Iowa City-Cedar Rapids Corridor – GoGuide Visionaries was created wit the intention to create a collection of community members doing amazing things in the Corridor. Each has a unique perspective and purpose that resonate with LGBTQ+ persons and humanity alike. This collection of visionaries has paved the way across generations for past, present, and future topics of interest. Thank each of them for their bravery, visions, attention, and time to share with all of us.
This collection of visionaries was selected and featured in GoGuide Magazine by Julia Freeman. GoGuide Media created this full collection for all to enjoy and to admire. GoGuide Media is forever grateful to Julia Freeman for her hard work and dedication to this project.
Our list includes the following community visionaries: Emma Welch, Dawn Stephens, Aaron Murphy, Consuelo Steel, Ashley Vanorny, Cami Rasmussen, Nikki Hodous, Amanda Heeren, and Sid Karasek.
Meet the visionaries
After more than a decade of existence, the Pride Alliance Center (PAC) on the campus of the University of Iowa undertook a new name change earlier this year. It helped to clarify the purpose of PAC and what it entailed from the previous designation of the LGBTQ Resource Center. The most impressive part, according to coordinator Emma Welch, is that the initiative for change was student led. However, the mission of PAC remains as the welcoming and inclusive environment for all students to develop, learn, enjoy, and relax so they can be seen and be themselves. It is housed on the East side of the University’s campus, which can be a geographic barrier of sorts for many students.
Welch began her work in the LGBTQ community directly during her time at the University of Northern Iowa as a team member of the Gender and Sexuality Studies center. She admired the visibility of having a space in the campus’ center within the confines of the school’s student union. These built the foundation for her reasoning for joining the University of Iowa and why PAC is still needed today. Welch strives to support students and help create spaces to authentically exist and express themselves while also serving as a safe haven home away from home as students discover their own community.
Despite primarily only working traditional nine to five weekday hours and PAC being most populated historically in the evenings, she loves seeing the passion and hearing student voices in their own development and experience to enhance the future as well. The best part of her role as coordinator is to witness students supporting students. “I really like students going to bat for issues and take the world by storm,” said Welch. Her wanting to do so much with time and budget constraints has been difficult so she has learned to be pause and table things and be creative without resources at times. Such is the case for many open to the public events that PAC plays a part in during October in and around campus.
This ingenuity comes in part from the roles that her best friend, her mother, her sister, and Dr. Melissa Shivers of the University have played in Welch’s life. “The passion that she has for ACCESS (Assault Care Center Exending Shelter and Support) in Ames is really inspiring,” noted Welch in speaking about her best friend. While striving to have grace with herself and others, her mother, who is among the first woman engineering graduates from Iowa State University works at the Iowa Department of Transportation and is her primary role model.
The coordinator ultimately spoke to the influence of social media in getting and remaining connected with PAC and that she did not accomplish this visionary status alone. It was a team effort to design an inclusive and safe space for everyone in humanity. Welch concluded with, “PAC is a testament to the difference we can all make when we all come together for the same goals.”
For Dawn Stephens, founder of Hug Squad, love is love. Whether that is her full-fledged support of her daughter, who is in a relationship with a same sex partner, or her daughter whom identifies as pansexual, she established a foundation for each that made it not fun to ‘come out’ due to her acceptance of all identities. Stephens wholeheartedly believes in leaving things better than when she found them, whether it is society or fostering dogs or restoring homes. Stephens’ spirit is thanks to her grandmother, who would greet every passing person from her front porch, which was frequently giving back to her community. The Hug Squad founder was so impacted that she recently moved her own house within a few blocks of that same porch. Stephens said her own mother embodies the same mentality.
Hug Squad, which offers up complimentary hugs to whomever self identifies as needing or wanting that level of connection and gesture, was founded out of an interaction at a Women’s Brass Festival between Stephens and an attendee. For the recipient of the hug, it meant everything to feel that sentiment of love since ‘coming out’ and helped sparked the rainbow heart logo that adorns Hug Squad clothing and stickers. Such interactions help motivate Stephens, and her partner, Greg, who is often seen breaking out of his own comfort zone and distributing his own helpful hugs at events, to continue filling people’s cups and empathizing with others. Although there are also obstacles such as protesters and opponents of letting people be who they are, that rarely derails the aspirations and hope of Hug Squad and its founder.
