The commitment to being an engaged citizen is a commitment to being an engaged leader.
When you make the choice to invest your energy into staying informed about social and political issues, you are investing in your leadership.
I’m hearing more and more from leaders who are prioritizing leading with justice, equity, and community care in mind. So if the kind of leader you truly want to be means being an engaged citizen, one who is informed about the social and political issues facing the people they lead, you’re in good company.
But in today’s deeply polarized culture, that’s hard work.
It can feel like resting in the midst of that work is like tapping out of the biggest fight of your life.
But being an engaged citizen requires rest. Rest is not tapping out.
Without rest, you won’t have the energy to question the people & institutions in power. You won’t have the capacity to extend care to those who are often forgotten or underestimated.
Here is a hard truth - many are counting on your fatigue and disconnection. People are literally counting on you not caring.
So what can we do in our circles of influence to encourage others to join us in paying attention? How can we do our parts in leading an engaged citizenry?
Representative Jennifer Konfrst (HD 43) is starting her second term in the Iowa House of Representatives serving residents of Windsor Heights, Clive, and West Des Moines. She was selected by her caucus to serve as Democratic Whip. Rep. Konfrst is an associate professor in Drake University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and has worked in media and communications roles throughout her career.
Jennifer Konfrst: I think it’s important as a leader because it’s important to understand that expectations and reality clash so frequently, but you can’t let the fact that you didn’t meet your goal today mean that you failed. You have to understand the ugly day-to-day process of it, just that it’s a long game and you have to be willing to play, right? I mean, we have to be there to hold them accountable. We have to be there to stop what we can and to shine a light on what’s happening.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: The commitment to being an engaged citizen is a commitment to being an engaged leader or, to put it simply, engaged leaders are engaged citizens, and engaged citizens are engaged leaders. In today’s deeply polarized culture, that’s hard work. It can feel like resting in the midst of that work is like tapping out of the biggest fight for your life, but being an engaged citizen requires rest, and rest is not tapping out. Rest is a necessary practice for actually staying engaged for the long haul. Without rest, you won’t have the energy to question the people and the institutions of power. You won’t have the capacity to extend care to those who are often forgotten or underestimated. Without rest, you won't be able to keep up with being an engaged citizen and an engaged leader in your community.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with leaders whose burdens have inspired their life's work. Our goal is to learn how they’ve addressed these burdens, how they rise from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
Taking care of yourself is the only way to be the kind of leader you truly want to be. Today, I'm hearing more and more from leaders who are prioritizing leading with justice, equity, and community care in mind. So if the kind of leader you truly want to be means being an engaged citizen, it is one who is informed about the social and political issues facing the people they lead, well, you're in good company.
When you make the choice to invest your energy into staying informed about social and political issues, you're investing in your leadership.
Now, I've been engaged in the political process since I was a kid. My mom was involved in The League of Women Voters which, often, did drive to get women registered to vote. In college, I worked internships on the municipal, state and federal levels, and I encountered so many people who had strong feelings about not voting and learning about the issues and candidates on the latest election ballot. I would walk away frustrated and dejected from these conversations with friends, family, and colleagues over the years. I felt there's so much power (and still do) in our collective power to lead with our votes, [Laughs] but I've heard from plenty of people who don’t agree, and here's the hard truth: many are counting on your fatigue and disconnection. Yes, people are literally counting on you not caring. What gets your attention and your care is where you send your power, and these days the distractions and the noise are enough for anyone to tap out. I've even felt the weight of it all, especially over the last year. So what can we do in our circles of influence to encourage others to join us in paying attention? How can we do our parts in leading an engaged citizenry?
Well, my next guest on The Unburdened Leader has some wise direction for us all. State Representative Jennifer Konfrst is starting her second term in the Iowa House of Representatives (where I interned in college), serving residents of Windsor Heights, Clive, and West Des Moines. She was selected by her caucus to serve in leadership as Democratic Whip.
Now, Jennifer is an associate professor at Drake University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Prior to starting Drake in 2013, she worked for more than a dozen years at Iowa PBS doing communication and on-air fundraising. She also worked in Chicago doing corporate communications for Fannie May, and she's provided communications counsel in several roles in her career. Now, Representative Konfrst has a bachelor's and a master's degree from Drake University which also happens to be my alma mater. I'm very, very proud of my association with Drake.
Now, notice how Jennifer distinguishes between opponents and enemies (I loved this) and why it's so helpful to follow her practice. Listen for Jennifer's actionable wisdom on how to consume and share information wisely these days. Man, this information, we need to scale this and get it out. Pay attention to what contributed to Jennifer's shift in perspective on her why for running for elected office again after losing her first race and how her grief about that first race showed up and clarified her next steps. Now, it is such an honor to welcome State Representative Jennifer Konfrst to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
Jennifer Konfrst: Thank you so much, Rebecca. I am thrilled to be here and to see you.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. You know, I think it's worth noting before we kick off that you and I go way back, like, way [Laughs] --
Jennifer Konfrst: Like 1993 way back. Am I not supposed to say that out loud? [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Oh, I have no problem with that. I'm turning 50.
Jennifer Konfrst: Oh, '92.
Rebecca Ching: It was '92. I have a picture of you and me with Hillary Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa, and, like, my hair was like this freeze-and-shine masterpiece of something. [Laughs] So yeah, we go way back. We met, I think, during that campaign, and then you interned out in Washington DC for Senator Harkin when I was working for him, but I had met your dad who is a veteran journalist for the AP before I'd met you.
So, anyways, we have lots of stories, and I'm so excited to talk to you today. I've loved that we've stayed in touch over the years and have always valued your perspective and your insight on all things going on (politics, journalism, culture). You're so sharp, and combined with integrity and stamina, I'm thrilled for people to get to know you.
I want to start off our conversation today with talking about your first run for office. You're a state representative in Iowa (in the Iowa House), and I want you to share with us what the stakes were for you when you decided to run for public office. Walk us through the decision-making process and the obstacles you had to overcome with your first race.
Jennifer Konfrst: Sure. So I, first, was approached to run in 2014 and was thrilled that it wasn’t the right time for my family because I was too scared to do it, and it was great to have an excuse. Then, in the summer of 2015, some things happened in our state that I just wasn’t thrilled about, and then when I was approached again, I had to think about it differently. My whole career, as you know, has been working behind the scenes, helping other people look good, writing speeches for senators and politicians and CEOs, writing press releases, pitching stories to reporters, and so, it was very different to be the one who was sort of the focal point, and I have to tell you that the first press release I wrote to announce my run in 2015, I sent it off to our comms person, and he said, "Are you interested in winning or why did you write the press release this badly? [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: I said, "Well, excuse me, this is what I do for a living," and he goes, "Well, I know, but it seems very clear that you're not interested in touting yourself at all."
And so, it was really a mindset shift for me 'cause, essentially, my press release was like, "She's okay," you know, "She's all right. She's running," and he was like, "You have to get comfortable touting your strengths and doing that in a way that's really putting yourself out there," and it was very hard, you know? It was not what I was comfortable with. You know, I'm not shy. I can walk into a room and have great conversations, but asking things of people is hard for me, and so, when I had to first make phone calls and ask for votes, when I had to first make phone calls and ask for money, when I had to go up to strangers' doors and ask them to trust this sacred thing (their vote) in me, it took a lot of sort of internal work to remind myself that I was doing this for a reason. The best advice I got was remember when you're asking for money or asking for votes, you're not asking them to support you, you're asking them to support your ideas, and you're the vessel to get those ideas out there, and that was much better for me 'cause I could separate it from myself a little better, and that was important.
