Meet the Speakers


Rev. Traci Blackmon 

The Rev. Traci Blackmon is the Executive Minister of Justice & Witness Ministries of The United Church of Christ and Senior Pastor of Christ The King United Church of Christ in Florissant, MO.

Initially ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. Blackmon served in various ministry capacities for nine years prior to becoming ordained in the United Church of Christ and installed as the first woman and 18thpastor in the 159-year history of Christ The King United Church of Christ.  A registered nurse with more than 25 years of healthcare experience, Rev. Blackmon’s clinical focus was cardiac care.  In later years, her focus shifted to mobile healthcare in underserved communities, with the greatest health disparities being in her region.  She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from Birmingham – Southern College (1985), and a Master of Divinity degree from Eden Theological Seminary (2009).

As pastor, Rev. Blackmon leads Christ The King in an expanded understanding of church as a sacred launching pad of community engagement and change.  This ethos has led to a tripling of both membership and worship attendance over the last seven years, expanding membership engagement opportunities, and the establishment of community outreach programs.  Community programming includes a computer lab, tutoring, continuing education classes, summer programming, a robotics team, children’s library, and girls’ mentoring program.  All housed in the church.

Regionally, Rev. Blackmon’s signature initiatives have included Healthy Mind, Body, and Spirit, a mobile faith-based outreach program she designed to impact health outcomes in impoverished areas.  Sacred Conversations on Solomon’s Porch, quarterly clergy in-services designed to equip local clergy to assess physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health concerns within congregational life.  Sista SOS Summit, an intergenerational health symposium for women and girls.  In addition to, Souls to the Polls STL, an ecumenical, multi-faith collaborative that was successful in providing over 2,800 additional rides to the polls during local and national elections.

A featured voice with many regional, national, and international media outlets and a frequent contributor to print publications, Rev. Blackmon’s communal leadership and work in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown, Jr., in Ferguson, MO, has gained her both national and international recognition and audiences from the White House to the Carter Center to the Vatican.  She was appointed to the Ferguson Commission by Governor Jay Nixon and to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships for the White House by President Barack H. Obama.

Rev. Blackmon toured the nation with Rev. Dr. William Barber of Moral Mondays and Repairer of the Breech, Rev. Dr. James Forbes of The Drum Major Institute and Pastor Emeritus of The Riverside Church in New York, and Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus, proclaiming the need for a Moral Revival in this nation.

Rev. Blackmon is a graduate of Leadership St. Louis and currently serves on the boards of The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Chicago Theological Seminary, and WomanPreach!

This year, Rev. Blackmon co-authored the newly released White Privilege curriculum through the United Church of Christ and has received several awards and recognitions, inclusive of:

  • The White House President’s Volunteer Service Award
  • The St. Louis American Stellar Award
  • 2015 Ebony Magazine Power 100
  • Deluxe Magazine Power 100
  • St. Louis University – Community Leader of the Year
  • 100 Black Men of St. Louis Community Leader of the Year
  • The Coalition of Black Trade Unionist – Drum Major Award
  • NAACP – Rosa Parks Award
  • Rosa Parks Award – United Trade Unionist
  • The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis Woman in Leadership Award
  • National Planned Parenthood Faith Leader Award
  • The United Church of Christ – Antoinette Brown Leadership Award
  • Honorary Doctorate, Eden Theological Seminary

Rev. Blackmon currently resides in both St. Louis, MO and Cleveland, OH and was recently named as one of St. Louis’ 100 most influential voices.  Rev. Blackmon is the proud mother of three adult children: Kortni Devon; Harold, II; and Tyler Wayne Blackmon.

David Yepsen

David Yepsen is the host of Iowa Public Television’s weekly “Iowa Press” public affairs program.

Prior to that, he served as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale from 2009 to 2016.  He also had a 34 year career with the Des Moines Register, serving as the paper’s chief political writer, political editor and political columnist, covering Iowa and presidential campaigns from 1976-2009.

In 1989 he was a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2008, he was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard where he led a study group on the nation’s presidential selection processes.  

