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AUGUST 28, 2023
Good morning, Fearless readers:

I hope you stayed safe, hydrated and (relatively) cool during the heat wave last week. If you need something to heat you up, Starbucks starts serving pumpkin spice lattes on Thursday. (Yeah, this Thursday.) The beverage is celebrating 20 years of people despising it and loving it.

In today’s e-newsletter, you will find:

  • A profile of Azaree Shakshak, the founder of the Sudanese Youth Committee, a commuter student at Iowa State University and a resident of Des Moines’ Oakridge Neighborhood.
  • A Closer Look at Kelly Baum, the new director of the Des Moines Art Center.
  • A brief about the 2023 Iowa Women's Hall of Fame and Cristine Wilson Medal honorees.
  • In the headlines: Former University of Iowa thrower Laulauga Tausaga became the first American woman to win a world gold medal in discus. Tausaga was born in Hawaii, moved to San Diego when she was 7 and then picked the University of Iowa for college because, she told a reporter, it was "time for me to get, you know, locked in a snowstorm."
  • In the headlines: More than 160 reimbursement requests for rape victims’ emergency contraception are pending at the state attorney general’s office as Iowa's long-standing practice of covering this cost remains on pause.
  • A break from the news: How can we adequately express gratitude to our teachers?
  • Lots more!

– Nicole Grundmeier, Business Record staff writer

Refugee advocate: ‘You have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to be comfortable’
Azaree Shakshak, center, assists Serenity Jackson and Michelle Gill at Oakridge Neighborhood’s Summer Blast Camp on Aug. 3 at Edmunds Elementary School in Des Moines. Shakshak was formerly part of Oakridge Neighborhood's Summer Youth Employment Program and returned to camp to host a workshop about global citizenship. Photo by Duane Tinkey.
Editor’s note: With a new school year starting, Fearless decided to profile a college student who is already empowering other Iowa women and girls. Azaree Shakshak immigrated to the United States as a toddler and is now a sophomore at Iowa State University. She is the founder of the Sudanese Youth Committee and spent the summer interning at the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa.

Azaree Shakshak learned early that making a difference requires taking risks.

When she was a teenager living in Des Moines’ Oakridge Neighborhood, she started the Sudanese Youth Committee.

"I never saw myself in a leadership role or position, especially at that age," she said in an interview with Fearless. "But you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to be comfortable."

Shakshak is now 21 and a sophomore at Iowa State University, and the Sudanese Youth Committee is an official nonprofit with about 100 members that provides a community for refugees and other immigrants from Sudan and South Sudan. "The goal of the group was to bring unity within our community," she said.

Shakshak credits her childhood and programming at Oakridge for helping set her on a path to academic success and a record of seizing opportunities to help others.

Shakshak is Sudanese but was born in Cairo, Egypt. Her family lived in Iowa and then in Kansas before returning to Des Moines. Shakshak and her family have lived at Oakridge since 2016.

More than half of the residents at Oakridge, which provides affordable housing and human services on its campus just outside of downtown Des Moines, are immigrants.

"After I made this group, a lot of people from different countries have been reaching out to me," she said. "‘How did you make this group? I want to make this for the Liberian community. I want to make this for the Congolese community.’"

Before Shakshak returned to Des Moines and started high school, she had been struggling with feeling isolated as the only Muslim girl in her social group in Kansas at a time when she wanted to start wearing a hijab.

At Roosevelt High School, she saw more people who looked like her. But bullying and other ignorance related to the head covering was still a reality sometimes.

"‘Why are these people judging me?’" Shakshak said she’d ask herself. As a result she would withdraw from engaging with peers. "But as I started to grow more, I started to accept myself more. My journey with myself does not include anyone around me. And I wish I’d had that mindset in high school, but I'm glad that I have it now."

Shakshak participated in Oakridge Neighborhood’s Summer Youth Employment Program for several years, getting work experience as a camp counselor.

One of her first big projects at the camp was a presentation about hijabs.

"Kids can wear the hijab, learn about the religion of Islam, and just kind of have different aspects of different cultures and religions around them, separate from their own -- more of like a learning experience for them. They really enjoyed it," she said.

