The "Iowa nice" debate, a conversation with Naomi Sea Young Wittstruck
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MARCH 20, 2023
Hello, and happy Monday! This is Emily Barske taking over this week's newsletter.

In today's edition you'll find:
  • The start of a three-part series about how Iowa's culture plays a role in workplace belonging. In this first part, the reporters dug into Iowa's history of inclusion and the debate over "Iowa nice."
  • A profile on Naomi Sea Young Wittstruck, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Des Moines Area Community College.
  • Headlines from around Iowa and the country, including an update on two master's programs now being offered in the state.
  • And a "break from the news" about ... having more fun!

All that and more below.

Emily Barske, Business Record editor

Belonging: How Iowa’s culture plays a role in workplace inclusion
In 1839, roughly 25 years before the end of the Civil War, Iowa’s Territorial Supreme Court declared Ralph, an enslaved person from Missouri, a free man. "No man in this territory can be reduced to slavery," the court said. The "Shattering Silence" sculpture on the Iowa Capitol grounds honors the story of Ralph, and "celebrates the tradition in Iowa’s courts of ensuring the rights and liberties of all the people of the state." The Iowa Art Council called the piece a commemoration of "those moments when Iowa has been at the forefront of breaking the silence of inequality and commemorates those Iowans who refused to stand by silently when they saw injustice." The illustration was created from the shape of the art piece. Illustration by Kate Meyer.
Editor’s note: As a business publication, one of the most pressing issues we’ve covered is workplace inclusion. We have covered numerous stories on the topic – related to race, gender, veterans, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, working parents and more. We do this because it’s our mission to help businesses do business better, and as businesses continue looking to recruit and retain top talent, understanding the nuances of diversity, equity and belonging at work is paramount.

This is part one of a three-part series looking at how the state’s history and values play a role in workplace inclusion. Businesses do not operate in silos, but are part of a greater societal ecosystem within our communities and states. We felt there was no better way to start this series than to talk about Iowa’s history with inclusion, because an understanding of the past is needed to see how we got to the current moment. Part two, which was published in the Business Record on March 17, focuses on how this affects the workforce, and part three, publishing March 24, will talk about how leaders can approach solutions.

– Emily Barske, Business Record editor

A look back at Iowa’s history with inclusion

Iowans have a long-standing reputation of being nonconfrontational, benevolent, polite and helpful.

We’ll stop if we see a car pulled over on the side of the highway. We make small talk at the grocery store. We’ll smile and say hello to people we pass on the sidewalk. We help harvest our neighbors’ crops if they’re experiencing hardship.

We’re "Iowa nice."

Frequently lumped into the "Iowa nice" conversation are references to the state’s progressive history to further prove how the state is a welcoming one.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is the infamous "Iowa Nice" video featuring local actor Scott Siepker that went viral more than a decade ago.

"So I hear you think you know something about Iowa?" he starts, before launching into a list of brag-worthy facts, including the state’s history of legalizing gay marriage, technology innovations, Iowa farmers’ impact on the country’s food supply and its low unemployment rate.

The short film, created in the thick of the 2012 presidential caucus season, was meant to push back against perceptions of Iowa being backward, rural and uneducated.

But the term "Iowa nice" is also scrutinized.

While it’s true that Iowa was a pioneer in civil rights expansions in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Iowa was not without continued instances of racism, discrimination and xenophobia.

As in many other states at the time, lynchings and Ku Klux Klan gatherings were occuring between the mid-1800s and early 1900s. Additionally, spurred by the war against Germany, Iowa Gov. William Harding issued a proclamation in 1918 that forbade the use of any language but English in public gatherings of two or more people.

Even today, people who are not white, Christian, heterosexual or English-speaking sometimes experience what can only be deemed as the polar opposite of "Iowa nice." One example: In 2019, a Des Moines woman intentionally drove over a teenage girl because she was "a Mexican." Another example: Antisemitic flyers were found in the lawns of some homes in Coralville in December.

Social justice activists and inclusion advocates caution against solely focusing on what happened in the past, saying it distracts from what could or should be happening in the present or future.

Meet Naomi Sea Young Wittstruck, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Des Moines Area Community College
Naomi Sea Young Wittstruck. Photo by Duane Tinkey.
Naomi Sea Young Wittstruck was hired in January 2022 to serve as Des Moines Area Community College’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The role is within President Rob Denson’s office, overseeing DMACC’s districtwide DEI efforts and consulting with leaders who will implement plans that align with the community college’s strategic plan on DEI.

DMACC partnered with Schabel Solutions, a local consulting firm, in 2019 to develop its strategic plan for DEI. A draft was created after work with a steering committee and students, faculty and staff to identify priorities for the college. Wittstruck used her first year to get acquainted with each DMACC campus and plans to finalize the strategic plan in 2023.

After growing up in Minnesota, Wittstruck has lived and worked in Iowa since 2007 to create awareness of the importance of diversity and social justice.

She briefly worked for the Wesley Foundation in Ames providing education to Iowa State University students on immigrant rights issues and has held statewide and regional leadership roles with the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. She led training for clergy and lay members in communities statewide on social justice issues, including poverty and immigrant support, and helped communities through the effects of the 2008 flood.

She also served as the annual conference’s lobbyist with the Iowa General Assembly and the organizational liaison with regional, state and national DEI partners.

The Business Record recently caught up with Wittstruck.