He is a native of Jefferson, Iowa and is a 1972 graduate of the University of Iowa.  He has also done graduate work in journalism and mass communication at Iowa State University and in 1985 earned a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) degree from Drake University.

In his book about his 1988 presidential race, the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon praised Yepsen’s objectivity. “Every four years the chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register becomes the most important reporter in the nation,” he said. “It is a position that could cause vanity and abuse. To his credit, David Yepsen handled this position with sensitivity and balance.  And he worked hard.”


Saira Rao

Saira Rao is a social justice activist and Co-Founder of IN THIS TOGETHER MEDIA, which creates children’s books with more – and more authentic – diversity in terms of race, gender, gender identification, sexual orientation and experience.  Saira is also the author of Chambermaid (Grove Press) and The Madlands (forthcoming). Previously, Saira was a television news producer in Washington D.C., and Miami; a law clerk for the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, and a lawyer at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP in New York City. Saira is a graduate of the University of Virginia and New York University School of Law.


J. Scott Raecker

J. Scott Raecker, Executive Director of The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University. Scott draws on 20 years as a professional focused on development of ethical leadership and civility as well as 14 years of experience in the Iowa legislature to help individuals navigate the sometimes uncertain terrain of culture shaping.


Leslie Herod

Representative Leslie Herod represents House District 8 in Northeast Denver, in State House of Representatives and, in 2016, received the highest number of votes for any state house candidate running in a contested race. Representative Herod is the first African American LGBT candidate elected to the State Legislature.

Representative Herod’s extensive experience in racial justice, social services, criminal justice, mental health, and anti-poverty issues has led her to be at the forefront of setting progressive policy and passing many pieces of legislation in her freshman year to the Governor’s desk. She currently serves on the House committees of Judiciary, Finance and Legal Services. In her first term, she has focused her legislative efforts on access to reproductive health care, homeless youth, criminal justice reform, immigration rights and supporting Colorado entrepreneurs.

Representative Herod has served on multiple community boards and commissions, including serving as gubernatorial appointee to the state’s Judicial Performance Commission and as a mayoral appointee to Denver’s Cultural Affairs Commission. Additionally, Representative Herod has served on the Board of Directors for Urban Peak, Colorado’s leading homeless youth service agency. She is also a co-founder of New Era Colorado, the state’s leading organization focused on the engagement of young people in our community and served as President of Colorado Black Women for Political Action.

The Colorado Democratic Party honored Representative Herod with the 2017 “Rising Star” award and, she was honored with a 2017 “Power Award” by Out Front Colorado – she is featured on the cover of their November Power Issue, Representative Herod was also featured in Marie Claire magazine’s Power Issue Nov 2017.


Heather Schott

Heather Schott, Assistant Director of Diversity and Inclusion has been with the Principal Financial Group for over twenty years. Heather is responsible for driving the diversity and inclusion strategy and initiatives for our global population. Her brand and leadership style is foundational in influence, innovation and disruption. She draws from her initial 17 years where she held a variety of roles within the IT community. In these roles, she worked across business units supporting product development, accounting, actuarial, operational functions and driving data management practices. A Minnesota native, Heather received her undergraduate degrees – Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Business with an emphasis on management – from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. Heather is currently a member of The Conference Board Diversity & Inclusion Leaders II and Greater Des Moines Partnership Diversity & Inclusion council.


Anne Petersen

Annie Petersen is the Director of Officials Research at Vote Smart, a nonpartisan organization with a mission to provide free, factual, and unbiased information on candidates and elected officials to all Americans. Annie hails from suburban Iowa, where she grew up eating corn and playing several team sports very badly. She graduated from the University of Iowa in 2013 with a degree in Journalism and International Studies, and she joined Vote Smart in the Spring of 2017. Annie leads the Public Statements program, which collects statements from the president, vice president, all 50 governors and all members of Congress, as well as the Legislative Research program, which tracks and summarizes key legislation at both the federal and state level.


Peter McLaughlin

Peter McLaughlin is the Director of Elections & Candidates Research at Vote Smart, a nonpartisan organization with a mission to provide free, factual, and unbiased information on candidates and elected officials to all Americans. Peter hails from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he grew up playing lacrosse and eating crabs. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 2016 with a degree in Government and International Studies. After interning with Vote Smart during the summer of 2015, Peter joined Vote Smart as a staff member in the summer of 2016. At Vote Smart, Peter is responsible for leading the Research programs that monitor elections, tracking candidate biographical  information, researching state/federal candidates’ issue positions, and gathering special interest group information.