So deciding to run was quite a process. I had two teenagers at the time. I had a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, and they wanted nothing to do with any of it. They just wanted to know if I'd still be able to go to baseball games and coach mock trial, and my husband was very nervous about me being okay, you know? He has a hard time when people criticize me, and so, this was certainly gonna set that up, and we can talk about, you know, the half a million dollars in negative ads that were run against me and how that went or losing. You know, wherever you want to go with this. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] You know, and I do want to get into that. I mean, a half a million dollars spent to say, "You suck," that's just a moment there. We'll circle back to that. You said something that stuck with me, too, is that in that press release, you know, your colleague was saying, "Hey, you need to promote yourself and own your strengths and your talents," and you said it was a mindset shift, and that just got me thinking how uncomfortable it is for so many people to own it, not with that puffed-up hubris, sugary, bro-y kind of way, but just to be like, "Yeah, here's what I'm good at," and really own it, especially women.
Jennifer Konfrst: I think so, and, you know, it's really a two-step process. For me it was, first, convincing myself. Like, who do I think I am that I could be in the legislature? So that was a huge step for me, right --
Rebecca Ching: Ooh!
Jennifer Konfrst: -- to convince myself, internally, that I had the skills, and then to go up and convince other people when I had just convinced myself a week before, you know? It was a huge jump, and it is uncomfortable to do that. I think it's harder when you're authentic about it than it is when you are puffed up, as you described it, you know? It's harder when you're trying to be honest and authentic about your skills and abilities than when you can hide behind a mask of confidence, you know?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, like, to really believe we are what we're saying, right? I mean, that in itself is such a powerful leap, and if we can get there to really own it -- and there's nothing like politics that you will sink or swim in that. [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: Right, exactly.
Rebecca Ching: You know, I've got to circle back though, too. We both went to Drake University. So we're Drake Bulldog Alums. Did we meet on the Clinton-Gore Presidential Campaign or did we meet at university first? I can't remember.
Jennifer Konfrst: We met at The Democratic National Convention. That was my --
Rebecca Ching: Oh, in New York City. That was my 21st birthday!
Jennifer Konfrst: Yes!
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Yes, you remember now!
Jennifer Konfrst: It was my trip for high school graduation, and I went to the convention with my dad and my mom, and they had said, "We'll go to New York, and then one night you can go to the convention." Well, all I wanted to do was be at the convention the whole time. You know, I didn’t want to go see the sites, I wanted to be in the hall, and my dad had met you somewhere along the way and found out you were at Drake and, I think, wanted someone to look out for me at Drake, and so, he had said, "There's this woman, you should get to know her," and so, I met you, I think, in, like, a lobby or in the elevator even at the DNC, and then we connected on the Clinton-Gore campaign that fall.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, okay. Those were the memories. Oh, my gosh.
Jennifer Konfrst: Yes, yes. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: So much fun memories. It's all starting to come back to me. Okay, so thank you for the squirrel moment.
Jennifer Konfrst: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: So I want to go back to really just putting yourself out there. This is for anyone putting themselves out there, but politics is this whole new beast, and many people in the country are familiar with Iowa to an extent ‘cause Iowa's known for The Iowa Caucuses, but politics in Iowa is, like, such a part of the culture in every corner of the state because of the caucuses. It is just a big deal, and people really engage, and so, I think running for office -- just to set that up -- is a big deal. This isn't something you operate below the radar at any level in that state.
Jennifer Konfrst: Right.
Rebecca Ching: And so, you mention, too, that you ran in 2015 for the first time?
Jennifer Konfrst: Mm-hmm, for the 2016 election, yep.
Rebecca Ching: For the 2016 election, and you lost.
Jennifer Konfrst: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: You lost that first race. So talk us through what went through your mind when you lost that first campaign.
Jennifer Konfrst: So I always like to say I lost and then I won (spoiler alert), and I prefer winning, but I'm glad I lost, right, because it teaches me a lot. So the last month of the campaign had been pretty ugly. I ran against the House Majority Leader, and, by definition, he has all the money. He controls where the money gets spent in every election cycle, and, I should say, that in Iowa, half a million dollars is a lot of money for a state House race. That was spent on a lot of television that was stretching the truth a little bit.
Rebecca Ching: A little bit? A little?
Jennifer Konfrst: A little.
Rebecca Ching: Just a little?
Jennifer Konfrst: Just enough for the lawyers to say, ”The way they're wording it means we can't ask them to pull it.” Like, it was just that close. It was a wording choice.
Rebecca Ching: Ugh.
Jennifer Konfrst: And it was embarrassing. You know, my son got teased at school. That was pretty awful. That was probably the hardest moment because I had built up sort of that hard-candy shell a little bit, but my kids didn’t ask for this, and so, that was hard.
But yeah, so the last month of the campaign was terrible. We ran ads. We tried to raise enough money to go up on TV and compete, and we did, and I lost by 500 votes, and this was in 2016 when there was just a wave across the country, and it was not a great night for my party (I'm a Democrat), and I was sitting there with my, then, 16-year-old daughter watching her watch Hillary Clinton become president we thought, and her mom, right? She was gonna be inspired by two women winning that night, and so, the first night, I was pretty focused on her. I accepted I had lost, but I was sort of detached from it because I was watching her heart be broken, and this isn't a political statement, this is just watching my daughter who wanted Hillary Clinton to win. At the age of seven, she had wanted to caucus for Hillary Clinton in the 2007-2008 caucuses. That's how long she's been wanting to support this candidate, and so, to watch her watch her lose was sort of a distraction for us, and I was pretty okay. I was like well, you know, it was a longshot. I knew it was an uphill battle. It was a hard battle to fight, and I was really okay until the first day of the legislative session.
I'm a nerd, and I watched the legislative session on my computer, and when everyone gaveled in, I was heartbroken. That's when I lost it.
Rebecca Ching: That's when it hit you.
Jennifer Konfrst: Exactly. I had taken all of January off from teaching in case I won, so I had nothing to do. So I was sitting around the house by myself eating everything in sight, by the way, and just devastated. So I will tell you a moment I'm not very proud of, and that is The Women's March was the day after inauguration in 2017, as you remember. It was a huge movement and wonderful for our country, for my party, for women. It was a huge moment, and on that first day of session (which was the Monday before) I decided I wasn’t gonna go, and I didn’t go because I was so angry that everyone was awake now, and they hadn’t been three months ago when I needed them.
I felt very betrayed, irrationally, but very betrayed. Like, "Oh, yeah? Where were you when I was asking you to knock on doors in September and October, and I was telling you this was important, and you couldn’t be bothered, and now, you're all up and out and marching. Where were you?" I know that's an immature response, and I wouldn’t respond that way now, but I think it was finally my defenses being let down and me realizing that I felt betrayed by the system, maybe less so even than women, but I kind of placed it there, you know?
Rebecca Ching: It's interesting that you're not proud of that, and as someone who's worked with trauma my whole clinical career, that feels very healthy and normal. You didn’t stay there, but it's almost a part of the process -- the veil pulled out, everyone said what the heck happened, we're gonna engage and mobilize. This is almost beyond politics; this is about humanity and safety and so much. You just were hit like there's the part of you -- from what I'm hearing is this feels too little too late, y'all.
Jennifer Konfrst: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: You had to take a beat for that just to feel through that.
Jennifer Konfrst: Yep.
Rebecca Ching: How long did you stay there, and what moved you through that?
