Smile Politely

Building a better Champaign-Urbana: An interview with Rohn Koester

Recently I was able to sit down with Rohn Koester, the Facility Manager for the Channing-Murray Foundation. According to their website, the Channing-Murray Foundation is a “campus-community center rooted in Unitarian-Universalist values, providing educational, artistic, and cultural programs designed to be radically inclusive, social-justice centered, and spiritually alive.” I met with Koester in his favorite spot to work and write, the Red Herring Restaurant, which is located in the basement of Channing-Murray.

Smile Politely:  What does inclusive community mean to you?  

Rohn Koester: Listening to people that are often not very well heard. I’ve found that if I pay attention to them I can learn new things, new ways to be supportive of them, and new perspectives.

SP: Tell me a little bit about the Channing-Murray Foundation. What’s the mission? What’s your position within CMF?

Koester: CMF has existed for more than 100 years. Our mission is to provide programming that is radically inclusive. Programs held here promote cultural diversity through music, theater, art and social justice. I’m the Facilities Manager. I take care of the building, open and close the building, and work with campus and community groups who use the space.

SP: What’s your favorite part about being involved in at Channing-Murray?  

Koester: The diversity of programs. In the span of one weekend we have so many different things happening. For example, on Friday we may have a band with dancing. The next day labor group meeting, and that night a theater program. Then on Sunday next, African Dance. There’s always something new happening here.

SP:  What makes the Channing-Murray Foundation unique?  What is special about working there?  

Koester: The Channing-Murray Foundation has a history that’s different than any other place in town. It’s been around since 1908. It was part of the desegregation efforts here in the 1950s, has been host to anti-war organizations and reproductive rights groups in the 60s and 70s, and hosted groups that work on labor issues. We have a living history. Groups still come here to organize.

SP: What do you think are some challenges for the CMF?  

Koester: The schedule can be a challenge at times. There are some nights where we have programming until 1 or 2 a.m., then another program the next morning at 7 a.m. It’s also an old, historic building. Things break and you have to fix them. We have thousands of new students coming to campus each year. It can be a challenge to offer invitations to all students and reach a new group each year.

SP: What are some things that the CMF consistently gets right or are consistently successful?  

Koester: I would say at the top of the list is the Red Herring, our vegetarian and vegan restaurant. It serves lunch Monday through Friday, and dinner on Wednesdays. The folks who work in the kitchen are wonderful people who cook really good food. And the restaurant space is just great. It’s filled with art from a variety of artists, local musicians come in and play during lunch. It’s just one of my favorite places.

SP: How can people get involved with the Channing-Murray Foundation?  

Koester: The easiest way to get involved is to call us. Our number is 217-344-1176. It’s a simple as telling us, “I would like to do a program. How can you help me?” We’ll work with groups to see if their program falls in with our mission here, and help you organize in a way that you can afford.

SP: What advice would you give for someone who wants to become more involved in building a better C-U community?  

Koester: There are so many people I adore working with in Champaign-Urbana: Carol Ammons, Aaron Ammons, Rebecca Ginsburg, Barbara Kessel, Danielle Chynoweth, James Kilgore, Rachel Storm, and others. My advice would be to go to any event that these folks are a part of. I’ve worked with them all and trust them completely. If one of their names is next to the event, show up there and get to know people.

SP: How would you describe yourself?  

Koester: Helpful. I like to make the community a better place. I would also say, creative. I’m private about it, but I like to write and create art.

SP: What pronouns do you use?  

Koester: Thank you for asking that question! Let me see. It would be easier for me to talk about color than pronouns. If butch is blue, then I’m the shade of purple known as orchid. I’m ready to stand beside orchid.

SP: What are your greatest stresses in life?  

Koester: Meeting people who are having trouble and due to various circumstances, their problem can’t be solved. They can’t solve it, so they’ve come to you for help, but you can’t solve it.

SP: Where do you get the most joy in your life?  

Koester: Being a part of a person triumphing in their lives  I’ve taught adults who were working to pass their GED at the Adult Education Center. Seeing them work hard to achieve something and moving on in their life is an awesome thing.

SP: Are you from C-U?  If not, where were you born?   

Koester: I’ve lived in C-U since 1987. I came as student, then stayed. I’m originally from Effingham.

SP: What are your passions in life?   

Koester: Making the community a better place. I like thinking big. Everybody share your dream and then lets make those things happen!

SP: What is your favorite movie?  

Koester: That’s a hard question! I’ll have to pick based on location. “My Own Private Idaho” is my favorite movie that I’ve seen at The Art Theatre. My favorite film I’ve seen on campus is “Pink Floyd: The Wall.” Seeing “Do the Right Thing” at Ebertfest was also good, and so was seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the 2001 Ebert Film Festival.

SP: What kind of music do you like to listen to?

Koester: When I was young I listened to the Talking Heads and Duran Duran. And I love everything Prince has done, and also Radiohead. I’ve been loving this album, Lux Prima.  It’s an album by Karen O. and Danger Mouse.

SP: What’s your favorite food and drink?  

Koester: My favorite food is the Hummus and Curry Sandwich they make here at the Red Herring. And my favorite drink? I drink so much coffee!

SP: What do you do in your free time?   

Koester: Read a lot and write a lot. I write at least three hours a day.

SP: Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to become involved in community building?

Koester: There have been a lot of moments, but two really defining moments come to mind. When I was younger, I was editor of a college newspaper. The teachers went on strike for three weeks and I covered it for the paper. It was an opportunity to learn about labor issues and the importance of representing those issues properly in the publication. The second was while I was a student here at the University of Illinois. During that time I was an editor for Little America, a literary magazine. I was part of organizing a campus poetry reading and we put in a lot of work to ensure that diverse backgrounds were represented and that people who normally didn’t get together were in the same place for this event. It was wonderful to be a part of something where so many new connections and relationships were made.


Rohn Koester is someone who has dedicated his professional and personal time to making our community a better place. At one point he even decided to quit his job as a professional academic editor in order to do more work related to activism and spend more time volunteering. I didn’t know where the Channing-Murray Foundation and the Red Herring Restaurant where before meeting Rohn. I think everyone should stop by and get to know what a kind and helpful person he is.

Click here for more information about the Channing-Murray Foundation.

Photo provided by Gillian Dabrowski

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