Feature

The Essence of Inquiry

Student research opportunities at Grinnell are abundant and diverse. In 2014–15, 40 percent of students completed a Mentored Advanced Project or MAP — a distinctive Grinnell program that provides exposure to research methods, collaboration with faculty, and deep career insights. It’s one reason why Grinnell ranks seventh among all private and public national institutions for graduating students who go on to earn Ph.D.s.

Translating new knowledge

Queenster Nartey ’16 earned “outstanding presentation” honors at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle last November.

“There were huge research institutions represented in divisions like neuroscience, math, cell biology, microbiology,” Nartey says. “The judges that came to hear about my research were like, ‘This all took place at Grinnell?’ Yep, this happened at a small, rural liberal arts college in Iowa. They were really amazed.”

Queenster Nartey '16 and Shannon Hinsa-Leasure in the labNartey, a biological chemistry major, shared findings from her MAP that could have major implications for health care environments where harmful bacteria pose a threat.

“Hospital-acquired infections are a big concern,” Nartey says. “If a doctor touches a door handle and then examines a patient who has an incision still healing, that’s a way for bacteria to enter into the bloodstream and spread to different organs.

“Copper is an anti-microbial agent; it kills bacteria by disrupting the outer membrane and degrading the DNA,“ Nartey explains. “For this research we were hoping that with copper on surfaces like door handles, light switches, IV poles, and keyboards, we could minimize bacterial growth and hospital-acquired infections.”

Nartey collected samples for analysis at Grinnell Regional Medical Center. The hospital is partnering in the study by implementing copper alloy surfaces on high-touch areas in patient rooms and examination areas.

Petrie dish with bateriaComparing samples to those from her stainless steel control, Nartey documented a significant decrease in bacterial growth for the copper alloys. She is continuing her MAP this semester to test further for resistant bacteria and to sequence for genus and species.

“Being pre-med, it’s wonderful being part of this translational research where I see the direct impact of the results right away,” Nartey says.

Nartey’s MAP, mentored by Shannon Hinsa-Leasure, associate professor of biology, exemplifies faculty-directed research that leverages partnerships and funding for capstone-type opportunities. Nartey says having published papers as an undergraduate will help facilitate her access into a fellowship position after graduation and eventual application into an M.D./Ph.D. program.

“Queenster has become an invaluable member of our hospital research team,” Hinsa-Leasure says. “Her attention to detail and mastery of laboratory techniques have allowed us to expand on our initial studies and gather enough data to tell a complete story. I appreciate her strong interpersonal skills that have allowed her to work effortlessly with all types of care providers at the hospital and her vision for where to move the project next.”

Tying it all together

Josie Bircher ’16, a biochemistry and math double major, is using her math skills to help advance chemistry professor Mark Levandoski‘s studies on receptors in the brain linked to nicotine addiction.

Josie Bircher '16 and a laptop displaying mathematical modeling

Bircher says mathematical approaches are gaining favor in biology and biochemistry due to computing power that provides fast results on multiple simultaneous calculations. Her research could ultimately help lead to drug therapies that effectively treat nicotine addiction.

“The whole point of mathematical modeling is to generate predictive power,” Bircher explains. “If a model matches with experimental data when the receptor is in the presence of one drug, then we can predict how this receptor might act in the presence of another drug, or in the presence of a different amount of drug. We can use the model to then make predictions for other cases to get a general idea of how the receptor works.”

Bircher’s work expands on what students did in previous years, and she values the continuity that’s built into system. “I relied heavily on what people had done in the past and the final papers they wrote, so those really help in continuing the process.” Bircher says. “It’s a huge benefit of the structure of the MAP.”

Each MAP proposal is “essentially proof that you’ve put a lot of work into it and that the project is well thought out,” Bircher says. “It’s also a justification of the research question, how it’s relevant to previous work, what you plan to contribute to the field, and how it relates to your previous studies, because the MAP is supposed to be a culmination of all of your prior coursework in an advanced level.”

Bircher attributes the success of her current MAP to what she has learned in her math classes and sees the research process as intrinsically valuable regardless of what a student might choose as a career direction.

“As I’m planning on being a researcher, it’s been perfectly aligned with what I want to do in the future, but I think that your final goal doesn’t have to be research to do a MAP and to be involved in the research process,” Bircher says. “I think it really helps tie together everything you do in classes, and experiencing this type of research firsthand instead of just reading about it is largely beneficial.”

Levandoski says the value of research to an undergraduate education cannot be overstated, even beyond the fact that students involved in research often become full collaborators, conference presenters, and publication co-authors in the process.

“By its integrative nature, a research experience affords students some opportunities for growth that are rarely possible in regular coursework,” Levandoski says. “Students gain independence and confidence as they work to figure things out for themselves, drawing on their previous experiences.

“Some of my most rewarding interactions with research students have come from observing their ‘Eureka!’ moments — not about the science itself, but about the discovery of their passion for it. You can’t put that in a textbook or a syllabus.”

Collaborating in the field

Two summers ago, Rebecca Rasmussen ’16 and Edward Hsieh ’16 helped find what turned out to be the largest supercolony of ants ever recorded in North America. By “large,” we mean from Iowa to the Appalachian Mountains.

The success of that project earned them both an invitation from Jackie Brown, professor of biology, to do a MAP in summer 2015 on Big Island, Hawaii.

Both students accepted, and by mid-May they were planning preliminary field studies to help Brown and Idelle Cooper ’01, assistant professor of biology at James Madison University in Virginia, find out why some female damselflies are red and others are green.

“I was looking at a behavioral biology aspect because we wanted to see if the females were evolving this color dimorphism because of sexual selection,” Rasmussen says. For two months, she and other researchers stalked damselflies at various sites near Naalehu, the southernmost town in the United States.

“Our main hypothesis was ecological selection, so I was testing the alternative,” Rasmussen says. Her findings indicated that sexual selection was minimal. “What we saw goes along with what Professor Brown and Professor Cooper have been positing, which is promising for their research,” she says.

Hsieh tested for chemical properties related to the color morphs. “In the ant project I looked at their particular hydrocarbons, and in this one I looked at antioxidant chemicals to see what potentially helped protect damselflies against UV radiation depending on the elevation,” Hsieh says.

Hsieh’s early findings contradicted expectations that red pigment signals protection from UV stress. He found that the redder the damselfly, the lower its antioxidant capability. “We have a couple of theories as to why that might be so,” Hsieh says. “It’s still pretty open-ended and we’re continuing to work on it.”

Brown, who along with Cooper received National Science Foundation funding for the damselfly project, says, “Working with Edward and Rebecca on two different projects has highlighted for me both their talents and the value of our research-based curriculum in preparing students for meaningful participation in research.

