Podcast: Civil Rights & Racial Equity with Joshua Barr, Des Moines, IA

Posted on May 14, 2021

Joshua Barr - GovLove

Joshua Barr

Joshua Barr
Director of Civil and Human Rights
City of Des Moines, IA
LinkedIn | Twitter

Breaking bread, building bridges. Joshua Barr, Director of Civil & Human Rights at the City of Des Moines, Iowa, joined the podcast to discuss his work with the City, including his Emmy Award-winning documentary. He talked about the engagement and policy work the City has done around equity, including their Bridging the Gap initiative and a cultural competency training for employees. Joshua also gave a sneak preview of his #ELGLPopUps keynote session.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Learn More

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Voices of metro Des Moines’ Black leaders: Calling for changes in mind-sets, policies to end systemic racism

Episode Transcription

Ben Kittelson  00:00

Before we get into today’s episode, Gov Love is brought to you by Granicus. With upticks in post vaccine travel right around the corner, it’s time to address short term rentals in your community. If you don’t have a short term rental regulation, or enforcement program in place, you could be missing out on tourism related tax revenue and risking damage to your communities character. Granicus hosts compliance helps you with everything from address identification to ordinance reviews and compliance monitoring. If you’d like to learn more about short term rental regulation, and Granicus host compliance, go to granicus.com to schedule a free consultation. That’s granicus.com for more information. Hey y’all! Coming to you from Jacksonville, Florida, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben kittelson, consultant at Raftelis, and Gov Love co host. We’ve got a great episode for you today, we’re talking equity and human rights in Des Moines. But first, the best way to support Gov Love is to become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. And ELGL pop ups are coming. We’re going to talk more about this with Joshua today. But pop ups are ELGL’s approach to regional conferencing, will be hosted virtually next week on May 21, 2021. So you should go get your ticket now. Visit ELGLPopUps.com to save your spot. Now, let me introduce today’s guest. Joshua Barr is the director of civil and human rights for the city of Des Moines, Iowa, a position he’s been in since 2015. Before taking on his current role, he worked for the South Carolina human affairs commission, where he worked on fair housing issues and increasing enforcement of civil rights violations. He’s also our first Emmy Award winner on Gov love for a documentary called breaking bread and building bridges. And he’s going to be the keynote speaker at ELGL pop ups next week. So with that, Josh, welcome to Gov Love. Thank you so much for joining us.

Joshua Barr  02:06

Hey, happy to be here today and look forward to talking with you. 

Ben Kittelson  02:10

Awesome. So we we have a tradition on the podcast to do a lightning round to get to know our guests a little better. So my first question for you, What book are you reading?

Joshua Barr  02:18

I am reading criminal violence criminal justice by Charles E. Silberman.

Ben Kittelson  02:25

That’s very on brand for your for your work.

Joshua Barr  02:30

Yeah, I love this. I love he wrote my favorite book in the world, which is called prices in black and white written in 1964. But most, most of the book is still 90% of it is still relevant today. And he’s written a few other books crisis in the classroom. And now I’ve moved on to criminal violence, criminal justice, all these books are written before I was born, but it’s just amazing how much is still relevant today and how we forget these lessons in life. And I’m just trying to go back to the past to see what we lost our weight and utilize the lessons from the past to move us forward in the future.

Ben Kittelson  03:08

Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Alright, so my next lightning round question for you. What was the first album that you bought?

Joshua Barr  03:13

The first album I bought? Oh, man. I got to go back in time. If I had to guess  it’d probably be criss cross totally crossed out. Maybe, maybe another bad creation. I know Iesha or something like that, if I had to guess I would say it’s one of those two albums.

Ben Kittelson  03:35

That’s awesome.

Joshua Barr  03:40

They’ll be able to vote WBBD-Bootcity or something like that. I’m old school. That was the that was my childhood growing up. So New Edition, Devo, Criss Cross, Another Bad Creation, something like that.

Ben Kittelson  03:55

Wait better than the boyband album that I think was my first which is like, probably 98 degrees or in NSYNC or something, so.

Joshua Barr  04:03

Yeah, I prefer the Backstreet Boys but okay.

Ben Kittelson  04:09

Next lightning round question for you. Is there a show or movie that you’ve lost recently that that you’d recommend?

Joshua Barr  04:15

For anybody in local government, I think the best movie you can ever watch is a movie called Ikiru Ikiru, which is a Japanese film made in the 1950s. Ikiru in Japanese means, “to live” and it’s about a person that works for municipal government who is trying to find his purpose in life. Now, I first watched that movie a few years back, but it changed my life in about two hours long, but it’s one of the most impactful films I’ve ever watched in life understanding, trying to find my purpose and my way in the world and whenever I feel lost, I can go back to that film and it’s definitely one of my favorite films in the entire world. Akira Kurosawa is the one who made it. He also made like Seven Samurai. He’s a famous old school director, my favorite director in the world. So I would recommend that for anybody listening if you want to watch something that’s inspiring. Ikiru is a great film.

Ben Kittelson  05:18

Awesome. Okay. I’m inspired to go watch it right now. Awesome. This is almost like you, you were you were reading the next question ahead or something. So where do you go for inspiration? And I’m gonna say you can’t use your movie answer as this.

Joshua Barr  05:34

That’s fine, that’s fine. You know, where do I go for inspiration? I go to a number of places. And I think the first place I go is people, young people in particular, my my nieces and nephews give me the motivation to keep going, knowing that I’m not just working for me, but I’m working for the generations that follow me. I do a lot of talking in schools and engaging young people trying to give them the tools and the tools that I did not receive when I was in school to help motivate them has been really inspiring, especially you know, now I’ve been doing this work for a few years, and I run into some like, hey, I want to let you know, I’m in college and I’m doing this and it was because of you and blah, blah, blah. I really appreciate your inspiration and those things like melt my heart. Not just speaking into the wind, somebody is listening. And also I mean, I’m a book reader, also listen to a lot of speeches from from people from history. You know, not just the MLK, but the Kwame Tures and Malcolm X and a few other persons throughout history, both both famous and and just, you know, community activists that really give me that inspiration to keep going to notice struggle isn’t alone. And, you know, I think those are the primary things, just young people in general, just seeing children play, you know, gives me inspiration to keep going. So I like to do a lot of events with young people because they give me the fuel to keep moving. 