Rich A. Salas

Rich A. Salas, Ph.D. serves as the Chief Diversity Officer at Des Moines University. DMU is a graduate level and private medical school located in Des Moines, Iowa. In this important role, Dr. Salas is responsible for multicultural programming, and provides students/faculty/staff training in the area of cultural competency/cultural humility, as well as provides lectures across three colleges. Additionally, Dr. Salas’s has a long list of responsibilities that include building capacity in diversity and inclusion, campus climate, curriculum development, collaborations with both internal and external constituents. Rich also holds a faculty appointment as Assistant Professor for the department of Behavioral Medicine, Medical Humanities & Bioethics in the College of Medicine. As a direct report to the president, Rich has been in the position going on 6 years.


Teresa L. Smallwood

Dr. Teresa L. Smallwood earned a B.A. degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she majored in Speech Communications and Afro-American Studies, a Juris Doctor degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law, a Masters of Divinity degree at Howard University School of Divinity, and a PhD degree from Chicago Theological Seminary in Theology, Ethics and Human Sciences. She is the Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate Director of the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Dr. Smallwood was licensed and ordained to public ministry in the Baptist tradition and is presently an active member at New Covenant Christian Church in Nashville under the pastoral leadership of Rev. Dr. Judy Cummings.


Linley Sanders

Linley Sanders is a political journalist with bylines in Newsweek, Teen Vogue, and The Associated Press. She attended the 2016 Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention to cover the historic election that carried President Donald Trump to the White House and has since covered everything from his administration’s impact on children’s healthcare policy to missing inauguration funds.
She recently left Newsweek Media Group after its owners’ questionable journalistic practices began making headlines and reporters were faced with the question of what to do when a newsroom’s standards of integrity are in question.

Emily Lang

Emily Lang is a teacher and Urban Arts Coordinator in Des Moines Public Schools, and co-founder of RunDSM, a for-youth, by-youth organization focused on urban arts and youth activism. She grew up performing on the stages of the Oskaloosa Community Theater, and entered the field of education with a strong desire to work with young women to help them strengthen their self-worth. “I believe in leading with love and providing youth safe and brave spaces to share their truth.”


Kristopher Rollins

Kristopher Rollins is the Des Moines Public School’s Urban Arts Coordinator, co-founder of RunDSM, and co-facilitator of the Urban Leadership program at Central Campus.  He is passionate about the power of literacy with regards to helping marginalized youth reclaim their voices and futures by providing them safe and brave spaces to be heard.  Furthermore, his goal is to continue establishing a feeder pattern for hip-hop arts within the public school system in order to engage populations previously underserved.


Brenda Vasquez

Brenda Vasquez is currently a junior at Drake University. She is majoring in Secondary Education with an endorsement in all Social Studies and concentrations in Social Justice in Urban Education as well as Women’s & Gender Studies. She is also a current Crew Scholar, and active in La Fuerza Latina. After graduation she hopes to seek employment in Des Moines Public Schools as she is an alumna of the district. Her passion is to create change within the system and help students find their voice in order to do the same. She enjoys writing and performing poetry and is working on a collection of her work entitled, Timeline. Brenda is an involved member of the Des Moines community and fights to end the divide that exists between Drake and the surrounding community.


Kenia Calderon

A native of El Salvador, Kenia has been a tireless advocate for Latinos, for the undocumented community and those with DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as Dreamers). Kenia’s advocacy work has garnered substantial local and national media attention. In 2015 she was named one of the “15 people to Watch in 2015” by the Des Moines Register and in 2016 she was named an Iowa International Center Passport to Prosperity Honoree.