“Each has built on their particular experience with the ant project, but in a completely new setting,” Brown says. “We’ll be working hard together during their senior year to submit these results for publication.”

Rasmussen says the collaborative research processes have made her feel “more prepared for going to graduate school in biology, if that’s the route I decide to take. Going through the planning stage, executing it, and then summarizing it is, I think, applicable to any career field.”

As an undergraduate, Rasmussen says, it is satisfying to do work that adds knowledge to a field. “It is pretty exciting to find things that could seriously contribute or that turn out to be an unusual finding that is worth reporting,” she says.

“I was originally interested in doing biological field research,” Hsieh says of his MAP experience, “and these opportunities gave me a lot of experience in what I would expect to do if I were to continue in that vein.”

Even fieldwork has its perks, and because damselfly research is highly weather dependent, the research team used rainy days to seek out diversions that included Hawaii’s mix of Asian cuisine, volcanoes, and black sand beaches.

“One morning it was raining, so we went to a beautiful beach for snorkeling,” Hsieh says. “We swam with sea turtles, and then farther out we found a giant pod of 30-plus dolphins.

“We were swimming with dolphins,” Hsieh says. “It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. And it was on my 21st birthday. It was awesome.”

 

Right Livelihoods

Changing your career can be challenging or exhilarating or, for many people, much too scary to contemplate. We may feel stuck or unwilling to change because of finances or geography. We’re too afraid to start over and tackle what’s unfamiliar or unknown. Or our job is so much a part of our identity that it seems impossible to consider anything else.

“Those who do change are courageous,” says nationally recognized career coach Kathy Caprino. “They understand that in order to stretch and be happy, they have to be afraid. They also have to have goals they believe can be achieved.”

Smart career changers, she says, should follow a five-point plan:

1. Start with an honest and significant consideration of who you are. Caprino’s clients fill out an 11-page questionnaire to begin the process. “You have to dive deep and think about the talents you have, your biggest dreams, what form those dreams could take — who you really are. You really need to peel back the layers.” 2. Look at the patterns in your life that make you unhappy. Jumping from one career to the next won’t erase unresolved issues. If you don’t tackle those issues (I’m never paid enough, I can’t get along with my boss) they will follow you to the next job. 3. Create a vision, a burning desire to do something new. (See Step 1.) 4. Immerse yourself in this new (potential) profession. Spend as much time as possible volunteering, interning and interviewing with professionals in the field. Decide if you want it to be a hobby or a job. 5. Develop a plan with goals to reach. Involve mentors, sponsors, or others who will keep you accountable.

The five Grinnellians here made changes that significantly transformed their identities and more importantly, their quality of life. The switch from one career to another wasn’t easy and took years of study and practice, either formal or informal. But for each of them, life is richer and more satisfying for the change.

Corporate video producer to science teacher:

Phil Dworkin-Cantor ’86

Illustration of a science beakerIn the weeks following 9/11, the streets of downtown Chicago, like those in most American cities, were eerily quiet, giving Phil Cantor time to reflect on his life.

On Sept. 6 of that week, he and his wife’s twin girls were born two months premature. After airplanes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the editor at Cantor’s video production company fled Chicago, leaving him to handle hundreds of hours of footage on his own. Sitting in an editing suite until midnight most nights, then walking on deserted streets to visit his babies in the intensive care unit, Cantor began reconsidering his future.

The videos he made for nonprofits such as Chicago’s Field Museum, on Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex, were rewarding. The videos showing sales people how to demonstrate pointless new kitchen gadgets were not.

“Everything was so uncertain at that point,” he says. “I cared more about the future because I had these tiny babies and I wanted to do something more valuable — because who knew how long we’d be here? I wanted to make an impact.

“Doing the T. rex video reminded me how much I loved science,” says Cantor, who majored in psychology at Grinnell. “I had forgotten that.” He decided to stop making videos and instead teach science.

Since he didn’t have the financial option of taking two years off to get his master’s and teaching certification, Cantor found a program that would qualify him much faster. Northwestern University’s Golden Apple Teacher Education summer program certified math and science teachers in just eight weeks. He enrolled the following summer while simultaneously student-teaching in a Chicago science enrichment program.

The quickie certification left him woefully unprepared. In September 2002 he was thrown into teaching five classes, each with 32 sixth-graders and no curriculum. “I was up until midnight every night agonizing over getting lessons done, figuring out how to deal with behavior problems, and creating materials,” recalls Cantor, who unlike many of his peers stuck it out. (It’s estimated that nearly half of new teachers quit within their first five years of teaching.)

He’s now in his 14th year teaching science to Chicago Public Schools students.

“Part of why I was able to continue was the students — they’re pretty awesome — once I was able to not be overwhelmed by their difficulties,” he says. Today he teaches biology and advanced-placement psychology at North-Grand High School in Chicago’s heavily Hispanic West Humboldt Park.

In 2012 Cantor earned a master’s degree in education policy. He is currently a master teaching fellow in the National Science Foundation’s Project SEEEC (Science Education for Excellence and Equity in Chicago). He mentors student teachers and is enrolled in an NSF-funded doctoral program in science education which focuses specifically on teaching science in low-income Chicago neighborhood schools. “I’ll be studying what we can do to get our kids more excited about science and how to make it more relevant to their lives.”

He’s also politically active, working on issues from getting an elected (rather than appointed) school board in Chicago, to reopening schools that have been shut down, to promoting a social justice curriculum.

“I like working hard and I like fighting,” admits Cantor. “And while I miss some of the aspects of production work, the reward of working with students vastly outweighs that. Every day I get a chance to impact kids’ lives.”

Attorney and pastor:

Don Heath ’79

Illustration of a bibleOn a recent Sunday at Edmond Trinity Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Edmond, Okla., the Rev. Don Heath preached on the topic of downward mobility, based on Mark 10:17–31. In that passage, Jesus advises a wealthy young man seeking eternal salvation to sell his possessions and give his money to the poor. The man walks away dejected.

Heath tied the passage to the environmental theology movement, which suggests radically downshifting our lifestyles to accommodate climate change. “We need to do much more than change the kind of light bulbs we use,” says Heath.

Two days later, Heath, who majored in Russian and history at Grinnell, was behind his desk at Hirsch, Heath & White, PLLC, where he specializes in issues of real property, probate, and oil and gas. The Oklahoma native has been practicing law since he graduated from University of Oklahoma law school in 1982.

Heath describes himself as “bi-vocational.”

