In true Midwestern form, potlucks are at the heart of this story. Over takeout pizza and Oreos in the early aughts, an informal gathering of University of Iowa undergraduates interested in service, community engagement, and the arts led to the formation of a nonprofit incubator called The James Gang.
Twenty-one years later, the organization is still going strong, providing a range of services and experiences to the Iowa City area. At a recent reunion, participants wondered how many people had been touched by The James Gang. Recalling initiatives such as the Mission Creek Festival, Iowa Youth Writing Project, and free Wi-Fi downtown, the estimate landed in the hundreds of thousands.
An exact assessment of The James Gang’s impact is impossible to measure. What is clear is the indelible mark it made on its members. “I got a career out of it without even intending to,” says Andy Stoll (03BA, 03BBA), a former UI Student Government president who is now senior program officer in entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City.
The James Gang, which helps fledgling organizations obtain 501c3 status, emerged during the 2001-02 academic year through the meeting of many minds and aspirations. UI honors students Jesse Elliott (03BA) and Mike Brooks (03BA) were inspired via one of their classes by philosopher William James’ theory of pragmatism that encouraged people to act upon their ideas. They began hosting potlucks for their peers to share the creative endeavors they’d like to launch in the community. The prompt spurred multiple projects and collaborations.
At one potluck, Spencer Griffin (04BA) shared his need to find a performance venue. When the theater arts student couldn’t find a place on campus to produce a play, the group’s connections enabled him to access a space above The Deadwood bar on North Dubuque Street. He produced several plays and sold student art in the location—named Public Space One. The organization continues today along Gilbert Street as an anchor of Iowa City’s arts scene.
Another project that evolved into something bigger was inspired by a music festival that attracted more than 800 people, which engineering student Forrest Meggers (03BSE, 05MS) hosted on his parents’ farm. Its popularity led James Gang members to create The 10,000 Hours Show, a new project linking live music and service. For nearly a decade, UI students who volunteered 10 hours got free tickets to a concert by major acts. The model was so successful that other campuses and the United Way adopted it.
Today, The James Gang continues to provide support to Iowa City nonprofits. Current endeavors include Brink literary journal, the Immigrant Welcome Network of Johnson County, and The Quire, a mixed voice chorus.
Some early members still work in community engagement, influenced by this collegiate experience, while others have followed their original academic paths. Elliott now works with regional arts and family philanthropies out of Arkansas and Chicago. Brooks runs a social impact agency in Washington, D.C. Meggers leads the CHAOS Lab, or Cooling and Heating for Architecturally Optimized Systems, at Princeton University. Tyler Lechtenberg (03BA), who directed The 10,000 Hours Show, became a speechwriter in the Obama White House. And Griffin is a television producer in Los Angeles.
The James Gang is now mainly community-run. Bob Kirby, director of the Office for Undergraduate Research and an honors mentor to early members, believes the UI can learn from these alumni. “There’s tremendous focus right now on experiential learning,” he says. “What The James Gang showed is how competent our undergraduates are to make an impact and develop that confidence in themselves.”
Jennifer New (88BA) is a writer, community engagement specialist for the UI-based Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, and member of the James Gang’s board of directors.