Staci Bennett returned to downtown Des Moines when she began her new role as executive director of the Downtown Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 1. You may know her most recently from her work at Living History Farms, where she served for nearly two years as director of community relations, a position where she managed guest services, membership events and retail operations. Before that, she worked at the Des Moines Art Center. If you ask Bennett, she’ll tell you returning downtown during the pandemic has brought home the effect it has had on Downtown Chamber members. “I haven’t worked downtown for 10 years, so coming back downtown and seeing so few people and so little traffic when I’m used to it being this thriving place during the day, I wasn’t quite prepared for that.” The self-proclaimed introvert says that has helped her shape her goals and her organization’s mission to help its members thrive as they continue to recover from COVID-19.

How has seeing the effect of the pandemic on downtown affected your approach to  your  job?

Nothing that we knew about our members and about what was needed by them or was important to them can be assumed at this point. So starting in, I had to throw all the old assumptions out the window and just have conversations with members, set up those Zoom calls with everyone working from home, to talk about what their current challenges are. Their current challenges during the pandemic are so different from when they were in the office. Now it’s so much more about what is my work-life balance while I’m working from home, how do I manage taking care of my kids and making sure they are reaching their educational goals while I work and making business calls. It’s just such a different world for everybody.

What is the biggest challenge for the Downtown Chamber moving forward?

As businesses transition back, what does that look like? How do they still keep employees safe? Some of the businesses are planning on moving back downtown, but it’s how we keep people 6 feet apart? Do we still have masks? It’s really more about being a conduit for information and connecting businesses with the resources that are out there. We typically were a very social chamber in the past, so we got together a lot, we did a lot of things in person. It really has been that pivot to what resources can we provide and who can we connect together to get the information they need, so it’s really been a journey.

What did you learn in your previous positions that helped prepare you for your current role?

I love life in the nonprofit world. It is never boring. Every day is different. The name of the game is pivoting. At Living History Farms my role encompassed so many different functions. I was in guest experience, I managed retail and food service. I handled special events. I did community events and rentals. In the course of a single day I could be looking at admissions, troubleshooting computer issues, giving rental tours to brides and get interrupted with an emergency call about an animal escaping. Luckily, in downtown Des Moines the calls about a cow escaping are few and far between. But being able to manage multiple tasks and priorities, develop really quality relationships, listening to people, understand what their challenges are — that is all applicable to any position but it really applies right now to the chamber and meeting the needs of members.

Describe your management philosophy.

I most identify with servant and authentic leadership. My goals are doing whatever possible to remove the barriers that others are facing. I want everyone to do their best work and be their best selves, so it’s important to me to provide the support and assistance they need. I think especially during the pandemic, it has helped us realize we are all humans with lives and if we are struggling in any area of our life, that’s going to affect our work. My role is: How can we provide flexibility? Can we adjust your schedule? How do we support that … when you’re at work you’re able to be your best self and when you’re at home, you’re able to be your best self?

Tell us something about yourself most people may not know.

There’s that misconception that introverts are shy or antisocial, when really being introverted or extroverted is about where we draw our energy. I love getting to know people, I love one-on-one conversations, small groups are amazing — but at the end of the day I need time alone with my thoughts to process and recharge. I do well in social situations, I love people, but at the end of the day I need that alone time to process and decompress.

What book have you recently read that you would recommend?

Over my winter break I read “How to Be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi. It was such a great read. I actually go back and reference it almost daily. The knowledge that we internalize, the messages that we are surrounded by in society – we all have unconscious biases, and that is not necessarily a bad thing as long as we take the time to acknowledge and really look at what those biases are and how they might be contributing to some of those unhelpful narratives. What we think are facts aren’t actually facts, they are actually biases.