Safety for all with a lack of judgment on who does and does not deserve grace is her largest priority in being a visionary in the community service sector of Linn County. Stephens is cognizant that anybody is one decision away from being in an unfortunate circumstance at any given time, including herself. This is why she and the Hug Squad members seek out and volunteer at many LGBTQ events throughout the area, along with supporting caregivers at events such as ALS and Alzheimer’s Association walks. She advises people to “be the person you always needed when you were younger.”
Hug Squad’s statement of identity is ‘the loving clutch that means so much. Life is hard. Sometimes you just need a hug. That’s what we’re here for. Our logo is a symbol of peace, acceptance, care, support and recognition. We see you. We are here to give you a hug and hopefully some assurance that things are going to be ok. But mostly to say that we see you. You matter. Thanks for what you do to make the world a better place. We accept you. You are worth it. Bring it in.’ Stephens and the rest of the all volunteer Hug Squad followers can be found on Facebook at Hug Squad. She wants people to be kind, be empathetic, and try to see where other people stand.
“You can be whoever you want,” is the principal message of Aaron Murphy to others. The ‘star of the show’ for much of Theatre Cedar Rapids productions has a true passion for the arts and mentoring other young professionals. Murphy, who is the principal decorator of Aaron Murphy Interiors, grew up in Vinton, graduated from Luther College, and has tried on many identities throughout his lifetime. He is this month’s visionary as an individual that has found Corridor success and comfort in crafting his own element.
Growing up, he was inspired by the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy stars. “To see gay men that were at the top of their field and doing what they love was so important. I could finally begin to see myself reflected back,” which opened up a world of possibilities for the then high school and college student.
He also emphasizes the importance of setbacks as they ‘teach you so much’. Murphy said willingness to let it go after uncovering that a music future was not right for him during his college years has helped him create the visions of his achievements in business and in theatre. “Being self promoting isn’t a bad thing and it helps to build your network,” admits the self-described extroverted introvert. A central focus on connecting with a central core tribe of a network has proven effective for Murphy throughout his accomplishments on and off the stage and in and out of business. His ‘don’t do it alone’ philosophy has helped aid Cedar Rapids to improve due to his being apart of it.
By living in the Twin Cities, the visionary witnessed how powerful money is in life. This was a step beyond ‘staying open for possibilities’ realization, which was the central lesson learned of Cedar Rapids initially. Murphy learned from his time in New York City that it takes stockholders and influence of a support system to create a successful reputation. But that it also requires determination and hard work to make that happen in actuality, including behind the scenes. In his decorating business, for example, he works for himself with the support of a back office assistant. Now he gets to harness his fascination with design by filling people’s homes with furniture, including the model homes for Skogman Realty. His initial design connections came from not being shy and meeting people that knew people via networking that helped get him knocking on doors.
Although he is self-motivated and likes working for himself so he can reflect the diverse community around him, Murphy is also his own worst critic. However, he has discovered a work-life balance that provides him comfort while being accountable to himself and clients. Murphy also encourages prospective performance artists to come audition and show up for classes. He is prideful in helping to promote the arts, vision, and value of theatre for youth. His goals continue to be to take life moment by moment while maintaining wedded bliss to his husband.
In an age of community advocacy, often times the spaces where youth feel the unsafe and supported is in the spaces they spend much of their year and days, in the schools. Seeing a need, being approached by a driven self advocate named Ariana, and having family members that identify as LGBTQIA were all the triggers that Consuelo Steel needed in order to help co-establish the Roosevelt Middle School’s first queer straight alliance (QSA). Although she did encounter opposition in some interactions, which she is open about, Steel harnessed her vision and beliefs to help others gain education and address fears and personal limitations head on.
I want to inspire kids to be the best version of themselves and continue to be an advocate for all kids to be our future,” said Steel. She has dreams of opening an organization known as Patricia’s House, named after her own mother who was a role model in her own life. This would ideally be a space where 11-25 year olds could come to be loved, supported and a safe place to live, thus the importance of a QSA. She also lists her older sister and godmother as her own personal visionaries to inspire her to dream. Ultimately, she wants to be a teacher coach to help educators build relationships with students and better teach in diverse atmospheres. For example, not all kids learn on the same level so barriers are often difficult to tackle.
