Zócalo is not an easy place to work. It’s a place where a small group of people is asked to do difficult things on a daily basis, and where those difficult things, and the time and effort it takes to do them, quickly blur the boundaries between job and life. And so we will be at the hospital the day after our colleague’s wife has a baby. I will show everyone in the office my mother’s cupcake paintings when I video-conference into a meeting from my parents’ house in New Jersey. Our managing director will know who doesn’t want chocolate cake on his birthday, so she will get him strawberry instead. Our publisher will get the new employee’s life story before she’s sat down in front of her desk. Some of this is nice, and some of it is not. But it means that when someone joins our clan, there is no easing in or ramping up. We just get to know you—and fast.
In the two months we worked with Charita Law, we learned a lot about her. How deeply she cared about her family and how happy she was to be back in California. How she loved hash browns and tofu and cranberry pita crisps (though she was always willing to share them). How the mere prospect of meeting Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was enough to make her squeal. How working so close to the beach and seeing palm trees out the window made her smile. How she was a night owl, but she was still in a reliably good mood in the mornings (and the afternoons, for that matter). How fantastic she was on social media, how she’d laugh at most of our jokes, how dependable and trustworthy she was, and how lucky we were to have her.
She grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos, graduated from UC Berkeley, and moved to Washington, D.C. to work at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This summer, she returned home to Southern California to be closer to her family.
In October, she applied to become Zócalo’s communications manager. Her resume was impressive, but even more so was her spirit and her instant understanding of our mission to connect broader audiences to ideas and each other. “I know how it feels to attend an event, look around, and realize I’m one of the few non-white (and non-balding) people in the room,” she wrote in her cover letter.
How could we not bring her in for an interview? And—after our conversations with her, in which she confessed that she lacked a filter, laughed easily and often, and said she was game for just about any task—how could we not bring her onboard?
In her first weeks on the job, to our collective delight, Charita proved to be an extraordinary young woman. She was someone with what one of my colleagues called chispa—a spark. She was brilliant and unpretentious, but there was also a gravity, even a solemnity, about her. She was wide-eyed but not naïve: curious, open, cheerful. She worked with joy, she paid attention to detail, and she caught on quickly to the fast pace of our work and to the zaniness and unpredictability of our motley, tight-knit crew. Like the rest of us, she was geeky and quirky and a little bit unconventional.
I sat about five feet away from Charita every day, but only for a few weeks, so the word “love” feels strong. But I can say unreservedly that I—we—loved her unselfish goofiness, her broad smile, and simply having her around. And I can say that because she worked with me at Zócalo. Because she was an unusual person at an unusual place.
Charita died last week, after a fall on New Year’s Eve. She was going to turn 26 later this month.
When someone young dies, one of the countless tragedies is the loss of potential. We feel it acutely at Zócalo right now because, for all we came to love about Charita, what we loved most was all that was next. Next year, she wasn’t going to get lost on the way to the office holiday party. Next month, she was going to come up with an awesome new feature for the site. Next week, she was going to say something totally off-the-wall (again), and we were all going to laugh (again).
People talk a lot about how balancing your life and your work keeps you sane, makes you human. But I’ve found that melding the two—if you work at a place with a mission you believe in and people you come to love—can also make you human. Charita taught me how to write a better tweet. She taught me about how unbridled enthusiasm can change the people around us. She taught me that putting a drop of vanilla extract into your yogurt makes it taste a little like ice cream. She also taught me that it’s OK to say you loved someone, even if you only worked with her, and it was only for a few weeks.