Jennifer Konfrst: So a friend of mine posted a picture from the rally at the Capitol with a sign that said, "Konfrst in '18," which was very sweet, but I will tell you that that first night I said, "Absolutely not. I'm not gonna run again. I'm never doing this again. Why would I do this, "you know? And what they don’t tell you is that when you run a second time, you're starting your race on third base -- that's combining two analogies -- but in the last 100 yards, right? So you're not starting from scratch again because your name ID is there, you know how to do this, you’ve talked to voters already. You're not starting from scratch so, really, the first race serves kind of as a tee up for the second.
I didn’t know that at the time, and so, I was like, “Never.” Then, I will say that at the end of January (so very early in this session) the Iowa legislature with a new trifecta (they have the Governor's Office, the Senate, and the House for the first time ever) gutted collective bargaining rights. They took away the rights of public employees to have a say in their own future at work, and I had knocked on 13,000 doors, and not one person had told me that was a priority of theirs. I had looked at all of my opponents' mailers and emails and never did he mention this was a priority, and I was furious. So it went from mad at other people to maybe more channeled to mad at my opponent, and I decided in April I was gonna run again. So I sat with it probably for, you know, six months.
Rebecca Ching: I'm just thinking of that dead time at the beginning of the year. You're a professor at our alma mater now, at Drake University, and you had taken time off 'cause you were optimistic, and so, sitting with that -- so it took a few months. That's not a lot of time. I mean, honestly, to really move through that -- and your anger stayed instead of the blame. You moved out of blame and shame to almost this righteous action. Like, okay, if I feel this, I still care, then I need to do something about it. That's what I'm hearing.
Jennifer Konfrst: Exactly.
Rebecca Ching: So --
Jennifer Konfrst: Exactly, and it felt like -- sorry. It felt like I was -- it felt better because I was fighting for someone else. I felt like all of those union workers I had talked to, all of those folks who’d just wanted a say in their own work, all of the other -- I mean, the legislature did terrible things all year -- I felt like now I wasn't running for me at all. I was running to stop what they were doing and to help other people, and then it became much easier, right?
Rebecca Ching: Gosh, this is really powerful, right? It wasn’t something that you were doing for you. It became bigger than you.
Jennifer Konfrst: Right.
Rebecca Ching: Gosh, I really appreciate this. When we're wanting to do something -- when it’s bigger than just a sense of pride or if we're stuck in that shame/blame cycle, but for the 2018 election it became about how do I stop this, this is important, I want to be part of the solution.
Jennifer Konfrst: Right.
Rebecca Ching: That is powerful. I want you to talk a little bit -- 'cause I still remember being slack-jawed when you were -- I don’t know if we were texting about this or talking, but you told me a little bit about your second campaign, and you ran against the same opponent for a bit. So finish the story here 'cause this, again, is a doozy.
Jennifer Konfrst: I know. I mean, it's one of those things. So, first, I'll say that in 2016 I felt like I was running for issues, and in 2018 I felt like I was running for people, and that, I think, was another way, you know, that it was more personal to me. In 2016, it was sort of amorphous, equality, fairness, and then it was the people I'd talked to, so that helped.
Okay, so in 2018, I announced -- so I lost in November, announced in April of 2017 I was running again for 2018, and I ran against the majority leader again, and I spent the next year -- well, 11 months -- running against him, talking about his votes, talking about his record, talking about how I would do things differently, and then the filing deadline in Iowa is mid-March, and so, for the first time ever, my family was on a spring break trip because in my previous , I had always had to be working during spring break.
So for the first time ever we were at Disney World, and I was at Epcot in line for Spaceship Earth, and I get a phone call that my opponent, the Majority Leader of The House had announced that he was moving to a different district and running in that district instead, that he was no longer going to run against me; he was going to run in an open seat about ten miles away. I have to tell you, I couldn’t believe it. We had been running against each other for a year. It was the day before the filing deadline, and he announces that he's moving and, not only is he moving, but he's going to run again in a different district.
And so, what's weird to me is that I, then, served with my opponent for two years because he had moved and I ran against somebody else who was a fill-in, sort of, and I had lost by 500 votes, and then in 2018 I won by 15%. [Laughs] So it was a big shift.
Rebecca Ching: And so, I thought this is telling because the numbers at the time when he moved, you were pulling ahead of him, right?
Jennifer Konfrst: Right. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And you were also outraising him in fundraising too. So it's just worth noting what people do to avoid losing. [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: Yes, it's very rare. I think one other thing I would say, and I don’t mean to get too philosophical about this, but the freedom that comes after you've lost is huge because the worst thing that could happen has already happened, you know? I will be publicly embarrassed. Everyone who worked so hard for me will watch me lose. It's already happened, right? So when I ran again it was like well, if I lose this time I know for sure it's a done deal, but I don't want to waste two years of work which I could leverage into a win if I could, and so, then, when he moved it was like a curveball. I mean, I don't think that's ever happened. I don’t think that someone has -- especially a member of leadership -- has left in a non-redistricting year and run in a different district. It was pretty weird.
Rebecca Ching: That's a very humanizing way to name it. We'll leave it there. [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: But what you're touching on, too, about losing leads to my next question about how has running for state representative, and then also navigating all that you have to with the legislative process, trying to get legislation passed, the committee process -- I interned for the House majority leader back when we were in university so I got to see that state process and what it was like to create a bill and how hard and tedious it can be.
How has all of that impacted your relationship with failure overall?
Jennifer Konfrst: Well, it's a real good thing I lost the first time 'cause we lose almost every day in the minority. [Laughs] I mean, our victories have to be redefined in many ways, you know? A victory has to be sort of proving a negative. What can we keep out of a bill? What bill don't we debate, you know? Every day -- I always tell supporters who are reaching out about school vouchers, for example -- every day we don't vote, we don’t bring up school vouchers on the floor of the Iowa House is a victory 'cause that means they don’t have the votes, and that means that the pressure is working, and so, it's almost like our victories are in the negative space, but, you know, the victories are also -- you have to find ways to redefine failure and success. I mean, during the pandemic, constituents who needed me, who needed my help, and I was able to help them, that became my victory, right? I might fail on the leadership -- every bill that I've ever introduced has died, you know? I've only had one amendment run with my name on it, and that's because Republicans let me. You know, we just don’t have any capacity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be there, right? I mean, we have to be there to hold them accountable. We have to be there to stop what we can and to shine a light on what's happening, but, you know, I'm helping constituents -- somebody get their unemployment check, somebody get connected to resources with Medicaid, you know? I mean, those things are where the victories come in now.
Rebecca Ching: I love that reframe, that it's not losing focus on my bill didn’t get passed, it's almost I'm here to support my district and support the people in the district and reclaiming what is a victory and keeping the failures in perspective. I think that's powerful.
The other question I have for you is I think for any leader, anyone who is putting themselves out there in any capacity (small or large), ends up being misunderstood and, often in politics, misrepresented on issues you care about or who you are.
How have you navigated that and how do you care for yourself through all of that?
Jennifer Konfrst: So, Rebecca, I'm probably doing it in a non-psychologically-healthy way [Laughs] so we're just gonna say that right now.
Rebecca Ching: Be honest. [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: No, I really just sort of think of myself as there are two of me. There's Representative Konfrst who is a caricature in many ways, and then there's Jennifer Konfrst who's a very different person, and I don’t mean that we have different goals or anything like that, it's just that when they're talking about me, they're talking about Representative Konfrst.
Rebecca Ching: Ah.