Ben Kittelson  07:06

Awesome. I love that. Yeah, seeing the future, right?

Joshua Barr  07:09


Ben Kittelson  07:11

All right. And then this isn’t really a lightning round question but I want to give you a chance to talk about the documentary that you worked on and was an Emmy Award winner. So what is breaking bread building bridges? Can you can you just give a little background on kind of that project? And yeah.

Joshua Barr  07:27

so breaking bread building bridges is a documentary we shot here in Des Moines. It was a project, we didn’t intend for it to really be a documentary initially. But we had just done a a round of deliberative dialogues that were really successful in the city that helped us change policy, and helped us, you know, get some things passed to move equitable initiatives forward in the community. And my then intake officer was like, yo, we should document that. I was like, oh no, I want I want people to feel free to talk. And then it was so successful. I was like, man, we should have documented that. And so but we have another idea in the pipeline, we break with bridging the gap, that initiative, we talked about that we didn’t document that thing, policy change initiative. But we also know that to really bring about justice, you also have to change hearts and minds, which can lead to resistance in policy change if you if you’re not doing that. So breaking bread building bridges was a project we’d be able to we did a call out to members of the community asked him they wanted to participate in a series of dinners with a stranger matched up based on your differences. And we got over 200 people that have probably applied to be a part of it. And we interviewed about 70 people, and we finalize it to close to 40 persons where we match them up so we have to we had 17 groups or 34 people and they matched up based on our differences whether it was race, whether it was age, whether it was sexual orientation, political ideology, you know, you have an a record, you know, versus be matched up with cop, etcetera, and really trying to see good people come together and find common ground. So the first two dinners were public, you know, you match it up, you sit in a restaurant, and you match that with a person we had a special part of a restaurant. And we kind of did some icebreakers, getting people to talk and kind of come together. And we actually didn’t really focus on the differences for this project. We actually focused on the similarities. The second dinner, we watched the documentary on race and then had a, was scheduled to be a two hour discussion on race, but went to four. It was one of the best discussions on race that we’ve ever had- I’ve ever been a part of, excuse me- and then from there, we If the person’s felt comfortable, which seemed like everyone did, they had dinner in their home. So one time you had dinner your home, and as a casual dinner, how we normally have dinner. And then a few weeks later you flip it and go into the other person’s home and have a casual dinner there, can be a family, it can be cold pizza, we didn’t put any restrictions on it. And then we got bought, came together one more time for a final dinner, where we discussed, what did you learn about yourself? What are your takeaways from it? And you know, in these polarizing times, inspiration for it was kind of the polarizing times we live in. And as someone who, when I was new to the city, a number of people wanted to, like meet with me and get to know me. And, you know, we’d have lunch together, but I really wasn’t, you know, getting to know people that’s only an hour, you know, sometimes we go over the course, but you know, when you let someone sit down have dinner, no time restriction and just have conversation, I find that, you know, most people can find the common ground and, and not focus on their differences, and really work together to see the humanity in one another. And that’s a project we did in 2020, we won an Emmy for that, the governor’s award, which is the highest honor, you can get for an Emmy, because all of the every board of all persons on the Board of Governors for the for the regional Emmy we won, thought that this was a film that really captured the essence of what should we should be trying to do as a community.

Ben Kittelson  11:36

That’s, that’s really cool. So if listeners want to like check that out and watch that, where could they find it?

Joshua Barr  11:42

It is on YouTube, and it’s also on Facebook. So you can just type in breaking bread building bridges, Des Moines, Des, space, Moines, and you should be able to it should pop up either in Google your Google in a Google search, or in a YouTube or Facebook search.

Ben Kittelson  12:04

Very cool. Well, and we’ll link to that in the show notes for today’s episode as well. That’s, that’s awesome. And congrats on the Emmy Award. And I think, based on just seeing some of the photos that you have, like on your LinkedIn and stuff was like you’re doing exactly what I would do if if I wanted an award like that. Every photo is with me and the award like I’m posing, it’s very relatable.

Joshua Barr  12:25

Well. My staff had to convince me though because I’m not a gloater. They’re like, no you need to celebrate this, you need to celebrate this. (Unintelligible) You know it’s funny. In honor of (Unintelligible). I really try not to put the emphasis on me, because I don’t believe that you know, one person alone does things and completely does it. I appreciate some of my staff members just like, Nah, you need to celebrate. And so that’s been, that’s been encouraging.

Ben Kittelson  13:09

Yeah, you got to, you got to take time to celebrate those wins. 

Joshua Barr  13:12


Ben Kittelson  13:14

All right, so l, we’ll kind of shift gears a little bit. I’m always curious how folks, kinda end up in their their current role or in their career path. And I know it’s part of the intro, I kind of went through a little bit of your background, but kind of from, you know, can you tell us like how you ended up in local government, how you ended up in the city of Des Moines?