“Law allows me to pay the bills, and ministry allows me fulfillment,” says Heath, who was in his early 40s when he decided to attend seminary. “I started taking my daughter to church and reading the Bible and studying, and really getting involved in the church.” He grew up in a churchgoing family but left religion behind in his 20s.

From 2001–09, Heath took two classes per semester, one day a week, at nearby Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa. “They set things up so that people can work while going to school.” A single dad at the time, Heath met his wife Mary, an elementary school teacher, at the seminary; today she is co-pastor of their church. He preaches one Sunday and she preaches the next.

“It’s a fairly progressive congregation that welcomes LGBT folks,” Heath says of the left-leaning Disciples of Christ. Their philosophy, in fact, states that the church “welcomes all people of diverse race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status to worship and participate fully in all aspects of church life in a safe, loving, nurturing, and compassionate community.”

“We got involved in the climate march last year and the International Day of Peace and we go to the Pride Festival every year,” he says. They’ve also rallied to abolish the state’s death penalty. “There aren’t many like ours in Oklahoma; the vast majority are on the other side (politically).”

Heath divides the workweek into chunks. Sundays and Mondays (and Tuesdays, when he is preaching) are ministry days. Wednesday through Friday are law days. “It’s hard to go back and forth on the same day between ministry and law,” he says.

“I enjoy the law and it’s challenging, but a lot of attorneys, after they’ve been at it for 15 years or so, realize that the system sucks. You feel like you’re moving money from one pocket to another. I was really looking for something that gave me more satisfaction,” he says.

“My idea of retirement would be having one job. I’d like to just do ministry, but it’s not going to work out for now.” Still, bi-vocationality is a more satisfying way to live life. “I have a deeper spirituality,” Heath says. “I listen more and I’m not so quick to jump in and assert my opinion. Being a pastor has made me a better person and a better attorney.”

College basketball coach to financial business consultant:

Mike McCubbin ’88

Illustration of a clip board and whistleFor years, Mike McCubbin, former captain and MVP of the Grinnell men’s basketball team, dreamed of being a college basketball coach.

Soon after graduating he began what he calls his coaching quest, working as a volunteer assistant at Division 1 Siena College (New York) and working “a bunch of part-time jobs to support my coaching habit.”

The hard work paid off, and after three years he was hired by the legendary Stan Van Gundy — currently head coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons — as an assistant at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. After that McCubbin moved up the coaching ladder, first landing a full-time assistant’s job at Siena, then working as an assistant at University of Rochester.

In September 1998, the 32-year-old hit the jackpot and was hired as head coach at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. His eight-year stint as head coach was the longest of any Colorado College basketball coach since the 1970s. He also satisfied a life goal by making it to the 2004 NCAA Tournament (just the second time in school history), leading a group of seniors that four years earlier had won only a single game.

But being a successful coach at that level, besides the high stress and constant risk of getting fired, meant 15-hour-plus days and a lot of travel.

“When you’re single you’re willing to do what it takes, like making calls until 10 or 11 at night four nights a week. That’s sustainable,” recalls McCubbin, who lives in suburban Denver. Even driving a van full of college kids to a tournament Christmas week seemed doable. But not if he wanted to spend significant time with his wife and own kids.

“I was married for a year before I quit coaching” in 2006, says McCubbin, who now trains, recruits, and mentors young financial service professionals at Charles Schwab in Lone Tree, Colo.

“I was at a point (after getting married) where I knew I wanted to do something different. I enjoyed what I did but the lifestyle wasn’t one that I saw as conducive for family and what I wanted to do with my future, so the question was, ‘OK, what’s next?’”

The process “was to look for what I wanted to do and tie it back to what I’ve most enjoyed and been engaged in. For me it was helping other people be more successful than they could be on their own. That’s the common thread that drives me.”

A colleague had gone into finance, and when McCubbin researched the field, he found that coaches, teachers, and recruiters had an excellent chance of being hired without previous experience. He decided he would enjoy the work and could also make a living at it.

At 39, McCubbin got off the coaching carousel. “I didn’t want to wait three or four more years to make a career change,” he says, “but I don’t know if I would have been nearly as prepared to be successful in my current role if I was younger. And I still have quite a bit of career in front of me to make an impact.”

Happily married and the father of a 6-year-old son, McCubbin, whose title at Schwab is acquisition delivery market manager, often stands in front of a white board instructing young employees how to be more effective on the phone; he also recruits within his own organization. “It’s a lot like being a small college basketball coach, just in a different industry.”

When his wife asked him to coach his son’s flag football team, the answer was no. “I was so passionate about coaching but it’s an extreme lifestyle and the hours and emotions can consume you at some levels. These days I’m a fan,” he says, smiling.

Cardiologist to farmer and llama breeder:

Carlos Mendoza ’72

Illustration of a llama with a stethoscope Retired cardiologist Carlos Mendoza never imagined he would one day own a farm. Nor did he picture himself breeding llamas, those tall creatures with adorably fuzzy faces and (literally) spitting-mad personalities. But after 30 years in a thriving Denver cardiology practice, he has happily transitioned to a radically different life.

That lifestyle change began in 1996 when Mendoza, still practicing medicine and single with no children, grew tired of suburban living. He started looking for open space — 5 acres or so — to live on. “I wanted to get up in the morning and look outside my door and let my dogs out,” he says. But zoning laws made buying small acreages difficult; he instead found a 200-acre parcel of land north of Denver, in unincorporated Weld County. He sold his house, moved a modular home onto the property, hired a tenant farmer — who continued row crop-farming, including corn, sugar beets, and pinto beans — and commuted to his office in Denver, until retiring in 2012.

The longer Mendoza lived on his 200 acres, however, the more intrigued he became with farming. In 2000, he started farming himself, replacing the crops with perennial grass pastures, which provided hay that was baled and sold for local livestock. Mendoza would wake at 4 a.m. to get in a few hours of farming before making hospital rounds. Tasks included moving irrigation systems, feeding animals, and cutting and raking hay when the pastures were ready for baling. He would then work at night on the farm for a few hours after he returned home. “It was a huge challenge, and I like challenges,” says Mendoza, whose brother Guillermo Mendoza ’68 is also a doctor and whose late father Guillermo (Bill) Mendoza taught zoology and biology at Grinnell for 34 years.

A year after he bought the farm, Mendoza brought llamas onto the land; there are now about two dozen living there. “I had seen llamas at a bed-and-breakfast in Mendocino and thought they seemed kind of cool,” Mendoza says. “They eat our weeds and we use their manure, and we sell and show them.” Once sheared, their wool is sold for yarn and felting.