Jennifer Konfrst: So an example I would give you is that -- and I have to do that, right? That's self-preservation for me. Well, and I'll get to that, but, you know, I ran for House Minority Whip last November, and that's the second -- it's like a deputy leader in the caucus, and when I won, the Republican Party Chair said that Democrats have just selected the most liberal member of The Democratic Caucus to be their House Whip which is hilarious to me because I'm getting yelled at by liberals all the time for not being liberal enough. For a minute I was mad, and then I was like oh, well, that's not me. That's what he has to do, right? I think that's where a background in communications comes in very handy. Like, knowing what I would say if I were in their shoes helps to prepare myself for what they're gonna say about me, you know, and I can sort of separate myself from it.
Rebecca Ching: So let me unpack this 'cause I'm not sure I see it as unhealthy. You recognize that the Representative Konfrst who's being attacked is not who you are in your entirety. So there's a differentiation of what you call the caricature. Am I hearing that correctly?
Jennifer Konfrst: Yeah, I mean, I think so. I feel like it's not healthy because I'm not being fully authentic when I look at that person as a caricature, you know -- when I look at that person as a two-dimensional character, and authenticity is really important to me, and so, sometimes I feel bad that I don’t feel as bad about it. I feel like am I too disconnected from it?
I mean, that's not to say never. I mean, last night I cried on the drive home. I'm not gonna lie. I was mad, but there are a lot of times, especially when they're personal attacks, that it's like okay, you don’t even know me. I don’t even know what you're saying, and I guess it's letting up control to some extent, you know? It's realizing that I can't control what they're gonna say.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I guess what I make up is if they knew all of you, they would have no argument, so they have to make up a you that's not true, you know? And so, they're using your name and your image and sometimes your words or twisting your words, but you're able to differentiate that, and you have compassion and maybe even feel bad that you're not defending what you call the caricature, but that's really just what your opponents or -- I mean, in many ways, so many people are just angry these days. There's so much understandable anger. There's so much hurt and deep wounding in the way that we do conflict. I mean, gosh, back when you and I cut our teeth in this it was still bad, but you and I saw people with incredibly opposing viewpoints come together and even socialize. They would, like, fight it out on the floor (whether it's city, state, federal levels that we've all engaged in), and it was mind-blowing to me to see those relationships happen. I thought oh, you're always an enemy. Oh, wait, you can deeply disagree and still have a humanizing relationship, and that really fell apart I think after 9/11. It was bad in '94 (after the '94 election), but after 9/11 I really saw that shift, and so -- yeah, go ahead.
Jennifer Konfrst: It was bad. I was just gonna say that, for me, I always try to differentiate between opponents and enemies, you know?
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Jennifer Konfrst: The Republicans are my opponents, right? I mean, very few of them are enemies because it's about -- not that it's a game, not that it's not important, but we have the same goal, different ways to get there. You know, "Make Iowa Better," different definitions of what Iowa is, and so, for me, it's always about think of them as opponents, not enemies.
Now, the Iowa House might think of the Iowa Senate as an enemy sometimes, [Laughs] but that's a different conversation altogether. But yeah, I mean, I remember I used to go to the Capitol when I was little with my dad -- and I know we're gonna talk about that a little too -- and I remember once the Speaker of The House, Don Avenson in his office. Don Avenson was a huge, big, loud presence. He was screaming at a member of the other party (like, screaming), and I was nine, so I was just -- oh, my gosh. Then, they came out, and they were laughing, and they said, "Let's go get a beer," and I said to my dad, "How does it work? They're yelling at each other, and then they get along?" He goes, "It doesn’t work any other way," and I've never forgotten that 'cause we see when it's dysfunctional. We see what happens when nobody's talking to each other.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so the difference between an opponent and an enemy -- an enemy, it feels like the quality of that is my life's at stake, my livelihood, safety is at stake. My opponent is just someone I'm competing against, like a sport, for lack of a better -- am I picking up on this differentiation?
Jennifer Konfrst: That's how I see it, and the nuance there is that, again, that's not to say that the things we're fighting for aren’t important or personal 'cause sometimes people will say, "Well, enemies are personal; opponents are professional," and that's not how I want to look at it because I think that the issues we're fighting for are incredibly personal --
Rebecca Ching: Totally.
Jennifer Konfrst: -- and I can't believe they do stuff, and I get mad at them, but, I mean, I honestly don’t see them as terrible people. I mean, I don’t have any sort of personal animus toward any of them, and some people do, right? It's just a different approach. I think that's, for me, the way I survive because tomorrow I might need them, right? Tomorrow we might be on the same side of something.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Jennifer Konfrst: I mean, rarely. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: You know, I really appreciate this nuance, and I think in a time where we critique for blood sport, it helps to slow my roll when I'm like are they an enemy, and most people really -- is my life or wellbeing at stake, and there's that perceived, especially in politics or business.
I mean, any leadership position where reputation feels like it's everything, but to have a little bit of space between that, even if others are getting nasty, I really appreciate that.
I want to ask you, too, do you have any reoccurring fears or vulnerabilities that keep showing up that threaten your confidence? You're so confident. You're so clear in what you want. You're a deeply caring human, and I know when we care, we're vulnerable to being hurt.
Jennifer Konfrst: Yeah. Yeah, I try very hard to stay authentic. It's really important to me to just be who I am, and sometimes I'm constantly afraid that I’m going to say something (blurt something out) that's not appropriate or say something I mean in the moment that I don’t mean later. Sort of the cost of that authenticity sometimes is making a mistake, and I worry about that, you know? I worry about offending someone when I don’t mean to, and so, that's really a fear that continues to pop up: is being authentic worth it? You know, when my kids started middle school -- and I've used this analogy today -- I said that they had to build that hard-candy shell like an M&M, and they were so soft and sweet, and then middle school kind of hardened them a little bit which it should because it's a terrible place. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Tell me what you really think! Tell me what you really think of middle school.
Jennifer Konfrst: Oh, every middle school across the planet is a terrible place, not because of middle school, but because of, you know, 12 --
Rebecca Ching: Developmentally.
Jennifer Konfrst: Yeah, and I hated it, but I also knew they needed it, but it was also soft enough you could still get through. I feel like that sometimes, right? Like, I've got a defense built up, but because I try to be authentic, it's not so strong that things that hurt me can't get through or things that I don’t mean to say can't get out. So I'm very afraid that sometimes my authenticity can be read as cold or snarky or not exactly what I mean.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, I can't let this go by, but even I wonder how much of this is a gender issue too 'cause I don’t think there are a lot of folks who identify as male that worry about that.
Jennifer Konfrst: Right.
Rebecca Ching: And so, it's that tightrope that we walk in our power, in our strength, in our conviction, but don't be too much, but don't -- you've got to -- not enough. Is that part of this, too, for you, do you think?
Jennifer Konfrst: I'm sure it is. I'm sure it is, and you know, I mean, being a woman in politics, there are plenty of us, but the higher you go in the ranks, the fewer of you there are, and so, many times I am the only woman on a call, and I am rarely as aware of my gender identity as I am in those moments when we might be talking about a sexual harassment case or something that happens, and I'll look around the room and realize that nobody in the room knows how the woman in the situation feels but me, and then you've got to feel this responsibility for all women, and I can't say I know exactly how she feels, but more so than they do, and I think of things that they don’t think of, and I hate that. I don’t want it to be like oh, gosh, because I'm a woman I have brilliant things to say, but I do think I have a perspective that's different, and I do feel like I have to be more careful, and it's not right, and it's not fair, and I fight against it, but also I fall into it. I have a 21-year-old daughter, and our girls are so much stronger and braver and badass --
Rebecca Ching: So much.