Joshua Barr  13:32

Well, I started out as a civil rights attorney in the state of South Carolina working for the civil rights agency, the South Carolina human affairs commission. And while I was there, we had you know, a number of racial incidents in the state of South Carolina three that stand out, two that most people around the country probably remember. That one is Walter Scott shooting where he was shot in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina. And then a few months later, Dylann Roof who went into the South Carolina AME and the church and killed nine people and left three survivors. And in that, I was working for state government and I was going around the state engaging with community on ways that we can enhance civil rights in addition to leading some litigation case work for persons who have violated civil rights. But you know, I’ll admit, you know, the way we teach civil rights is once upon a time, you know, and then Martin Luther King came in and you know, everything is better when I was driving around the state, and I was engaging with local communities, and I grew up in South Carolina. So you would see these rural communities where factories had come and gone because of NAFTA, and other situations, that cause people to go to other parts of the country or parts of the world and It was really, you know, depressing. And prior to that I was just I was a attorney in my in the, in the small town of my grandfather. And I remember interviewing a gentleman one day and he was quizzing me on like, did I know this city and was I from there, and I wasn’t from there, but I spent all my summers here. And he started talking about the past. And you know how Firestone used to be there, and these other factories and, and how things just progressively gotten worse and worse. And he stood up and said, There’s got to be somebody getting rich off all this poverty. And those words stuck with me. And that led me to get in government while I was in state government. I recognize that, you know, just litigating cases, I found a lot of the cases to be the same kind of cases, just a different name. And I don’t want to be a hamster on a wheel, I want to get to a destination. And the destination is a place where people can live free without having to worry about being discriminated against because of the color of skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, etc. And so, after the Walter Scott shooting and the Dylann Roof I just knew I had to do more. So I drafted up a plan of some things that we can do to engage rural communities, in in really trying to make sure people have the ability to move up the socio economic ladder, and not us working alone, but us working in junction with other nonprofits and local entities in the local government of rural communities. And when I presented the idea to my boss, and you know, my colleagues, they liked it, nobody, nobody to my face said, no, this is our way, this could really help highlight our office and bring South Carolina back. But, you know, but all of a sudden, instead of really addressing the racial issues, we suddenly just all taking down the flag, the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina, 130, I mean excuse me, probably like 130 miles and maybe 70 miles from Charleston, was was it was the solution. And I’m not saying the flag shouldn’t come down. But we have a lot of systemic socio economic issues that need to be addressed. And just taking down the flag was not enough. And especially when there’s so many parts of the statehouse grounds that are dedicated to the Confederacy, and to segregation. So, so I, I was when we tried to implement some of the things I wanted to work on, there was a lot of pushback, like, why are we doing this? I don’t know if we can dedicate staff. And so I was just like, you know, I don’t want to do the litigation anymore. I want to do front end administration. So this job suddenly appeared. And I took advantage of that, when when the job appeared. So I, you know, they didn’t require a cover letter. And so I just kind of jumped at it. And once I dove in, I really just understood the impact of local government, and how a lot of the funding that come from federal and comes from state is made, where that money goes is made on at the at the local government level level, and most people don’t understand local government, they don’t understand a council manager relationship. You know, my very first day here on the job, somebody said, you know, they were in a meeting my very first day, they said, man we’ve been commenting about this for 10 years. And I’m like, 10 years? Wow. And so I read the ordinance, I was like, well, that’s the problem, maybe, he’s only one vote, the other city council members can, people don’t understand those relationships (Unintelligible). And just understanding how local government works, I’ve decided to use that as kind of a catalyst to really help educate people on local government, get them more involved, you know only about 15% of the US population, I believe, participates in local government elections. That’s just because we don’t understand the impact of it. And that’s how I got here. And I don’t know if I’m going anywhere anytime soon in regards to local government service, just because I realized the importance and the impact the happens in communities.

Ben Kittelson  19:01

Yeah. I’m curious, like, obviously, like there are, you know, equity issues all over this country, but the nature of them and we’re gonna talk more specifically about Des Moines here in a little, but the nature of them is pretty different by region. And I imagine the the culture shock of going to Des Moines from South Carolina might have been pretty stark, but what’s your perspective or your experience on that? Like, how was that kind of transition from going, you know, not, you know, in from the south and in pretty diverse state to kind of Iowa which is, you know, maybe not quite the same as South Carolina.

Joshua Barr  19:37

Well, I’ll say this. The hardest culture shock I’ve ever had in my life was honestly, I lived in Columbia, South America for a few years and the culture shock wasn’t coming there. It was coming back. Probably back to the United States was probably the hardest thing for me to do. You know, living abroad really opened my eyes to the challenges that we face, around the world, around the nation in regards to inequalities, especially regarding color of skin, and ethnicity. And so when I was living in South Carolina did, I came, you know, living Colombia, South America for a few years, and then I came back to South Carolina. That shift was, was, it was, it was pretty it was, it was hard, it was very difficult the first year or so it just took so long to get readjusted back in the United States. But then you don’t have to be in in the United States for three years, I made the transition to Iowa. And it’s just different, I would say, you know, a lot of things, you know, in the south, there are a few people that, you know, we go along to get along. And, and a lot of the, you know, the Animus and racism is in your face, which, as a young kid, you know, you don’t appreciate, how can you treat me like that, then you move to the Midwest and it’s more, it’s more subtle, and it’s very passive aggressive, and it’s like, oh ya I appreciates the Southern form a little better. Because at least you know, where people stand. And people, you know, you’ll sit in a meeting, and it sounds great. And people, you know, we go to meetings all the time. I’ve never been to so many meetings in my life, but you know, what’s happening after the meeting, where we’re at? Where is our focus at? And so I think that was probably a little different. Here, I would say you have a lot of a lot of passionate people who may identify as progressive. But, you know, how do we translate that passion into progress. And I think that’s probably a missing element. That’s one of the things that actually attracted me to Des Moines when I came here. The second time I did, I did two interviews, the first time I turned the job down, and they re invited me back, because when they told me your first time, they only showed me like the good stuff. And, you know, civil rights, equity work is honorable, but it’s not glamorous, meaning, you know, if I’m always in high rise, you know, you know, smoosing with the with, with the higher ups, I’m doing something wrong. So, so, they brought me back for a second tour, and they gave me, showed me some of the, you know, the underbelly some of the challenges, and I said okay, well, I have some work I can do here, then because we have problems. And so you know, just that transition is a little different, just in the way people engage. I’m more of a fan of southern hospitality, and I love Southern food, even as a vegan. But yeah, it’s definitely you know, I wouldn’t say it was a culture shock, but just a readjustment, understanding that, you know, not everyone’s going to be forthcoming, not everyone’s going to tell me to my face, you know, where they stand, and I have to really judge people in deed not word. It’s something you should live by anyway. But it’s something I definitely pay more attention to here in the Midwest.

Ben Kittelson  23:00

Yeah. Now, that the makes, that sounds very familiar too. I moved to the south from from the state of Oregon. And there’s some similarities, I think, between the between Oregon and your experience in Des Moines.

Joshua Barr  23:15

I’ve heard, I’ve heard, Here we call it Iowa Nice.

Ben Kittelson  23:18

Yeah. So close listeners or longtime fans of golf club will will recognize that we talked to one of your staff members, Maisha, I think last, last year to talk about some of the work y’all do. But I’m curious can, can you give us kind of a little bit of lay of the land of the civil and human rights firm? And so kind of how do you guys have, you know, what is the makeup of the office? And how do you how do you have folks organized and what are sort of sort of the focus areas of your work?

