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Kelly Thornburg, Women's Resource and Action Center

  kelly thornburg
Kelly Thornburg, director of the Iowa National Education for Women's Leadership Institute in the UI Women's Resource and Action Center. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Kelly Thornburg witnessed firsthand how women who aren’t empowered suffer in silence.

A transplant from Auburn, Wash., who calls Iowa City her “chosen home,” Thornburg says watching women in her own family trying to negotiate complex and inefficient support systems while suffering from serious mental illness was a potent lesson in who has power and who people listen to in our country and world.

“Working with women and girls in my professional life has only strengthened my belief that everyone must have a voice in our government. Without that representation, too many people and their struggles remain invisible,” says Thornburg, who serves at the helm of Iowa National Education for Women’s (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute with the University of Iowa Women’s Resource and Action Center.

The N.E.W. Leadership Institute, which runs May 31–June 5, is designed to help undergraduate women develop public leadership skills, learn about civic involvement, and network with women in public leadership from across the state. fyi recently caught up with Thornburg to discover what she most enjoys about working with this intensive residential institute, as well as to learn a few other things that make her tick.

What do you most enjoy about the Iowa N.E.W. Leadership Program?

It is pretty amazing to witness the beginning of a woman’s acknowledgement of her own worth and potential as a leader and advocate.

Why is this program important to the future of Iowa and the nation?

As Iowans, we have such a special relationship to our country’s political processes. The fact that we have so few women serving in elected office makes no sense to me. We are pioneering and politically savvy in a way that no one else can claim. But the leaders we’ve chosen do not fully represent who we are and what we can become as a community. This program can help us get closer to true representation.


A few of my favorite things ...

Food: blueberry pancakes, crisp bacon, and strong, hot coffee

Drink: wine, preferably a tempranillo or sauvignon blanc

Weekday lunch spot: anywhere I can eat gluten-free, which is trickier than you might think

Reading: My Antonia by Willa Cather

Music: Neko Case, The Gaslight Anthem, old-school country

Movie: Junebug

TV show: Bones

Web site: (and my own,


What do you find most rewarding about your work?

I love the connection to other women, to education, and to the legislative process. Those three things are really where it’s at for me. I’m just lucky enough to have a job that allows me to contribute to all three in some way.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

That it wasn’t necessary. I would love it if Iowans had women representing their values and working for their communities at every level of government. Unfortunately, we are one of two states—Mississippi being the other—who have yet to elect a woman to serve as our governor or as a congressional representative.

Why did you come to The University of Iowa?

I came from the East Coast and people thought I was crazy, but I love Iowa and I wanted to build my life here.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Reading was a great escape for me, and I wanted to be able help people access that freedom and connection to others.

What was your first job?

I worked for my mom’s janitorial service, cleaning houses and doctor’s offices.

What was the best trip or vacation you ever took?

I tend to live places instead of visiting them. Besides Iowa, the place that I felt most at home in was Washington, D.C. It has such a great energy and history. When you walk down its streets, I feel like you can’t ignore both the possibility and the injustice that make up the roots of our culture. I honestly get chills thinking about it.

Did you have a high school yearbook quote?

I’m pretty sure Facebook is the new yearbook and, in that case, it’s Eleanor Roosevelt’s “only women in power would consider the needs of women without power.”

What will people most likely find you doing on your days off?

Hiking in Hickory Hill Park, tinkering with recipes, or working on my apartment.

If you were to take up a new hobby, what would it be?

I want to learn how to sew, so I can finish a beautiful pair of midcentury chairs I am refurbishing. It would also be really great to be able to hem my own pants!

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, and did it pay off?

Five years ago, I quit my job and moved back to Iowa without a plan. I felt like I should come home, and while I’ve lived many places, it seems that Iowa was meant to be my chosen home.

by Lois J. Gray


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