Jennifer Konfrst: -- than we were. So much, and she will say things like, "Mom, why would you ever think that?" I'm like, "Well, 'cause I'm a Gen X-er, and we were raised by Baby Boomers who -- I mean, you're, like, three generations ahead of us, Ellie. We are still catching up to you and learning from you because I've got a lot in me that's engrained from being raised by Baby Boomers who, you know, wore white gloves to prom and you can't wear white shoes after Labor Day, right? I mean, we've got -- that's a big leap.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] It is a big -- oh, my gosh. Yeah, Gen Z is giving me so much hope, and I love seeing that. I see that in my daughter every day with her questions, her curiosities, and the things that she's not afraid to ask. I love it.
Okay, so the big catalyst for me having you on the show is within the last month, there was some legislation passed in Iowa, that's also the kind of legislation we're seeing passed across state Houses, is being presented across our country around voting rights.
Jennifer Konfrst: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: And, to me, this is not like a, “I like charter schools, I like public schools, I care about education.” There isn't, like, different means to the end. This is the stakes are high and the need for unburdened leaders to be engaged and not to tap out, so I'd love for you, how you so eloquently speak, to break down for us the legislation that just passed in Iowa impacting voting rights along with how this new legislation impacts voters in your state of Iowa.
Jennifer Konfrst: Oh, dear, now I'm gonna get cranky. Yeah, so I'm on the State Government Committee in the House, and so, I've been living with this legislation since it was first introduced, and all the steps along the way from subcommittee all the way to floor final passage to the Senate to the Governor's desk. It's terrible. It's terrible. It's a terrible bill, and so, the legislation -- I'll talk about that first -- it really restricts voting. Iowa had the number three voter turnout in the country as a percentage of population in 2020, and that's particularly interesting because we didn’t have a statewide coordinated effort to do by-mail voting, right? I mean, we mailed out absentee ballots, but that was all handled by county auditors and The Secretary of State's office maybe once. And so, it was really Iowans deciding that it was important to vote and doing the extra work they needed to do to vote in a pandemic.
So it went beautifully. No cases of fraud, a huge turnout, early voting was huge, Iowans were engaged in the process which, I think, we can all agree is the point, and so, then we get this bill, and what it's doing is attacking exactly what succeeded in 2020. So it's shortening the window in which your absentee ballot can be accepted. So it used to be that if you mailed an absentee ballot legally before election day, as long as it was postmarked before election day it still counted. Now, it has to be in by eight o'clock on election day no matter when you send it in the mail. Okay, well, that’s not great 'cause now your vote is reliant on a system you have no control over (the mail) right? So that seems to be disenfranchising right there. The second one is that it doesn't allow people to come pick up other people's sealed, signed ballots and deliver them for them if they don’t trust the mail.
Rebecca Ching: Let me just pause you there, too, 'cause in Iowa it is one of the oldest populations in the country.
Jennifer Konfrst: Right.
Rebecca Ching: Is that still the case?
Jennifer Konfrst: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: And so, you’ve got a lot of people who can't drive, who, maybe for a variety of reasons, have health issues, you name it -- sight and physical limitations, and so, that's a real kind of common thing that we would do or often we would get vans together and drive people for the Get Out The Vote effort, so you've got two things so far. I just want to recap. So the first one is limiting the time window. I remember when I was going to school at Drake. We could vote for about a month ahead of time in the libraries even. I thought that was the coolest thing, and so, there was just a voting season which was lovely for something that's so important as our democracy. Again, it's not about what the issues are, it's this actual democracy, and that, to me, excites me. So, now, that period is shortened, and even on election night, if the -- which office is it that gets the votes?
Jennifer Konfrst: The county auditor's.
Rebecca Ching: The registrar's?
Jennifer Konfrst: The county auditor's, yep.
Rebecca Ching: The county auditor. It's different here in San Diego, so --
Jennifer Konfrst: Right.
Rebecca Ching: The county auditors, at 8:00 PM, if there are votes that got held up by a mail truck or something, you're SOL, am I right?
Jennifer Konfrst: Yep.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so I’ve got those two points. What else does the bill say?
Jennifer Konfrst: So Iowa has polls open until nine o'clock every night, and now they're open 'til eight. So about 6,500 Iowans voted between eight and nine in 2020, so that's disenfranchising thousands of voters. It also makes it so that you cannot have someone come pick up your ballot. So, like we said, Iowa has an old population and also, culturally, we kinda like to stay in our homes, and so, older Iowans stay in their houses longer than they will go to a nursing home or something like that, and so, a lot of times they do rely on a neighbor or a friend to take a ballot in, and now, it has to be a caretaker or a family member with absolutely no consideration for the fact that someone might not have family or a caretaker, and therefore, they're disenfranchised, making it harder to vote. The whole thing just makes it harder to vote.
There are a lot of things in there that also frustrate me like rules with county auditors. It makes it a class D felony if county auditors do something like connect a voter to their ballot or reach out to kind of confirm a ballot has been cast or whatever. I mean, that's kind of in the weeds, but it raises penalties for county auditors to a class D felony, oftentimes, which is jail time.
Rebecca Ching: What's a -- well, yeah, a class D felony would be what?
Jennifer Konfrst: A class D felony is going to jail. I mean, you go to jail for five to ten years.
Rebecca Ching: So if I were in that role, and I reached out to a voter just to confirm I'm tabulating everything, and say, "Oh, hey, Jane, I want to make sure that this is correct." If that gets in the weeds, then I could end up -- just to make sure that what I have is correct and I'm verifying with my neighbor. You know, usually, it's the neighbor 'cause it's a small town.
Jennifer Konfrst: Right.
Rebecca Ching: And most of these people know each other.
Jennifer Konfrst: Right.
Rebecca Ching: That could risk me going to jail for five to ten years if I was in that role and did that?
Jennifer Konfrst: So, to be fair, it depends on how it's interpreted, of course. That's a worst-case scenario.
Rebecca Ching: Okay. Sure, sure.
Jennifer Konfrst: But, yes, that's a possibility, right? Because that could be seen as fraud because you're chasing a ballot, and that's not your job as county auditor, they say, right?
Rebecca Ching: Whoa, so that's chasing --
Jennifer Konfrst: Yes, so they just don’t -- I don’t think that's chasing a ballot. I think that's confirming information, but now you can't.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Jennifer Konfrst: So a lot of things like that. County auditors really get deemed to only one dropbox for ballots per county no matter how big the county is.
Rebecca Ching: How many?
Jennifer Konfrst: One.
Rebecca Ching: One? One dropbox -- now, and Iowa isn’t a very populous state compared to -- you know, but it's not --
Jennifer Konfrst: Three-point-one million people.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Jennifer Konfrst: And we have 99 counties. We have 99 counties, and one of those counties has about 750,000 people in it.
Rebecca Ching: How many ballot boxes were existing in the 2020 election in Iowa, do you know?
Jennifer Konfrst: I don’t know statewide, but it depends on the county, and they tried to restrict them as the election season was going on because ballot return boxes are not really a common thing we have in Iowa because it's so easy to pick up ballots. I have to say, the majority party didn’t like the fact that Democrats were out there sending out absentee ballot request forms, coming and picking them up, taking them to The Secretary of State' office and then picking up ballots. Now, you have to know, if I come to Rebecca's house and take her ballot down, I can't see it. I have to give her a receipt that says, "I've picked up your ballot," and then I deliver it, and if I don’t, I get in big trouble as I should.
Rebecca Ching: Gotcha.
Jennifer Konfrst: But Democrats will often go and chase ballots. Republicans can do that too. That was a Democratic plan. They call it ballot harvesting, and they wanted to make it illegal.
So with all of these things, they just all make it harder for Iowans to vote, shorten the window for which your ballot can be sent back, shorten some public awareness campaigns regarding who's on the ballot, things like that.
