We are CR, part 1: An Invitation, A Game Changer

QuinnFirst-hand perspectives on Cedar Rapids’ All America City award: Last week, Quinn Pettifer traveled to Denver as part of the Cedar Rapids delegation to the All America City conference, building community pride and friendships along the way.

This is the first of three blog posts reflecting on the experience – check back this week for parts two and three, or replay our conversation with City of Cedar Rapids officials here.

A few days ago, I entered a rehearsal room at Theatre Cedar Rapids where I received a warm welcome from 39 Cedar Rapidians. It was obvious the group had spent a couple weeks together already  small talk came naturally, with kids laughing and running around, a couple reviewing lines, sharing stories, humming to song and looking intensely at three murals with a mucky looking black paint and blue tarp.

It was hard to believe that just a few weeks prior this group hardly knew one another beyond familiarity with a name, a face, maybe a common thread of volunteering together, knowing the same people or attending the same events. Yet this group of strangers would soon create a bond so great it would receive national recognition, inspiring hundreds in Denver and creating a newfound pride for thousands back home.

My own invitation to attend the All America City conference with the group who would represent Cedar Rapids as a finalist came with immense excitement, yet at full disclosure, a little hesitancy. What could I contribute to a group that had been working tirelessly for months at the application, presentation practice and an overall bonding of their rebuilding experience?

Granted, I’ve spent the better part of the last six years talking about the effects of the flood – the silver linings, the perspective of opportunity rather than devastation and failure in response to what was on the surface incredible odds against us as a community. As the years have gone by, I’ve certainly participated in my share of grand re-openings, public speaking engagements and doing my best to advocate to whoever would listen the amazing work accomplished to date.

Despite all of that, I couldn’t help but come back to a comparison of myself to others on the delegation list and their experiences. Flooded homes, destroyed businesses, people depending on you as a city leader to make tough decisions. By comparison, my own ties to Cedar Rapids seemed so …..Convenient. Convenient in the sense that my role has primarily concentrated on celebrating the successes – being respectful of continued needs and frustrations, but making my personal contribution to the community I call my home through encouragement, through exploration of was and what will be. In reviewing the delegation list I saw many that continue to live with the realities of the flood every day. I couldn’t help but fearing the poser speculation.

With that in mind, I decided I needed to mentally take some time to go back.

To truly “go back” to the experience of the flood, to tell our story to those wanting to know about Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to relive the emotional realities, I decided to spend some time last night reviewing old emails, communication and photos. I started with June 10, 2008 and worked my way through both unnerving and humorous emotions.

“A little water might creep in-we might need to change out the office carpet” to the images in the Five Seasons parkade as the national guard escorted distraught business owners to their office space via skywalk, with a 15 minute window to collect what they could to work off location for who knows how long.

I moved on to the Welcome Back lunches in Greene Square Park, to the small personal victories of our old Downtown District staff and our excitement of getting our own desks for the first time in almost a year.

The energy from thousands at the return of the downtown farmers’ markets and the raising of the white Zins’ flag exactly one year after their required evacuation.

It hit me that so many of us had stories, our own personal journeys—and to be asked to be one of the 40 to go to the All America City conference and share perspective, to represent the thousands who had gone through the devastation but just as important have overcome incredible odds, was truly an honor. It all made sense that my purpose was to do what I had been doing for years – use my voice, use what so many have shared with me – to tell our story.

I arrived in Denver on June 12. Having spent over ten hours that day volunteering at the Cedar Rapids Workplace (R)evolution, followed by a twice delayed flight to get to Denver, I stepped into the hotel lobby around 12:30 a.m., ready to call it a night. Give me my key card, point me towards the elevator…see you in the morning.

As I patiently waited in line for my highly anticipated head-hits-the-pillow moment of bliss, I noticed two older gentlemen ahead of me with black shirts and white lettering on the front that read “Fort Lauderdale, Florida.” The older of the two men had grey hair, wire rimmed glasses and kind eyes. His smile was infectious – even to the weary hotel staff, as he shook all of their hands and asked them to share their favorite thing about Denver. The gentleman then noticed me behind him and with an excited grin reached out for a handshake and asked “are you here for the conference?” In my travel fog I awoke with a quick, “Yes, representing Cedar Rapids, Iowa.” The gentleman smiled warm, raised his hand for a high five and said “Young Miss, this trip is a game changer. This experience will change the way you view your community and the pride you have in all you do. You think you have love for Cedar Rapids now….just you wait. Are you here with other Cedar Rapids delegates?”

At that moment I could hear laughter coming from around the corner in the hotel lobby. I rounded the corner to find a handful of my CR delegates, laughing, sharing stories and of course, making friends with other All America City finalists.

In true Iowa hospitality, despite their own sleep deprived state, they had waited up for me to make sure I got in town safe, complete with smiles. They saw me, waived me over, I got a big hug and a “we’re so glad you made it!” My new Fort Lauderdale friends smiled and waived me on, yelling out “Go Cedar Rapids!”

All of a sudden, I was wide awake. I dropped my suitcase and without hesitation spent the next two hours chatting away with my delegates, scoping out the schedule of the days ahead, charged up and ready for what was to come as an All America City finalist.

Game changer indeed.

Video courtesy the Cedar Rapids delegation.