The change from cardiologist to farmer/landowner coincided with his impending retirement and the changing health care landscape, explains Mendoza. In the past few decades, the practice of medicine had become less enjoyable; doctors were losing their independence as their practices were bought out by hospitals and other corporations.

“I bought the equipment — balers, tractors, irrigation equipment, buildings, storage space — while still working as a doctor, so when I retired I didn’t have to buy anything substantial,” he says. “A friend encouraged me to invest money in the farm and that was good advice; it’s appreciated much faster than anything I could do in the stock market. Plus it’s my retirement career, and it makes sense to invest in your career if it’s something you want.” At 62 he was ready to leave cardiology and be his own boss again — on the farm.

Mendoza employs a full-time and a part-time worker who do the bulk of the farming, although he labors about six hours a day, doing everything from irrigation to hay baling and anything else that’s needed. The farm produces about 600 tons of grass hay a year, along with champion show llamas.

“I’d never done anything like this before,” says Mendoza, who calls himself a self-taught farmer. “My dad was a pre-med counselor at Grinnell, and he was the strongest influence I had, advising us to avoid getting bogged down intellectually in our medical career. ” It was advice Mendoza took to heart.

Banker to college history professor:

Georgia Mickey ’66

Illustration of a history textbook“I should have been in academia from the start,” says Georgia Mickey. “My mother was a high school English teacher, and my grandfather was a professor of American history at the University of Chicago.” But getting a late start hasn’t hurt Mickey’s second career. After earning her doctorate at the age of 55, she completed several postdoctoral fellowships and now, at 71, is a happily tenured associate professor of East Asian history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

A former banker who spent much of her career putting together deals for clients in New York, London, and Hong Kong, Mickey graduated from Grinnell with a degree in Spanish, eventually ending up in Washington, D.C., where she became the second female associate at Booz Allen Hamilton. While her analytical skills served Mickey well, her gender didn’t. “I hit the glass ceiling in the late 1960s and moved to New York, ending up in banking and corporate finance.”

After earning an M.B.A. from Columbia University to advance her career, Mickey found her niche, becoming one of the few women working in ship financing. “I really enjoyed that because it was intellectually stimulating,” she says. “I also enjoyed the customer contact. Shipping companies are generally family-owned, so you really got to know people at a very personal and professional level.”

But commercial banking changed drastically in the 1980s, and the increasingly cutthroat nature of the business turned her off. “It became more of a deal-driven, rather than a relationship-driven business, so in my mid-40s, I left.”

She worked at several small bookshops on Madison Avenue while figuring out what to do next. An ad for a master’s degree program (aimed at older students) at Columbia University’s School of General Studies caught her eye. Mickey, who since taking a high school course on Asia and living in Hong Kong for three years had been fascinated by the region, started coursework in East Asian studies. The classes sparked the idea of becoming an academic. At 49, she enrolled full time in Columbia’s Asian studies department to earn a master’s, so she could eventually apply for the school’s doctoral program.

“I was utterly captivated,” she says of her studies. “I had a fantastic experience.” She learned Chinese in her mid-50s and spent time in China researching her dissertation.

After earning her doctorate in 2004, she completed two postdoctoral fellowships, first at Stanford University’s Center for East Asian Studies and then at Columbia University. While many Ph.D.s complain that getting hired for a full-time post past age 35 is nearly impossible, Mickey found the right situation at Cal Poly and at 62 landed a position.

“I didn’t have dates in my resume, and I look younger than my actual age,” she admits. “I think the students would be horrified if they knew how old I am. But it doesn’t make a difference to me. I get along just fine with my students and that has something to do with Grinnell, because I like to give them the kind of experience I had at Grinnell.”

Cal Poly is one of the most diverse colleges in the nation, says Mickey, and she enjoys her mostly first-generation college students. “It’s really fun when you’re in a classroom and you watch their eyes light up. There’s something very magical when you realize the class is with you.”

Teaching, says Mickey, is perfect for her. “I get to do a lot of different things, from organizing a new class [to] finding images and videos, showing films, researching new topics, and engaging students in class discussions.

I like the personal interaction with colleagues and students. And teaching the students how to think is an enormous challenge, which I find fascinating.”

 

Grinnell Career-Changers’ Wisdom 

“Understand why you want to change careers. Reflect on your strengths, and ask other people, like a career coach, to help with that self-reflection. Figure out when and where you did your best work and were most satisfied.” 
Mike McCubbin ’88, basketball coach turned financial business consultant
 
“Find the thing you feel that you’ll be satisfied with at the end of the day, the week, the month; and if you think that will fulfill your life, go for it. Once you get there, you will end up doing things you hadn’t even imagined.”
Phil Dworkin-Cantor ’86, corporate video producer turned high school science teacher
 
“Talk to people who have the job you’re interested in before you make a change. People love talking about themselves. Do your research before you meet with them and go in with good questions.”
Georgia Mickey ’66, banker turned college history professor
 
“Plan carefully and make sure you’re secure about cash flow and income. You don’t want to throw away a successful career and find yourself in financial trouble later. Once you decide you can financially do it, ask questions to decide if it’s something you really want to do. Why do you want to do this? Why leave one career for another? Will you be intellectually satisfied? What really turns you on?”
Carlos Mendoza ’72, retired cardiologist turned grass hay farmer/llama breeder
 
“If you really feel called to (change careers), do it. Go ahead and take the leap; you’ll find a way to make it happen.”
Don Heath ’79, attorney and pastor

The Iowa Caucuses

While Grinnell College has a long and intentional history of encouraging participation and advocacy on public issues, the national significance of Iowa’s political party caucuses is relatively recent and quite accidental.

Grinnell’s involvement with public policy is as old as the College, dating back to abolitionist activities in the 1850s. The struggle against slavery developed into a tradition that continues to this day, having progressed through the Social Gospel Movement following the Civil War, the Progressive Era into the early 20th century, and the New Deal of the 1930s. In the latter instance, a number of Grinnellians served with distinction, including Chester Davis 1911 on the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, Florence Kerr 1912, a Works Progress Administration executive, and Harry Hopkins 1912, a close adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a major architect of the New Deal’s many administrative and legislative measures.

During the 1960s, Grinnell’s Program for Practical Political Education (PPPE) flourished, sponsoring elaborate mock political conventions in Darby Gym and bringing to campus a long list of luminaries, including former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. However, the loss of foundation funding, the disruptions of the Vietnam War, and the reduction of the voting age to 18 via the 26th Amendment in 1971 caused both resources and motivation for the PPPE to dwindle. Many students, no longer restricted to mock political activities, took advantage of their new opportunity and became directly involved in politics of real consequence.