What's frustrating to me, first of all, is that Iowa's election system wasn’t broken, and what I kept saying was, "You guys won." Republicans just swept the state in 2020. I mean we got, as Democrats, a whoopin', and so, for them to then come in and want to change it makes no sense to me logically, right? It doesn’t make any sense 'cause you won, and so, when we asked the board manager, "Why are you doing this when our election was so successful," he said, several times, "I think of the state like a business, and when something goes well, you look at ways to make it better." Then our answer was, "But if you sell a lot of things at your store, the answer isn't to close your store an hour earlier," [Laughs] you know, "when you're going forward," so it just didn’t make a lot of sense.
So it's part of a national campaign. Thirty-three states across the country were introducing voter restriction laws. Clearly, there is a concerted effort across the state to make it harder to vote -- to make it harder for Americans to cast their vote legally, and in Iowa, we're the only state, I think, left that doesn’t automatically re-enfranchise felons when they’ve met their sentences. We can't seem to get a constitutional amendment on that passed. The Governor has signed an executive order on that, but, I mean, you know, you’ve worked on campaigns. Asking someone for their vote is almost sacred in our democracy. They have one.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, yeah.
Jennifer Konfrst: They give it to you because they trust you. That's a huge thing, and to make it harder for them to do that is -- I can't see how you can justify it. I really can't.
Rebecca Ching: What do you think is really going on then? So if this is not something that was needed, what is the agenda?
Jennifer Konfrst: So if I'm gonna be cynical, I'm going to say that I believe that there is a party that looks at the demographic trends, that looks at the way our country is moving, and sees the writing on the wall, and wants to plan, and wants to make it harder for people who don’t vote for them to vote, and so, they want to do that preemptively and proactively.
This is what they did with the courts, right? They saw that they needed to play a long game on getting people on the court, so they got people on the bench. They do this with candidates. They get candidates elected to city council and school board, and then they work their way up. They can play a long game here, and I think that's what they're doing. They will say that there's a need for election security because of voter fraud. That is not based in fact, but I will tell you one of the most disheartening things for me as a communicator, as a leader, is this sort of concept of the big lie. This continued misinformation that says that the election was stolen or that there was massive voter fraud, and all of this is just incredibly damaging to our democracy, and when it's used to change policy, when it's used to impact people's ability to exercise their right to vote, that's when it gets offensive and personal. That's when it gets especially damaging.
Rebecca Ching: It's interesting. I don’t know if you know, but my husband -- and I talk about this on the show -- my husband is an AP US History teacher, and he's a historian, has his master's in history, and when I told him you were coming on the show, I said, "What do you want me to ask Jennifer?" He's like, "Ask her if she thinks our democracy is going to die," and I was like, "Dude!" [Laughs] And you know my husband. He's pretty chill. He's not dramatic at all, and he was just like, "I'm not sleeping well 'cause of this. I'm really worried about this, and I'm worried that people don’t care. So what actions can people take to learn more about this and do something about voter suppression wherever they live?
Jennifer Konfrst: Well, I mean, I don’t think our democracy's dying, and I think that we can't let it, right?
Rebecca Ching: Good, I agree.
Jennifer Konfrst: I don’t doubt his worry. You know, I don’t question his worry; I worry too, but it's not gonna happen on our watch, right? And so, we're gonna keep fighting. What we have to do is educate people, and that means people who are listening to this. People who are engaged need to engage people even if they're, you know, spewing all the other stuff on Facebook. What has happened most regularly -- and it's happened to me with Aunt Linda, right -- when somebody starts posting all these things that are inaccurate, wrong, and you push back, and you say, "That's not true," and then they say, "Well, you're just a product of the deep state," or whatever, you just give up because it's just too much, but we can't because they aren’t, and so, we have to keep pushing back. We have to every single day go, "Nope, here's an example of why it's not voter suppression." Now, don’t do that if it's not emotionally healthy for you. Like, it was important for me to cut Aunt Linda out of my life, but if there are people who, even if you don’t think you can get to them, you've got to get to those people and the people who aren’t paying attention. Everybody's busy. We have soccer games and teacher conferences and jobs and lives. People aren’t paying attention to voter suppression laws in Georgia, but we have to raise awareness about them and let them know what the true impact is.
So I'm a big believer in storytelling, so whenever you can get a story -- you know, somebody who sent her ballad in on a Thursday last time and it didn’t arrive until the next Wednesday, I want her to tell her story because she is a person who will be disenfranchised. It's not this crazy liberal they're trying to stop us from, it's a real person who maybe was gonna vote Republican, and you lost that. You'd lose that vote next time, and so, storytelling is really important and making it personal for people. It's not comfortable to talk about politics. It's not comfortable --
Rebecca Ching: No.
Jennifer Konfrst: I always say this isn’t talking about politics, this is talking about policy, and this is talking about democracy.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I used to keep that part of my story quiet (the political part), and it's such a part -- you knew, you know? It's such a part of my passion because it became so polarizing and divisive in various circles that I was in, and now, I'm, like no, I think it's just talking about it and remember we're talking to humans who care and who have been hurt, and so, with that said, one of the things I remember hearing throughout my life in even wanting people to vote, is people kept saying, "My vote won't make a difference," and I didn’t hear it as much in 2020. That was probably the first year I didn’t come across anyone who said that.
Jennifer Konfrst: Right.
Rebecca Ching: And we saw that in the voter turnout. What do you say to those who think they can't make a difference around this or any of the issues that they care about?
Jennifer Konfrst: You know, now, I get to tell people there was a congressional race in Iowa decided by two votes. A congressional race, two votes.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Which district?
Jennifer Konfrst: The second. It was Rita Hart and Mariannette Miller-Meeks. It was decided by two votes.
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Jennifer Konfrst: Recount laws are not great, and we've learned that now, and there were 22 votes that weren’t counted, so we'll never know who would have really won, but it was a lot like 2000 to me. You know, the race was just kind of stopped, but I tell them that, I mean, you know, you can try the idea that people fought and died for your right to do this, and it's a dishonor to them if you don't. So you can try the guilt route, right? There are women who literally died trying to get the right to vote. There are people who died on a bridge in Alabama who fought for our right to vote, and you have to do it. I think making it easier for people to do it. Understanding where people are and saying, "Let me help you vote," right? I know, but when they say my vote doesn’t matter, I try to think about what that means. Do they feel unempowered? Do they feel like they're disconnected from their system, and how can we re-engage them that way? So, you know, somebody says this year, "I'm not gonna vote in 2022 because everybody I voted for lost in 2020," and okay, fine.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. Yeah.
Jennifer Konfrst: So now we're gonna work on a school board race, and I'm gonna get you aware of the candidates, and you're gonna figure out who to vote for, and you're gonna find out your vote has a much bigger impact there, for example -- or in city council races, and then, you know, try to connect people.
What I say is that -- I don’t know. Okay, so here's an example. No one knows what their legislature does, right? No one knows who I am. I have no illusions that people are walking around wondering what Representative Konfrst is doing at the Capitol today. I get it, but on The Fourth of July in 2017, my Facebook feed was filled with people furious about fireworks going off in our neighborhood, and I said, "Well, now you know what your legislature does. Back in February, they passed a law that allowed fireworks in residential neighborhoods all over the city, all over the state. That's your legislature," and people were like, "Oh, no. We're gonna vote them out next time." And so, connecting it to people's lives is really important, right? So if you can see, hey, did your property taxes go up? That's because of who you voted for for county supervisor or city council, right? I mean, you just got that bill. So when the actions happen, connecting it to policy whenever possible.
Rebecca Ching: Now, is this easy?