Kenia is a graduate of the 2014-2015 Latina Leadership Initiative and 2017 Adams Academy cohort. She is also a recent graduate of Drake University with a degree in Management and a concentration in Entrepreneurship. During her time at Drake she co-founded three student organizations: La Fuerza Latina, UNITY Roundtable, and Drake’s Women in Business. She enjoys writing about the topics she is passionate about such as the development and growth of the Hispanic community, immigration, and access to higher education. A few of Kenia’s pieces have been published by The New York Times, Huffington Post, and The Des Moines Register.


Jennifer Glover Konfrst

Jennifer Konfrst teaches in Drake’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She created and currently leads Drake’s Strategic Political Communication program. Prior to joining the journalism faculty in 2013, she worked in public relations for 20 years, most recently at Iowa Public Television. She served as the statewide network’s spokesperson, and worked extensively as an on-air host. She has also worked on political campaigns, and is currently a candidate for office.

Jennifer is accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, and hold Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Drake. Konfrst is active in her community, and volunteers for Roosevelt High School PTA and Roosevelt Forensics.

She lives in Windsor Heights with her husband of 21 years, Lee Konfrst, and her two children: Ellie, 17, a senior at Roosevelt High School; and James, 15, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School.


Petra Lange


C.O.R.E. Students

C.O.R.E. (Community Of Racial Equity) for Advancement is a student-led group whose purpose is to unite strong leaders in high schools across the Des Moines metro area in support of students of color pursuing college-level courses. Formed in 2014, students of color who experienced isolation in their college prep courses found that their seclusion was amplified by curricula that didn’t reflect their experiences and teachers to didn’t represent their racial backgrounds. They decided to come together to clearly identify how racism continues to be perpetuated in classrooms and define ways they could resist oppressive systems by connecting, advocating, and educating.


Sara Kurovski

Sara Kurovski was elected the youngest and first female mayor in the history of Pleasant Hill, Iowa in 2013 and gained national attention when the story of her path to mayor was included in Sheryl Sandberg’s book: Lean In for Graduates. In 2015, she was recognized as she joined the 40 under 40 list for her impact in Central Iowa and was named the Emerging Women of Influence by the Business Record.

Kurovski is the Tocqueville Society Director at United Way of Central Iowa and has held positions at Metro Waste Authority as Operations Program Manager and Kum & Go as Manager of Sustainability. She has pursued her passion for community betterment through involvement on the Eastern Polk Regional Development Board, Bravo Greater Des Moines Board, Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Management Committee, Des Moines Area Regional Transit Board of Commissioners, Wastewater Reclamation Authority Management Committee, and Iowa Municipalities Worker’s Compensation Association Board. She is also an advocate and supporter of 50-50 in 2020, an organization devoted to the importance of women involvement in politics.


Jason Noble

Jason Noble is the chief politics reporter for the Des Moines Register. He has covered presidential politics and Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses since 2011 as well as state government and the Iowa’s federal delegation. He previously was a Statehouse reporter for the Kansas City Star. He is lifelong Midwesterner, a graduate of Iowa State University and has a Master of Public Affairs degree from the Univirsity of Missouri-Columbia.


Claudia Schabel

Claudia Schabel, President of Schabel Solutions, combines over a decade of experience as a Diversity and Inclusion practitioner with Fortune 500 companies and her multicultural background to offer coaching and consulting services in the areas of Diversity and Inclusion to businesses, educational and not-for-profit organizations.

Schabel is a commissioner on the City of Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission, and serves on the SHRM State Council as the Director of Diversity.

Schabel is a native of Brazil and speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English and some Japanese. Schabel earned a BA degree in International Relations from Drake University. Schabel lives in Des Moines, Iowa, US.


Suku Radia

Recently retired, Suku Radia served as CEO of Bankers Trust for nine years—Iowa’s largest independent community bank with consolidated assets approximating $4.6 Billion. Prior to joining Bankers Trust, Radia served as Chief Financial Officer of Meredith Corporation for eight years and Managing Partner of KPMG in Des Moines from 1993 to 2000. A few highlights of Mr. Radia’s work in numerous professional, economic development, educational and charitable organizations include serving as Tournament Chair for the 2017 Solheim Cup, a Member of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Community Depository Institutions Advisory Council, Vice Chair and Executive Committee member for the Board of United Way of Central Iowa, and on the Executive Committee for the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, Executive Committee, among others.

