Finding more than meets the eye when Iowans gather

Patrick Muller is a visual artist living in Hills (Johnson County).

Multiple times a year, teenage athletes from all corners of the state roll into a dedicated tournament venue to showcase their talents and compete for trophies. While forming a sports conclave, these individuals and teams also represent schools and towns. These competitions, then, have the additional potential to be meetings of minds and substrates for community building. When, for instance, Audobon, Bloomfield, Cascade, and Milford contestants meet, why not use that occasion for a pop-up chautauqua, learning commons, or consideration cafe?

While students are heaving a discus or passing the baton, individuals from their schools and towns could get together to share, on a variety of topics, best practices and approaches to opportunities and challenges; learn; network; and even sketch out some multi-community collaborations.

Truly, after nearly a century of championships in some sports, one has to wonder why these affairs are still merely ephemeral, insular, ostensibly single-purposed. 

If a state volleyball tournament brings denizens from West Liberty and Algona to Coralville, couldn’t people leave the arena with more than the memories of a volleyball match? Couldn’t they leave with some personal enrichment experiences and community building swatches? Let’s put some frosting on these athletic cakes and top them with a cherry.

Similarly, when corn farmers, accountants or teachers from Anthon, Elkader, and Montezuma coalesce for some grand, publicly-celebrated mashup, couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, get something more from this gathering than exchanges of seed developments, spreadsheets tweaks or new grading strategies?

The same can be asked of border-to-border bicycle rides, state and county fairs, and community watermelon or sauerkraut festivals. Couldn’t these, shouldn’t these, gatherings and temporal communities be sweat-soaked, funnel cake-tinged, or street food-pocked T.E.D. talks or SXSW festivals? Couldn’t we walk away with something more enduring and enriching than a few days of entertainment?

š›Consider the 2023 Iowa High School Girls State Golf Championships, recently completed, as an exemplar. We are familiar, of course, with the large towns that produced the medalists (Marion/Linn-Mar), medalist runner-ups (Cedar Rapids/Washington), team champs (Eldridge/Pleasant Valley), and championship runner-ups (again Washington and Dubuque/Wahlert.) 

Other hardware-winning towns/schools are not so well-known. Do you know the other medalist (Gilbert, Sumner-Fredericksburg, Grundy Center) and runner-up (Clear Lake, Mediapolis, New London) schools? Have you been to the towns of the other championship (Gilbert, Roland-Story, Grundy Center) and runner-up (West Marshall, again New London) schools? Would you bet 10 Gs you could find the Gs (Gilbert and Grundy Center) on an unlabeled map? I wouldn’t.

Even so, this year’s winning and runner-up schools represented thirteen communities. If encouraged, if some facilitating vectors were laid out for them in this pop-up sports tournament, these communities could create a delicious exchange of ideas. What a potluck.

š›The men’s golf team of our region’s community college took home a championship this year as well. Its first. At the NJCAA DII Men’s Championship in Plymouth, Indiana, in fact, it was the only team to shoot a sub-300 score all four rounds.

š›This college, Kirkwood, has a seven-county service footprint.  Those counties—Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn, and Washington—have a total population of 487,531, which surpasses the combined population (450,155) of the world’s twelve smallest nation states. Entities like Vatican City, Andorra, Greenland, Monaco, and Liechtenstein. Also, Dominica, Kitts and Nevis, and Tuvalu.

Kirkwood’s educational reach can be conceptualized as a learningshed (the way we think of watersheds and laborsheds.) Seven counties: 4,383 square miles, and 487,531 inhabitants. That’s quite a learningshed.

Kirkwood’s formal, annual enrollment is now less than 13,000, comprised of credential-seeking students. Most are from the seven service counties. Others informally engage Kirkwood for curiosity, self-improvement, exploration, and enrichment. They take continuing education classes; stay at the teaching hotel; or avail themselves of the college’s cultural and athletic offerings.

