Faces of the civil rights movement in Des Moines
Des Moines Register
Key priorities: Close the racial wealth gap. Create a police citizen review board. Offer cultural competency training. Diversify the city workforce.
Longtime civil rights advocates, Black Lives Matter and thousands of protesters in the Des Moines metro area in recent weeks have pressed for quick action on priorities such as the newly passed city of Des Moines ban on racial profiling and elimination of the state’s ban on felon voting. But some changes will take months, if not years.
We asked a sampling of Black leaders in the metro to address this question: What is the biggest change you will pursue in the next year to push Iowa closer to equal justice and opportunity?
Aligning local ordinances, state and federal law
I will continue to work on and encourage my legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle to draft and pass legislation that will address the issues of racial profiling and racial inequities.
I will also continue to work with our senatorial and congressional representatives to adopt into law federal legislation that would support our state legislation. I will also continue to work with our mayors, law enforcement and community members in other cities throughout the state to create ordinances that will coincide with our state and federal legislation.
It is imperative that the local, state and federal legislation support one another so that we do not create loopholes that individuals can use to not be held accountable for acts of racial injustice. Racial profiling, accountability and data collection must be in unison between the federal, state and local governments to be truly effective.
— Ako Abdul-Samad, Iowa state representative from Des Moines
Committing to long-term work of reform
As America ponders a recent glimpse in the mirror and being startled by the image of a proverbial knee on the neck of its Black citizens, many of us in advocacy are being asked about our wish list for justice. Wouldn’t it be great if it were as easy as rattling off a shopping list?
As the head of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, my cart is filled with a number of disparate areas in the criminal justice system that we have been working to change like racial profiling, mandatory sentencing, felony voting and court debt, in addition to our reform efforts in health, education and economics. This work cannot be done in silos.
I applaud the many hands and fists that are now raised to enlist in justice efforts. As a firm believer of building pipelines to support advocacy and the founder of the Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities, which brings together hundreds each year to learn about criminal justice reform, my hope is that those hands belong to individuals willing to make long-term commitments. This is key, because racism is like weeds that must be constantly rooted up and destroyed. Undoing a history of oppression and disparate impact will not be an overnight endeavor.
Dismantling systems of supremacy will include those quicker wins that can happen with the stroke of a pen, and those longer-term legislative or movement-based actions, but most importantly, it will include persistent change agents who press, cry out, stand, vote, educate, march, partner and organize. I’m here for it.
— Betty Andrews, president, Iowa-Nebraska NAACP
Dismantling the structure of systemic racism
Systemic racism is a structure that was intentionally created, and it is going to take intentionality to dismantle it.
The Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission believes that, while policing of communities is of immediate concern, policing is a symptom of much larger issues. Those issues include, but are not limited to: wealth building in marginalized communities, responses to poverty, and opportunities in employment and housing. These long-term issues will not be resolved overnight, but implementing equitable policies will move the community toward the mission of equal justice and opportunity.
Through the Bridging the Gap initiative, the commission has proposed new policies and practices to move the city forward. For example, last year, the City Council took steps on expanding housing options by voting to make source of income a protected class. The city also passed a policy that prevents employees from inquiring about immigration status unless required by law.
During a joint meeting of the City Council and commission on June 11, the commission proposed additional policies: an equitable workforce plan to create a more reflective government workforce; restoration of the youth advisory board to give youth a voice in local government; a housing incentives program for city employees to live in Des Moines; a strengthening of the Human Rights Ordinance to include protections for education, small businesses and ex-offenders; a community response team to address civil unrest; and more.
The commission will continue to amplify marginalized voices and use our platform for sustainable changes. Through equitable policy change at the local level, we can disassemble the structures of systemic racism and build a community anchored by empathy and mutual respect for all.
— Joshua Barr, director, Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission
Imagining beyond police to building community
I remember the first day of school at East High after spring break in 2012, when the Trayvon Martin case became national news.
All week as I explored New York City, I was haunted by young Trayvon’s ghost. I wore a hoodie that week and the first day back at East. For young Black people, the hoodie is a symbol of strength and dexterity, a representation of the grit it takes to handle everything the world throws at us. Trayvon was murdered in his hoodie. I perceived the enforcement system as an aid to his murder. The stand-your-ground law. The lack of urgency by police. The muddying of his character in the investigative process. I watched a young Black boy like me be put on trial for his own murder.
That day at East, I realized my very being — my skin, my hoodie, my voice — was a weapon in the world I lived in. I mourned the world I thought I’d lived in, where people were free to be who they were, and began to imagine how to bring that world to fruition.
I am now acting on that imagination, and so are the people of Des Moines. We must imagine a world where violence, whether by detention or deadly force, is not how we mediate problems in our society. We must imagine beyond police altogether.