Jennifer Konfrst: For regular people to do?
Rebecca Ching: No.
Jennifer Konfrst: Of course not, but it's what we've gotta do.
Rebecca Ching: It's time-consuming. I remember someone saying, "I don’t have time." A family member said -- I think when I was working in DC -- "I don’t have the time to study all this stuff." I'm like, "You go to the bathroom. You’ve got time." [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: [Laughs] Exactly.
Rebecca Ching: They didn’t like the answer. They didn’t like the answer.
Jennifer Konfrst: [Laughs] That's fair.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] If you've got time on the toilet… [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: Yeah, exactly! I do think people feel that they don’t have time to learn all of this, but reframing what you have to learn, right? You don’t have to learn a ton, just pick one issue that you really care about, then find out what the two candidates think about it, right? Then move from there and make a decision that way. Start slow.
Rebecca Ching: So I want to shift to something I saw you say. You have this old adage that you reference: "You can campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose," and I researched that, and it's a quote linked back to the Governor of New York in the 1980s, Mario Cuomo.
Can you walk us through what this means and why you believe it's an important mindset for leaders today?
Jennifer Konfrst: I think because, for me, it's a -- so what it means is that on the campaign trail you talk about big issues, right? I think it's important that we protect a woman's right to make her own healthcare decisions. I think it's important that we protect the right to vote. I think it's important that workers have a right to have a say in their own workplace safety, and those are big issues. That's what people care about, right? So you campaign in flowery language and big picture, and you give the impression, not because you're trying to be evasive or trying to overpromise, but because that's what the conversation is about. I'm gonna do this, this, and this, and then you govern in prose -- a lot less pretty, a lot uglier, a lot more minutia-driven, right?
So I have a constituent who is autistic and wanted new laws -- autism coverage in the state of Iowa and care for kids at school.
Rebecca Ching: Awesome.
Jennifer Konfrst: So, you know, in this conversation I say to her, "Absolutely. We're gonna go." I talked to her daughter. She wants it. She writes me a letter. It's very meaningful. I'm gonna introduce a bill, and I'm thinking this is poetry, right? This is a story. This girl and her mom need help. I am going to fix it. I take my bill, I file it away, and I hit prose immediately because now the bill is being negotiated and, "Oh, well, we can't do all of that because of this, this, and this," and, "We can't just go this big, we have to start slow," and so, it's a much more nuanced process. So, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Oh.
Jennifer Konfrst: So, for me --
Rebecca Ching: Go ahead.
Jennifer Konfrst: I think it means that you think big, and then when you get there, you have to go a little more incremental.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and it's such a -- I like that because we talk about (at least in the clinical world, and even in my leadership work) the difference between content and process, right? The process is how we go about it (like you said, the big vision), and the content is getting in the weeds, and especially with legislation, it's like the weeds, in the weeds, in the weeds and conversations and negotiations.
You know, that's why I paused when I saw this phrase that you uttered because I think, for me, my impatience, my sense of urgency, my love of efficiency gets annoyed with the prose, but I still have a deep respect for it, and I think it's easy to tap out but sometimes that's part of the work of just engaging in humans. Being a good citizen is -- a lot of times, being a good neighbor is prose.
Jennifer Konfrst: Exactly.
Rebecca Ching: Being a good family member is prose sometimes.
Jennifer Konfrst: It just drives me crazy. I know. There was a woman, a legislator, who's been working for 20 years on a bill, 20 years, and it's a bill to allow adoptive adults who were placed for adoption access to their original birth certificate. In Iowa, you don’t have access to that. Now, they will.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, wow. Wow.
Jennifer Konfrst: And it's taken her 20 years.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, that's prose.
Jennifer Konfrst: And she spoke on the floor the other night. Right, and then it became poetry again because she was able to speak about why this was so important and how she had given her daughter up, and how her daughter was able to find her, and it was just really meaningful. So it's the middle part that's the ugly poetry, right, but at the end, you hope you get to prose. I think it's important as a leader because it's important to understand that expectations and reality clash so frequently, but you can't let the fact that you didn’t meet your goal today (your big, flowery, poetic goal) mean that you failed. You have to understand the ugly day-to-day process of it, otherwise -- it's like that idea of a CEO and a COO. My husband and I joke about how one of us is the CEO (that's me). I come in with the big ideas. We're gonna fix this room, we're gonna paint this room, and then I go away, and he's like well, now I've gotta buy paint, right, and here's how I want to do it. We work together well because of that, but it's both I think, and it's understanding that it's a long game.
Maybe that's what I mean, just that it's a long game, and you have to be willing to play.
Rebecca Ching: I appreciate you identifying kind of the vision and then the expectations of that vision coming to fruition, and I think that really is an endurance game and an expectations game, but sometimes I get so optimistic and even can tip towards idealistic that it trips me up, Jennifer. I have to confess, I still am like, "Aw, dangit!"
Jennifer Konfrst: Dang!
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, eat some humble pie. [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: Didn’t I tell you I cried on the drive home last night? I mean, I get it.
Rebecca Ching: It's healthy!
Jennifer Konfrst: It is.
Rebecca Ching: It's healthy. Let it out, let it out!
Jennifer Konfrst: And I've gotta say, too, I feel that way about justice and social justice too. I mean, you know, the Dr. King quote about the arc of the moral universe is sort of another way to say poetry and prose. I mean, our goal and the way we get there are different, you know Our arc is big, but the everyday plotting is how we get there eventually, and so, it's not fun to be down here sometimes, right, when you want to be flying.
Rebecca Ching: No, it's not sexy, and, often, we don’t get the external validation. You have to be committed to your values and the issues, but more importantly like you noted, the people that you're serving.
So let me shift again. Like I mentioned earlier in the interview, you come from an old school, gold-standard journalism lineage. Your father is a legend-status reporter for the AP, and we both were trained from some very skilled leaders in journalism at our alma mater, Drake University. I want to give a shoutout, rest in peace to Ronda Menke.
Jennifer Konfrst: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: Dear, dear Menke, a mentor of ours. I still miss her deeply. We are also in a time where fake news claims shut down anything meaningful in a conversation even proper vetting. So you and I were even trained that blogging was an opinion column in a newspaper, but now it's seen as hard news, right? So how do leaders navigate the firehose of information coming their way? How do we navigate that? What do you tell people about this when you teach in your journalism classes?
Jennifer Konfrst: It's really hard, and fake news is one of the things that I go out and give talks on, and part of my role at Drake is how to circumvent fake news, and I think that people are so hungry for context because of that firehose of news, that when you give them the tools to find that context -- when you can say, "Do you know about Snpoes? Do you know about PolitiFact? Do you know that there's some place on the same computer where you're getting all this information where you can go find out more?" people feel unpowered, 'cause I think that flood of misinformation is overwhelming.
And so, I try to give people the tools they need to dig a little deeper on their own, without having to invest a ton of time, and go see if it's true. You know, we teach people in nursing homes how to do a reverse image search on Google, you know? See that plane crash that you see in this fake news story that's on your feed? That's a FedEx plane from 1987, and if you search the image, you'll see it's been used in, like, 7 different stories over the years, right?
Rebecca Ching: Oh, wow.
Jennifer Konfrst: And so, helping people get that context is very overwhelming and can make people want to just hide (that's what I've seen), and so, giving them so power back and helping news consumers fight back a little bit and find out on their own -- the hard part, Rebecca, is getting them to do the next step which is to tell other people that it's wrong because people don’t want conflict, you know?
Rebecca Ching: You and I are a little unique in that area, huh? [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: Yes, yes. [Laughs] We are not shy about that part. To our benefit, mostly, but yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And also…
Jennifer Konfrst: And also to our determent. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Particularly our amazing partners that rumble with us.
