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APRIL 1, 2024
Good morning, Fearless readers:

Many of us are grieving today.

Yesterday, early on Easter morning,
Teree Caldwell-Johnson died after a battle with cancer. She was 68.

Caldwell-Johnson resigned from the Des Moines school board on March 5. She stepped back from her job as president and CEO of Oakridge Neighborhood around the same time. She worked almost to the very end. Of course she did.

A year ago, former Fearless editor Emily Kestel interviewed Caldwell-Johnson for the "SHE" series, a collaboration between Fearless and Ballet Des Moines. Kestel asked Caldwell-Johnson what characteristics she admired most in women. "Women who speak truth to power, who show up unapologetically," Caldwell-Johnson said.

Kestel also asked Caldwell-Johnson what she was least confident about.

"Tomorrow. It’s not guaranteed. Too many people around me have had very sudden illnesses that have led to death, or led to compromised health situations. Tomorrow isn’t promised, but I try to always live for tomorrow at the same time."

Fearless friends: How will you speak truth to power and to show up unapologetically?

Fearless would like to publish your memories about Caldwell-Johnson. If you have a personal anecdote you would like to share with our readers, please email me at A video about Caldwell-Johnson by DMPS can be found here.

In this week’s Fearless e-newsletter, you will find:

  • A news story about how funding cuts could adversely affect services for sexual and domestic violence survivors in Iowa.
  • A personal essay by Emily Barske Wood about the treasure inside her grandma’s jewelry box.
  • A list of speakers for our first Fearless Focus event of the year on financial empowerment. It will be held virtually at noon on April 18. Registration is free.
  • In the headlines: A Des Moines elementary school’s library was recently dedicated to Harriett Curley, the first Black public school teacher in Iowa.
  • In case you missed it: Mary Sellers, president of the United Way of Central Iowa, is the Business Record’s Forty Under 40 Alum of the Year. Get to know her better in a Q&A.
  • Lots more!

– Nicole Grundmeier, Business Record staff writer

Funding cuts could adversely affect services for sexual and domestic violence survivors
Advocates talked to state legislators and others on Feb. 28 at the Iowa Capitol to push for more state funding for services for victims of gender-based violence. Submitted photo.
Editor’s note: "Victim" and "survivor" are both common terms used for someone who has experienced sexual assault or domestic violence, and they will be used in this article interchangeably. We recognize that folks often prefer one term over another.

Sexual assault and domestic violence are pervasive issues in the United States — 1 in 2 women will experience sexual violence and 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the CDC.

In 2023, 54,404 victims received support from 26 victim service provider agencies in Iowa that are represented by the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV) and the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA). That number could drop by approximately 18,000 people next year following a 42% cut to federal funding to support victims of crime that will go into effect in October of this year, decimating service providers and leaving thousands of Iowa women without support as they weather the effects of gender-based violence.

Survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence are entitled to compensation from the 1984 Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), which uses money from federal prosecutions.
The two nonprofit coalitions, ICASA and ICADV, rely on that funding to support their 26 member programs with crisis response training, shelter services and wrap-around services for survivors across the state.

Without adequate funding, the member programs will no longer be able to provide comprehensive support for those who have survived the trauma of gender-based violence, the organization’s leaders said.

"What survivors consider justice looks different depending on a lot of factors," said ICASA’s Interim Executive Director Tamika Payne. "Comprehensive services allow survivors to choose how they want to move forward with their healing process."

Maria Corona, executive director of ICADV, said the $5.4 million cut to VOCA funds will significantly affect and limit comprehensive services to ICADV and ICASA's network of local victim service providers across all 99 Iowa counties.

Maria Corona, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, at the organization’s Dia de los Muertos event honoring the lives lost to domestic violence in Iowa. Submitted photo.
Victim service providers, which Payne and Corona say have been operating underfunded for decades, will be forced to turn victims away and focus their efforts solely on direct crisis response.

But survivors rely on the support from service providers for much more.

"Advocates engage in crisis response, which is truly about life or death many times, but we also support with reaching self-sufficiency," Corona said. "We provide housing assistance, child care assistance, financial literacy education, even helping to find clothing for work."

Both ICASA and ICADV leaders worry about turning away survivors who need more complex support than can be provided by direct crisis response.

"When the economic pressure is put on, providers can only provide so much, and issues that tend to be the most imminent and urgent are prioritized," Payne said.

Gender-based violence is a destabilizing trauma that affects every aspect of a survivor’s life. These survivors, who are statistically most often women, may face additional issues in their personal and professional lives if they are unable to access the support they need to process.

"Self-advocacy is extremely difficult for someone who has had their boundaries violated over and over," said Dawn Collins, the vice chair of ICASA’s board of directors. "Our ability to advocate for ourselves is something that we will lose if we don’t stay focused or have support. That can result in not being promoted at work, having more sick days, feeling too exhausted to perform well in other areas of our lives."