Iowa’s Caucus

The Iowa political party caucus system, like the Grinnell tradition of public policy involvement, dates back to the mid-19th century when statehood was attained in 1846. The precinct caucuses continued through the years, lightly attended and little noticed beyond the state until 1972. In that year, the national Democratic Party established new rules to democratize its presidential nomination process. Those changes, plus state party regulations requiring at least 30 days between consecutive meetings at the precinct, county, district, and state levels, pushed each of those sessions backward until January 24 became the latest possible date for the Iowa Democratic precinct caucuses.

New Hampshire, traditionally the first state to hold a presidential primary, had already scheduled its 1972 elections for March 7, six weeks after the Iowa date. Precinct caucuses, only the first of four steps in choosing delegates to a national convention where a nominee for president is selected, seemed innocuous. New Hampshire took little notice and did not contest the earlier date of the Iowa event.

However, the national media, always eager for news on a presidential race, responded quickly when U.S. Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., did surprisingly well in the Iowa caucus, placing second behind supposed front-runner U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine. When McGovern went on to win the Democratic nomination, the stage was set for the Iowa caucus to become of great significance in subsequent presidential elections.

Iowa’s Rise to Prominence

The national importance of the Iowa Democratic Party’s precinct caucus caught the attention of their Republican opponents. Starting in 1976, the Republicans would thereafter hold their caucus on the same day as the Democrats, adding to Iowa’s impact on the selection of presidents.

A little known governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter also recognized the growing potential of the Iowa caucus. With the White House in mind and his term of office completed, Carter commenced his presidential campaign in Iowa nearly a year before the 1976 precinct caucuses.

Carter’s grassroots campaign across Iowa featured hundreds of personal appearances, including one at the Grinnell College Forum, and tens of thousands of handshakes. His standard introduction, “I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m going to be the next president of the United States,” was planted in the ears of thousands of Iowans.

Jimmy Carter’s lengthy person-to-person campaign in Iowa proved to be successful when he won 28 percent of the Iowa Democratic caucus vote, more than double that of U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., and thereby moved from obscurity to a front-runner status. One year after the Iowa caucus of 1976, Carter became the 39th president of the United States.

The Republican campaign of 1976 added additional drama in the race for the White House when Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the party nomination. Several Grinnellians entered the fray.

Bruce Weindruch ’78 and colleagues Jim Strickler ’78, Gregg Edwards ’80, and Jack Dane ’79 participated in the Republican caucus and supported Ford’s nomination. They also raised the issues of decriminalization of marijuana and divestment in South Africa. While Ford later won the party nomination, Weindruch and his partners had little luck at the caucus with their issue priorities.

“Policy discussions were dominated by the ‘right-to-life’ issue in the aftermath of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision,” Weindruch remembers. Reagan supporters came from out of state and pushed hard on that issue. It became a litmus test, a kind of ‘Are you with us or against us?’ sort of thing.”

Dane, in his freshman year at Grinnell, attended a precinct caucus in the living room of his parents’ farm home outside Iowa City. Four people attended: Jack, his mother, his father, and his sister. Jack was elected to the county convention by — no surprise — a unanimous vote.

From that beginning, Dane participated in the district and state party meetings, and later attended the Republican national convention in Kansas City as an invited, college-age activist. On the convention floor he carried a sign reading “Grinnell, Iowa, loves Jerry and Bob.” Dane originally had in mind Gerald Ford, the incumbent president, and Bob Ray, the governor of Iowa. In the meantime, however, the convention had selected U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., as Ford’s vice presidential running mate. Thus, the sign made sense in any case.

Network television cameras picked up the young Jack Dane with shoulder-length hair and wearing cutoff jeans. “Anyone who watched the convention had to wonder who the hell I was and what I was doing there,” recalls Dane, now an attorney in Davenport, Iowa.

Four decades later, Weindruch reflects on those days: “My experience as president of the Grinnell College Republicans and grass-roots involvement in Iowa county and state politics had a profound impact on me — only to be fully understood in hindsight many years later. I would describe it as the equivalent of a political ‘post-traumatic shock syndrome.’ ”

Strickler’s recollections on his Grinnell experience mirror the College’s traditional mission. “What I got out of this experience was the opportunity to discuss and argue political issues, to learn that political involvement is rewarding and enriching of one’s life, and to understand multiple perspectives on issues. I came to appreciate a variety of viewpoints and gained understanding on how people can disagree on issues.”

Edwards, another of the Weindruch group, was raised in New Jersey, where Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans. “We Republicans had to hustle hard in New Jersey,” Edwards remembers. “I found much the same at Grinnell College. You have to get used to losing a lot, and that toughened my hide.”

Edwards has kind words for Grinnell professors who didn’t always share his group’s political views: “They admired our pluck and treated us fairly.”

Edwards stayed in Iowa after graduating in 1980 to run for the state House of Representatives. Unfortunately, he again learned the trials of losing. If he had won, he might still live in Iowa, something he says, “I wouldn’t mind at all.”

Gatekeeper to the White House

The McGovern campaign in 1972 revealed the potential of the Iowa caucus in the presidential race, and Carter proved four years later the Iowa caucus could serve as a launch pad to the presidency. The lessons learned from those two campaigns were not lost on presidential candidates or the media as the 1980 presidential selection cycle began, a year when Iowa would become nationally recognized as the gatekeeper on the road to the White House.

All three major television networks established temporary studios in Des Moines in 1980. On Jan. 21, the evening of the caucus, the three news anchors — Walter Cronkite (CBS), John Chancellor (NBC), and Frank Reynolds (ABC) — journeyed to Iowa’s capital city to originate their evening news programs. Iowa, for the first time, surpassed New Hampshire for presidential campaign news stories.

Also in 1980, the Iowa Republican Party added a new feature to the presidential campaign that attracted even more media attention, a straw poll conducted five months prior to the caucus. Held on the Iowa State University campus in an atmosphere of half-carnival and half-convention, nine Republican candidates sought to get a jump on the party nomination. “The action begins in Iowa,” George H.W. Bush, winner of the straw poll, proclaimed with exuberance.

Bush followed his victory in Ames with the Carter strategy of “retail politics,” meeting face-to-face with as many voters as possible. He made dozens of stops across Iowa, including one in Grinnell where he was accompanied by his then-young sons, George, who would be elected president in 2000; and Jeb, who aspires to the same outcome in 2016.

Reagan, the Republican front-runner, largely bypassed the Iowa caucus, making only one stop in the state to deliver a quick speech at the Des Moines airport. When he lost to Bush, a lesson was learned by all presidential candidates: Pay attention to Iowa!

