The present year and its events could emerge as one of the biggest leadership laboratories of our times for civil rights and Black Iowans, and Iowa’s leadership programs are gearing up to facilitate pivotal programming to help its classes lead change. 

Amy Jennings, executive director of the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute, has been telling members of this year’s upcoming Community Leadership Program class: “If you want a live case study on leadership, this is the year, because there have been so many things for people to learn, to observe firsthand and to be a part of.”  

As the Black Lives Matter movement and the global reaction to the killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer continue to unfold, community and national conversations about race and racial equity are arguably at a level unseen since the early days of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

Leadership development programs at both the community and statewide levels in Iowa aim to shine a brighter light on equity and inclusion and build on progress that has been attained in recent years, say the leaders of two prominent leadership organizations. 

In separate interviews, the Business Record spoke with leaders of both the Greater Des Moines Leadership Insitute’s Community Leadership Program and the ABI Foundation’s Leadership Iowa program for a look at how well they have addressed equity and inclusion in the past, and what’s ahead for this year’s classes. 

“We would be remiss not to include that somehow and ensure that our classes are having those conversations,” said Jessi Steward McQuerrey, director of programs for ABI Foundation, “because Leadership Iowa provides that environment to where they can have those informed conversations about what’s happening in their own communities, and then be able to share that information back.” 

Raising awareness 

Although Greater Des Moines has received national accolades for being a great place to live and work in recent years, that’s obviously not true for all Des Moines-area residents, particularly people of color, said Eugenia Kutsch-Stanton, a research scientist with Corteva in Johnston. 

The huge disparity in incarceration rates between African Americans and other Iowa residents is just one example, she said. The recent One Economy report released by the Directors Council outlined wide racial disparities that Black residents face. 

“It’s not the same for everybody in Des Moines, and so we need to raise awareness of that, and have leaders who can speak to that,” she said. By doing that, “they can get into those rooms, or are already in those rooms, to start having those conversations and allow us to have those challenging conversations.”

Kutsch-Stanton, a 2015 Community Leadership Program graduate who is currently the equity and inclusion chair-elect for the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute, played a significant role in the Leadership Institute’s development of its equity and inclusion program. Her community involvement extends to the Chrysalis Foundation, a nonprofit supporting women’s issues, as its current board chair. She is an active supporter of LGBTQ rights as well. 

A native of St. Louis, her position with what was then Pioneer brought her to Des Moines in 2004. A colleague in 2014 suggested she apply for the Leadership Institute’s Community Leadership Program. She did — and “fell in love with the program.” 

“I think at that time we were just beginning to think about some of these [equity and inclusion issues],” she said. “There really wasn’t any structure or intentionality around it. [The thinking was] that diversity and inclusion were nice to have, and I think that was the same resonant message across the world and corporate America. We knew that we wanted it and that we needed it, but we didn’t have any way of actually building that acumen into the programming.” 

 Kutsch-Stanton helped to establish the Leadership Institute’s Equity and Inclusion Committee, in 2016. Originally known as the diversity and inclusion committee, the wording was quickly changed, she recalled. “I thought [the choice of the word equity] was really forward-thinking, because everyone else in the world was still using ‘diversity and inclusion’ and even now that shift is still happening,” she said. 

She still counts herself among the “newbies” compared with Black leaders from earlier leadership classes who have been active in the community. 

“We need to have more diverse leaders in all positions; the businesses need this and are requesting this,” Kutsch-Stanton said. “We are going to have not only a more diverse pool of people that we’re going to give them, but we’re also going to raise awareness in topics within these areas so that they can go out and actually start executing on these things.” 

Bringing an ‘equity lens’ to community issues 

Being intentional about addressing community issues through the lens of equity and inclusion has been one of the key drivers for success, the Leadership Institute’s Jennings said. 

“We have Capital Crossroads as the foundation for our Community Leadership Program curriculum, and we have intentionally looked for the issues within Capital Crossroads that need to be talked about related to equity, whether that’s housing, downtown development or education,” she said. 

“We bring the equity lens to all of those conversations, because our vision is a thriving community for all, and [one that is] served by an endless source of civic stewards, and that vision we actually changed as a result of the work that the Equity and Inclusion Committee did.”

The Leadership Institute is also making a concerted effort in all of its programs to include conversations about equity, Jennings said. “So it’s not only the Community Leadership Program, it is the Youth Leadership Initiative, our Community Connect program as well as our alumni programming. So we want that thread of equity and inclusion to run through everything we do, because we’re not going to achieve a thriving community for all unless we are sure that we’re all talking about equity.” 

As an example, when the Directors Council initially released the One Economy Report, the Leadership Institute quickly incorporated conversations about the report into its curricula. “And so we are constantly looking for what’s going on in the community that we can be sure to shine light on,” she said.
 
Kutsch-Stanton noted how the Leadership Institute recently hosted a well-attended pop-up event that in part looked at LGBTQ issues related to equity and inclusion, among them the differences in concerns of gay Black individuals and the gay community as a whole. 

With the atmosphere locally and nationally with Black Lives Matter, “I think there is a sense of urgency now, because if we want to maintain [momentum], if we want to bring more people into the city and have a diverse population, then we’re going to have to have a welcoming, inclusive population,” she said.