For Steel, it is easy to connect with kids. However, it’s harder to convince adults that LBGT clubs and organizations are “a need and not a want” much like sports are viewed. She quickly learned to embrace no and practice being uncomfortable in conversations where opportunities arise to educate people, even school administrators, which are uneducated. Thus why the importance of a QSA, similar to GSAs, continues to be at the heart of Steel’s work in the school. Although she wishes should could build more relationships between students home and school lives and bridge the gap to be an amazing support person.
The club meets during the school year after school hours to talk about ‘everything’ and Steel helps to assure all deadlines and logistics are met. There is an open door policy in place so a welcoming atmosphere is maintained. Being it is composed of middle school members, transportation is sometimes an issue for attendance and participation purposes, which disallows some students that may ordinarily be interested or contribute to discussions and conversations.
Adults advocating fiercely for kids of all demographics and identifies are what ultimately lead to more inclusive and diverse schools, classes, communities, and environments. Steel concluded, “Every student wants to be loved, supported, and listened to in some way. Adults can take time out to listen and assure youth that starting over everyday is okay. I ultimately value the lessons I’ve learned, the education I received, and relationship I’ve made with everyone regardless of class or questions that have arisen.”
Ashley Vanorny was encouraged to do good and work hard as she could growing up. Born a farmer’s daughter, she is no stranger to those concepts, holding up to four jobs at a time to continue that mentality that anything is possible if you work hard enough. She considers it the best part of her role as a Cedar Rapids City Council member to represent the city that she was raised in and serve the people who bag her groceries, her former teachers, and neighbors. “I am continually humbled to be accountable and work hard for them,” she added.
People who did something for the first time as trendsetters inspire her as she seeks to be as helpful as possible in her own life. She is a lifelong learner that seeks to always grow and better herself without jealousy and envy for others. Vanorny wants to see a Cedar Rapids that teams up and works to encourage everyone to achieve their full potential.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in her work with Families Helping Families of Iowa, an organization that serves children in foster care. “I am passionate about healthcare and how it encompasses many aspects, including the environment. I also believe that children in foster care can often be collateral damage when adults are held accountable, so it’s important that we as a community take personal responsibility to band together and brace for impact as much as possible. It takes a village to raise a child and I appreciate anyone who can help in any way to be part of ours,” Vanorny said. She also wants to continue to push the bar in restorative justice within the housing and urban development arena. “If you have served your time, then we shouldn’t be creating barriers to you being a productive and contributing member to the community,” Vanorny explains. She serves the area of the city with the lowest median income.
She is a visionary because she ‘cares enough to try’ to change things for the best quality of life possible. Vanorny wants to make government user-friendly and accessible, thus her helping to broadcast city council meetings. Additionally, her approach is to dive in and go to marginalized populations. As a social scientist, she seeks to identify the key stakeholders and truly listen so that she can try to implement evidence-based policy. She also notes that going out in the community and seeing aspects for her has been helpful beyond what a description on paper or email can describe.
Government needs to be a collective source to help empower its people. Vanorny doesn’t believe that people need to wait until the third or fourth quarter of their lives to have value and exercise their voice and be heard. “Everybody has a vision and I want to use my platform to continually do, ask questions, explore, and be kind to ultimately build rapport to make the environment in which we exist and policy we abide by better,” she concluded.
Overcoming obstacles and adversity are not foreign areas for Solon City Administrator Cami Rasmussen. She seeks to pave her own way and inspire others to follow in her path by serving as an example for her own Solon community members and beyond. Within the fickle profession with a dynamic city council, she has committed to serve the city that she loves. Her everyday role is to work with the unique six member Solon City Council along with Steve Stange, the mayor. As former mayor herself, she has a unique understanding of the large role the office plays in small town life.
“The work I am doing today will build the legacy for tomorrow,” said Rasmussen. Her daily interactions include everyday ‘office work’ such as phone calls and emails, but also expand into weekly inspections and all small project proposals within the city come through her before she reviews them to pass them along to the review of handle the approval process. Throughout her career in Solon city management, she has learned that the title doesn’t matter as much as the impact on the community and effectiveness that comes with transitions of offices.