Reagan later won the Republican nomination for president, but his erstwhile opponent had made his mark in the Hawkeye State. Bush became Reagan’s vice president and later succeeded him in the Oval Office.

President Carter was challenged in the 1980 Democratic caucus by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., whose many visits to the state included speaking to a packed house in Darby Gym. Carter trounced Kennedy, 59 percent to 29 percent, in the caucus vote. The senator from Massachusetts continued his campaign, but never recovered from that devastating defeat.

Iowa’s presidential caucuses, now fully recognized as important national events, inspired greater local participation. In 1976, the Republican precinct caucus for the West Lucas Township of Johnson County attracted only Jack Dane and his family. Four years later, nearly 100 people crammed into the Danes’ living room to caucus.

The 2016 Election Approaches

While Grinnell’s tradition of equipping students to participate in public policy issues is firmly established, Iowa’s key role in presidential elections, although widely accepted, is still evolving.

States still jockey for position and influence in the selection of presidents, a century after presidential primaries were first established. Over the years, New Hampshire became accepted by other states, begrudgingly, as the lead-off primary. And then Iowa innocently slipped under the radar with its precinct caucuses that were knighted by the media into national prominence.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole ’71, R-Okla., has a high regard for the Iowa caucus system, except for the Republican straw poll, calling it “stacked and packed” and “one of the worst inventions ever.” The poll lost much of its luster during the 2012 campaign when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., won that event but placed only sixth in the caucus five months later and dropped out of the race. The last straw for the straw poll came when several high profile candidates in 2015 decided not to participate. The cancellation did not disappoint Cole.

Cole acknowledges the Iowa caucus is “very important” and “the first real test in the presidential race,” and calls the state’s voters “a sophisticated electorate.” The congressman says there is “some resentment” in Washington over Iowa’s special role in presidential elections, but he is comfortable with it, saying that Iowa, unlike many states, is politically competitive.

As the 2016 presidential election approaches, the significance of Iowa is very much in evidence. The day after announcing her bid for the presidency in the spring of 2015, Hillary Clinton headed for Iowa. The first official event in her campaign was not held in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, but in an auto tech classroom in Monticello, Iowa.

At last count nearly two dozen declared candidates for the presidency are appearing all over Iowa. Whether it’s Donald Trump addressing a crowd in Winterset in front of a mural of John Wayne; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., schmoozing with patrons of the Better Day Café in Storm Lake; or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, appearing at the “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville, they all come to Iowa.

The participation of Grinnellians in the 2016 presidential selection process is an absolute certainty. A tradition that started in the 19th century battling the evils of slavery in the abolitionist movement continues into the 21st with the confrontation of environmental and other issues. The Iowa caucuses will be held Feb. 1, 2016. Grinnellians will be there, continuing a legacy of seeking solutions to the major public policy issues of our time.

 

Rock and Roll and Beyond

At 89, Georgia Dentel’s recall for conversations with people 50 years ago is clear and eloquent, much like her voice. From her easy chair at the Mayflower Community Health Center in Grinnell, she tells stories about performers and agents and concert promoters. The longer she talks, the stronger her voice becomes.

In 1960 when President Howard Bowen interviewed Dentel for the new position of activities counselor, he said, “I need activities. I need things happening for the students to do. I need to establish some sort of weekend activity, but I don’t know what that should be.”

“He didn’t know what kind of things he wanted,” Dentel says. She arrived on campus that fall not completely certain what her duties were. So she met with various students and formed a committee to oversee new ideas.

One of the early speakers was a local insurance man who talked about marriage. He got the best response, Dentel says.

“It emerged gradually that the only thing students wanted were concerts,” she says. “They wanted rock and roll.” There were a couple of bands in Iowa, but Dentel hated to bring them because they weren’t very good, she says.

“It occurred to me that the best bands of the country were at Fillmore East and Fillmore West,” Dentel says of the music venues in New York City and San Francisco, respectively. So she called Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter and artist manager who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. “I asked him if he had any bands that would make a trip to the Midwest for the Grinnell College homecoming. For the amount of money we could offer — it was very small — I can’t believe I had the nerve to ask him.

“He said, ‘No, I really don’t.’ But we talked a little while. I told him I wanted only the best. I didn’t want a lot of trashy stuff.

“He said, ‘I don’t have anybody right now, but there’s a band I’m thinking of bringing into the Fillmore. They’re playing in a club.’”

Even though Graham didn’t say so explicitly, Dentel could tell that the band wasn’t making much money, so the College could probably afford them.

“Just as we were about to hang up,” Dentel says, “I said, ‘Oh, by the way, what’s their name?’

Jefferson Airplane played for Grinnell’s homecoming dance, Oct. 22, 1966.

The early days

“Music was in my life always,” Dentel says. She played clarinet in the concert band and marching band at the University of Iowa, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English and history in 1948.

When she arrived at Grinnell in 1960, “music was largely out of a jukebox,” Dentel says. The jukebox was in the Student Union, a former Army barracks in about the same location as the Forum, which was then in the planning stages.

The Student Union was a “rickety wooden building,” says John Gleysteen ’63, “but to us a very lively place.” As chairman of the Student Union his junior year and social coordinator his senior year, Gleysteen worked closely with Dentel.

“She was very helpful to me in making suggestions of who to bring for what time,” Gleysteen says. “She obviously knew her field. We all had our ideas as to what we wanted to do. She didn’t make an effort to intercede and do things her way instead of our way. She was truly there to facilitate.”

Jack Spence ’64, concerts chair in 1963–64, agrees. “Georgia asked for suggestions and offered suggestions,” he says. “She played an entrepreneurial role and a mediator role. Her goal, I think, was having events spread throughout the year instead of one big concert. I can remember her sort of cajoling us. She’d say, ‘If we have such and such a group, we can afford this, but it means we’ll have fewer groups.’”

At that time, most colleges were giving one big dance per semester. For the 1963 Christmas Formal at Grinnell, Count Basie played, and for the 1964 Spring Formal, Louis Armstrong played.

Learning on the job

Dentel says, “There were some students who had wonderful record collections. Students knew more about the artists than I did, but I knew how to get in touch with them.”

Figuring out how to book artists was the main thing she had to learn. “When I was learning about this, it was really self-taught,” she says. “I became acquainted with a couple of bands playing in Cedar Rapids. This fellow turned out to be a pretty good source of people in Chicago, and it kind of gradually developed.”

When it came to negotiating about money, Dentel says, “I just had to work with what I had. Some of these bands became very, very expensive as time went on, but at first they were up against it as far as money was concerned.”