Joshua Barr  23:47

So traditionally, civil rights departments really focus on just, you know, civil rights investigations, investigating case by case discrimination. As someone who has done this work for almost eight years now, I really recognize we have to go deeper, that we can’t just look at surface level discrimination, we have to go to the root of the cause, and really try to root out and weed out systemic issues in our country. And in in, in here in Des Moines in particular, where I reside. So we still do the case by case civil rights investigations, but we’ve kind of, you know, transformed into doing a lot of the internal, external equity work as well, where we also will essentially in that we work on policy, we have three focuses one, we investigate cases of discrimination, civil rights violations, two we engage the community through dialogues and trainings, and then three, we propose equitable policies, and they all work together. None of them work separate and apart because sometimes you work on an investigation and you recognize that the issue is much deeper than In person, and that is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed. So then those are policy proposals or or stepping in on behalf of an entire group of people through litigation. Through community engagement and community dialogue, which is a real focus that I like to focus on, we give the community a voice and where we should be focused on as a government and making sure that the community understands that they have a voice and and and the wreck in the in the direction of what we do and what we should, what we believe that our elected representatives should be focused on. And within, in that we develop equitable policy and we and then, what I’m hoping is that as we develop these policies, we can then come back and look at the impact that is having on some of the issues in our city, here in Des Moines.

Ben Kittelson  25:54

And, and I read, like, when you first took on this job, you kind of had some, some, some work to kind of get buy in, and I’m kind of this work generally within the organization, what was, or proving the value of it, I guess, um, what was that process like? Like, how did you go about being like, this is why this work needs to exist here. This is why we have to keep building up this department. Like what was that process of kind of getting that, showing the value and kind of building that buy in?

Joshua Barr  26:18

Well, I think, you know, probably a few months, a few months before I was hired, they had a vote on whether or not to keep the department because, and the vote passed four-three, which which means that you know, it was pretty darn close, one vote could have swayed it and knowing my City Manager, he would have never even brought it to a vote. If he didn’t think it was going to go the other way, which was to, you know, get rid of the department. He’s a very strategic person. Like, you know, I think one of one of the persons that is, you know, sways conservative, you know, had a change of heart at the meeting, I was told and went the other way. And, and I think, you know, the community wanted to keep it but you know, you know, when you’re making, you know, most municipal municipal governments have a very lean budget, and you’re trying to make some cuts, and hey let’s cut this place, we don’t know, we don’t really understand it, really understand the value it adds. So when I came in, again, I knew I couldn’t just focus on case by case discrimination coming from South Carolina working for a department that, you know, only focused on case by case discrimination, not looking at the systemic problem and challenges that we have that lead to a lot of the individual cases of discrimination. So I really just engaged community, and just really showing community, the worth in what we do, and really giving them a voice on what we should be focused on. And, you know, my first meeting, where I had a joint meeting with City Council, I had 150 people show up, and we had 100 people show up to the next one, and the next one, and all of a sudden, you know, city councilors are seeing very diverse faces coming to city council meetings, and it’s like, oh, okay, all right, guys, this a different. Maybe there is value in this, you know, and some people probably still say, now, he’s showing people how city government works. (Unintelligible). But yeah, I really just focused on community, in focusing on their concerns, some of the gaps, some of the challenges, I think, you know, we had a few incidents, probably about five or six months in, where, you know, there was a gentleman that was, you know, killed in the custody of law enforcement. And, you know, there are some, you know, the chain of custody, you know, he’s arrested by the police and then wound up in arms of a sheriff and then died and then we have a food truck incident where there was certain members of the city that wanted to have certain restrictions on food trucks not understanding the impact that it had on in particular, Latino food truck owners who make up the vast majority of food trucks in the city and pointing out some of those concerns and some of the community’s concerns about not being heard, we were able to demonstrate our value in our work and keeping our ears and eyes to the pulse of the community. And being able to kind of be that bridge between city government and city leaders in the community to kind of address some of the concerns and hear some of the challenges that still need to be addressed at the City.

Ben Kittelson  29:37

We’ll be right back to today’s episode. Gov Love is brought to you by Granicus. With upticks in post vaccine travel right around the corner, it’s time to address short term rentals in your community. Short term rentals are often found in sites like Airbnb and VRBO. And if you don’t have a short term rental regulation enforcement program in place, you could be missing out on tourism related tax revenue and risking damage to your communities character. Granicus host compliance has helped over 350 communities with their short term rental challenges, from address identification, to ordinance reviews and compliance monitoring. If you’d like to learn more about short term rental activity in your area, or best practices for regulation and enforcement, visit granicus.com for a free consultation, that’s granicus.com for more information. Now, back to the show. That’s fascinating, and I think it’s interesting, like your kind of legal background and like that, bringing that side of it to this work in that, I mean, I’ve talked to a fair number of folks that that are doing kind of equity or run or part of equity offices in different cities, and you’re probably maybe not the first but you’re one of the few that has that legal piece of that. That legal background for sure. And then the piece of the kind of their portfolio of work. How do you think that informs kind of the other pieces of your of the like engagement and the policymaking kind of that, just that, that I don’t know, that law, legal background, versus maybe what, you know, someone that was an activist and kind of moved into a role like you have?

Joshua Barr  31:10

That’s a good question, I think, you know, now that I think about it, I think, you know, one of the ways it helps is, you know, I’m not, I’m not here for for feelings, I’m here, I’m here to pass on laws, and understand that, you know, our country is built on law and economics, and therefore, we need to improve the laws and improve the economic conditions. And that’s really what I focus on. I think, with that legal background, I have the ability to draft up and present certain things, like utilize some legal research to see what’s happening in other areas and tweak it to the challenges of our community. And, you know, I think because of that we’ve been able to bring about about around 20 initiatives in our bridging the gap initiative, to address some of the concerns about source of income, making sure that government employees aren’t inquiring about about a person’s immigration status, workforce Equity Plan, we just, we’re working right now, as we speak on a social equity grant where the city is utilizing some of its local option sales tax dollars to give back to the community, for organizations that are really focused in on trying to make sure we improve the socio economic opportunities of communities. And so I would say the legal part just really helps to really understand that at the end of the day, if you aren’t addressing policy, and you aren’t addressing laws, in a country that is calls itself a Republic, that you really are making much moves, but I still operate, you know, in an activist mindset with the community engagement, but I try to keep the community engaged, not on passion, but on progress and in progress, progress in the United States, as defined by economics, and laws and benefits, so.

