, that you might fall out of the rollercoaster. Risk taking is part of what makes life exciting, and it is also what causes our greatest stresses. I have gone skydiving, flown a two-person jet, and gone white water river rafting, and for all that, you might consider me a risk-taker, but I don’t. When I take a risk, I like to have a backup plan, and a backup plan for that backup plan. My important documents are saved on my computer, printed, and in the cloud. I have a primary job, a secondary job, and freelance gigs. I am an obvious queer who travels the world, and so I learned how to pass, how to defend myself, and how to run and climb. Risk taking has led me to prepare myself for everything, to be my own backup plan, and to be part of a support system that backs me up when I fail. I don’t prefer risk, but I love to experience adventure, joy, and opportunities, and that life is a risk worth taking.

Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
As a child, I loved reading more than anything. We didn’t have television or video games and all I wanted was to grow up and read books and talk about them, but I knew that a job as an editor was a near impossibility—I would never be qualified enough! My parents were founders and publishers of a brand-new independent nonprofit (Red Hen Press) and so I had realistic dreams about my chances of being an editor, and instead thought I’d be an English professor.

I read everything, I worked hard in school, and I worked at my parents’ press during summers as an office assistant, then as a warehouse coordinator, and then as a bookkeeper. During college I worked remotely as an executive assistant, stopping only when I went to grad school and started working as a computer tech at the library. At the end of grad school, I had four years as a computer tech under my belt, a BA in English literature with an emphasis in literature of the environment and a minor in Queer lit, and a Masters in English during which I served as the Chair of the Graduate Literature Association, producing a graduate student conference and a graduate student literary journal, and suddenly no idea what to do. My whole life up to this point had pointed toward academia, and after witnessing the full interview process for an open position as a professor, I realized there was no chance of tenure and I needed to find another path.

Do I spend six years getting a PhD to be a professor with no chance of tenure? Get a second master’s in computer science to be a computer tech? I had no idea, so I started writing a list of what I wanted from my next job:
1. Time off to go to Red Hen’s benefit
2. Time off to go with Red Hen to the AWP conference
3. Time off to take notes at Red Hen board meetings

This far into the list, I realized that Red Hen Press had always been my top priority, and though I’d never considered it consciously, was the one place I really wanted to work. Then a place to live opened up back in Los Angeles (I was in San Francisco), a position opened at Red Hen, and I learned that both the staff and our top supporters wished I would move to LA and work at the press. So, I prepared by six-page CV and a letter for every board member, donor, and supporter of Red Hen, explaining my experience, my credentials, and my absolute commitment to Red Hen Press and its mission. This is not a normal application process, but with my parents as the founders, I wanted to make sure there was no question as to whether I was qualified and deserved the chance to work there. Each board member and top supporter needed to approve my hire and donate toward my first year’s salary, and after approvals all around, one month later I made the move to Los Angeles to be the Development Associate. Within one year I became the Director of Operations, a year after that the Director of Development and Operations, and in spring of 2018 I became the Marketing and Deputy Director. After all that time, the book-loving child got to read books and talk about them, and the dreams I thought were impossible all came true.

None of this was easy, it’s non-profit book publishing and I need to be efficient, energetic, resourceful, and unstoppable. I have learned to trust my instincts, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to believe in my ability to make it happen. “I’ve got this” became my motto and at this point, I know I can do anything. I work with an incredible team and learn from powerful and creative mentors who love and support me as my neurodivergent and genderqueer self. This is the dream I didn’t dare to dream, and I am lucky, privileged, and grateful to dedicate myself to this work.

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
If my best friend was visiting the area we would start local, take a walk around Lake Balboa and grab a fruit cup. Then we’d go to Acasa Food Truck and eat tacos in the backyard while throwing a ball for my new puppy. Next we’d check out Pasadena, go to the Huntington Gardens, Red Hen Press’s office, Vroman’s Bookstore, lunch at Perry’s Joint and dinner at Union. For the beach scene we’d have brunch at the Fig Tree in Venice, walk the sidewalk, and buy cheap sunglasses. To swim we’d head to Zuma Beach and stop at Lily’s tacos on the way. And to hike we’d pack a picnic and head to the Santa Monica mountains. And of course we’d go to LACMA, the tar pits, the Broad Museum, the Getty Museum, and then party hard at Tramp Stamp Granny’s.

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I dedicate my shout out to Leslie Feinberg, author of Stone Butch Blues. I read this book at 21 years old, just starting grad school and newly moved to San Francisco. I was a baby butch with freshly chopped hair, and I didn’t know who I was or why I felt so out of place with myself. Then I read Stone Butch Blues, with the language of the time identifying the protagonist Jess as a “he/she,” who goes on to reject both the identities of man and woman. I went on to dedicate my studies not only to queer literature, as I did as an undergrad, but to genderqueer literature specifically, discovering The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, Sacred Country by Rose Tremain, and the volume of lesbian pulp fiction published through the 70s and 80s . Feinberg passed away six months before the completion of my master’s thesis dedicated to her work, but ten years later I experienced the honor of have coffee with Leslie’s wife Minnie Bruce Pratt and programmed her into a reading at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division (BGSQD) in New York.

This is the book that helped me to discover what I am, and I am now dedicated to championing literature that helps others to find themselves.

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/harpertobi/

Image Credits
1 – Santa Barbara Skydiving 2 – Julianne Hooper

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