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Iowa Ideas at The Gazette
From late February to early June, the Iowa Ideas team hosted 14 community conversations, covering seven major industries in six different cities across Iowa.
To say we learned a lot would be an understatement.
As a quick recap: The symposium series is just one part of Iowa Ideas, a brand-new initiative from The Gazette designed to connect Iowans, explore key issues shaping the future of our state and uncover solutions. Iowa Ideas also includes a series of magazines, featuring in-depth, solutions-focused journalism, and a statewide conference, to be hosted September 20-22 in Cedar Rapids. But the symposiums were our first test of hosting community conversations under the Iowa Ideas umbrella, reaching out to new communities across the state and connecting with experts in each of our track focus areas.
The lessons learned at the symposiums will continue to impact our work, in ways large and small, both as we plan for the September conference and as we carry out The Gazette’s daily mission to provide context, understanding and connection in the communities we serve.
The schedule for Iowa Ideas 2017 has been undeniably shaped by discussions we had with people of all walks of life at the symposiums, and our newsroom was able to find new story ideas and develop relationships with new sources by participating.
Here are a few of our biggest take-aways:
There are no easy answers … but there are some good first steps.
No, we didn’t completely solve Iowa’s water quality issues, aging crisis, workforce needs or infrastructure shortfalls over the course of our conversations — but we did find some good starting points.
We were continuously impressed and humbled by the passion, unique perspectives and willingness to jump in and make a difference we saw from attendees in each community we visited.
We were also surprised, again and again, to encounter people working along parallel paths who didn’t previously know each other. More than ever, we thoroughly believe that building connections and sparking conversations can be the first steps in creating meaningful change.
Now it’s up to all of us to turn conversation into action. Some common ideas of good next steps we heard across tracks:
-- Reach out and collaborate — even within industry tracks, silos exist. Attendees emphasized the need to actively reach out to both potential partners and those with opposing viewpoints.
-- Be vocal about the future we want — although it’s easy to focus on problems, attendees showed an interest in highlighting solutions. Whether it’s sharing good news with your network, contacting a lawmaker or working with your local media on a story idea or guest column (hint, hint), we can all work to raise awareness.
-- Lead by example and mentor the next generation — change won’t happen overnight, and many breakout groups highlighted the importance of education, mentorship and reaching out to young people to engage them in finding solutions.
The industries are interrelated.
There wasn’t a single conversation that stayed focused on just one track. In health care we talked about workforce needs, in transportation we talked about Iowa’s shifting energy landscape, in agriculture we talked about the need for different types of educational opportunities, and on and on.
Part of the reason that the big issues facing Iowa are so difficult to solve is that they aren’t contained within one industry. They’re wicked problems, constantly shifting and impossible for any one group or industry to solve alone.
The Iowa Ideas conference will continue to explore the connected nature of Iowa’s major industries — and major issues. While many conferences are focused on one industry, job title or interest area, we’re bringing different groups together. We encourage attendees to explore multiple tracks and connect with unexpected potential collaborators. (hint: Make plans to join us September 20-22 in Cedar Rapids).
We’re more similar than different.
Coming from Eastern Iowa, we got a lot of raised eyebrows and half-joking comments when we announced we’d be making a trip to the far Western reaches of our fair state (and we’re sure people traveling in the opposite direction get the same).
But we realized that there are tons of innovations and ideas happening in all corners of Iowa. While each city is shaped by its employers, demographics, leaders and unique projects, the underlying issues were the same.
We found more similarities than differences, and we can all work together to shape the future of Iowa.
Getting the right stakeholders in the room is key.
We have a mantra that “whoever comes is the right people” — that those who care enough to attend a community building conversation are the ones who are poised to make a difference, regardless of title, status, age or any other marker. And we still believe that.
But, we recognize that the format and timing of our symposium series made it hard for many key people to participate. It was hard for teachers and students to attend our education tracks, doctors to attend health care, farmers to attend agriculture and lawmakers to attend most of our discussions, while the legislative session was still underway.
We’ll be working on a new symposium format for Iowa Ideas year two and beyond — stay tuned.
More difficult to solve was an issue with apparent political leanings. While Iowa Ideas is nonpartisan (we’re working hard to provide a variety of perspectives on each issue and are more focused on underlying causes and solutions to problems than specific policy proposals), our symposium attendees seemed to skew more liberal. Our goal for the September conference is to welcome all ideologies and points of view into the conversation, and we’ll be working on outreach efforts to make sure that happens.
The role of local media continues to evolve.
The Gazette is making a concerted effort to host conversations, like those that are part of Iowa Ideas, because we believe actively engaging with our local communities is critical to our future. Our success is tied to our community’s success.
It’s an emerging practice for us, and we learned a lot about how community engagement can shape our journalistic work.
“On one hand it took me outside my comfort zone — I don’t typically host panel discussions or have an audience in attendance for my interviews — and brought a new challenge to my work, but it also allowed me to meet passionate, informed people in communities we at The Gazette don’t regularly get to visit,” wrote Mitchell Schmidt, regional reporter for The Gazette. “My symposiums in Sioux City, Des Moines, Davenport and here in Cedar Rapids have provided me several potential story ideas that I hope will soon find their way to The Gazette’s pages and on to our readers.”
We’re committed to listening, reaching out and engaging as we continue work on Iowa Ideas 2017 and beyond.
“The symposiums helped reinforce that journalism is not restricted to traditional formats, such as print, broadcast or online, but can occur in person, in real time,” wrote B.A. Morelli, city reporter for The Gazette. “It is exciting to see at time when habits for consuming information are changing, there are many opportunities for journalism and this is one of them."