Shakshak has interned at Bankers Trust, the Iowa Statehouse with the Commission on the Status of African-Americans, Sammons Financial, and the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa.

Some of that history has influenced possible career interests, she said, but "I don’t think there’s a specific dream job for me. It's more of, ‘How can I contribute to my community with just my presence? What can I do to uplift the people around me, the kids around me, the youth around me?'"

She is majoring in psychology at Iowa State.

"My initial goal was to become a counselor and contribute to kids, youth, in the metro area. But we'll see where that takes me," she said.

When she was growing up, Shakshak said, she would have appreciated club programming targeted toward people her age being more prominent. "I wish there was a way that they can go to every single student, regardless of if you’re a refugee, a citizen, if you’re from America or not, (and ask), ‘OK, we have these opportunities, we have these resources. Do they sound interesting to you?’"

Providing that sort of service is one of the things that motivates her, she said: "Having more of that now, I feel, will help kids get out of their shell, and help kids learn things" that would help them in the future.

Jordan Colbert, program manager, Oakridge Neighborhood youth education and engagement, said that all of Shakshak's experiences have led her to the path she is on now. After being employed by Oakridge's Summer Youth Employment Program for five or six years, Shakshak returned to Oakridge's Summer Blast Camp this summer to host a global citizenship workshop for campers.

"I think it's really an example of what our program is about -- just bringing the full thing full circle, and coming back to the program and doing that workshop just really, really highlights all the hard work and all the opportunities that she's taken advantage of in this process," Colbert said.

Shakshak is a hard worker and is authentic to herself, Colbert said.

"She is deeply rooted in her culture and her community, which says so much about her vision and how she wants to connect with people. She has perseverance and tenacity. She's definitely willing to go that extra mile and not give up, and like she says, being uncomfortable," Colbert said.

Colbert recalled how nervous Shakshak was recently while the group was preparing to shoot a video about Oakridge's Summer Youth Employment Program.

"She was the most nervous out of everybody that we interviewed. But she actually did the best out of everybody that we interviewed," Colbert said. "She's just very thorough and solid. And I love that about her. She's a light. When I first met her, she had open arms toward me, like I knew her. I was like, 'I don't know you, but I love the love you're giving me.' And she's always brought that energy in every room that she's been in."

A Closer Look: Kelly Baum, John and Mary Pappajohn director, Des Moines Art Center
Photo by Duane Tinkey
For Kelly Baum, even as a curator at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Des Moines Art Center’s reputation stood out.

"The Art Center was on my radar," Baum said. "It’s one of the best museums in the country, housed in three incredible buildings."

Now Baum is the primary caretaker of the Art Center’s 75-year legacy. The board hired her as director to succeed Jeff Fleming, who’d held that role for 25 years. Most visibly, Fleming oversaw the conception, construction and 2009 opening of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines, which the Art Center manages in collaboration with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Baum moved from New York and started work in May. She curated contemporary art at four institutions, in the Northeast and in Texas, for 23 years before accepting the role in Des Moines.

Baum said she is definitely a workaholic.

"I consider myself the primary caretaker of the Art Center. My phone is never off. I only silence it when I’m in a movie theater. I’ll do the same when I finally get to the opera. So I’m this institution’s primary caretaker, I’m on call 24/7. I think that’s natural. That’s right for the director," Baum said.

She also considers herself the caretaker for the center’s staff, its visitors, its stakeholders and its collection.

"It’s an enormous part of my life. But I do think it’s very important – and we know this now better than ever – that we have to take care of ourselves as people, as people with hearts and bodies. I really enjoy spending time with my family, I enjoy walking my dog, I enjoy exercising and hiking. I am enjoying discovering all the vintage and antique shops and festivals in the city. I really like to be out and about on the weekends, especially when I have some free time," Baum said.

She met with the Business Record in her office on July 18 to talk about the nature of her job and her vision for the Art Center’s future.

This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What is a typical day like for you right now?

