For Amal Kassir, there was something special about speaking to a group of Iowans.
Kassir, who resides in Texas, has gained international attention for her poetry and speaking skills. On Tuesday afternoon, she spoke to a group of tri-state residents about being born to a Syrian father and an Iowan mother.
She said she often felt that she grew up “between two cultures.”
“You grow up not entirely knowing where you fit,” Kassir said. “You are not Arab enough for your Arab side and you’re not white enough for your white side. So you stand in the middle and you have to make the most of all the worlds around you.”
The multi-dimensional background shaped Kassir’s worldview and inspired the message she now spreads.
About 200 people heard Kassir speak during the 10th annual Diversity Summit, an event hosted by the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce at the Holiday Inn Dubuque/Galena.
The event featured multiple keynote speakers and a series of breakout sessions.
Chamber President and CEO Molly Grover said attendance at the summit has grown significantly over the past decade, noting that Tuesday’s attendance marked the largest ever for the event.
“We want to position Iowa, and Dubuque specifically, as the absolute best place to have a life and have a career,” Grover said. “We can do that by making sure we are creating an inclusive culture where people feel like they can start a business here, have a great career here and have a great life here.”
Tuesday’s diversity summit was sponsored by the City of Dubuque, and about half the attendees were city employees.
“Diversity, equity and inclusion are extremely important to the future success of our community,” said City Manager Mike Van Milligen.
Dozens of representatives from the private sector also populated the event.
Eric Hillary, an engineering manager at John Deere Dubuque Works, said inclusion is critical to Deere’s success, noting that embracing diversity allows the company to reach out to a larger pool of workers and attract the most talented employees possible.
In one of Tuesday’s breakout sessions, Hillary learned there are at least 15 different languages represented in local schools.
“I think that highlights how diverse Dubuque is becoming and how important it is for us to continue our efforts on inclusion,” he said.
Katie Kuker, division manager of human resources at John Deere Dubuque Works, formed part of a panel Tuesday that discussed best practices in a corporate environment.
She emphasized the importance of forming “deeper relationships” with employees, rather than making interactions with workers purely transactional.
“I think one of the norms and values that is very strong (at Deere) is focusing on how we work together, how we go about our business and how we treat other people,” she said. “That is weighted heavily in our company.”
Kassir has gained both national and international attention as a storyteller and spoken-word poet. She has performed in 10 countries and more than 100 cities and appeared in youth prisons, orphanages and refugee camps.
Her TedX talk, dubbed “The Muslim on the Airplane,” has been viewed more than 4 million times.
Kassir on Tuesday emphasized that she still feels a close connection to Syria and shared the harrowing tale of learning that 11 relatives had died in a bombing during that nation’s civil war.
Her reaction to that loss drew headlines across the country.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from or what color you may be,” she said Tuesday. “Losing family hurts no matter what.”
Kassir also told the story of her interaction with a homeless man whom she met on the streets of Los Angeles.
She not only offered the man her leftover food, but also asked for his name. Kassir recalled that that simple question opened the door to an extensive conversation.
She urged those in attendance to approach their daily interactions in a similar manner.
“When I think of diversity, I don’t just think of race or gender or religion or any of these things,” she said. “When I think of diversity, I think of all the diverse reasons people cry and people laugh, the diverse ways in which we find light in a dark situation.”