'Writing saved me': Alumna Vonda Paige makes a masterful pivot
November 29, 2023
In February, Beyoncé won four Grammy awards, making her the artist with the most Grammys in history.
In accepting the award for her album “Renaissance,” she said, "I'd like to thank the queer community for your love and for inventing the genre."
House music, the genre to which Beyoncé referred, was created in Chicago in the late 1970s by Black DJs, many of whom identified as gay. But when it comes to the inside track on house music, even Beyoncé’s got nothing on Vonda Paige ’86.
Paige is executive producer and producer of “The Woodstock of House,” a 2021 documentary that explores the story of Chicago house music. The film features some of the musicians and DJs who first mixed techno, disco, soul, and funk to create the thrumming beat, rapid-fire rhythms, and joyful sound that defines the genre. It also showcases both the struggles and successes of the oft-marginalized music lovers who filled tiny Chicago clubs and basements, forging their own community to find their place in the world. To date, “The Woodstock of House” has won 10 awards and been screened at 17 film festivals, including the African Diaspora International Film Festival in Paris this September.
Master the fundamentals
Paige was raised in Gainesville, Virginia, by her mother. She credits her mother for inspiring her future path by instilling a love of reading in her children. At age 15, Paige already had a column with the Potomac News.
The first in her family to attend college, Paige recalled an instrumental moment as a new student: “In high school,” Paige said, “I stood out. At Virginia Tech, everyone stands out. Everyone is smart. It messed with my mind for a minute. I had to come to terms with maybe not being in the top 10 percent but graduating well. That shift helped me.”
Paige took advantage of many opportunities on campus. She began writing for the Collegiate Times her first year, and by the time she graduated, she had advanced to a role as news editor. “Master the fundamentals — writing, for example, or math – and you will always have work,” she said. “Being a communications major is the foundation for all jobs I’ve had. For that, I am thankful. Writing saved me.”
A forced pivot
Paige’s path to journalism was straightforward.
“I knew I wanted to work for the Associated Press” (AP), she said, “So my senior year, I went to a job fair in Richmond, met a woman who was working for the AP, and she told me exactly what to do: Go to a small newspaper, then a medium one, then get in the AP. That’s what I did – and six years later, I was with the AP in Philadelphia.
“I knew what I wanted to do, and I was going to do it. I was always resourceful. I would ask people for advice, and I tended to take advice I was given. At the same time, I didn’t get swayed by anyone’s opinion. When I interned as copy editor at the Roanoke Times, I was offered a job – as copy editor. But I wanted to be a reporter, not an editor. One editor there told me to take the job. He said I wouldn’t get journalism work. That was advice I didn’t take.”
Paige thrived in her journalism career until a pernicious medical diagnosis upended it.
“I left because I had carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands,” she said. “It hurt to type. At the AP, it’s fast and furious. News never stops. I had no choice but to pivot. I felt lost for a minute, bounced around, did some PR. At the time, Tavis Smiley, an American talk show host, author, journalist, and political commentator, had just started a youth foundation in LA and said to keep in touch. For the next five years, I did just that while also learning about the nonprofit world and getting a nonprofit certification. When the foundation’s executive director told me he was leaving, I was ready.”
For Paige, the foundation work was rewarding. She loved using her skills to showcase results and tell stories, launch social media, create websites, and run programs. A decade later, when the foundation closed, Paige leveraged her interests in history and storytelling, co-founding 2ChiEntertainment Co. alongside two friends from Chicago.
Initially, Paige wasn’t sure about moving into film production, but her long-time friend Monice Mitchell Simms, herself an award-winning screenwriter and documentary filmmaker, assured her that she was more than capable. “Look at what you’ve been doing, Vonda,” Mitchell Simms said she told her friend. “Aren’t you storytelling, raising funds, running programs, publicizing the work, strategizing about messaging, managing paperwork, resolving conflict between people? That is production. You’re already doing it.”
One member of the 2ChiEntertainment trio had drafted a screenplay about Chicago house music, and after Paige read and edited it, she knew it deserved an audience. The team set out to move the draft into production.
Much of “The Woodstock of House” was shot in 2015, but the film then languished because connecting with the various artists was difficult. When the pandemic hit, everyone was suddenly accessible via Zoom and the team jumped at the opportunity to complete the film.
When asked for advice, Paige said, “Look beyond what’s around you. Explore all that the world has to offer. If you’re a Virginia Tech student, look into study abroad options. Take classes outside your wheelhouse.”
She also believes in the power of positivity.
“When you face an unexpected obstacle or loss, view it as a transfer rather than a loss” said Paige. “Loss implies that something is over – lost – while a transfer simply means new opportunities arise.”
Paige has over 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, marketing, social media, and public relations. She is an award-winning journalist and the founder of the First Black Woman, a digital media project recognizing the historic contributions – firsts – of Black women. A life member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and vice president of the Virginia Tech Black Alumni Society, Paige is the executive producer of the independent short film “UH-OH” (2018), which was selected by the Pan African Film Festival and the Roxbury International Film Festival. And if that weren’t enough, she serves as senior public relations representative at the City of Los Angeles, a role she’s held for close to nine years.
And what about “The Woodstock of House”? When it finishes the film festival circuit, the next step for Paige and her team will be to shop it to streaming services.
Written by Anne Kroemer Hoffman