Day 11: Grinnell, Iowa

Downtown Mazomanie, Wisconsin.

En route to the Mazo Beach three days ago.

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On the floor in Julia's apartment, just two nights ago in Decorah, Iowa.

We interviewed two scholars at Grinnell College. Dr. Kesho Scott had a wonderful conversation with us about her work in “unlearning racism” and what it means to be American, and Dr. Lakesia Johnson discussed gender roles and race relations – both conversations energized us about the overarching themes of our project, and gave us inspiration for the conversations we could be having with our strangers, pushing at nebulous terms like “diversity” and digging deeper into the trust and fear within the American psyche.

So far, we’ve been working with our “camera” approach – bringing the camera along as we explore town and meet people, providing the opportunity to speak directly to people as they see the camera and we ask if we can do a quick interview with them – although these initial conversations are often 20-25 minutes now. We love this approach. It’s easy, in a way – having the camera not only provides more footage for our film, but also legitimizes our project and tends to make people more comfortable (although there are certainly cases where people shy away from the camera or refuse an interview).

To mix it up, we chose to do a “camera-less” approach today. It’s much more difficult to speak to people out of the blue, to start with small talk while knowing that we’re hoping to develop the brief conversation into our big question. And when I say difficult, I mean it’s really hard for me, whereas Sarah has no trouble starting a conversation with anyone – but for both of us, popping the question is a challenge. We chose to make this an indirect approach as well, as most of our interviews with the camera are, in which we tell people about what we’re doing but refrain from directly asking if we can stay with them. In most cases, people offer or back away right when we describe the project.

We met about ten people in Grinnell as we explored the community, and everyone was very friendly. We got two offers, but each offer was also throwing a party and noted that we might want more rest somewhere else. So we continued exploring, and had a couple more hesitant and confusing offers for later on – but our plans fell into place when Sam, who we had met earlier at Yumi’s Bakery, called us and said that his neighbor Bob could put us up in his camper behind the house. We always ask people if they know anyone who could put us up, and this is the first time a reference has actually come through – feeling a little nervous and certainly excited, we set off to meet the complete stranger who had already agreed to put us up.

Bob’s wife Rachel opened the door with a very welcoming smile, and our nerves immediately subsided. We had dinner with Bob, Rachel, and their 7-year-old son Davis, and later got a driving tour of the Grinnell campus and a trip to Dari Barn, sort of a local Dairy Queen with massive tractors nextdoor that the kids love to climb on. We had a fantastic conversation with Rachel about the decision to let us in based on just a recommendation. This was also one of our few nights with hosts who weren’t overtly Christian, which developed some different views on why kindness from strangers is a virtue even without religious affiliation.

Sarah and I spent the night in the camper, waking up occasionally to the thunderstorms rumbling around us – the storms keep chasing us, but at least they’re mostly at night. We’re now transferring our footage in their kitchen, anticipating Rachel’s French toast, and snacking on the best pastries from the best bakeries in town.

Every day is giving Sarah more reason to want to move to Iowa.