Comprehensive support for survivors also means supporting them in the long term as they process their trauma, navigate the legal system and look to rebuild their lives. Losing access to these services today can compound the effects of each incident of violence for years to come.

"We may not see the cost of the cuts right now, but 10 to 15 years down the line, survivors will still be struggling with the trauma of violence," Payne said. "They might struggle with economic stability, housing or employment. The scarcity of resources is going to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among us."

Both ICASA and ICADV regularly experience high levels of employee turnover due to the stress of working in trauma support services. These funding cuts will make it more difficult for the organizations to retain employees that are able to provide the highest quality services.

ICASA in particular has seen many long-term employees leave in the last few years, such as previous executive director Elizabeth Barnhill, who had been with the organization for over 20 years. These VOCA funding cuts make it even more difficult to begin this new chapter of their organization while focusing on what’s most important: providing services to survivors.

"We’ve gone through two restructurings as a state within domestic violence and sexual assault work. Both of those were necessitated by funding cuts," Collins said. "I don’t know how much more restructuring can be done to allow us to continue to do the work well."

Both Payne and Corona emphasized that the state of Iowa has a responsibility to fund victim service providers when federal funding falls short.

"Victim services programs support all avenues of addressing domestic violence," Corona said. "We’re seeing an increase in demand for services, and the needs are more complex. We need the state to fund us efficiently and think of prevention efforts that can support crime victims beyond the legal system."

Macey Shofroth is a writer based in Norwalk. She works as a marketing coordinator for CultureALL, a nonprofit boosting inclusion in Iowa, and produces a Substack Newsletter called "The Midwest Creative."

Essay: The treasure inside my grandma’s jewelry box
Emily Barske Wood with her grandma, Marcia. Submitted photo.
After her funeral in 2011 we opened her jewelry box. We found her watch, several copper bracelets to help with arthritis, tiny rings the circumference of a nail’s head, all different, with the birthstone of each grandchild.

The jewelry paled in comparison to what I discovered next.

A couple of decades earlier, my grandma’s brain aneurysm burst for the first time.

A cutting-edge balloon technique stopped the bleeding and saved her life. For a while, her vision suffered. She couldn’t see the ring my parents came to show off after getting engaged. Eventually she made a full recovery.

I knew none of this growing up, spending most weekends between both sets of grandparents’ houses in eastern Iowa.

What I knew was my grandma poured the ingredients for pancakes into a glass mixing bowl so I could stir the batter with a wooden spoon in the wee hours of the morning. She allowed my sister and me to dip a comb in water so we could slick her short, dark hair back and then gather it into a dozen small brightly colored hair ties. She strolled down to the park with us, pounded the fake drums in the Christmas play I directed all my cousins to participate in, cut my hair and rode bikes with us. She always participated, never on the sidelines.

My maternal grandpa died when I was 2, before I could really remember him. My paternal grandpa died of lung cancer in January of 2006, when I was in the fourth grade, and then that summer, my maternal grandma died unexpectedly. Their passings left gaping holes in our lives, particularly on the weekends and holidays. They opened my eyes to the inevitable: Life can be gone in an instant.

Yet, somehow I felt this could not apply to my grandma, the last remaining grandparent. She was perfectly healthy, meant to live forever.

But being healthy doesn’t always stop your body from betraying you.

After the aneurysm was fixed, the doctors told her she didn’t need to be regularly checked. They believed at the time that she was as likely as anyone out on the street to have another one bleed. That is to say, unlikely. Or so they thought.

Advancements in the field revealed that it is possible that those who’ve had one brain aneurysm have about a 20% chance of having one or more others. But the doctors who operated on her never informed her of the new science and that she should be seen regularly to ensure there were no more lethal landmines in her skull. So she wasn’t.

The ticking time bomb detonated in 2011. She now lay unconscious at the University of Iowa hospital, the beep of the monitors hooked up to her the only sign of life. I had no idea whether she could hear me tell her about the Hawkeyes men’s basketball game against Purdue. Or that I loved her.

After we ate hospital food for days, Old Chicago’s pepperoni pizza deserved five Michelin stars. My grandma’s best friend, Mary, had stayed back in the hospital room while our family went out. As we finished eating, my aunt’s phone rang: She was awake.

We rushed back to find her still motionless, eyes shut. She couldn’t speak, but if you asked her a question, she could squeeze your hand. "Do you want me to stay here with you tonight?" Mary asked. Squeeze.

Doctors didn’t have the science to explain the moment of consciousness with such limited brain activity. Maybe it was just a coincidence. Or maybe my grandma woke up to hear our goodbyes.

At the bottom of one of the jewelry box’s drawers, she’d tucked a piece of notebook paper. It had been folded in half, and then thirds.

Unfolding it, I recognized the curvy penmanship with monkey tails on almost every letter. My handwriting.

