Keaton Eilers

Keaton found himself figuring out rides at the fair. Now, he helps our local neighborhoods by listening.

Describe who you were as a kid. When I was a kid, I lacked confidence and was often shy. I was inquisitive, an observer. It was easier to live in my head than interact with the world around me. I was (and still am) a bit of a perfectionist, so I often lived with a bit of self-inflicted stress. My mind was typically occupied figuring out how things worked. For instance, we would go to the fair or an amusement park, and I enjoyed watching the gears and various mechanisms of the rides more than I enjoyed riding them. I was a little cautious and suspicious until I figured out how something (or someone) worked before jumping in with both feet. 

What was your first job? My first job was packing snack trays. Businesses around the city had these snack boxes for their employees rather than having vending machines. You put a couple of quarters in a cardboard change box and took your snack on an honor system. I have no idea how it was a profitable business model, but it was kind of a fun first job and came with bonuses in the form of candy bars and Cheetos. I also started a paper route about the same time. I don’t know if they’re running the same racket as when I was young, but that was a rip-off. It takes a while to realize it when you’re young, but it was hard work for next to nothing. Some of the old folks on my route left me a dime or a quarter as a tip, so I was living large those days.

Walk us through your journey to starting DSM Collective. Our non-profit was founded over dozens, maybe hundreds, of early morning cups of coffee and late night beers sharing our hopes for Des Moines and every person in it. I don’t think we set out with any intention of starting our own company, but we were pretty sure we had a unique perspective to offer. A lot of people have a great idea and spend a ton of time and money convincing people they need what they have to offer. We started with the assumption there were already great people doing amazing work in the city, we just wanted to help give them energy, attention, and focus. I didn’t have any desire to compete in the non-profit world, but to find a way we can work together and reconnect our relationships with those living in the margins. 

"We started with the assumption there were already great people doing amazing work in the city, we just wanted to help give them energy, attention, and focus."

Tell us more about DSM Collective and why it exists? Des Moines is full of people, organizations, and businesses doing incredible work that shapes our city and helps our citizens. Starting the Des Moines Collective wasn’t a response to a lack of effort from those serving Des Moines, but a response to work being done FOR others rather than work WITH our neighbors. Our goal isn't to do something different, but to imagine what we can do together. We have a pretty simple template for how we approach community development. Listen, collaborate, then engage. 

Most organizations follow those steps in reverse. Engagement is typically the exciting, sexy part. It feels really good to do something tangible for our neighbors. We see a problem; we fix it. It's almost addicting. But now and then, we have to step back and evaluate the real impact of our actions. Does the community really need what we're giving? Is our sense of accomplishment more important to us than the people we're serving? We’re helping people press pause on their action plans and building projects and donations and encouraging them to reconnect with the people they wanted to help in the first place.  We agree there is a time for immediate action. Emergencies require relief. Sandbags need to be filled when the flood is coming, but who is drawing up plans to build a better levee? We have to intentionally transition our relief efforts into developmentally centered engagement.  There isn't a formula for success, but we believe listening and collaborating first better informs our engagement.

Along the way, who and what helped you to keep pushing forward? My friend Ryan Morrison has always challenged me to take the next step no matter how scary it seems or how likely it is to fail. His passion for life and tireless joy always give me energy. Also Jeremy, cofounder of the Des Moines Collective, constantly reminds me to love people and use things, because it never works the other way around. His encouragement and wisdom have been priceless. He is the most selfless and reliable friend I could ask for. He’s also insanely awkward in elevators. 

Someone is starting a project for the first time, what would you want to say to them? It’s your idea. You will think about it, defend it, criticize it, love it, and hate it more than anyone else. Don’t use up all your energy trying to figure out every scenario and contingency and put your energy into actually doing it. Wake up and publish it, share it, build it. Have the courage to put it out there and see what comes back. Then do it again.

"There isn't a formula for success, but we believe listening and collaborating first better informs our engagement."

In the past two weeks what’s been challenging? How did you overcome it? It’s always challenging to protect my time that I set aside for the organization. Jeremy and I both work full-time jobs, and the DSM Collective gets done in our spare time. My main goal is whatever I’m doing and wherever I am, be fully there. When I’m hanging out with my wife, my mind isn’t on returning emails and getting through my checklist, but simply being the best husband, I can be. When I’m at work, I’m wholly focused on being the best for my team. When I have time to work on the organization, I find a place I’m comfortable (usually a coffee shop) and I dive and get as far as I can until it’s time to be somewhere else.

What are you most proud of and why? Personally, I’m most proud of my family. My wife is amazing. I married up like 800 levels. My parents have been kicked around by life’s challenges more than most yet they never give up and always have more love to give. My sister is funny and smart and weird, and I’m so blessed she’s my sister. 

As far as DSM Collective, I’m proud of our pace. It seems slow to some, but I never want our excitement to solve the problems of our city to cause us to trample those we intend on helping. If I rush into a neighborhood with all the answers and no concern for preserving and protecting peoples dignity, I’m doing more harm than good. 

"My main goal is whatever I’m doing and wherever I am, be fully there."

Why Des Moines? I used to feel stuck here, hoping to get out. But after a little time away and a lot of time growing up, I learned to appreciate it. Right now, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I feel connected to Des Moines in a way that makes me fill sad, or maybe a bit sick when I think about leaving. I want to have a more compelling answer, but it really is that simple. 

Favorite underrated spot in Des Moines? Bauder Pharmacy on Ingersoll. This old school little pharmacy has a little bit of small town charm in the city and serves incredible ice cream!

If you could grant the Des Moines area one wish what would it be? A year ago I would have said “build a 5 Guys, ” but that dream has finally been realized! Now I would say granting a wish would be a hard thing to do. Getting something for free never seems to work out so well. Why do we as humans climb mountains? It’s stupid, difficult, and seemingly pointless, but we still do it. You never read accounts of a mountaineer, and their story is full of joy, happiness, and ease. If life were all about happiness, we would never climb a mountain. The stories are full of pain, frostbite, lack of oxygen, sleep deprivation… This suggests that we care about the journey as much as reaching the end. That we like the challenge and it’s valuable. My wish for Des Moines would be that we always have a mountain to climb. 

In three months where do you see DSM Collective? I am excited to launch The Listening Project, our newest initiate. We believe listening is a skill we can all spend more time developing. It takes practice and patience. Most of us listen with the intent to respond with our idea or recite something we recently heard. I don’t know about you, but I like having the last word. The Listening Project is an effort to lay all of our opinions, positions, and policies aside and truly hear our neighbors lived experiences. We were days away from launching and decided we needed to hit the brakes because we weren’t even taking our advice. We’re listening, we’re creating, and we’re growing. I think it's going to be incredible. Soon. 

"I used to feel stuck here, hoping to get out. But after a little time away and a lot of time growing up, I learned to appreciate it."

What’s one thing people need to know you really care about? Balance. I care deeply about balance. I grew up in circles that were convinced life is about being right and wrong. Conservative and liberal. Perfect and imperfect. A life full of binaries is easy, but it's not real. My life is full of temporary conclusions that evolve with growing wisdom. For some people, it’s seen as a lack of conviction or care, but it’s forced me to work harder on maintaining relationships and to see my community through different eyes. I have met some of the most vibrant and wonderful people because I’m willing to unlearn, realign, and live open handed. 

How can we help support you and DSM Collective? Listen to your neighbor. Learn their name. Have conversations. Remember that we belong to each other. If we do that, maybe someday our organization won’t need to exist, and we can spend more time going to the movies and people watching at the farmers market. Until then, send people to our website DSMcollective.com

Derek Jensen