My days are spent in meetings, really. These are regular meetings, weekly meetings, recurring meetings, but I’m also still meeting with individual trustees of the Art Center, community leaders, directors of arts organizations. So quite a bit of meetings. I’m really still on the listening tour. And included in the meetings are local elected officials, director of Parks and Rec. But I also spend quite a bit of time writing. I just finished the introduction to the Art Center’s next newsletter. I just wrote a preface to an exhibition catalog.

State announces Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame and Cristine Wilson Medal honorees
The Iowa Commission on the Status of Women announced the honorees of the 2023 Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame and the Cristine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice.

Iowa’s Commission on the Status of Women established the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1975 to highlight women’s heritage, recognize their contributions and set them forth as role models for Iowans.

The 2023 honorees are:
The Honorable Romonda D. Belcher – Des Moines. District associate judge.
The Honorable Paula S. Dierenfeld – Johnston. Mayor, city of Johnston.
Bridget D. Reed, RN, BSN, MPH – Waterloo. Registered nurse.

The Cristine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice is awarded to an individual who has made significant contributions to the principles of equality and justice in Iowa.

The 2023 awardee is:
Teree Caldwell-Johnson – Des Moines. President and CEO of Oakridge Neighborhood and chair of the Des Moines School Board.

"Today we celebrate the profound accomplishments of these remarkable Iowans," Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, said in a prepared statement. "From Judge Belcher’s commitment to addressing racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, and Bridget Reed’s community organizing to reduce the burden of diabetes in the Cedar Valley, to Teree Caldwell-Johnson’s work to help immigrants and refugees achieve independence and prosperity, and Mayor Dierenfeld’s fundraising efforts to support a local food bank, I am privileged to help honor these trailblazing women who have shattered glass ceilings and lit the way for generations to come."

More information about the honorees can be found online.

Getty Images
In the headlines
More than 160 Plan B reimbursement requests for rape victims are pending at the Iowa AG’s office: Iowa Public Radio reported on Aug. 22 that more than 160 reimbursement requests for rape victims’ emergency contraception are pending at the state attorney general’s office as the state’s long-standing practice of covering this cost remains on pause. According to Iowa Public Radio, the reimbursement requests total around $7,500. The reimbursement requests come from hospitals and pharmacies across the state. Around three-fourths are from this year, but several date as far back as 2021. One is from August 2020. Another is coded for child abuse. Attorney General Brenna Bird confirmed earlier this year she had paused reimbursements for emergency contraception made through the Crime Victim Compensation Program while it reviews the practice. A statement released by Bird’s office in April said they were reviewing the practice to evaluate "whether this is an appropriate use of public funds" as it conducts an audit of victim assistance services.

Companies add menopause-specific care to benefits packages: Symptoms associated with the transition to menopause, which can last a decade, are often a drag on women’s careers and arise at a time when they may be stepping into larger executive roles. A study by the Mayo Clinic published this year found that 15% of women either missed work or cut back on hours because of menopause symptoms, and that loss of productivity costs women an estimated $1.8 billion each year. Researchers in the U.K. also found that those who reported at least one disruptive menopausal symptom at age 50 were 43% more likely to have left their jobs by age 55. And so, in the same way that many companies looking to attract and retain talent have expanded their benefits packages to include fertility treatments, paid parental leave programs and child care, some are now wrapping in menopause-specific care, according to the New York Times.

What a surge in murders means for Black women in Iowa: On Christmas Day 2020, while millions of American families were navigating virtual holiday gatherings, Jeremy Hepker was sitting in an Iowa City hospital room holding the hand of Marisa Doolin, his teenage niece. Doolin had been shot in the face three days earlier and was in a medically induced coma to stop the swelling in her brain. The next day, Doolin’s family decided to take the 18-year-old off life support. Doolin was one of at least 13 Black women who were killed in Iowa in 2020, more than six times the number who were killed the year before, when two Black women were slain, according to a Guardian analysis of Iowa’s public safety data. By comparison, the overall number of homicides in the state increased by about 63%, from 70 in 2019 to 111 in 2020. All but one Black woman killed in Iowa died from a gunshot wound, according to a Guardian analysis of public health data, police data and news clippings. In 2020 and 2021, there was an unprecedented national rise in homicides, most of them committed with guns. Within this national increase was an alarming yet overlooked rise in the homicide rate for Black women.