Gary Giddins ’70, concerts chair in 1967–68 and social coordinator for 1968–69, says, “What I discovered was any band that tours, they hate a night without a gig. Maybe they’re doing Chicago and St. Louis. We’d get bands for a decent price — Duke Ellington’s 15-piece band for $4,000, whereas a three-piece rock band was $12,000.

“Georgia really understood that jazz groups were getting a fraction that rock groups were getting and that my obligation was to provide something every month,” Giddins says. “Since I loved jazz, she made it very clear to me that I could probably do something every month — B.B. King, the Carter family, Doc Watson. Whereas if you have a rock band, you squander your whole thing on one night.

“Georgia knew every agent, and if she didn’t, she never questioned me — my taste or me. She gave me a lot of leeway that way. And then she’d take over as soon as I gave her the telephone number. She’d make the deal.”

Even when she was able to pull off something fabulous — like a Pete Seeger concert — she sometimes got pushback. “Some faculty didn’t like that Pete Seeger was on a weeknight,” she says. She’d tried to get Seeger “many, many times in the past. He was almost unreachable.” Darby Gym was packed that Tuesday, Oct. 21, 1969. Dentel says, “If the students wanted something, they could usually get it. Pressure on the administration would cause them to give in. I don’t think [students] really understood how much influence they had.”

Professional reputation

As a result of Dentel’s growing reputation among agents, they eventually started calling her. She recalls an agent calling to see if she was planning to bring Bruce Springsteen to campus.

“He’d mentioned him to me before,” Dentel says, “but I didn’t know who Springsteen was. I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ This was May that he called. He said, ‘If you want him, you should take him now because by fall he’s going to be out of your reach.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never booked two years out.’ He talked me into it.”

Brian Mann ’76 was social coordinator when Springsteen played at Grinnell on Sept. 20, 1975, a month after his album Born to Run was released. Springsteen was on the October covers of Time and Newsweek.

Mann says Springsteen’s people “did everything in their power to get out of the concert because they were playing these big venues then. So they started making all these demands. They started saying, ‘Well, the little gym you have us playing in can’t handle our light show.’ So Georgia worked it out to drain the power from the science building to support it. ‘We’re going to need a big spread of fruit.’ Done. ‘We’re going to need security.’ Done. So I’m sure the cost of the concert doubled. It was a major event. Georgia was amazing in navigating that. I’m told that the Springsteen people joked for years about the private party they played in Grinnell,” Mann says.

Job in jeopardy

In 1976, Dentel was at the top of her game. Even so, her position and four others — all but one held by women — were eliminated during an administrative reorganization instituted by President A. Richard Turner. The changes were to take effect the next fiscal year.

Waldo Walker, professor emeritus of biology, was Turner’s executive vice president then. “When Turner came to campus as a newly-appointed president,” Walker says, “he mentioned to me early on that he believed that the administration was too large, especially in regard to middle-administration positions, considering the financial stress which the budget was experiencing at that time.

“Georgia was having no problems,” Walker adds, “and as far as I could see she was doing a good job getting really big-name entertainers to come to Grinnell College. Her track record there was excellent.”

During an open forum in the South Lounge of the Forum Sept. 22, 1976, Turner told several hundred students that he would not reconsider his decision about eliminating Dentel’s position.

Dozens of students and alumni wrote Turner letters describing Dentel’s expertise and significant impact on campus. Turner sent a standard letter back, writing in part, “We are well aware of the quality of her work in the area of social programming and booking events for college performances. Unfortunately, the College is in a posture of budget reduction that forces us to reduce the number of middle level administration by three positions.”

Faculty members were also concerned. Joseph Wall ’41, professor of history, was on leave in 1976–77 and wrote to Turner: “Part of the difficulty for the faculty and students may lie in the fact that this plan was put into operation during the summer.” Students raised this point too.

Wall also addressed another sensitive issue — possible sexism. “The questions of principle that seem to be raised by this reorganization are centered around the issue of women administrative and staff personnel in very visible roles,” Wall wrote. “At a time when the faculty is being urged nationally and locally, legally and ethically, to make an all-out effort to bring highly qualified women to the teaching staff, the abrupt lopping off of three administrative and staff women naturally raises serious questions among the faculty and students.”

Turner replied, “I think the question, which I realize is not yours personally, as to whether the whole thing was rigged to get rid of women, is despicable.” For Turner, the move was about saving money. In his postscript to Wall, Turner wrote, “As you all too well know, there has not been any serious attempt to tighten up the administration in 15 years. The tendency has been to move people around and not face the issue.”

The uproar lasted until fall break, by which time Turner changed his mind. Dentel was offered a half-time position, which she eventually accepted.

D. A. Smith, professor emeritus of history and a great friend of Dentel’s, says, “They put her on half time, but she found it impossible to reduce her work hours accordingly.”

Dentel’s job was threatened again in 1984 — and again the issue was budgetary and again students protested vigorously. Smith believes a handful of trustees intervened on her behalf. Dentel doesn’t talk about these difficulties, however.

The voice on the phone

Dentel did not have a typical 8-to-5 job — even when it was full-time. She worked year-round because, she says, “I had to be available to bookers and managers.” She often worked late into the evening, making calls to booking agents to line up performers for concerts, much of which she did from home.

After the early 1970s, the students who worked closely with Dentel knew her only on the phone.

“She was sort of mysterious,” says Pat Irwin ’77, concerts co-chair 1976–77. He spoke with her on the phone frequently. “She was the expert. She knew the world, the business. She was the adult in the room.”

Dan Klatz ’84 recalls her great voice. “She was animated, engaging, thoughtful on the phone,” he says. “She clearly wanted to connect with people in meaningful ways.”

“She was always fun to talk to,” says Leif Larsen ’88, concerts chair during his senior year. “She had a good sense of humor. She was always interested in what was happening on campus.”

Smith says, “Probably Georgia’s greatest enjoyment in the whole job was working with students who found her a sympathetic person.” Dentel retired in 2001.

Giddins, who became a major jazz critic, says, “I got to talk with Duke Ellington and meet Louis Armstrong. So I got to learn about [jazz] from the musicians themselves.”

Irwin, who became a professional musician, says, “I think of her as one of the more impactful people in my experience at school. As important as it might have been to write a paper or research a project, for me, meeting musicians, making dates work, working with her was unforgettable.”

Making Marijuana Legal

When Brian Vicente ’99 graduated from law school, some of his professors told him that the field of marijuana policy would be career suicide. Instead, Vicente turned it into a career path. After building his nonprofit organization into a force for marijuana policy change, Vicente went on to co-author the law that would make Colorado the first geographic area in the world to legalize and regulate the possession, sale, production, and distribution of adult-use marijuana.