Mr. Radia is the past recipient of the Strong Voice in Support of Justice Award from the Supreme Court of Iowa (2017), Robert D. Ray Center’s Pillar of Character Award (2015), Iowa State University’s Alumni Merit Award (2012), Des Moines University’s Glanton Scholarship Award (2011), and Iowa Council for International Understanding-Passport to Prosperity Award (2009) and Spirit of Philanthropy Award (2009) among many other distinctions. In 2010, he was inducted into the Iowa Business Hall of Fame and was also named the OneIowa Business Leader of the Year.

He was named Best Metro Business Leader (2012-2017), Best Minority Business Leader (2012-2017) and Most Influential Business Leader (2012-2017).

Jay Byers

Jay Byers is CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The Partnership is the regional economic and community development organization serving Central Iowa with 23 Affiliate Chambers of Commerce and a network of more than 6100 regional members.

Byers is a Certified Chamber Executive (CCE), graduate of the U.S Chamber of Commerce Institute of Organization Management (IOM), graduate of the University of Oklahoma Economic Development Institute (OUEDI) and graduate of Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives’ (ACCE) Ford Foundation Regionalism and Sustainable Development Fellowship.

Byers currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, ACCE Executive Board, Board of Directors and Community Growth Education Foundation, the General Council of the World Chambers Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Committee of 100. He is active with the Professional Developers of Iowa, Iowa Association of Business and Industry and International Economic Development Council. Byers also serves on the boards of Simpson College, Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, Greater Des Moines Committee, ChildServe, The Homestead and Drake University’s International Advisory Council. He also is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization.

Byers was named to the ACCE 2009 “40 Under 40 Rising Stars of the Chamber World,” Des Moines Business Record’s “Forty Under 40” Class of 2006, and Business Record’s “Forty Under 40” Alum of the Year in 2012. He received the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau Community Champion Award in 2014 and the Simpson College Alumni Achievement Award in 2015.

Prior to his current role, Byers served as The Partnership’s Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Public Policy. Before joining The Partnership, he worked as District Director for Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell and as a corporate attorney at the Ice Miller Law Firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. Byers is a graduate of Simpson College and the University of Iowa College of Law. He resides in Des Moines, Iowa with his wife, Katie, and two daughters, Sophie and Charlotte.

Walker McKusick

Walker McKusick is the National Director of Vote Smart, a non-partisan organization with a mission to provide free, factual, and unbiased information on candidates and elected officials to all Americans. He is originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, where he graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in History and Economics. While at U.Va., Walker was an Echols Scholar and a recipient of a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award. After graduation, he taught History and Politics in England for a year as a U.K. Teaching and Resident Fellow. He joined Vote Smart in 2015. At Vote Smart, Walker is responsible for day-to-day oversight of all Vote Smart programs, research, staff, operations, facilities, and administration.


Ras Smith

Ras Smith was born in Waterloo, IA to L.C and Belinda Smith.  As a youth, he was often his mother’s tagalong to protest and attend meetings with community leaders and other civic venues.  In 2006, Ras graduated from Malcolm Price Lab School. He then attended Wartburg College where he studied Fitness Management and played football.  Ras later graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in Exercise Science. Ras is currently finishing his Master’s degree in Leisure, Youth and Human Services at the University of Northern Iowa. 

As a member of the community Ras has been active in mentoring youth, faith based outreach and community based exercise initiative.  As a part of youth outreach, Ras served as a volunteer football coach at East High School, while serving as the strength and conditioning coach. Ras has also been a volunteer for the Salvation Army and the Northeast Iowa Foodbank.  With an emphasis on youth development and reducing barriers to youth success, Ras was invited as a speaker at the African American Conference for Children and Families for two consecutive years, presenting on the topic of racial microaggression. 

Professionally, Ras has worked with the Juvenile Court system and for Four Oaks agency providing youth counseling and assisting troubled youth in being rehabilitated to pursue a more positive future.  Most recently, Ras has served as the Site Coordinator for the nationally recognized non-profit organization, Communities In Schools.  In this role Ras works to provide “wrap-around” services for at-risk youth at George Washington Carver Academy.