Former Hawkeye thrower becomes first American to win gold medal in discus: Discus throw is a game of centimeters. So when Laulauga Tausaga launched a throw that beat her personal best by more than four meters (13 feet) at world championships on Tuesday to win the title, she stunned the crowd — and herself. "I just screamed," Tausaga said about the throw that made her the first American woman to win a world gold medal in discus. "I was like, I don’t know how to contain this emotion." Tausaga took the title in Budapest, Hungary, with a fifth-round throw of 69.49 meters (228 feet), beating her old mark by a whopping 4.03 meters, according to the Associated Press. That throw vaulted her past her teammate and world leader Valarie Allman for a first-place finish she hadn’t seen coming. Tausaga was born on Oahu, moved to San Diego when she was 7 and then picked the University of Iowa for college because, she said, it was "time for me to get, you know, locked in a snowstorm."

Worth checking out
For LA meteorologist Rose Schoenfeld, Hurricane Hilary makes for a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ day at work (Los Angeles Times). What people misunderstand about rape (New York Times Magazine). Gardening changed how I see myself as a disabled woman (Washington Post). Sha’Carri Richardson is the fastest woman in the world (New York Times). 'It's hell': How divorce laws are designed to create unnecessary financial hardship for women (Fortune). More young women are getting breast cancer. They want answers. (Washington Post).
Helping Iowa’s teachers: Are time and gratitude enough?
How can we truly support Iowa teachers?

My daughter started second grade last week. I struggle with this question every fall. No matter what I do, it never feels like enough. I know teachers who have second or even third jobs. There are teachers who don’t make a living wage, despite being highly educated and experienced.

This year is heavier. One of my (retired) West Monona fourth-grade teachers passed away unexpectedly on July 3. Mrs. Barb Taylor Jensen was ahead of her time. She was the only elementary teacher I encountered who permitted her students to bring water bottles to class, which was desperately needed in an elementary building that didn’t have air conditioning.

I thought of her often last week, with temperatures tipping past 100. Everyone wanted to be in Mrs. Taylor’s class because of the water bottles. (All buildings in the school district now have air conditioning.)

Mrs. Taylor’s daughter, Amy, was my roommate during my freshman year at Iowa State University. Mrs. Taylor moved us into Willow Hall in Ames in August of 2000, alongside my own parents. That is how I picture her – moving her daughter into the dorms.

I have been trying to figure out something to do to honor Mrs. Taylor. Again, nothing feels like enough. She had one of the very best personal libraries of any teacher I remember. And, she was my reading teacher. Maybe I could donate some new books to the fourth-grade teachers at West Monona? But choosing book titles feels strangely risky right now in Iowa.

I reached out to West Monona Elementary’s principal, who is a distant cousin of mine. I decided it would be best to send the current fourth-grade teachers gift cards to Barnes & Noble rather than selecting the books myself. (I mostly wanted to choose the books so I could add some sort of inscription in Mrs. Taylor’s honor.)

Slowly, my daughter and I are putting together gift boxes to send to the two fourth-grade teachers in Onawa. But what do we put inside the boxes, besides the gift cards? What is truly helpful? I found myself wondering if fourth-graders still use Ticonderoga-style pencils or any pencils. Kleenex, disinfectant wipes and peanut-free snacks seem to always be needed, right?

What can we do for teachers? Maybe it’s not something that can be put in a box.

To me, it ultimately comes back to two things: time and gratitude. We can volunteer in our children’s classrooms, we can show up at school board meetings, we can serve on PTOs and other organizations, we can vote for candidates who support education.

But the gratitude part seems more important than ever, especially after the pandemic.

One of the easiest things we can do to support teachers is a handwritten thank-you note. Email isn’t enough. Write the note. Have your child write or draw a note.

And, ask the teacher how you can best support his/her/their work – and your child’s classroom.

I know many of us are long removed from our school days. But this time of year always feels like a fresh start.

Tell me unique ways that you have helped Iowa’s K-12 teachers. I would also love to hear some suggestions for my boxes for West Monona's fourth-graders:

– Nicole Grundmeier, Business Record staff writer

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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