2023 Featured & Invited Speakers

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, conflict resolution mediator, and the author of Poetry Unbound (2022), Feed the Beast (2022), Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community (2017), In the Shelter (2015), Sorry for your Troubles (2013), and Readings from the Books of Exile (2012), which was longlisted for the 2013 Polari First Book Prize.

For Ó Tuama, religion, conflict, power and poetry all circle around language, that original sacrament. Working fluently on the page and in public, Ó Tuama is a compelling poet, teacher, and group worker, and a profoundly engaging public speaker. He has worked with groups to explore story, conflict, their relationship with religion and argument, and violence. Using poetry, group discussion, and lectures, his work is marked both by lyricism and pragmatism, and includes a practice of evoking stories and participation from attendees at his always-popular lectures, retreats, and events. In 2011, with Paul Doran, Pádraig co-founded the storytelling event Tenx9 where nine people have up to ten minutes each to tell a true story from their lives.

His poems have been published at Poetry Ireland Review, Academy of American Poets, Post Road, cream city review, Holden Village Voice, Proximity Magazine, On Being, Gutter, America, and Seminary Ridge Review.

Pádraig Ó Tuama holds a BA Div validated by the Pontifical College of Maynooth, an MTh from Queen’s University Belfast and is currently engaged in a PhD in Theology through Creative Practice at the University of Glasgow exploring poetry, Irishness and religion.

He is based in Belfast, Ireland.

Mariela Shaker is an accomplished Syrian violinist and award winning refugees advocate who survived the war in Syria and the University of Aleppo attack in January 2013. She fled to the US to study music at Monmouth College with full tuition scholarship. To be able to secure this opportunity, Mariela, without electricity or water and under constant bomb and mortar attacks would hide away in internet cafes to apply to schools and programs throughout the world. She graduated from The University of Aleppo in 2013, where she studied Business Administration. During her study at the university, she was the youngest violin teacher at the Arabic Institute of Music. Mariela risked death every day, commuting between her home and the Institute to create beauty through her violin and inspire children to pursue their dreams.

Aleppo was besieged in July 2013 at the same time that Mariela managed to leave Syria to go to her new school in America. Her only options were either facing ominous destiny in Aleppo or taking a very dangerous bus ride from Aleppo to Beirut on an unused sandy road. She chose the later. The trip lasted for 17 hours. The driver got lost several times in the demolished buildings. She passed 50 checkpoints of soldiers whom many of them thought her violin case was a gun and demanded her an extra security inspection. A couple of days after her arrival to the US, some of her friends were killed trying to take the same route.

Being in USA since 2013 and unable to return back home, Mariela was granted asylum (refugee status) in the United States, where she feels safe, but lives in constant fear for her family and friends who are surviving with the basic necessities of life in Aleppo, wondering if they will be alive tomorrow and if she will be reunited with them one day. More than another though fascinating story of a refugee, Mariela, stands for drive and determination. And it didn’t take long for this inspirational young woman together with her talent for music to make it to the flashlights and interest of the public and the politicians. Mariela was named a “Champion of Change” by President Barack Obama in 2015 and was appointed UNHCR High Profile Supporter in 2015. Since then she received many awards such as Anne Frank Honorary in 2018 and Points of Light Award in 2017. She performed at prestigious venues such as The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, United Nations, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard among many others. Mariela presented in Hong Kong, Netherlands, UK, Geneva, UAE and all over the US.

Despite the challenges and hardship Mariela endured as her family lost their jobs in the war and couldn’t support her financially, in only four years in the US she was able to receive two degrees; a bachelor at Monmouth College and a Master at DePaul University with full tuition scholarships. She is a great example of refugees who not only survive but thrive. Her courageous story has been profiled by the Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Buzz Feed, Woman’s Day and many others. Mariela is using her music to build bridges and promote peace and raise awareness for the plights of the Syrian people. What is remarkable about Mariela is that as a refugee, not only her music is heard, but her voice for refugees in need! Though her own family has no electricity and many times she is unable to have contact, she perseveres for this noble cause.

Sheri Marlin, M.Ed. is Chief Learning Officer at the Waters Center for Systems Thinking, where their mission is to make systems thinking accessible to everyone, across generations and geographies.  Sheri is also an adjunct faculty member for the Pacific University Doctor of Science program.  Sheri is co-author of the Habit-forming Guide to Becoming a Systems Thinker.