Ben Kittelson  33:03

Interesting. Yeah. That, thanks, I was just curious about that as because I, you have kind of a unique background compared to other folks that I’ve talked to. So um, you mentioned that one, the bridging the gap initiative, can you talk more about that? What is what is that initiative and kind of what’s what was the I know, it’s led to a lot of other kind of pieces of work and other kind of plans and stuff that you, y’all are working on. But what was that maybe that process and kind of that initiative at a, at a high level?

Joshua Barr  33:30

So the bridging the gap initiative is essentially an initiative that is designed to improve the relationship between local government and members of the community. And that really came about because we, when I first got here, I mean, we had town halls all the time, and people were just yelling, and just yelling. And you know, I was called to be a part of some, and I just didn’t really understand the point. You know, some people came in with swords, other people came in with shields. And you know, the people that came in with swords, they were able to voice their concerns, they would feel good, but we really hadn’t been really looking at what was accomplished through this town hall. In a (Unintelligible), then maybe we need to call it that other than a town hall. And so I have a background in deliberative dialogue where you sit communities down, and really focus on an issue and how we move forward on that issue through packet discussion, working with the Kettering Foundation and the national issues forum. And so what I wanted to do is use community voice, give community a voice in local government and where we think we should focus our direction. And, and we utilize those dialogues, we had a few listening sessions, dialogue sessions around the city, I would say we had, you know, close to 30 where we just listened to The concerns of the community. And we utilize their 200 plus talking points and ideas to form nine, policy and policies. And we did like kind of nine policy concept nine concepts, then we have an art gallery, where we have those policy concepts written and drawn up by an artist, Nathan T Wright. And we had a facilitator at each one and  persons cold walk by and ask questions to the facilitator about each one. And ultimately, we asked the community to vote on the top three, and why we asked him to be able to vote on a top three, and rather not just, you know, rank them in order, because communities understand we also have to prioritize, you can’t do everything at once. And, you know, all of these events, you didn’t do all of that. I agree, but where should we focus? And we utilize that to move forward on about 20 initiatives that we’re working on, some have past, others are still in process. And cultural competency training for all city staff is one of those things that we’ve gotten past sources of income as a protected class, the social equity grant, government employees have been able to inquire about protected class status, creating a program where every city employee has a certain number of hours each year, that where they can volunteer, creating a culture of giving back, creating a housing initiatives program to make sure that those who want to live in the city, we’ve given them a downpayment, on a home, to live in the city or even, you know, part of our, their their rent is covered. And that’s in the workflow that’s at the pipeline, and others probably be completed by the time we’re done here. By the time this is aired, like, you know, those are just some of the several initiatives that we’re working on. Some things we’re working on, like the Fair Chance ordinance, making sure that we have protections for our returning residents who may have been incarcerated, making sure they’re not tried twice in life. So we got those things from engaging the community. And because of that, it’s allowed them to see that they can have a voice in government and have a voice in the direction of the city, knowing that knowing that, you know, again, they have a voice. So that’s really what we’re focused on, utilizing dialogues to engage community to develop equitable policies that can move our community forward.

Ben Kittelson  37:41

Yeah, it shows that they can, they can have an impact on where their city goes. So those like specific initiatives or like policy changes that that resulted from this engagement, or those things that like, you know, someone had that idea, and you’re like, wow, we can go implement that right now? Or is it more we hear, you know, you know, safety and public safety is an issue from the community. And we think that here’s eight things that we can do to address that, or I guess, what’s the mix of like, here’s an idea pulled directly from the mouth of or from the head of someone that attended, versus like, we we kind of hear these heard these themes, and here’s how we as kind of, you know, the experts think we can get out these, this this thing?

Joshua Barr  38:21

That is a great question. I think it’s more of the latter, rather than the former. One of the challenges we had when we first started, I mean, I’d be in a room full of persons who were college educated, and they were just throwing out buzzwords like accountability, transparency, what does that mean? But what do you mean? Well, I don’t really know. And, and so we had to kind of on the fly. And I definitely believe in building why you sell this is not going to be perfect. Engaging in is never going to be perfect when you’re engaging with human beings. So we kind of tweaked it a bit, and kind of did more of a mayor for a day format, even though you know, technically the way our city is structured, it doesn’t work. But people understood the concept like as a mayor, what are some things you would focus on? And so we, you know, having closed their eyes and envision the community and what they see and really talk about that. And they were able to articulate not an idea or policy, but some of the things they would like to focus on. And so we were able to weave together through all those discussions, common threads, and utilize those on the concepts upon which we thought would be good. However, we did not take those concepts and just say, we should do this, we had to take those concepts back to the community and said, here’s the thing we heard, are we on the right path? Vote for the ones that you think would be good. And we didn’t get anybody who said hey well that idea I had, or that idea I said, I didn’t see it anywhere. Like no, we actually literally took their word and their voices and crafted things that we thought would be good for the community and I didn’t make the assumption of that, we went back to the community. And over the course of a few months, you know bringing those things back and then we presented to city council what one, well actually, I don’t want to say what one, bit what were the top initiatives. So it’s a good question. And we found that most people, unfortunately, in our education system have been told, you know, what the thing and how to think. A lot of critical thinking skills have been lost along the way. So, um, we’ve learned that when we’re engaging community, we have to help them envision rather than just ask what should we work on, you got to get them to envision. And in in my helping them envision we’re able to pull more out, even if they aren’t able to really focus on equitable policy.

Ben Kittelson  40:50

That’s fascinating. So you’re, you’re asking them to kind of figure out what the what what the perfect end result or end state is and then, and then you guys can kind of fill in the way to get that rather than them coming up with ideas that may or may not be possible, realistic, legal.

Joshua Barr  41:06

Yeah. But I think in that, in that discussion, where, again, it’s kind of like you said, when they were just throwing out words like safety and transparency, etc. Through that visioning, we got to see the community they envision and understanding that, and I think with, through that process, I think the community is a little, you know, I think I think they’re better equipped to think about some of the things they want. I mean, I think, you know, in light of some of the protests that have happened over the past year, some of them want to get to 100, you know, in one second, and we’re trying to teach them, you know, like, the way we got here was gradual. And, and not, and I don’t believe in gradualism, but we have to make sure that the policies and things that we’re moving forward on are realistic, and something that can be acted upon, and is not just some pipe dream that we hope for. So, so I would definitely say do the process and communities really learn to think about policy. But it’s still a challenge. Because sometimes, you know, people just focus on the tree, rather than really focus on the entire forest, I’m trying to focus on the entire forest, and making sure that we have policies in place that are really addressing the challenges that the forest needs. 

