Workshop Leaders

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.


Annie 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.