I dated the letter March 20, 2009, at 9:54 a.m., two years earlier. I wrote that I’d just gotten my first cellphone and that my older sister was still sleeping — go figure. I told her I’d just joined the track team and I was no good at sprints. I ended it with, "Hope to see you soon."

The contents of the writing were nothing extraordinary, yet it had meant enough to her to keep it.

If she hadn’t heard me in the hospital, this was my confirmation. She knew how much I loved her, and I knew she loved me.

The letter is stored for safekeeping, in the bottom drawer of my jewelry box.

Financial empowerment
Addressing the unique financial barriers that women face

Wage disparities and differing policies on paid family leave continue to be systemic issues affecting women’s economic standing. On an individual level, women often feel less confident than men when it comes to budgeting, investing and planning for retirement. In this conversation, we will talk about both the systemic and individual challenges women face financially. Leaders will highlight programs, opportunities and policies that support women’s economic mobility.


  • Kara Hoogensen, senior vice president and head of workplace benefits – benefits and protection, Principal Financial Group
  • Marcie Ordaz, executive director, Lift Women’s Foundation
  • Sonya Sellmeyer, consumer advocate, Iowa Insurance Division
  • Ashlee Vieregger, senior lead adviser, Foster Group
  • Michele Williams, associate professor, management and entrepreneurship, University of Iowa Tippie College of Business
Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools.
In the headlines
Des Moines elementary school library dedicated to teacher who made history in Iowa: Nearly 80 years ago, Harriett Curley was hired to teach kindergarten at Perkins Elementary School, becoming the first Black public school teacher in the state. Now, her legacy will live on at the school. On March 25, the school’s library was officially named after her, according to this story by KCCI.

Iowa attorney general not finished with audit that’s holding up contraception money for rape victims: The Iowa attorney general’s office said it is still working on an audit of its victim services that has held up emergency contraception funding for victims of sexual assault. Attorney General Brenna Bird paused the funding while awaiting the results of the audit to decide whether to continue those payments. Her office said that the audit, which Bird announced when she took office 14 months ago, is in its "final stages" and that a report would be released soon, according to this story by the Associated Press.

Before Caitlin Clark dominated women’s basketball, she dominated these boys: Long before Caitlin Clark was a legendary player for the University of Iowa, she was a young girl honing her burgeoning skill. When Clark’s father couldn’t find a suitable girls program for her, he signed her up for a boys’ league at SportsPlex West in Waukee. Clark immediately stood out — and not just because she was the only girl in the league. She was also the best player on her team, according to this story in the Wall Street Journal.

Iowa House passes child care bills regarding teen workers, aid for caregivers: The Iowa House passed legislation March 25 that would allow 16- and 17-year-old child care employees to work unsupervised during certain periods. Lawmakers also advanced a bill raising rates for child care providers under the state assistance program and making them eligible for aid to afford care for their own children, according to this story by the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Worth checking out
Investing in women’s sports: Understanding the pay disparity in Iowa athletics (the Daily Iowan). Lawsuits allege sex, race discrimination by Hotel Fort Des Moines employees (Des Moines Register). Are women’s prime working years in peril? (McKinsey & Co.). Frida Kahlo, in her own words: A new documentary draws from diaries, letters (NPR). Life in a luxury hotel for new moms and babies (the New Yorker). Figure skating wants ice princesses. Amber Glenn said, ‘Screw it.’ (Washington Post).
Interview with 2024’s Forty Under 40 Alum of the Year, Mary Sellers
Mary Sellers is president of the United Way of Central Iowa; it’s her second stint leading the local arm of the global nonprofit powerhouse. She was named to the Business Record’s 2001 Forty Under 40 class when she was at the Science Center of Iowa. This year, her fellow Forty Under 40 alumni voted to name her as the Forty Under 40 Alum of the Year. She spoke with the Business Record about her approach to leadership.

Question: Some of those honored as Forties are early in their careers, while others are right in the middle of their careers. What kind of advice do you have for the mid-career folks on how they can plan the impact they make?

Answer: I have a mantra that has led me through my career, which is I wanted to work with others to make impact bigger than I could by myself. I didn’t aspire to be CEO of the Science Center, and I didn’t aspire to be U.S. president of United Way Worldwide. I didn’t aspire to have other roles. It was really how I could fulfill my mantra of working with others to make impact bigger than I could on my own. That was my guiding post. It wasn’t seeking a title or seeking rungs. It was really seeking what fed my soul.

Read the full interview at
Be fearless with us
At its core, Fearless exists to help empower Iowa women to succeed in work and life. We believe that everyone has a story to share and that we cannot progress as a society unless we know about one another. We share stories through featuring women in our reporting, featuring guest contributions and speakers at our events.

We are always looking for new stories to share and people to feature. Get in touch with us!

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