The idea, while a big one, started small in 2016. A close-knit group of elite University of Iowa students would break bread together weekly and ponder, at times over squawking chickens and before picturesque Iowa scenery, how to prototype meaningful lives.
As part of a pilot course entitled, "The Green Room," they asked: What should higher education in the 21st century look like? And how can one design a classroom experience that catapults coeds into meaningful post-collegiate careers and endeavors?
Just the asking changed those students’ lives, they said, and the discovery process was contagious — attracting nearly as many community members to the off-hours course as students, who by the end were hungry for more.
So the following academic year, the course’s architect — David Gould, an administrator in the UI Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development and member of the honors faculty — answered the call, welcoming three times as many students and inviting the entire Iowa City community to “class.”
Instead of your typical four-walled classroom, though, the weekly Green Room meetings occurred in Iowa City’s Englert Theatre and were curated by groups of UI students. Each week featured local and national thinkers who presented on topics like wonder, tolerance, democracy and story. Each installment incorporated local organizations and nonprofits, area musicians and speakers — all focused on ideological questions like: How does a community become smarter? How can knowledge uplift the lives of residents? And how can collaboration with other communities change the world?
Weekly attendance averaged 600 people, many of whom later migrated down the Pedestrian Mall to Merge Iowa City, where the conversations continued.
WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE
The communitywide Green Room is back this semester at the Englert with a lineup of speakers including Dessa, a rapper, singer and record executive; Peter Aguero, host of The Moth, a storytelling endeavor; and Dan Lerner, an author, speaker and educator out of New York University.
Gould, as he continues to conceive ways to scale up the project, said he learned some lessons from the first iteration he plans to implement this fall — starting with a series launch after Labor Day and incorporating a different model for “community homework.”
Instead of simply bringing in representatives from local organizations to talk about their work and the good they do, Gould said, they’ll come with action steps.
“Here’s directly how you can help us,” he said. “Here’s what we need from you. If this is a topic that speaks to you, I will give you a list of ways and ideas for what you can do.”
This version also will end each time with a student-led question-and-answer session with the guest speaker, which members of the public can stay for, but don’t have to.
The semester started, unlike last year, with a student-only walk-through at the Englert, during which Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton spoke — reminiscing about his time as an undergraduate at Norte Dame. He shared, according to Gould, that during his four years in South Bend he never ventured into the community at large.
“I think that experience is very common,” Gould said. “Our students are here in Iowa City, but — other than our campus and that extension of campus that includes the restaurants and downtown — they rarely meet community people. They rarely get to understand the people and the community that for four years they are residents in. And I believe that is at a detriment to them. That’s a loss.”
But that’s also a loss to the community.
“These students deeply care about the world they live in,” he said. “Their idealism, their energy, the schooling they are now incorporating, those are all things that — boy — if we could funnel just a part of that into our community in a positive, meaningful way, we would have such better outcomes.”
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GREEN ROOM SCHEDULE
The public sessions run from 6:30 to about 7:30 p.m. each time at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. in Iowa City.
Sept. 10: Dessa, rapper, singer, spoken word artist, writer and record executive
Sept. 17: Peter Aguero and Sara Peters, Moth storytellers
Sept. 24: Dan Lerner, speaker, author and educator
Oct. 1: Kathy Eldon, author, filmmaker and founder of Creative Visions
Oct. 8: Jesse Elliott, director at The Music District, and Rachel Ries, songwriter, performer and community choral leader
Oct. 15: Casey Gerald, author and founder of MBAxAmerica