For her, city affairs are personal and a family tradition. Her father had a career as a city official in the public works and chief of police of Polk City, Iowa. “I am a wife and mother first and all I do in my life circles back to my family,” she explains. She was inspired to lead by the birth of her daughter and seeks to show and tell her that if ‘you work hard and open your own doors along the way, anything is possible.’
Rasmussen just graduated with her Bachelors degree. She recognizes that education and mentorship are at the forefront of her future as she aspires to spend more time with her three grandchildren and continuing to pursue her love for learning. “Wherever you are, I want to be in a position to help pave the way for the next person to make it better and show the course to do so. I want to leave any place better than it was when I got there,” Rasmussen explained of her love for learning and Solon. She also wanted to reflect that the role as a government official has on her family as they have been very understanding of her having to go, a wish that she wanted to spend more time with them. Her priorities are faith, family, and community by working nonstop and hard across facets.
She felt she had something to contribute and could truly bring a new perspective, her central reason for initially running for and joining city council and government. “Small towns provide some sense of boundary and I find security in that,” Rasmussen said of Solon, having raised her kids in the community for their entire lives. The city administrator, one of three city officials, is open to suggestions from citizens to find solutions to engage LGBTQ citizens as well.
For Nikki Hodous, being around students is commonplace. While overseeing the campus inclusion team at the University of Iowa, she is also in charge of assisting students that are experiencing a crisis/emergency situation through Student Care and Assistance branch of the Office of the Dean of Students. She originally began her work as a university housing administrator before becoming a student conduct officer and landing in her current role as the Assistant Director of Student Care and Outreach.
Within her department and in collaboration with the Student Legal Services and Student Government, there is a trans* student fund and emergency fund that may be used for various needs that may arise. Yet an ample starting spot, gather extra support, and for help navigating what to do, is Hodous’ role. She is a visionary because of how well she navigates the ins and outs of the entire UI experience for students in all walks of life and how to handle people, regardless of how or whom they identify as, during ‘hard’ moments of crisis scenarios. They include but are not limited to scenarios related to or involving physical and mental health emergency or long-term illness, death of a family member or loved one, or natural disaster. Hodous is grateful to Angie Reams, the interim associate VP and Dean of Students, for creating the student care role in her own advocacy for students to identify resources and opportunities throughout campus.
“Marginalized populations experience the world in a different way,” according to the Assistant Director. She sees her role as an accomplice for communities to grow from her own experiences and opportunities. Hodous thinks that in order to grow and change that mistakes need to be made in good work. “These mistakes do not prevent us from doing great and bouncing back to move forward,” she explained.
The highlights of her job include for a moment, being with a student to provide support or be a resource to open up lifetime of their own hopes. Her ability and willingness to help in, what can sometimes be difficult, circumstances to minimize obstacles and ultimately gain independence to handle such on their own. She is raising her child to be the best they can be and navigate the world while working with others. Yet sometimes the infinite amount of pain in the world while teaching her colleagues how to care for another human being that needs help is difficult.
Hodous often works behind the scenes to help students navigate UI. This includes things like connecting and helping students in need with additional campus or community resources, working with facilities or University Housing, consulting with other members of the campus community about how to address student concerns, contacting faculty members regarding an absence or concern affecting academic participation, and providing access to emergency funding or meals. But this is by no means an all-inclusive list of the range of assistance Hodous and her office offers to UI students.
“No matter who they identify as, I strive to make the UI experience enjoyable for everyone,” said Hodous. She also wants to fully contribute to serve in the best way possible in environments while maintaining joy to align and continued honoring spaces that align with her own values and beliefs. Ultimately, the Student Care and Outreach office is a resource for all UI students who are or know a student that is having a difficult time. Hodous strives such that she and her team can champion the whole student experience for positive things to help give purpose and meaning with the future goals and ambitions at the forefront of the individual.
As one of two core staff members in a University of Iowa (UI) center that is actionably changing lives and fueling connections, Amanda Heeren is approachable and open to conversations about anything in social situations in a way that far outlasts typical engagement.