Ben Kittelson  42:26

Interesting, interesting. And so like, it sounds like the bridging the gap process itself was a fair amount of back and forth with community. Is that, is this something you think you’ll do, you know, every two years, every three years or five years, like what’s, you know, what’s the timeline on like, you know, we checked off all the boxes. Now, we want to go back and see what folks think now?

Joshua Barr  42:43

I think the best thing for, our dialogue needs to be ongoing. But there’s two, there’s two kinds, there’s that immediate listening to the concerns. And then there’s the overall, you know, holistic policy shaping and forming. So I think, you know, if you’re not dialoguing, you know, the community, you know, communities and people in general, more like, what have you done for me lately, and if you aren’t in the community, you aren’t engaging, you’re coming back to demonstrate what you’re doing, they quickly forget. So I think, you know, step one is to engage, to develop policy, and then you enter into a project management phase, where you are really trying to work through and get those things passed. And some of that is, you know, negotiations with different entities, different groups, including the politicians sometimes. And then you come back and show people the progress, what we worked on, here is the impact, and then you do need to enter into a new round. And my hope is that it happens every two to three years, where you really do that deep, deep engagement, where you’re trying to utilize information to determine where we should go. And I think with the pandemic and some of the social unrest that have happened over the past year, now’s a great time for communities to reimagine where they want to go in and reform and rethink community, so now is the greatest time as any to really dialogue with the community. And I think one of the big failures of certain communities who did not dialogue, who’ve never really engaged, or really done a lot of top down governing, those communities came out in force, even though what happened in in what happened in Georgia didn’t happen in their city and they really protest. There are other cities, Baltimore, which is actually known for protesting, and New York, New Jersey, they didn’t really have those issues, because they really decided to take a community first engagement approach and other cities as well. Where, and and those persons knew that they had a relationship with their city and therefore, you know, there were even though there may have been some people that wanted to maybe, you know, be like a Portland or etc. They had other people who was like, No, no, our government, our mayor, our city management is really willing to work with us, continue to work with them, to talk with them. That’s why engagement and dialogue is so important. And I think anyone who’s doing this work and I think when you talk about equity, a lot of people only want to focus on internal equity, what do we need to do within city government or our department. We don’t have the external equity, and what we need to do as a government to shape our city and to make sure that we do that, we’re not just focused on the inside, but we’re focused on the outside and giving back because people don’t know always what’s happening on the inside, we also have to focus on what we can do to improve the equitable conditions of person on the outside of the community. So I think dialogue is so important, and that we have to continue to do that. It’s a continual thing. But sometimes it’s just making sure Hey, is everything okay? How can we help you? Other things is, we think about diving in and and really addressing this concern and we want your voice in it. How can, What do you think about this? And when people feel heard, they’re less likely to act out or lash out in particular.

Ben Kittelson  46:06

Yeah. So just, you know, kind of, since the the protests and the killing of George Floyd, for the last year has, has that changed how y’all have engaged with with folks or with the community? And I imagine, you know, bridging the gap you, you’d probably done a bulk of that work before the pandemic. What, what’s what’s kind of been the change since in the last year?

Joshua Barr  46:27

You know, that’s a great question. And, and I’ll say, and I’ll be honest, I think, you know, we’ve demonstrated through the dialogues that we’re able to actually engage. We’re not going to town halls, where people are just, you know, using the mic and yelling, and people walking away defensive. But, you know, that was something new for the city that was new for both the politicians, and that was new for the community. And sometimes in the midst of crisis, you fall back into bad habits. And I think the community fell back into the habit of we’re angry, and the, and I think we, as a city in the city government didn’t really take advantage and try to re-engage and dialogue with people. I definitely wanted to. But I think, you know, Old habits die hard, and the polarization of policing and, and you know, who’s side is a politician on, and I think certain people just went back into their corners, and didn’t really strive to engage in and instead fell back into the things they have been doing for decades. And so that was definitely a missed opportunity. And I feel like we, in many cities around the country need to utilize this moment, because the summer is coming real quick and I can guarantee that somewhere in this country, as demonstrated during the Derek Chauvin, Derek Chauvin trial, there’s going to be some officer that you know, kills and I’m not saying whether it’s right or wrong, just saying it’s gonna happen, that kills some, some person of African descent or Latino descent, and people are gonna be upset about it. So you need to start engaging yesterday. And if you didn’t start yesterday, today is a great time to start and dialogues and giving people a voice is a great way for people to be heard. Developing community response teams, where you actually when there is a concern, where persons can be asked questions and persons can be held accountable and understand that maybe this policy or practice we have isn’t good for the city is very important. And I think that’s something that communities are still missing. Here in in this line of work.

Ben Kittelson  48:46

You mentioned earlier kind of the the two sides of like equity work kind of working internally within the city government and then externally on kind of the community concerns and I think this is one of the, I find this area like or this kind of push and pull very, like fascinating and like how different offices choose to tackle this and what they choose to focus on seems like to be completely unique to each city and the you know, the the local pressures and the the realities of their, you know, their organization, like inform all of that. And it seems like like your focus is more on the external. But is that, is that a fair like summation of kind of like the the two sides of this work and kind of what you’ve focused on or has there also been a push to try and do more internal you know, equity engagement like within the city of Des Moines or at the same time or have you tried to focus on on that external over the internal?