Ana McCracken received her B.S and MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her writing and poetry can be found in refereed literary publications and anthologies. She is a certified Amherst Writers & Artists facilitator. A former board of director for Litquake Literary Festival in San Francisco, Ana is a member of the Willa Cather Foundation Board of Governors. In 2021, Ana founded the Ames Writers Collective, a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) committed to creating healthy communities through the art of Writing.

Ann Jackson, PBVM, is Prairiewoods’ Coordinator of Spiritual Services.  Blending love of nature, literature, leadership and spirituality, she delights in listening with others and all of creation to the energy of Spirit stirring creativity, passion, discernment and service.  She enjoys offering spiritual direction, retreat and group facilitation.

Michael Dahlstrom is the director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University and holds a Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Professorship. His research explores how storytelling impacts the communication of science and the ethical considerations involved. Dahlstrom’s work extends across diverse scientific contexts, including risk, health, agricultural and environmental communication and has been published in leading journals, such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PLOS Biology, Communication Research and Science Communication. He is also co-editor of Ethics and Practice in Science Communication, an edited volume focusing on the often-overlooked ethical challenges underlying science communication. Dahlstrom is a Kavli Fellow and is also a past head of the Communicating Science, Health, Environment and Risk Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication

Mary Jo Forbord is a registered dietitian and a farmer from Western Minnesota, where her family has lived and farmed for 5 generations. She has worked in health care and community nutrition, as Executive Director of the Sustainable Farming Association and as Healthy Eating Coordinator at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She co-owns and operates Prairie Horizons Farm, where she tends a diverse, certified organic orchard and gardens, and sells products of the farm through an on-farm store. Mary Jo works to protect the tallgrass prairie ecosystem through rotational grazing and browsing of cattle and goats, and to understand and promote the connections between healthy soil, nourishing food, clean water and healthy people.

Denise Coberley is a Ph.D. student at Iowa State University in the Applied Linguistics and Technology program. Her 21 years of experience as a high school science teacher led her to earn her Master’s in Journalism and Mass Communication. Her dissertation focuses on the language patterns used to communicate science to the public. Denise is most interested in how scientists use patterns of language to convey scientific uncertainty related to topics such as climate change and how the public perceives those patterns of language. The purpose of a linguistic approach to understanding the role of language in representing scientific knowledge is to develop training for preparing scientists to communicate science effectively in public-facing contexts. Denise has been part of the CCHANGE initiative at Iowa State University and has been published in the journal Research Methods in Applied Linguistics. 

Sharon Stewart is the owner of Lockwood Cafe, an Ames based restaurant that seeks to build community and connection through accessible food, art, and shared spaces. In both their artistic and professional practices, Stewart explores the relationship of physical space and community connection as a localized focus. In the process of building and opening Lockwood Cafe, intention of space has led to a collaborative process. In doing so, the individual agency of all those involved has led to a collective agency that opens conversations of what it means to care for ourselves and our community especially within a culture rife with division and valued individuality complex.

Beth M. Howard is an author and documentary filmmaker who strives to make the world a better place by encouraging acts of generosity no matter how small, like making someone a pie. A memoirist, she shares her ripple-effect philosophy in her books which include World Piece: A Pie Baker’s Global Quest for Peace, Love, and Understanding; Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie; the cookbook, Ms. American Pie; and Hausfrau Honeymoon: Love, Language, and Other Misadventures in Germany. She has written for the New York Times, Real Simple, Country Living, Huffington Post, MSNBC.com and many other publications, and has been featured on CNN, CBS This Morning, BBC, NPR, and more. From 2010 to 2014, she lived in the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa, and started the Pitchfork Pie Stand, which became nearly as famous as the historic house. She has given a TEDx talk about the healing powers of pie, and is a regular commentator on Tri States Public Radio. Her website is The World Needs More Pie.

A farmer, fiddler, potter, and fiber artist who is excited about beauty, justice, community, and being outside.  Alice McGary lives and works at Mustard Seed Community Farm, a catholic worker farm located northwest of Ames, Iowa.  She is currently a Rural Regenerator Fellow with Springboard for the Arts.