Heeren is a social worker, adjunct professor, therapist, and program director of the UI Mood Disorders Center. The Center has a treatment profile including mood disorders outpatient, an inpatient mood disorders service, mood disorders partial hospital program, treatment refractory mood disorder consultation clinic, women’s wellness service, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) programs, targeted psychotherapy workshops, and is starting a ketamine infusion program. The Center collaborates with the Iowa Neuroscience Institute to support research initiatives across the University. Research programs include those focused on molecular biology, genetics, roteomics, physiology, brain imaging, and clinical trialsin mood disorders. The Mood Disorders Center wants to serve as a home landing for research volunteers impacted by bipolar, depression, and other mood disorders. Heeren mostly helps facilitate the support groups and connect people to resources.
After exploring the majors of criminal justice, sports medicine, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and physiology as an undergraduate at Iowa Central Community College and then transferring to the UI, she declared as a social work major. Social work professor at the UI, Dr. Sara Sanders had a major impact and her influence solidified Heeren’s career path. Along with Valerie Lovaglia, Sanders helped Heeren realize the insistence of doing the right thing. Now, with two children of her own and multiple siblings, Heeren also attributes her parents and step parents for showing her the importance of taking care to be present and contribute.
Thanks in part to a grant from Iowa City, she has helped to create an acceptance and commitment therapy group for parolees to expand mental health access and train parole officers accordingly. The 6 week design is more psychoeducational, offers peer counseling, and ways to change for parolees at a macro level of orientation, an aspect of social work that Heeren initially claims drew her into the field to enact change on a public policy scale. For this project alone would qualify Heeren as a visionary, but she doesn’t stop there with her influence.
The most difficult part of Heeren’s role is that she is so profoundly hopeful and fixated on solving problems to get through to the next step that it sometimes gets in the way. To go into work daily in a role that allows “me to be my authentic self as a profound extrovert,” is the best part of her directorship according to Heeren. Being surrounded by people fulfills her desire and need to connect through conversations with constant connection and sensationalizing important issues and values. She prides herself in serving as a home base to connect people to resources and then further refer out as needed. Heeren self identifies as a nonjudgmental, individual whole person focused approach that understands that people are not boxes of symptoms or diagnosis
that often needs a systems view to include family and friends.
“Call us (the Center) if you don’t know what to do,” she explains, “to get through the stage that you are in.” Since the Mood Disorders Center came into existence in 2016, they have been a space designed to help manage medications, provide psychotherapy, and overall feel like a place where patients with mood disorders do not feel alone. She emphasizes that
thoughts are not facts and specializes in expanding options, resources, and referrals for all people, regardless of identity.
Sid Karasek is the chief organizer of the inaugural Marion Pride in Action, a grassroots event that was hosted by the Marion Public Library. It was an event that she, along with her friends Shelby and Issa, developed because they believed that such a unifying event needed to happen and was long overdue in the city. The event quickly grew from a uniquely youth centered gathering as directed in initial advertising and marketing to an all inclusive, all generations feature including a resource fair and drag story time. Karasek was elated to learn that many people came out as members of the LGBTQ community to their families, including but not limited to their parents, because of their attendance at the event. “It definitely helped change hearts and minds which was the intention all along and it helped other people too beyond the intended audience.”
She relied upon open mindedness, communication, and active participation to promote participation and interest in the event. Similar to another event she is helping to promote on August 10 at Prairie Park Fishery in Cedar Rapids known as the I AM…Walk for You. Marion Pride in Action helped to unify the community, including a vast media and publicity interest, was surprising. “Small towns are where Pride events need to happen.” Karasek, a young visionary, has a wide scope on the element and necessity of connection amongst LGBTQ allies and community members alike in handing the controversy surrounding the event from ‘haters’. Yet the ultimate goal of helping people know that it’s OK to be who they are and have pride in that was achieved.
When asked about her viewpoint on Gay-Straight Alliances in educational institutions she spoke to their importance in helping students think about things while living their lives and be more inclusive. While she can attest to GSAs helping to diversify youth perspectives and the excitement of her peers to be involved, there is room for additional support and acceptance in all schools, according to Karasek. She also spoke to the work that Liz Bennett, the keynote speaker from the event, has done around state laws; although schools do need to do what they say they will do, care, and protect LGBTQ members from violence and follow the law.
Regarding schools that do not yet have GSAs, she states that many students are upset because their peers do not have as open minds as schools that do have such GSAs in place.
Editors note – All photographs were provided to GoGuide Magazine by Julia Freeman for print in GoGuide Magazine and GoGuideMagazine.com