Joshua Barr  49:38

Um, so so we have you know, equity officer Manisha Paudel, and she’s definitely focused more on the external part of it. But I think we all have an understanding that, you know, if we’re going to move on this, you know, one person, you know, can’t be the voice. I think, you know, the failure in equity that I see thus far is municipalities, governments, think that we’re going to hire this one person, and this one person is going to come through and change things. And that has not happened in the history of the world. I mean, I can probably, there is not one issue, one point you can make to me and said this one person did it. Lincoln freed the slaves. No, he didn’t. There were 100, hundreds of 1000s of soldiers, including 187,000 persons of African descent who grabbed the gun and fought for their freedom, even though many of them escaped from the south and said, Oh, I’m free. Nobody said no, I know that none of us are free until all of us are free. George Washington didn’t fight the American Independence War alone, he had soldiers and even you know, Jesus Christ had 12 disciples, even the Savior needs somebody. I think the external focus gives you a cushion of protection and sort of a push from the community saying, we need to keep doing these things, we need to keep doing these things. Now, you know, a lot of times when you’re trying to change things on the inside, especially when people are very comfortable in the status quo, you get a lot of pushback, and that community can can be that buffer when people push back, well, maybe we shouldn’t push back too far, it might upset, you know, that might upset members of the community. So I think you have to have a dual focus. And in and you get your spread from the community. And so I, you know, I personally really believe that, you know, all in regards to equity and civil rights work, if you look throughout history, that the community has really been that push to make politicians and make governments transform. And therefore understanding that history, I definitely don’t believe I should just solely focus on internal equity policy, because both in the corporate and government level people are getting burned out because they feel like so much pushback, but that’s why you need community members. And even internally, you need equity teams that can that really give you that motivation and energy to keep moving and make sure you’re not the only voice in the room. It’s not going to be Supermen, and Wonder Women that get it done. It’s going to be the Justice League. And you know, Superman had the Justice League for a reason, because he can’t do this work alone. So we are doing some internal things with you, in regards to the, you know, an equity statement, in regards to an Equity Toolkit, in regards to you know, the the cultural competency training for all city employees, that’s the internal part, but that external part too makes sure the work keeps going and that you never really get stagnated and get tired, because if you slow down on the internal, there’s just an external thing to do, or the externals slow down, we’re still doing some things on the internal to keep it moving. I think if you get stuck on a hamster wheel eventually you get burned out, what am I doing? Why am I doing this? And so I think we have to look at it both ways. And there’s no one right way. I think I think the answer is both and not one or the other.

Ben Kittelson  53:19

That’s fascinating. And I hadn’t thought about that way, by pushing, pushing more, doing more externally in the community helps give you a cover or support for doing more work internally. Like it’s it’s not just you know, you’re trying to force this culture change on folks without any any context, it’s hey, the community wants this.

Joshua Barr  53:39

Right. Yeah, right. Yeah. I mean, that’s, that’s that’s a huge part. I mean, even in some of the cities where they’ve been doing that equity work on the inside for years, they weren’t, some of those communities were not they weren’t, some of those cities were not engaging the community on the work they were doing, and they weren’t able to feel the impact of that. We were on the inside, but on the outside things still look dreary. When you look at education system, you’re telling, you know, young people, study hard, get a job, and you can do this and right now they’re like, I’m trying to eat! (unintelligible).

Ben Kittelson  54:20

Yeah, fascinating. Okay. Well, one of the internal things that y’all are doing that I wanted to highlight and ask you about was the cultural competency training, and you mentioned that but what does that look like? I’m just curious, like, what kind of what makes up that kind of training program? What are kind of the, the pieces of it and then what’s the reception been from from city staff?

Joshua Barr  54:41

Well, in doing this work, you’re trying to create a culture. It’s a culture shift for many people. And I think with the cultural competency training there, there are like three parts. There is a online part that every city employee has to take and now it’s part of even the onboarding and hiring where you have to take a training and it’s pretty lengthy, it’s not, it’s not fast, 30 minute training, where you have to go through the different sections and learn about implicit bias and equity. And then from there if you’re allowed to take the addressing implicit racial bias training, which is a half day training with other city departments, so it’s a mix of people and not just you in, it’s not you alone it’s you with a group of people having that discussion. And then there’s a follow up training, you know, every, I believe, two years, so it’s ongoing, and we just started. So I just started in October, we started of of last year, where we implemented the online training and addressing implicit racial bias training we’ve trained up thus far, at least half of almost half, excuse me, of our city employees, taking the online version and the in person version, I’m pretty sure the online version, more people have taken that but the in person version are now virtual version, we’ve trained half the employees, and then we’ll have a follow up, I believe, every two years or so, because learning has to be ongoing, I still believe there’s much more we can do. I don’t think it’s perfect in any way. I think after a year of doing this, this will be we’ll be able to look back and see if there are any improvements that need to be made. Again, a lot of this came up through community engagement. And the community said, number one, make up of city employees does not look like me. But number two, when we engage, I feel like they don’t know how to address people of certain cultural backgrounds. So we knew that we needed to implement some sort of training on engagement because our city is transforming in the school population as a numerical minority majority where persons of European descent are now in the minority amongst kids under 18 in our public school system, but you still have challenges in regards to, I believe about 73% of students in our city are on free or reduced lunch, which is a sign of poverty. And research indicates that if you’re impoverished in your teen years, and that issue is not addressed or corrected, by the time you hit adulthood, you’re more likely to be or be or remain impoverished moving forward, so.

Ben Kittelson  57:35

And then, the other thing, the other thing I wanted to be sure to ask you about was you wrote a piece that I think might have gone up on Medium first, but then turned into a five part series on ELGL’s website, kind of about, called A Better Way: 50 Plus Action Items to Fight Against Racism in your Community. So you know, it’s quite the, it’s quite the piece, it’s very long. What made you want to kind of write that and, and, and like, Who did you write it for, and I’m curious, did you start with 10 and then like, the ideas just kept flowing, and you got to 50 or I think it’s 57 now, but, I guess we can just tell us a little bit about that.