Jennifer Konfrst: Exactly. Patience beyond patience, in my case. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: We married well.
Jennifer Konfrst: Yes, we did.
Rebecca Ching: We married well. So thank you for that. I love that you actually do this kind of education in nursing homes, out in the public just talking about fake news. So I want to ask you, how does viral news impact quality news especially in politics?
Jennifer Konfrst: Well, it makes it just much worse, right? It impacts policy because it used to be, when my dad was covering legislature, the story would come out after the bill had passed. Now, a Tweet might come out in the middle of a debate from a reporter or a rumor might spread through the Capitol pretty fast because of Twitter, and now, all of a sudden, people are changing their votes or we're going to caucus because we're gonna do something different. Some people say, "Well, that's great, right? It's nimble. It's being able to move on the fly." The problem with that is there's not context created or with it, and so, it used to be by the time a story got -- I sound so old -- posted or published, they had talked to people on both sides. It had been looked at by an editor who had said, "Eh, I'm not sure this is right," or," Eh, let's make sure that we're framing this differently." There'd been a third-party validator looking at it, right? None of that happens anymore, and things get spread so quickly that I do think it's -- well, of course, it's hurt news. It's hurt our business. It's made reporters have to be bloggers and tweeters and videographers and graphic designers and all those things, instead of focusing on the news. You hear it from them all the time. It's just incredibly frustrating.
Rebecca Ching: And it goes back to that quote, and that the prose -- sometimes we demonize what they call bureaucracy, and, again, I've worked in all levels of government. Sometimes it's ridiculous, actually a lot of times. There's still a lot of things we need to do better.
Jennifer Konfrst: Mm-hmm. Yep.
Rebecca Ching: But there's also a lot of heroes in government, that's what I saw in my experiences too, and if we are looking at efficiency and expediency, if that's the goal -- and you know what's interesting? I'm in this training right now, and I read this article (and I'll post it to the show notes) that one of the symptoms of the system of white supremacy is urgency.
Jennifer Konfrst: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: And it hit me between the eyes because I love efficiency. Let's get this done, and there's an urgency. Let's fix it, have a solution, be done with it, and I just sat with that, and that was convicting on many levels.
And so, when I think of what you're just saying with politics, there are times in crisis when, I mean, I remember Iowa wrestled (and has several times) with natural disasters. We need expediency then. We need resolutions. We need things passed, but when it comes to the -- it's not forgetting about the people that we're serving, whether it's in politics, whether it's in an online business, whether it's in your nonprofit, your school, your home, your real estate business, whatever that may be, we're working with humans, with people.
So I want to wrap up with asking you how can leaders, themselves, be better consumers of journalism and how they better discern what information they share, they disseminate?
Jennifer Konfrst: So the advice that I always give is -- well, especially as leaders, we have a responsibility that's even greater, I think, than someone who isn't in a position of leadership, to judiciously share content and to share content in a way that we feel is contributing to the conversation in a positive, meaningful, thoughtful way.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Jennifer Konfrst: I think we have to. It's our job, and so, it's a burden of leadership. I know this is unburdened leadership, but it is one of our things.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Jennifer Konfrst: So I suggest that people -- you know, I mean, I wish there was a "pause" button on retweet where it said, "Are you sure?" Twitter's trying this a little bit, but you find out if the story's covered by anything else before you share it, right, especially breaking news. You know, today's the anniversary (the day we're recording this) of The Boston Marathon bombing.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh.
Jennifer Konfrst: Just a horrible -- a lot of examples of bad journalism there, right? A lot of examples of bad journalism that day because people were trying to be first. So making sure it's been covered by someone else. As a leader, we don’t need to be first. We don’t have to be the first one to tell somebody news. You and I as journalism majors love to be the first person to tell people things. That’s part of our DNA, but, you know, making sure it's written by a reputable source. What else has the author written? Click on the author's name and see what else she's written.
Look to see if it's coming from a website that has a particular point of view. None of this is to say you should stop sharing it after that, but understand what you're sharing before you do, and I think a lot of that comes from what you just talked about, about urgency, right? Why is it so important that I tell this or that I share this now? Isn't it something that I could spend another half an hour looking at before I share it so that I can make sure that what I'm putting my name, my reputation behind is accurate, helpful, and contributes, you know? I think the pause, right, is a really important part of what we do always, and I'm gonna sit with that quote about white supremacy and urgency a lot because we see it at the Capitol a lot. I'm not talking about white supremacy, necessarily, I'm talking about the hidden curriculum of a legislature, the hidden curriculum of college, right? Language that other people don’t understand and that's used to the advantage of those who are in power.
Rebecca Ching: Got it.
Jennifer Konfrst: Systems that people don’t understand, right?
Rebecca Ching: Totally.
Jennifer Konfrst: So yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Gosh, Jennifer. If listeners wanted to connect with you, where can people find you, follow you, learn more from you and about you?
Jennifer Konfrst: I would love it. My website is jenniferkonfrst.com, which is K-O-N-F-R-S-T. It looks wrong, but it's right, like first without an "I." Then I'm @jkonfrst on Twitter, and then all my contact information's on there too. So I love conversations. I love to talk about this stuff so anyone should feel free to reach out.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you so much for being here. I will say, when I talk about you, I say, "Watch my friend. She's gonna be going places." Do you have any ambitions or thoughts about other elected offices? Anything you're dreaming about?
Jennifer Konfrst: I've gotta tell you -- and this isn’t a political answer -- I really love the Iowa House. I'd like to stay in the House and get some work done there.
It's scrappy, it's fast, it's accessible, and it's loud, and a lot of really good stuff can happen there if we get in charge. So that's really all I think about.
Rebecca Ching: I love it! I have a feeling that someone's gonna come knockin' in the future for some other things, so you heard it here first.
Jennifer, thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate you; I appreciate the work that you're doing, and I appreciate your heart and your leadership. Thank you so much for your time today.
Jennifer Konfrst: Right back at you, Rebecca. Thank you.
Rebecca Ching: The choice to stay engaged in the process that supports our democracy may feel like an exhausting, intellectual exercise that is detached from the day-to-day grind. Well, it's not. Staying engaged is an investment in your impact as a leader, and right now, there is a fight for how our democracy is run. It has been chipped away for a while, and now, with over 300 bills in various states attempting to change how we elect our local, state, and federal leaders and who can engage in this process, you guys, so much is at stake.
State Representative Jennifer Konfrst shared how the power of listening to her constituents and staying informed by their needs helped her stay engaged and kept her showing up when the noise from her opponents was loud and the attacks got really personal. This focus fueled her (even when she wanted to tap out) and inspires her in her commitments, even in the slog of failure after failure. There is a lot we can learn from how Jennifer moved from the desire to tap out, listening to those we are serving, and staying focused on the big picture is a huge learning. How can you support the spaces you lead to be more engaged in the political process while staying grounded in your values? What support do you need to increase your capacity for holding space for feedback and hard conversations?
How do you make space for rest when you're ready to give up and tap out? Stay engaged -- gosh, please, stay engaged -- and do the work to push back on those who are counting on you to get overwhelmed and tap out.
Leading is hard, and these days it feels exceptionally hard. Leading is also, often, controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence and clarity and calm. You don’t mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action. Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small.
Leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights, it is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is actionable and aligned.
When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.
To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. If you want to help support the show, please subscribe, download, and share with someone you might think appreciates this episode, and if you particularly value this episode, I’d be honored if you left a review. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me www.rebeccaching.com.