What interested you in this role at DMACC?
I’ve had a little bit of an adventurous career. Before coming to DMACC, I was at the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church for five years. Then I worked as a community development director for a Des Moines nonprofit organization working with direct human service needs, and was trying to engage the organization and the clients with transitioning to an asset-based model for collaboration, connection and services. I did that for two years, briefly served as the executive director of that institution, then ended up going back to the annual conference in a different capacity, working with another team around different forms of leadership development and institutional areas with local churches across the state. That’s then when the pandemic hit, so I had the privilege to have some time away. I have always been very involved with higher education. I was a trustee at my former undergraduate institution, so I saw it from that side, and then I also always created internship and mentorship programs with college students at the different organizations I’ve worked at. I was interested in DMACC because of the multiple ways that they support the community and because of the unique and diverse demographic of students and communities that are represented. I thought it would be a great opportunity to continue to build on my intersectional background.

What do demographic shifts mean for employers when they are thinking about DEI and the future of the workforce?
A lot of employers are really focusing on the understanding of DEI. I think a lot of that was catalyzed with national corporations after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. I think that’s happening in sectors for education, nonprofits, private businesses and public organizations. One of the realities is, statistically, research shows that teams that are more diverse based on areas of gender, race, neurological diversity, physical disabilities, different languages, different religious perspectives, those organizations outpace other institutions and organizations because they have teams that add to diversity of thought, innovation and tend to do much better sustainably longer in their sector of business than those that are more homogenous and are not as inclusive or focused on that as a value for their institution.

Looking at the workforce, I think the national demographic shifts that are coming based on race and multiple other forms of diversity, those shifts at the state level have already happened. When you look, for example, at the Des Moines Public School data in the last 20 years, DMPS has seen a significant shift in student demographics based on race, ethnicity, language and income levels. I think that’s going to be reflected again in what we do here at DMACC. We’re working to build a stronger connection to support those students coming out of DMPS as well as all the students who come from the other areas that we currently have student populations from. We want to ensure that we can support the success of those students and then connect that with the workforce. But there is a lot to be done. It’s one thing to understand theoretically the need for that from a higher ed institution, or from other businesses or corporations. It’s another thing to put it into practice and embed it in the culture of an institution.
In the headlines
Child care costs are beating out retirement costs when it comes to women's short-term career decisions. Fifty percent of women thought about how staying home would affect their child care costs, compared with approximately 30% who considered how it would affect their retirement savings, according to Fortune.

Two of the state's regent universities are rolling out new master's program options. The University of Northern Iowa is now accepting fall 2023 applications for its new Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program, offering a flexible and personalized plan of study for a selective and multidisciplinary group of graduate students. Meanwhile, Iowa State University’s Debbie and Jerry Ivy College of Business has announced the launch of a fully online track to the professional MBA program that will be available starting in the fall.

Former Johnson & Johnson executive Debbie Dickinson started a tech company with her daughter to produce Thermaband, a wristband and connected app that helps with menopause hot flashes, BBC reported.

The Department of Defense received 155 formal reports of sexual assault at three military academies during the 2021-22 school year — and officials suspect that hundreds more went unreported.

March 14 was Equal Pay Day how far into the year women had to work to catch up to what their male colleagues earned the previous year. Women earn about 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. (For Black women, it's about 65 cents, and for Latina women, it's about 60 cents.) A handful of states now require that salary ranges be included in job postings.

Members in both chambers of Congress, multiple governors and President Joe Biden all agree that raising teachers' pay deserves attention, amid high inflation and an ongoing shortage of instructors. But they disagree on whether it needs the federal government to offer a solution and if so, how.

Three Iowa teams made it into the NCAA Women's Basketball tournament: Drake, Iowa State and Iowa. Iowa's Caitlin Clark received Associated Press first-team all-American honors, and Iowa State's Ashley Joens was named a third-team all-American.

Worth checking out
The state of women (TheSkimm). New museum on American women’s history is about more than documenting ‘the firsts’ (The 19th). Single women take an outsize role in the workforce – and the economy (Washington Post). Why the Equal Rights Amendment is still a work in progress, 100 years later (The 19th).
Stop fretting about fun, and just have fun
I have in the past been dubbed "most likely to schedule fun." And the shoe fits. I do schedule fun, often on my Google Calendar.

For that and other reasons, I've often not considered myself to be "fun." I don't mean that in a self-deprecating way because there are many positive attributes I would characterize myself with, but "fun" isn't one of them. I am not spontaneous or boisterous. I would never consider myself "the life of the party." (I'm sure other introverts can relate.) I prefer getting things done to relaxing.

As many people do with various insecurities, I've thought a lot about it. For me, whether or not I consider myself "fun" is about unrealistic expectations I put on myself.

This year one of my unofficial New Year's resolutions was to shift my perspective. Maybe I am "fun," just in a different, more realistic way than my mind believes I should be. Maybe there is more than one way to be "fun," and maybe my own ways of "having fun" are perfectly OK.

I've been working on affirming this. And what to my wondering eyes did appear as I searched for a "break from the news" to share with you all? An NPR piece about having more fun, and in it this recommendation: Put fun on the calendar. Bingo! That's me.

Catherine Price, author of "The Power of Fun," says fun is a lot easier when you're young because there are far more opportunities to be in unstructured environments conducive to fun, like a playground. As adults, time for fun often does need to be planned, she says. (Fearless Editor Emily Kestel covered Price's keynote at last year's Women Lead Change conference.)

The NPR piece talks about how a major roadblock to having fun can be worrying about why we're not as happy or having as much fun as we think we should be. As it turns out, having fun is essential to wellness in our homes, in our relationships and in our workplaces. So if you're like me and spend too much time worrying about whether you are fun, the article is worth checking out so you can stop fretting and start having more fun.
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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