In November 2012, the Colorado law known as Amendment 64 passed by a 10 percent voter margin. Vicente not only was instrumental in crafting the language and co-chairing the Amendment 64 campaign, he led the 2013 campaign that shaped the law’s tax policy.

Calling itself “the marijuana law firm,” Vicente Sederberg LLC is the banner under which Vicente advocated for legalization and now advises marijuana industry clients. In this interview, Vicente talks about his trailblazing journey.

How did you, a psychology major at Grinnell, become interested in law and dedicated to the field of marijuana policy?

After Grinnell I moved to Colorado to be a snowboard bum and to figure things out. I knew I wanted a job that would allow me to provide a public service and have a positive influence. For me, that broke down into two segments: direct services or broader policy change. Law seemed like a logical way to impact policy, and I ended up getting a full ride to the University of Denver law school.

While there, I began to work on behalf of a medical marijuana patient and was able to assist folks in trying to shift the marijuana laws. That exposed me to individuals who were absolutely receiving medical benefit from using the substance. It led me to rethink all we’ve been taught about the drug war and that marijuana is a horrible substance. I began to think of it as a possible career path to advocate to change laws I thought were broken, so I founded a nonprofit organization called Sensible Colorado that tried to get funding to work on marijuana policy issues. I ran that organization for the first several years of my professional career and essentially became an expert on marijuana policy.

I started the law firm in 2010 to advocate for these policy shifts as well as to represent marijuana businesses. The nonprofit entity is still around, but it’s sort of a unique animal in that we accomplished our mission. In 2004 our mission was to legalize marijuana in Colorado, and in 2012 we actually accomplished that.

My priority now is to make sure that Colorado’s marijuana laws continue to be responsible in terms of their implementation. What we’ve done is remarkable in that we’ve shifted from 80 years of prohibition into this new era of regulating marijuana. Colorado is really the test case to see how that regulation is going to unfold, so a lot of my time is spent working with government entities and addressing any issues that come up with the legalization of marijuana.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your work, the social/legal issues or regulation/taxation details?

It’s all pretty interesting and intellectually stimulating. The challenge was that I essentially advocated for almost a decade to get us to the point where we are now, and I was running into opposition — from government, law enforcement, angry parents, what have you — that was resistant to change. We dealt with a lot of negativity. Ultimately, I think we presented a strong case to the voters that regulation was better than prohibition. Now, a lot of it is just ironing out the details, whether it’s taxation or whether local communities should allow these stores or not.

You have been called “the marijuana industry’s de facto spokesman.” Has that changed your life personally and professionally?

I wouldn’t say it has been a major change. When I graduated from law school and began working in marijuana policy, it was not considered a popular area to go into. Some people, including some of my professors, said it was career suicide and a mistake. But, for me, this is a social justice battle, and I felt like it was worth fighting. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to work with a great team. We’ve developed really strong policies here, and part of that involves advising newly licensed marijuana businesses and making sure they are responsible actors. In terms of my speaking on behalf of the industry, it’s really about demonstrating that there is a responsible face to this industry and having sustainable businesses being community partners going forward.

Are you being approached to consult other regions of the country or the world where policies are being changed or about to be changed?

We are being asked, and that is one of the really interesting and gratifying things. Prior to Colorado’s vote, I think the idea of marijuana legalization was very abstract for people around the world. When Colorado stepped forward with legalization, regulation, sales, and the licensing of businesses, it became real and it sort of crystallized in people’s heads. We get contacted weekly by elected officials and others who are interested in visiting Colorado and learning about our experiences in passing and implementing the law. It’s very heartening. We’re certainly aware that the eyes of the world are on Colorado.

How did the law firm come to exist in its current form?

With Sensible Colorado I got grant funding to do policy work, represent medical marijuana patients, and things like that. I ran the nonprofit — and the law firm for the first couple of years when it was only myself — out of the basement of the house I rented. It was not a glorious time, but again, we were building. In 2010, there were several hundred [medical] marijuana businesses that were not licensed at the state level. Our state legislature had a decision to make that year: Are we going to license these businesses and set up a regulatory framework, or are we going to ban them?

So I got very active in the Capitol to push our legislature toward regulating the medical industry as opposed to banning it. At that point I partnered with a business law attorney, Christian Sederberg, and we carried forth together. For me, that moment in 2012 when we legalized marijuana represented an incredible and somewhat unprecedented coalescing of two things. You have massive social change — that is, the state deciding to legalize marijuana and begin unwinding the war on drugs — butting up against an opportunity for commerce. Colorado didn’t just decriminalize marijuana; we actually set up a licensing structure for people to sell and grow and produce marijuana. It is an interesting moment where those two exciting prongs are intersecting.

How does the state stand to benefit from legalization and regulation?

The way that we wrote Amendment 64 and the tax campaign that passed in 2013 is that the first $40 million of the excise tax goes to public school construction every year. Then there is a 15 percent sales tax additionally to fund the regulatory structure, as well as public education around marijuana. So we think there will be about $70 million of new tax revenue coming into the state coffers every year from these sales. That’s remarkable because marijuana had been sold for decades in Colorado, but that money was just going into the hands of the underground market. Now the state is collecting that money and using it for positive purposes.

How have government and law enforcement officials reacted to Amendment 64?

There has been acceptance in Colorado among law enforcement and government officials of this voter-approved change. Law enforcement certainly is not arresting people in large numbers for marijuana anymore, so I think we certainly have freed up law enforcement resources to focus on more serious crime.

For years the largest opponent of marijuana legalization was the government, federal and local. We did not have much support for the change that occurred in 2012 from government officials, but I will give them credit. Since we won by a 10 percent margin, every wing of our state government has decided to move forward thoughtfully and responsibly with implementing this law and fulfilling the will of the voters.

Our governor, John Hickenlooper, historically has not been a proponent of marijuana legalization, but to his credit, when this passed he committed to making it work and to push for banking solutions. He talked to the federal government about how to move it forward. It’s a very interesting legal shift. We have this dichotomy where marijuana is federally illegal but legal in certain states. Twenty-three states have medical marijuana, and four states (Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska) now have legal marijuana for adult use with Colorado leading the way. It’s an interesting moment in time.

How did your Grinnell experience influence you?

To a certain extent my time at Grinnell was formative in terms of launching my professional career. I developed some critical thinking skills that led me to analyze policies, such as the drug war, and to think about solutions that maybe hadn’t been tried before, such as marijuana legalization, and to not be discouraged from moving forward with them. Also, Grinnell’s policy of self-governance had an impact on me and led me to think perhaps there are alternatives to some of the constraints on society and more positive ways to move forward.