A few days ago I mentioned having had cause to be in Des Moines, Iowa. Now I can say why.
I’m happy to report that I’ve accepted the position of executive director of the Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement. It’s a think tank focused on disability access issues, labor protections, wellness, and retirement security. Or, as I put it in the interview, it’s about helping people get into the middle class, just like community colleges do.
It’s still connected to higher education. It’s located at, and affiliated with, Drake University. Working at the institute, I’ll be a Drake employee.
The institute has its own building, the Harkin Center. The center’s claim to fame is that it was built to exemplify principles of universal design. For example, in the auditorium there’s a space next to the (height-adjustable) podium where an ASL interpreter can stand. That space has its own spotlight, so the interpreter can be seen even if the speaker has darkened the rest of the room to show a slide deck. It’s one of those innovations that’s so retrospectively obvious that as soon as you see it, you wonder why it isn’t done everywhere.
The elevator is large enough for two wheelchairs at the same time, and it opens on the opposite side for the second floor so they don’t have to turn around in the elevator. Electrical outlets are painted different colors than the walls, so people with low vision can find them easily, and they’re about a foot higher than usual, so someone in a wheelchair can reach them. The office doors slide left to right, rather than opening in the traditional way, to make it easier for people with walkers or wheelchairs to negotiate them.
It’s a wonderful example of an organization living its beliefs.
The institute is named after former senator Tom Harkin, who was the chief sponsor in the Senate of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Senator Harkin and his wife, Ruth, remain engaged, and I had the chance to meet them. I look forward to working with them.
The role isn’t necessarily an obvious follow-up to a VPAA job, but it makes sense for me. The common denominator to the institute’s issue areas is helping people gain access to the middle class. That’s what community colleges do, too. And the idea of working to popularize policies around inclusion by making potentially complicated ideas clearer … well, let’s just say that strikes a chord.
There’s much to do over the next several weeks, and I expect some level of a learning curve in the new role. But those are good challenges. It’s a chance to bring together my management side, my policy side, and my values in a new setting. Those don’t come along every day.
Any tips for can’t-miss restaurants in the greater Des Moines area are welcome!