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Justine Nagan ’00

At 33, Justine Nagan is poised to vault into prominence in the national media community as a business executive, a creative force, and a social justice advocate.

March 01, 2012

2012 Forward under 40 Award Honoree

UW Major: Journalism and Mass Communications, and Communication Arts
Age: 33 | Chicago
Executive director, Kartemquin Films in Chicago

At 33, Justine Nagan is poised to vault into prominence in the national media community as a business executive, a creative force, and a social justice advocate.

Nagan earned the reputation as the ultimate multi-tasker as a journalism and communications arts student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She studied journalism and film, worked at the Badger Herald, waitressed, worked as an intern at Wisconsin Public Television, made the Dean's List, and added to the fun of a five-roommate household.

Her accomplishments after college reflect the nimbleness of the seemingly easygoing Nagan, who continues to be able to juggle many tasks at once: She has risen to the post of executive director of a nationally recognized documentary film organization in Chicago called Kartemquin Films, which focuses on social justice. She gained an international profile as a director of her own 2009 film, Typeface, about the post-industrial trials of a small Wisconsin town that sports a funky arts magnet in the form of a factory-sized museum with more than one million pieces of wooden letters or type.

Nagan, a native of the Twin Cities, says it all started when she was a student volunteer at the Wisconsin Film Festival and learned about Kartemquin Films, a 45-year-old organization that became her Chicago home. She earned a master's in the humanities with an emphasis on cinema and media studies from the University of Chicago. At the same time, she worked her way to the top of the nonprofit by starting as a volunteer, then becoming its director of communications and distribution. Next came her role as the associate producer on the organization's Peabody Award-winning documentary Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognito. Her most recent projects include the film The Interrupters, directed by Steve James with Nagan as executive producer. The film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Nagan's accomplishments could fill a book — or a film, for that matter. Her recent awards include:

  • Leadership Greater Chicago Fellow, 2012
  • Featured Leader in 2010 by the National Alliance for Media Art and Culture (NAMAC)
  • NAMAC Leadership Circle participant, 2009
  • Arts Alliance Illinois Future Leadership Fellow, 2009
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communications Nafziger Award for Young Alumni, 2010
  • Midwest Independent Film Festival Advisory Board member, present
  • Wisconsin Film Festival juror, 2010
  • National Emmy judge, Science and Technology, 2010

In her own words

What was your favorite class?

I enjoyed many classes, but I think my favorite was typography. It was an elective I took, outside of my majors, but the professor was unique and very intense, and the rigorous coursework pushed my creative bounds and gave me great perspective for the rest of my academic and professional career.

What is your proudest UW achievement?

During college, completing my first student film with my sanity intact was a major achievement. It was an epic struggle (which I think was part of the point). In the years since, I am very proud to be a recipient of the Nafziger Journalism Award.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?

"Slow down and keep the crash helmet on."
— My father, Joe Nagan

What do you do in your free time?

I love to craft and quilt. I'm an avid reader — usually fiction. I love spending time with my husband, Matt '01, and we're expecting our first child in January, so I expect to not have a ton of free time quite soon. We enjoy hanging out with friends and throwing dinner parties. I also enjoy traveling when we can make time.

What was your first job?

My first job was as a receptionist in high school at Great Basics for Hair and Nails. I learned the ins and outs of running a small business and how to answer the phone professionally — skills I still use today.

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