Potluckin' in Cedar Rapids
...with a dash of news
We broke bread, and some news at the potluck Libby Slappey put on in Cedar Rapids. She volunteered to host a gathering of 12 folks she considered influential in the community. We met on Monday, October 31.
It was my third potluck around Iowa with this theme; each had a unique character. However, there were common concerns in Burlington, DeWitt, and Cedar Rapids regarding community challenges: lack of affordable housing and the need for young families to move to their towns.
However, one of the positives discovered in all three potlucks is pride in the local arts and theater communities. Check out Brian Glick’s Revival Theater Company.
The exodus of young talent was brought up during the evening, but it was later, after most attendees left, that I learned of an example of just that in our midst that night.
Cedar Rapids native, and rising political star, Stacey Walker, 34, will leave his hometown this coming January when he finishes his term as a member of the Linn County Board of Supervisors. He’s moving to Mexico and is uncertain at this time what he will do, but he figures he will work remotely. Although he announced he wasn’t seeking reelection, he had not announced he was leaving Iowa.
“The pressure wounds me,” said Walker.
This will be crushing news to many. It was to me, and I hadn’t met Stacey until that night. But I’ve been watching him from afar.
Earlier in the evening, I asked Stacey to start our group discussion by telling us what he’s passionate about and why.
I am passionate about living an unabashedly beautiful life and trying to be my most authentic self. That is something I work at, and I'm intentional about. And I try to do that without feeling restrained by what I'll call the white gaze that comes with living in a predominantly white space…a lot of folks try to conform to the expectation of that gaze. Stacey Walker, Cedar Rapids potluck
At the same, he feels there is limitless opportunity in Cedar Rapids. It’s large enough to have the resources needed to solve big problems and small enough to be able to be a model for tackling poverty, reforming education, and constructing an inclusive economy. Still, at age 34, he’s exhausted by the enormity of the problems, the lack of understanding of their root causes, and the pressure to be inauthentic.
I’m adding for now because Iowa and Cedar Rapids will always be his home, and I predict it will tug at him through the years.
Each person around the table was chosen to be in the room by Libby Slappey, a long-time community activist passionate about the local library and how it stands as a welcoming place for all. Her spirit was mirrored in the guest list, consisting of community-doers of differing faiths or faith in humanity if not a diety.
Occasionally, participants push back on describing themselves as influential or using the word ‘passionate’ in their introductions. Said long-time assignment for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Mary Sharp:
“An HR director once asked me to tell her what I am passionate about, and I looked straight at her and said the man in my bed!”
Everyone around the table shared their causes, concerns, and challenges. There was a welcome level of openness with each one, allowing others to do the same.
Libby said afterward that although everyone there she considers a friend, she learned something about each person.
Stacey called it an evening of healing for him.
And Mary Sharp suggested everyone there that night replicate the potluck concept in their own homes. As a professional observer, she said the evening gave her a chance to listen to others who are activists who go out and do things while she reports on them.
“How do we get back to listening to one another?” asked Sharp.
Imam Hassan Selim accepted the assignment to do just that. His remarks that night were poignant. He is an immigrant from Egypt, coming to Cedar Rapids, his former wife’s hometown. His life was turned upside down after moving to the midwest, and the feeling of belonging eludes him. He is now single and speaking a non-native language. With three young girls in Iowa, he will stay, but he misses the centered feeling of being at home where he is. We hope his willingness to be open with others at the table will be a step toward what he seeks.
A crippling flood tested the community in 2008, followed by a violent derecho wind storm in 2020. Former Linn County Supervisor Linda Langston said the response showed Cedar Rapids is resilient.
Steven Moshier’s priority is preserving and extending voting rights. In an election cycle where absentee voting days have shortened, he’s busy.
Politics is dividing families. A transgender grandchild will no longer attend family gatherings because of the divisiveness around his right to exist. Conversations from gatherings like this tend to focus more on the negative issues, prompting Karla Twedt-Ball to chide us for not pointing out the opportunities that can thrive in an area like Cedar Rapids. Her point was well-taken.
Libby gave a shout-out to Clint Twedt-Ball, as an example, who is highly influential in the lives of people nobody knows or cares about. You don't see his name in the paper; he's not giving speeches; he's out there ‘getting shit done.’ Clint Twedt-Ball.
The conversation was also dominated by identifying and empowering emerging leaders.
Monica Vernon has served in elective office and run for statewide office. She is also a businesswoman who owned a market research firm. Monica has studied the issue of leadership and women and believes, from her own experience, leadership abilities can be set at a young age. As a young camper, she was given the task of putting ‘sparkles’ in a fire. From that moment on, she believed she was a leader. Those small gestures with children can be as impactful as acknowledgment in other ways as an adult. We can empower others by noticing leadership qualities they might not have seen in themselves.
Participant Jan Kaplan, who now lives in Arizona, and was back in Cedar Rapids visiting, said:
“I have had ‘God moments’ tonight. God is an adjective. I'm not kidding; I have had chills down my spine with every one of you. I want to move back to Cedar Rapids now,” Jan Kaplan
Sami Scheetz, 26, is a candidate for the Iowa House in a heavily Democratic district. He’s a hard-working, idealistic man dedicated to changing the world through the political system. Cedar Rapids Gazette story about Sheetz.
Will Scheetz be able to address the issues where a city like Cedar Rapids can grow and thrive? Like so many cities and towns, a handful of leaders - referred to as ‘the cabal’ during the potluck - will need to become intentional about identifying and nurturing talented and emerging leaders to do so.
Education in Iowa needs to be the magnet it once was, said Scheetz. Environmental issues need to be addressed. This is a must to attract young families, the foundation of a prosperous future.
Everything begins in a conversation. Let’s keep talking. And throw some sparkles in a fire.
Would you like to host a potluck in your community? Let me know. Make a list of 12, including yourself, and let’s pick a date.
Okoboji Writers’ Retreat News
The third annual Okoboji Writers’ Retreat dates are now set: September 17, 18, 19, and 20, 2023. Find out why literary agent Andy Ross called it the best conference he’s ever attended. www.okobojiwritersretreat.com
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Love love love Libbey!
Thanks but I found the transition from trans youth to "Oh let's think of something pleasant" to be quite jarring Maybe I'm a grumpy old man, but it lacks awareness of the positive in the transgender equality battle, the fact that the man feels emboldened to be authentic and live his life. Don't think it needs countering