True Grinnellian: Rachel Bly reminisces on life lived locally


Photo by Scott Lew.

Lucia Cheng

By Lucia Cheng

Walking into Rachel Bly’s office, the first thing that catches one’s eye is the strings of paper cranes lining the walls, colorful shapes that brighten the room. The second thing is Bly herself, whose warm presence and laughter fills up the space.

In addition to working with the College as director of conference operations and events, Bly is also local co-chair of the Poweshiek County Democrats, a former local political candidate and an alumna of Grinnell College. Currently, her job includes scheduling events, hosting summer programs, running projects like the Met Opera and connecting the city of Grinnell to campus.

“One of the things that I love about working here is that we really get to work with everyone,” said Bly. “We get to work with all the service providers, plus all the people planning the events, we work with students and faculty and staff. … There’s never a dull moment, no two days are alike here.”

Bly often gets the chance to meet with notable speakers, from political candidates to novelist Amy Tan. “[It’s] the idea of not just getting to meet them myself, but getting to help introduce some folks to campus who people might not have heard of otherwise, … sort of bringing the world to Grinnell. I think that’s the fun part for me,” Bly said.

And in a sense, Grinnell has brought the world to Bly, too. When she was a senior in high school, four students who had gone to her high school encouraged her to apply. “They said, ‘Oh, Rachel, you’re coming to Grinnell, right?’” “‘Oh, no, I’m leaving Iowa,’” replied a teenaged Bly. “They’re like, ‘Oh, no, we’ve chosen you. You’re the next Grinnellian.’” And upon reaching campus during a visit, Bly was convinced. “I just knew that this place captured my heart … because these four friends of mine from my high school each had very different communities on campus. But each exposed me to different things that were going on. … Anyone could find their place here. There was a community for anyone,” said Bly.

With this brief glimpse of what was to come, Bly began getting involved with the student body, engaging in community service, participating in organizations like the Campus Democrats, studying abroad and advocating for women. Having moved to five different states during her childhood, she was introduced to a wide variety of perspectives, an experience she cites as a key reason for her open-mindedness. Especially, Bly reflects, when she considers all sides of a story— one of the many values Grinnell had taught her.

“One thing that Grinnell did for my journey was just building confidence. Not fearing trying new things and not fearing exposing myself to things that were different and new and maybe scary, and trying to push myself a little bit. Or maybe more than a little bit,” Bly said. “To do things until I was comfortable with being a leader.”

After graduation, Bly stayed in Grinnell for a couple of years before moving to Washington, D.C. to work with a national organization that supported childcare providers. As a grassroots organizer, she was able to shape part of a welfare reform bill to change things for the better.

“[I learned] who really has the power in conversations like this,” Bly said. “I’m not talking to the senators or representatives. I’m talking to the staffers … to learn, what works and what doesn’t work. We did different kinds of lobbying every year, [and one time,] we had our members make dolls. … Each doll had the story of a child around their neck, [explaining] how the funding that the bill supported made an impact on that child. And it was so cool to then go back, two years later, and have those dolls still be in offices that we brought them to.”

Bly eventually attended Drake University in order to receive her Master’s in Political Science, digging deeper into the nuts and bolts of advocating for the people. In order to become better at her work in D.C., she believed she needed a bit more education to tie everything she had learned together, to become more than the sum of its parts.

When a position for Alumni Relations opened up at Grinnell College, Bly decided to apply, and ended up moving back to Grinnell and back into local activism. “I feel really strongly about the community piece,” said Bly. “As a member of a community, it is imperative that I invest myself in that community, and that I volunteer for things, do things that make our community better. That’s one of those things that I learned and was modeled for us as students. It’s self-gov, it’s the way we participate, the way students participate in student groups.”

“I really do think it’s the local piece that is really, really important. … It’s making sure that we have good people, you know, that we’re recruiting good people to represent us at lots of different levels,” said Bly. “It’s my job as a county leader to make sure that people stay engaged, even if their candidate still isn’t in. So, it’s like, ‘Hey, you really, really loved Cory Booker, I am so sorry he’s not in, but we’d love to have you come and help us do other things.’ So, my role is to be that sort of advocate and bring people into a bigger tent.”

And it’s this desire to bring people together that drives Bly forward—a genuine affection for everyone she’s worked with. “I have put down roots,” said Bly, “And I’ve raised a kid here…. I think being a positive presence in the world is really something that motivates me…. I want to make sure that on some level, I am out there making a difference.” “This is as close to home as it gets for me, you know,” Bly said. “So, for me, this really is home.”