When it comes to solutions to issues facing Iowa residents, this year’s Iowa Ideas Conference aims to leave attendees with myriad new ideas. The third-annual, day-and-a-half event — set for Oct. 3 and 4 in downtown Cedar Rapids — is scheduled to feature more than 200 panelists and speakers across 11 tracks.
The track topics will be:
• Diversity, equity and inclusion
• Energy and environment
• Health care
• Human and social services
• Regional development
• Young professionals
In an interview with The Gazette earlier this summer, keynote speaker Tom Vilsack — former Iowa governor and U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary — noted Iowa needs to see the opportunities in its current challenges.
That will require “embracing some of the new ideas, to taking a leap, and taking a risk that we might be uncomfortable doing,” Vilsack said.
“It’s going to require the risk of investment for infrastructure, it’s going to require the risk of changing the way government does business so that decisions are made more quickly, embracing risk on being more open to people that don’t look or talk or think the way we have. That’s going to be hard, no question about it.
“But if we don’t do that, I can tell you other states are doing it,” Vilsack said. “And as they do, they continue to grow, they continue to expand and they continue to attract our young people. So we need to get in the game.”
The other keynote speakers will be Jason Sole and Andre Wright, co-founders of the multiplatform Humanize My Hoodie campaign focused on de-stigmatizing clothing trends associated with people of color.
Sole, a criminal justice professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., said he began encountering systemic racial issues from a young age growing up in Chicago’s South Side.
“It didn’t make sense coming out of my neighborhood every day and seeing people going from being happy and excited about life to being addicts and going to prison,” he said. “I just knew it wasn’t right. ... I just didn’t have the expertise or the knowledge to speak about the injustices.”
Sole resolved to turn his life around after becoming a three-time felon, including for firearm and drug offenses, and spending time in prison. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice and became involved in community activism, including a stint as president of the Minneapolis NAACP, from 2016 to 2018.
Sole connected with Wright, a childhood friend and fashion designer with Born Leaders United, in September 2017, following a Facebook post in which Sole outlined an experiment he was planning — he would aim to lower his criminal justice students’ “threat perception” of black men in hoodies by teaching all his classes while wearing one.
Since then, Sole and Wright — both Waterloo natives — have used advocacy, fashion and conversation to spread Humanize My Hoodie, growth Sole said he attributes to the movement’s authenticity and an easy-to-digest message.
Now, Wright said, he and Sole hope to share that message with Iowa Ideas attendees, aiming to empower and inspire members but also challenge potential implicit biases.
“These kids walking around that you might have a bias about or feel that they’re a threat, they could be growing up to be our next doctors or lawyers,” he said. “Once you start showing them love, they begin to change.”
The keynote speech isn’t the only session that will discuss wide-ranging cultural issues.
As a panelist on Mental Health in Young Professionals within the conference’s Human and Social Services track, Peggy Huppert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Iowa, said she plans to highlight the importance of mental health services within schools, including transitional services on college campuses, and its seriousness as a workplace issue.
For employers, she said, “it’s more than just saying, ‘You can get free grief counseling sessions if you need it,’ but actually modeling empathy and understanding,” Huppert said. “One in five Iowans will experience a mental health challenge in any given year, and when you expand to friends and family, it affects just about everyone.”
Though Huppert said she is encouraged by more apparent willingness to discuss mental health among the younger generation, she also believes it is incumbent on parents to treat their children’s mental, psychological and emotional well-being as part of the spectrum of health.
“The worst phrase ever invented is, ‘It’s all in your head,’ because, yes, it’s all in your head in the sense that it’s a brain illness, but that implies it’s made up, and it’s most certainly not,” she said.
Some panels will be geared toward local government issues.
Nichole Hansen, community investments team leader with the Iowa Economic Development Authority and a panelist on funding options and incentives within the Regional Development track, said her team oversees multiple financial assistance programs, including grants and tax credits, for local governments — at least, if they know to look.
“One of the continual challenges is just communities being aware of what financial assistance is available through the state,” Hansen said. “The biggest take-away I hope communities can walk away with is greater knowledge of some assistance programs that are available. ... Even if they don’t know if funding is available, give us a call ... there may be a way that we can work through the project with you and put our heads together.”
Education is another area in which panelists will discuss options accessible to those in need of a helping hand, or even more efficient ways to achieve their goals.
Lori Sundberg, president of Kirkwood Community College and a panelist within the Education track, said her school will roll out its Flex Forward program this fall, a self-paced online learning offering previously only available through the college’s business management program.
Flex Forward lets students pursue what Sundberg called “competency-based education,” separating out career area competencies students already have versus those they still need to fulfill, so they can complete degrees without spending money on superfluous classes.
“We have some non-traditional students who have been in the workplace for a long time and they have skills,” she said. “They don’t need to start at the very beginning, they can start at some place midstream based on their competencies. ... The cost of education today is expensive, so how can we package a degree with the intent of what the student would like and the job or career they would like down the road, and how can we think about that in ways we maybe haven’t before?”
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Gazette reporter James Q. Lynch contributed to this article.
If you go
• What: Iowa Ideas Conference, The Gazette’s third-annual, statewide nonpartisan networking and learning experience
• When: Oct. 3 and 4
• Where: Downtown Cedar Rapids
• Details and tickets: Go to IowaIdeas.com