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Still Trying to Change the World

March 6, 2024
Alumna Renetta McCann celebrates with six words

It’s no secret that Renetta McCann (Comm78, MS12) is a fan of the six-word memoir—a handful of pithy words crafted to tell a story or sum up a life.

In fact, when McCann was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Fame last year, some of her admirers created a website, filled with such tributes to the trailblazer as “Thanks for lifting as you climb,” and “So glad she’s in my corner.”

McCann, who calls herself a South Side Chicago girl at heart, has spent much of her career as a change agent focused on talent development. After holding many roles at advertising agencies Leo Burnett, Starcom Worldwide, and Publicis Groupe, she returned home to Northwestern to earn a second degree—a master’s in learning and organizational change from the School of Education and Social Policy.

Now chief inclusion experience officer for Publicis, she is also an adjunct lecturer for SESP’s Master’s and Executive Learning and Organizational Change programs, teaching classes such as Designing Organizations and Leading Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice in Organizations.

“I’m a strategist who works at the intersection of business and people,” McCann explains. “One day someone asked me why I do this type of work. I responded with ‘human potential realized; human progress accelerated’—a six-word story that distills my beliefs.”

McCann isn’t certain what prompted her fondness for six-word stories, but she does remember picking up the 2008 book Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure a few months after it was published. The book was inspired by SMITH magazine, the self-proclaimed home of the six-word story.

“It was a fun, thoughtful, and creative technique to explain really complicated things,” she says. “I realized that if your desire was to really crystallize an idea, this was probably a great mechanism by which to do it.”

For McCann, six-word stories “only show up in certain moments,” she says. But they can have a lasting impact. For her induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame, McCann came up with her own six-word memoir: “Still trying to change the world.” “Maybe the way I get to change the world now is by somewhat influencing the next generation of leaders,” she says. “To me, it fits in that six-word story.

Can you say it in six?

We asked alumni to write six-word stories about SESP faculty members.

  • Distributes leadership and protégés across fields. —Mollie McQuillan (PhD19) for James Spillane
  • Stories make us who we are. —Shadd Maruna (PhD98) for Dan McAdams
  • Understanding emotional mysteries: exploring the lifespan. —Jordyn Ricard (BS20) for Claudia Haase
  • Waits for espresso machine, craves pretzels. —Victor Lee (PhD09) for Bruce Sherin
  • Writer, storytelling teacher; cultivates possible worlds. —Corey Winchester (BS10) for Shirin Vossoughi
  • Let’s rethink civics to organize change.—Kristine Lu (PhD23) for Matt Easterday