By Emily Kestel, Fearless editor
Anytime someone asks me, “What’s your favorite story you’ve worked on?” I automatically freeze and somehow can’t think of anything I’ve ever done, much less my favorite. It’s an impossible question to answer. It’s like asking a parent of multiple children who their favorite kid is.
Later this month, I’ll start working for Iowa PBS as a producer for a new human-interest series airing later this fall. I’m very excited to go back to my visual journalism roots and continue to share the stories and life experiences of Iowans from all walks of life.
So, because this is my final column as the Fearless editor, I will do my best to share my favorite articles and stories I’ve written. For the sake of space – and because I love a good list – here are 10.
I am not an expert in all things related to gender issues. But I do consider myself somewhat of an expert in finding those who are. Collaborating with these 15 women to write columns about a variety of subjects to help kick off the new year felt fresh and new. Best of all, they’re all still relevant, five months into the year.
Many of the facts in this list came from original reporting and data analysis. When I calculated the number of women who have served in the Legislature – and discovered that 184 women have served in the Iowa Legislature throughout its 184-year history – I was in disbelief. First of all, that is a paltry number. Second of all, what are the odds? Lesson learned: When examining representation of women in a given field or position, dig deeper and examine the history.
This was a behemoth of a story to write. I ended up talking with more than 20 people for this piece – but I felt it was necessary to do so to get an accurate look into the child care crisis in the state, and the proposed solutions to address it.
Conducting nonscientific surveys to help gain an understanding of what issues people were facing and what topics were on their minds was one of my favorite things to do while working at the Business Record. I loved reading all of the responses, identifying key themes and then analyzing the findings with what was going on in the rest of the world. Doing this also served as a reminder that women – or any group – are not monoliths. We do not all have the same experiences, opinions, perspectives and beliefs, and that’s OK. In fact, that’s great.
This is an example of a story where you go into it thinking you know what you’re going to write about, but once you get to talking, you realize the story is completely different. Over lunch at El Azteca in Ames, Cheltzie and I talked about what it’s like being a young leader, and what being a so-called professional even means. Her story quickly got very personal, and I felt a huge responsibility to tell her story well, because she placed so much trust in me. (Disclaimer: A while after this story ran, we became friends. Cheltzie has been one of my biggest fans and would take it upon herself to promote Fearless whenever possible. I appreciate you, Cheltzie. You’re the best.) My takeaway from this story, though, was to be yourself and don’t worry about “not being professional enough.” Also, make your mental and physical health a priority. Surround yourself with people who support and believe in you.
Family leave – or lack thereof – has been and continues to be a key barrier for parents in becoming successful at work and at home. A few years ago, I talked with three fathers about their experiences in taking time off work to help raise their kids – or staying at home entirely.
Math was not my strongest subject in school, but somehow I still find myself drawn to data and giving myself the challenge of creating a story out of it. I spent hours upon hours poring through EEOC reports, emailing the biggest companies in Iowa, and fact-checking every number to put stories like this together. I’d like to think it made some sort of an impact in the way people view women’s advancement.
By the time the one-year anniversary of the COVID pandemic was rolling around, I knew I needed to talk with women who were on the front lines of fighting the pandemic. Not about the technical aspects of their job, but the toll it had taken on their mental health and overall well-being. Their honesty, vulnerability and professionalism was astounding to witness.
Let me give a disclaimer: All 24 stories I put together as part of the annual Fearless profiles were my favorite thing to do each year. (See stories from 2020, 2021 and 2022). Thank you to Aly, Melissa, Megan, Elle, Joli, Beth, Maria, Karen, Amber, Rachel, Amy, Vanessa, Jo, Suzan, Maria, Dalia, Mary, Teresa, Mayada, Courageous, Jen, Denise, Sydney and Patty for trusting me with your stories. Patty’s story in particular stood out, because it was incredibly raw and unlike anything that has ever been published in a business journal before (to the best of my knowledge). Patty was so open about her experience with stillbirth, and while it’s difficult to read, it’s important. Talk about what you’re facing. Year after year, Fearless readers said in surveys that some of the biggest advancements of women were simply greater visibility and recognition of the issues they face. If you do nothing else in this life, share what you’re going through with someone else. You’ll very likely find that you’re not alone. Besides, there is strength in numbers, and storytelling is a necessary ingredient for change.
It was so refreshing to partner with someone outside of journalism – in this case, the incredibly creative Jami Milne – on a collaborative project. I loved the multidisciplinary approach we took to tell the stories of women and their successes, compromises, fears and pressures. We shared the project through written stories, a short video and large, printed portraits that hung in an installation at Mainframe Studios. There were so many conversations and quotes that emerged from this project. But what Siobhan Spain said when I asked her what she was afraid of has stuck with me: “I don’t have a lot of room for fear in my life. I think it’s a waste of time. I’d rather be doing other things, frankly. I’d rather be exploring, persevering. I do something that makes me uncomfortable just about every day. You’ve got to push through because life is short. Do as much as you can.”
Thank you to my bosses, Emily Barske, Chris Conetzkey, Suzanna de Baca and Connie Wimer, and to everyone else at Business Publications Corp., for your endless support and encouragement.
To everyone I interviewed — thank you for being vulnerable, honest and open with your stories, insights and perspectives. I can’t imagine it’s easy trusting a complete stranger with sharing about your life, or life’s work. I am forever grateful.
Lastly, thank you to you, Fearless readers, for engaging with local news and caring deeply about the inclusion, advancement and empowerment of women.
I am confident that Fearless remains in good hands with Nicole Grundmeier and Emily Barske. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to them with your story ideas and comments.
Until then, keep in touch and I’ll see you around!