It’s hard to get numbers on those who interact with the college informally over the course of a year. 11,000 is undoubtedly a generous estimate, but it allows for a clean summation for discussion’s sake. So the addition of 13,000 paper-seeking (certificates, diplomas) students and 11,000 informal (lifelong learners, cultural enthusiasts, sports fans) engagers would produce a total “contact” enrollment of 24,000 learners.

That’s around 5 percent of the learningshed’s population.

Gladiators or diploma-seekers—both give us gold veins to mine. Gatherings of athletes as well as themed meetings of minds (creativity conferences, entrepreneurial fairs, town festivals, higher learning institutions) allow for excellence, accomplishment, and insight to percolate and to waft up into a firmament of creativity, innovation, and ideas.

To process this, we must stop seeing sports championships as merely one-and-done or double-elimination types of events as we must stop seeing higher learning campuses as insular real estate clumps primarily for the uncredentialed. We unlock opportunities when we see these endeavors as conversations, collaborations, avenues of cross-fertilizations, relationships, and neighbors.

A state golf tournament lasts only a few days. But what if we could use that event to immerse Eldridge, Gilbert, Mediapolis, and Marion in constructive, mutually-nourishing, and even self-sustaining conversations, collaborations, and enrichments that span geography and time—lasting much longer than a week-long tournament?

What if our region’s community college could pioneer a new plank of teaching and service; one that innervates interactions among formal students, residents of the seven-county region, and the college? 

To be Machiavellian for a moment: what if the “total annual contact enrollment” jumped from 5 percent to 8 or 10 percent, some 48,000? That would mean 24,000 more residents modestly buying a theatre or basketball ticket, a sweatshirt in the campus bookstore, or a meal at The Class Act, or paying the fee for a continuing education class. That level of activity would unleash a collective revenue stream that could almost finance a small program or tiny academic department or serve as catalyst for the college’s next cutting-edge initiative.

The nervous and circulatory systems for this plank are already intact as the college has physical, instructional, historical, and goodwill presence in each of the counties.

Let’s not forget other ephemeral social and ideation conclaves that happen in our area. Could not Mission Creek; Witching Hour; EntreFest; Iowa Ideas Conference; Iowa City Book Festival; the University of Iowa’s Grant Wood Fellows; the university’s International Writing Program Fellows; the state high school volleyball tournament; county fairs; kolache festivals; sauerkraut and watermelon days; ReFocus; and the seasons at Orchestra Iowa, CSPS Hall, Englert, and Hancher find ways to cross-fertilize and link their moments of imagination, learning, and connection as they find ways to increase the breadth, depth, intensity, and endurance of these moments’ impact? Could not those linkages nourish an ever-replenishing “SCOBY” of effervescent refinements, innovations, best practices, and collaborations accessible available to all?

Designing cultural templates to facilitate cross-fertilization and linkages would not be hard with the creative minds we have in the area.

And could not this region’s community college find in its mission the rationale to make the orchestration of such interactive and, I suggest, synergetic activities one of its callings?

Sports tournaments could create physical and programming space to highlight participating schools academic and cultural accomplishments. Assets and amenities of schools’ communities could be illuminated and small community improvement grants could be distributed by the athletic association. Cultural and community festivals could share their insights and some offerings in a post-event clearinghouse of some nature so the ideas and conversations could reverberate and continue to contribute to and collaborate with Iowans. 

The specifics of such frameworks would be wide open to imagination and exploration. Attention to them would increase the “return on expression” of these events, creating for them “more bang for the buck.”

This monologue is not a user’s manual. Perhaps we can write one of those around a campfire during long summer evenings, or in front of a fireplace on cold winter nights. 

This essay is an invitation to put into practice the deliberate expectation that we can get so much more from our transient student and sports/cultural enthusiast communities, interactions, and activities than solely the ostensible outcomes (diplomas or trophies) for the primary and traditional attendees.

Such accomplishments would merit a few medals.

Top image: Photo of the Field of Dreams Ghost Sox, taken by Patrick Muller on August 9, 2022. Provided by the author and published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Patrick Muller