10 stories of leadership, perseverance and authenticity

Interviews by Emily Kestel, Fearless editor | Portraits by Jami Milne, Ballet Des Moines creative director  

What is it we see when we look at each other? When we really look at the woman to our left or to our right? 

Society teaches us to look for labels, to classify success by titles. A quick scroll through social media shows a timeline of only the perfectly posed and curated highlights of someone’s life.

In anticipation of Ballet Des Moines’ production of “SHE,” a triple bill exploring themes of identity, self-expression and belonging created by three leading female choreographers, the organization is partnering with Fearless to shine a spotlight on 10 Central Iowa women.

Exploring the topic of female leadership, the interview and portrait series sheds light not just on the successes of these incredible women, but the compromises, fears and ongoing pressures they have faced and continue to face in pursuing their passions.

The portraits within this series were taken during conversation — sometimes in motion, with a slight blur of the hand or eyes closed in reflection. The black and white imagery is used to evoke a memory, long-lost or perhaps never fully realized, that we exist in this world because a woman came before us, as did a woman before her, forever giving way to a lineage of past lives. Their stories, passed down and part of us now, a continuation of love and loss, of joy and grief, of sorrow and celebration — fleeting moments that span time and generations.

Call it perseverance, desire, survival or unbridled joy, the willpower of a woman is unmatched. The following stories offer a glimpse of who these women are, what they believe in, and the experiences that led to the lives they live today.

An art installation featuring the portraits will be on display in studio 246 at Mainframe Studios through April 30. The project’s creators will be at Mainframe’s First Friday event on April 7 from 5 to 8 p.m. to answer questions about the project.

“SHE” is part of Ballet Des Moines’ 22-23 Belonging season and runs April 27-30 at the Stoner Theater. More information and tickets can be found at the Ballet Des Moines website.

– Jami Milne and Emily Kestel 

Note: Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Teree Caldwell-Johnson | Oakridge Neighborhood Services

“When I first came to Des Moines, I came here to be the executive director of the Solid Waste Authority. I can remember vividly walking into a sea of white male faces that were part of an interview panel.

I can remember this gentleman asking me, “When you take this job, are you going to hire people that look like you?” And in that moment, I had to decide whether or not I was going to be an impostor, or whether or not I was going to speak truth to power.”

Read more about Teree

Jordan Colbert | Oakridge Neighborhood Services

“When I applied to college, there was an essay question I had to answer [about how I defined success]. I just wrote a sentence: It’s about my happiness and making sure that I have people in my life that make me happy, I’m doing things that make me happy, and I’m thriving.”

Read more about Jordan

Christine Her | ArtForce Iowa

“My greatest fear is dying. I don’t want to be dead. For a very long time, I thought I would only make it to 30, because I wanted to die by suicide. And making it to 30 during the pandemic really made me realize that there’s so much I want to do.”

Read more about Christine

Mary Mascher | Retired state representative

“I thought when I retired, it was going to be so much easier because I wouldn’t have all of those work commitments. But what I find hard is knowing when to say yes. And when to say no because I can’t do it all and do it all well.” 

Read more about Mary

Jo Christine Miles | Principal Foundation

“By the time I became a mother, I was a partner at a large international law firm, and had been practicing for many, many years. I had to ask myself, which was more important: another win for a client, or raising humans? I chose the latter, and I’m happy about that choice.”

Read more about Jo Christine

Nancy Mwirotsi | Pi515

“Right now, I’m very passionate about youth and youth excellence. They’re smart. They tell the truth. They’re very curious. And they’re very ambitious. I feel my job is to listen and learn, because they teach me much more than adults do. Sorry, adults.” 

Read more about Nancy

Sara Nelson | Iowa Space Grant Consortium

“My grandma Martha came from Slovakia, and she was the youngest of 10. She was the best. She was very crafty. She was an educator at a time when it was hard to be an educator, especially as a married woman. She went back to school late in her life to finish her degree. She just didn’t give up. But she also kept family at the core. She never stopped making sure we all had everything that we needed. She was the best at holiday parties. She knew how to make everybody feel welcome. She was one of my role models.”

Read more about Sara

Courtney Reyes | One Iowa

“Success to me is not related to my career. I actually never envisioned myself having a career. I wanted to grow up and have kids and stay at home with them. I just want my kids to be proud of me. At the end of the day, when they grow up, I want them to know that I stood for something, that I wanted to be a force. I hope that they look back, like I look back on my grandma, that they say, ‘She was a force to be reckoned with.'”

Read more about Courtney

Sonia Reyes | Iowa Office of Latino Affairs

“My geometry teacher, Mr. Ayala, encouraged me to graduate from high school. I didn’t think I needed to because I was undocumented. He said, “Sonia, it doesn’t matter that you are undocumented right now. You’re only 16 years old. You never know when the laws are going to change. Graduate from high school, it will give you a leg up.” No one had ever told me that I was smart. I graduated from high school with honors. That changed my life.” 

Read more about Sonia

Siobhan Spain | Mainframe Studios

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.

Read more about Siobhan