I've moved to Iowa three times. This is a special place.
In January 1996 my family moved from southern Missouri to Mt. Pleasant, IA when I was a freshman in high school. We moved for my dad's promotion to publisher of the Mt. Pleasant News. At the time, I thought it was the meanest thing a father could do to a teenage daughter. It turned out to be one of the best. I quickly met other kids and their families who would become friends for life, and with them, lived Iowa's strong traditions of music, theatre, small town athletics, academics, community and retail politics.
After high school I traveled to France for 10 months with the Rotary Youth Exchange program and then enrolled in Northern Arizona University to study economics and non-profit management. After a year abroad, I believed in thinking big, making things happen and dedicating life to service. In Arizona, I worked part-time as an AmeriCorps volunteer building trails with middle school students and training other volunteers and learned to backpack, rock climb, appreciate jam bands and snowboard. Still, I could never shake the feeling that I belonged in Iowa.
In the spring of 2001, my sister, Cynthia, was hospitalized with a blood clot, which had traveled to her lungs. She spent the summer unconscious before passing away Aug 1. Her death devastated our family and brought us closer together. Cynthia's three children came to live with my parents in Mt. Pleasant, and I transferred to the University of Iowa to finish my degree.
Back in Iowa again, I wanted more friends like those from high school - young people who believed anything was possible and that we could make great things happen in our community now. That fall a group of students were writing weekly columns in The Daily Iowan that consistently spoke to me. One week, the subjects was a manifesto about the power of making ideas reality and ended with a line about rideing at dawn and a URL: thejamesgang.ws. I spent the next day in the library reading every word of their website and knew I'd found the friends I was looking for, my first creative community collaborators. With chills, I sent a note to the email address listed, and within minutes, I had four replies inviting me to a potluck at their house, 820 Iowa Avenue. I called a friend from high school who was a student at Iowa State and asked, "Can you come with me to meet my new friends?" He drove down, we went to the potluck, and I became a member of The James Gang.
At the time, The James Gang was a clandestine group of college students having potlucks to introduce people and form small groups around new ideas. They had found space downtown above The Deadwood for an art gallery and performance space and had just started talking about a live concert that set its ticket price in terms of volunteer time. To make these ideas happen, they were pulling together as many friends, strangers, artists, student leaders and community officials as the could. The first meeting I attended was for the volunteer concert, which was organized by the idea's creators Mike Brooks and Jacek Pruski. They brought in student leaders working on campus concerts, lectures, volunteer inititaitives and student government to meet on the floor in the UI Honors Program, then housed in the Jefferson Building downtown. Everyone believed in the idea and wanted to see it happen on a big scale, but no one had time to lead it with their school work and other activities. No one but me. I volunteered for the leadership role and after an all-night session with a whiteboard, Mike, Jacek and I co-founded The 10,000 Hours Show (10K).
My role with 10K was to build and shape the organization. I developed our organizational structure, directed the development of our brand identity and focused on training and developing our all-volunteer all-student staff. I was the keeper of the big vision and our everyday culture and played a leadership role in our fundraising, website and user experience efforts. I also led the expansion of the scope of the program from Johnson County to statewide and was proud to see it acquired by United Way Worldwide and taken to five more universities around the country.
10K quickly became one of The James Gang’s flagship programs, and along with Mike, Jacek, Jesse Elliott, Dave Strackany, Spencer Griffin, Miguel Soria and Ellie Azoff, I became a founding member of The James Gang (JG) board of directors. The other founders were great writers, actors, painters and philosophers, but noone knew how to handle our marketing, accounting or legal needs. I changed my major from the school of liberal arts to the business program and made it my role to help the organization maintain its original vision while formalizing its mission, gaining 501©(3) status and developing transparent processes for supporting our other creative endeavors.
I loved being part of the JG founders group. The other founders became my best friends and set the bar for all future creative collaborations. Some of my favorite times with them were our road trips. Our first trip was to Des Moines for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs Creative Unconference in February 2002. It was a snowy night, so after a long drive, we arrived late for the opening program at Vaudeville Mews. Only a few people were still there, but one of them was Richard Florida, the keynote speaker.