Joshua Barr  58:12

So I wrote A Better Way right after the George Floyd protests started. As someone who has been involved in local government and government in general for for a few years now. I just found that, you know, a lot of the ways that we educate our young people in our education system has been failing us that we think our only method of bringing about change is marching in the streets. And if you follow history, in the protests, from Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, excetera, you know, the Urban League and all these institutions are really, really made, tried to make a change in the in the 50s and 60s. Marching was not their only tool, they did a lot of engagement. They did a lot of negotiation, meeting with people behind closed doors, you know, utilizing a lot of marching as a catalyst to bring about change. But I think now, you know, we just get so caught up in the appearance of street protests that we don’t understand a big part of it now is you know, when used to march in the streets in the 1960s as African American or as our with Cesar Chavez and the Latino migrants in California, that was revolutionary, like, Who are these people to think that they can rise up and walk through our streets? Probably the noise of the city, oh, their protests. But we have to be constantly engaging. There’s more than one way to address. I think street protests are important. I’m not talking against that in any shape, form, or fashion, but it just can’t be our only tool in our toolkit to bring about change. A big part of that is understanding what are the issues that we can adress in our community. And again, utilizing bridging the gap, when we started talking with community members, they were just using those cliche, buzzwords, transparency, accountability, you know, and words such as those, and not really understanding how local government works and the impact that local government has. Most money from the federal or state government has trickled down, for lack of better words, to local government entities decide where those things go. And some people are so focused on policing that they don’t understand that if you have economic power in your community, number one, the police probably won’t even patrol it. And number two, if they make a mistake, they’ll be quick to apologize, you have the power to put politicians on notice about how you’re being treated. So when I wrote that I really wanted people to find their niche and what to focus on. A lot of times people think that Martin Luther King started out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he did not. He started out in Montgomery, Alabama working with E. D. Nixon and Fred Gray and Ralph Abernathy and a number of other organizations and churches, they didn’t do it alone. To bring about this change, I really wanted to give people some action items that they can fight for. And the first five are first, just get organized. Again, superman has the Justice League, Lincoln had an army, so did George Washington, etc. And so re-organize, build relationships. I think a lot of times when I go into communities. most people have no idea who their city council person is, or they think the Mayor is the only person that really has a say when many communities are where the City Manager sas a lot of, has most of the administrative power. And so be organized and utilize the organization to focus on certain issues. And some of those are policing issues. I think, first, the second section is dedicated to policing. (Unintelligible). This is a country that was created 1607, Jamestown was founded for economic purposes. Jamestown came before the so called pilgrims came. So we have to address the economics, and I think understanding, you know, CDBG funding, where that money goes and how it can be used in so many different ways, people need to understand that. Understanding, you know, equitable workforces, and making sure that the community is reflective in our workforce, people need to know about that. Having opportunities for young people and transforming our education system to deal with the challenges that young people are faced with. Those are things that people can focus on. So I wrote it for the community, it was essentially my love letter to people who really want to change things, you know, give people things that focus on it. And, and I’ve been grateful, because I’ve had people reach out to me saying, Hey, we read this in my class, and or my City Manager made us read it and we found some things that we can work on. And some people say, I agree, I know I have about ten things I need to add to it. But I wrote it for people and it took me about four days, I didn’t have a you know, I can, I use Evernote and always write my ideas and thoughts down there. And I just got a running list of things I do if you know, I ruled the world, or if I was Mayor for a day. And I finally just converted that into this. And giving people a real thing to focus on to really address a lot of the systemic issues and inequities that continue to face us to this day.

Ben Kittelson  1:03:45

Yeah, no, it’s amazing how you hit on all the different areas and like quite quite a range of topics in that piece. And yeah, it’s it’s a perfect playbook. I think for folks that want to, like make a difference or be more active in their community. And it’s something that, you know, I think, as local government administrators, we don’t, we aren’t often asked to think about like, hey, how, like, here’s how, you know, you as a community member on the outside could actually make change, but like we, you know, as someone that’s worked on the inside, you have a pretty good idea and like what what’s actually effective and what, what works well, when, when the local government faces that or hears that. And so, like, I you know, I think it’s one of those things where we can do a better job engaging with the activist community and informing them and helping with that kind of stuff. And it’s a fascinating playbook, and we’ll be sure to link to it and share it, and folks should check it out.

Joshua Barr  1:04:39

Well, thank you. And, again, I think you make a great point in regards to being on the inside and I think, you know, activists on the outside should do a better job of engaging with government employees on the inside and really understanding local government and you know, I’ve had people Oh, man, I can’t believe Trump and Obama won’t fix these potholes. They don’t care about no potholes, that’s not their issue. If local government shut down tomorrow, you would feel it. And when local government shut down into early 2019, I believe, most people didn’t feel the effect of it, because local government keep going and local government is the engine that moves our country and all politics are local. And it’s through the local fights of civil rights movement, Cesar Chavez, and a number of other communities and organizations and people who did those fights, Dolores Huerta, Rosa Parks, they were able to take those local issues and put them on a national stage. So you really got to focus on local, and the power that you can have by addressing local issues and taking that spark and making it spread nationwide. 

Ben Kittelson  1:05:54

Alright, so my last question for you is kind of next week, you’re going to be our keynote speaker. And we don’t we don’t want to give away anything. We want folks to log in and sign up. But what can you give us like a little preview of what you’re gonna hit maybe a high level like, Hey, this is why should we sign up for ELGL pop ups and listen to Joshua?

Joshua Barr  1:06:14

Well, I think I think you hit it on the head right at the end, I think, talking about, you know, local government, and what we can do to really bring about the changes necessary in, in our cities. And I know that this past year has been very hard for government workers. It seems like with being virtual, we’ve been just going and going and really haven’t had that respite. So I really want to talk about change makers, and why, you know, local government service matters now more than ever. And I think, you know, since Lyndon Johnson in the 60s, walked away, and decided not to run for reelection, because of the Vietnam War, but he had been really trying to utilize federal government to make an impact on local communities. But since then, with Nixon and Reagan, and George HW and even Bill Clinton people, those steps for federal government’s really trying to step up and intervene on behalf of things that are happening locally have have reversed, and now it’s really local government is going to have to lead us and persons in positions in local government, a lot of us have the ability to influence our policy and decision makers in city council. And so, because I really believe that true change starts at the roots, I really want to talk to people in local government about why this service is so important and how we can do this work together not alone. And, and really, really try to move our country in the right direction. As we move out of the pandemic of COVID-19, and strive to address the pandemic of COVID 1619.

Ben Kittelson  1:08:03

Awesome. Well said, and I’m excited to join your Justice League. So I’ll be setting up. And then we always ask our guests, this is always the hardest question for folks too. If you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick as the exit music for today’s episode?

Joshua Barr  1:08:23

I would pick Zimbabwe by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which is a lesser known track by Bob Marley, but it’s off my favorite album in the world and my favorite album by the Wailers, which is Survival. So I would say Zimbabwe by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Ben Kittelson  1:08:42

Awesome. We’ll get that, that queued up. And that ends our episode for today. Joshua, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me and sharing your expertise and experience. I really appreciate it.

Joshua Barr  1:08:51

Thank you, really appreciate being here with you.

Ben Kittelson  1:08:54

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