Richard had just written his first bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class. The James Gang’s formation and projects matched his theories exactly, and we became instant friends. The next day I sat on a panel with Richard and during his keynote speech he said the best thing he had seen in Iowa so far was The James Gang. It was an amazing feeling, especially at 22 years old. Because of that conference, I was able to go on several more road trips with The James Gang and on their behalf including the Memphis Manifesto, a St. Louis creativity conference and the Imagine Iowa’s Future Tour. As a result, Governor Vilsack appointed me to the first board for the Iowa Great Places program giving me the opportunity to travel the state again learning about the creative communities of all sizes across the state.
During my last year of college, I began work with the Johnson County Cultural Alliance to coordinate their training programs for local artists and cultural organizations. Around that time, the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids community decided they wanted Richard Florida to speak in the region. The cultural alliances in Johnson County and Cedar Rapids were on the brink of merging and this event would be the new regional alliance’s first gala event. As the lone staff person, I was charged with developing the merger process for the alliances and producing the gala. I found the work came easily.
With great community support, the alliances merged peacefully and with the help of a few hundred of hand-held drums, the gala went off with a bang. After the event, Richard and his new editor/staffer, my fellow JG founder Jesse Elliott, invited me to join their team in Washington, DC. With an economics degree in hand and three years of experience working with artists to make ideas happen, I jumped at the chance to learn firsthand from the leading mind in creative communitites and moved east.
In DC, I lived in the emerging creative neighborhood of Columbia Heights and began managing Richard’s media, event logistics and special projects. At the time, Richard was traveling around the world to speak with cities and corporations 2-3 times a month and receiving weekly requests for interviews from major news outlets like MSNBC, The New York Times and The Colbert Report. Soon, many communities who had heard Richard's speach were calling to ask, ‘what next?’ In response, we developed the Creative Communities Leadership Project to collect and study metric indicators for the creative economy of client cities and work with 30 local citizens to design and implement initiatives to foster more growth. Over the next year, I traveled the country with Richard and teams of diverse facilitators to help cities like Tacoma, El Paso, Tallahassee, Charlotte and Duluth develop grassroots strategies for cultivating their creative economy. My role was to develop the 400-page training & metrics guidebook for each city, design and co-lead delivery of a two-day seminar for local leaders and coach participants as they putting together creative community initiatives after the seminar. I learned through this project how to help start grassroots efforts from unlikely places like chambers of commerce and economic development groups.
Richard’s dream from the time that we began working together was to have a research institute at a great university. In the summer of 2007, he was offered that dream at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Business. He and his wife moved to Canada, and I began looking for a creative community of my own. I moved to the Dupont Circle neighborhood in DC and worked as a consultant with local yogis, artists and start-ups on brand development and launch plans. Work came easily but I could not find the creative community I had in Iowa City. On a Thanksgiving trip to New York, I walked with a friend from the top of Central Park down to the Greenwich Village and realized New York was a more likely place to find it. In February of 2009, I moved to the East Village of New York.
New York City is full inspiration and hard knock lessons for going big, taking care of yourself and deeply loving people and your creative work. In the East Village, I felt at home and met wonderful friends but was never able to reconcile being so far away and buried in my own life while my sister’s children grew up in Iowa. Also, I was feeling progressively weaker physically. I knew something had to change, but not until my leg swelled so that I couldn’t walk did I know what to do.
The doctors said the blood clot went from the bottom of by left calf to the middle of my thigh and found a benign tumor the size of cantalope in my abdomen. They also said living with a hemoglobin level of 5 was unacceptable. They prescribed multiple surgeries and months of recovery, so in March 2010, by parents came to New York and brought me home.
The University of Iowa took wonderful care of me and after four surgeries, two blood transfusions, a bunch of self-administered shots, and nine months of rest I felt stronger than ever and ready to get back to life. And with almost a year under the same roof, I found a new sense of wholenes being in close proximity to my parents, two nieces and nephew. I found again that Iowa is home.
In January of this year, I was ready to go big again but this time at home. My first stop was Iowa City/Cedar Rapids to connect with my original creative community. Six months in, I've found great opportunities and solid support to make more very cool ideas happen here. My goal is to contribute to the regional creative community and in the process, continue moving the national conversation on economic development and community building forward. I hope to share what I’ve learned from Richard Florida and the cities where I’ve worked and lived, and my mission is to help more individuals and small groups find the people and resources they need to make their big ideas happen. To this end, I can produce events, develop programs, create marketing strategies and introduce people. What can we do together?
- Team & coalition building
- Program & process development
- Strategic planning
- Brand development
- Event planning
- Social media training & strategy