It means investing in research to make care a priority. It means community safety boards and freedom schools. It means working with allies to keep communities free of the factors that lead to violence and victimization.
But first, it means that Black Lives MUST Matter. In Des Moines and across Iowa, we must all stand up against the gross injustices Black people face every moment of every day. We must commit ourselves to consistent action. We must become responsible for the experiences of all those we share the world with.
— Matthew Bruce, Black Lives Matter organizer
Increasing support for Black immigrants
Within the next year of advocating for social and racial justice, I am hoping that DSM BLM grows into one of the largest grassroots, community-based organizations in metro Des Moines, where we are not only serving those in our community, but also actively working on bills in the Statehouse that are conducive for each racial and socioeconomic class.
This divide between politicians and the community is detrimental to the work of dismantling an insufficient system. There needs to be a bridge built between the Black community in Des Moines and the legislatures that “serve” us, because bills for black and brown folk are being written and passed by people who are not black and brown.
Increasing programming and support for Black immigrants needs to be prioritized because they are such a vulnerable group within the Black community. This group goes unnoticed in mainstream media, because Black folks are not typically first thought of when the word immigrant comes to mind. It is important to dismantle programs such as DACA and allow citizenship because humans cannot be illegal — especially on stolen land.
I also will bring urgency to prioritize dismantling the restrictions on reproductive rights. I believe it is unjust and ineffective to restrict how a woman can handle her body. It is absolutely ludicrous to pass bills about women who have had to fight to survive in their womanhood.
Overall, I am advocating for those who are marginalized and have intersectionalities with marginalization in one or a plethora of ways.
— Courtnei Caldwell, BLM organizer
Addressing the racial wealth divide
Des Moines and Polk County are ideal places to make a life and raise a family. Not a day goes by that new rankings and accolades are bestowed on our beloved city. But for each day that a new accolade rolls in, persistent racial disparities prevail, challenging us to shift the focus and change the narrative.
In my role as chair of The Directors Council (TDC), we commissioned the 2017 One Economy State of Black Polk County report, which revealed a modern-day “Tale of Two Cities,” a place where persistent racial disparities prevail on nearly every measure — health, housing, employment, education and financial inclusion.
On June 30, TDC will unveil One Economy — A Blueprint for Action, which sets out goals and actionable strategies intended to address the racial wealth divide and the inequities that exist for all individuals of African descent.
My work in the coming days and years will be laser-focused on building One Economy, because we are only as strong as our weakest link. The growth and vitality of our region is predicated on the premise of economic inclusion and eliminating disparities.
One Economy acknowledges our inequities and failings but tempers them with tremendous hope. I think and believe we can build something better for our Black children and their children’s children. One Economy challenges us to reimagine our future and to think about the difference between what has been deemed acceptable vs. what is POSSIBLE.
Please join me in building One Economy!
— Teree Caldwell-Johnson, CEO, Oakridge Neighborhood, and chair, The Directors’ Council
Raising wages, ending wealth gap
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
That is a statement directly from our Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately for African Americans, when you have clear disparities in our legal system, our housing system and in our educational systems, the pursuit of happiness became a pursuit of survival.
Black children in the U.S. are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. As for home ownership, Black families are more likely to rent than buy. The huge racial disparity in education access and quality leads to Black students not being exposed to advanced classes at the same rate or even having the resources to be successful in school systems that are not built for them and that seldom have staff who reflect their cultural background.
If there was one thing I could fix in America right now, it would be to address the wealth gap, starting with the minimum wage. People should be able to not only survive, but thrive in their pursuit of happiness. According to the Brookings Institution, the white average household wealth of $929,800 is 6.7 times greater than the Black average wealth of $138,100. This disparity stems not from lack of trying but from the pursuit of happiness for Black people in this country being a pursuit of survival.
I am simply saying to the system that the numbers and the facts are all clear. We need people who are willing to not just call out injustices, but actively do their part in correcting the issues.
— Rob Johnson, president of Iowa Juneteenth, minister at Second Baptist Church, Fort Dodge
Delivering cultural competency training
Urban Dreams is dedicated to helping people and organizations in the Des Moines metro, and across Iowa, become more racially culturally competent.
In just the last few years, we have helped over 40 organizations, including all new law enforcement candidates at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, insurance companies, hospitals, K-12 and post-secondary educational institutions, hospitality entities, real-estate companies and sales teams increase their ability to bridge the gap and positively address race relations.
Not only are we willing and able to continue the education portion of our race-based cultural competency training, but we are also going to be expanding to deliver deep dives into the systemic barriers that have perpetuated negativity and impaired relationships between Black people and many organizations in Iowa.
We have a team of experts who serve in education, chemical dependency, mental health, workforce development, HR and mediation who are non-judgmental and solution-based.
Urban Dreams is proud to have been part of the solution in Des Moines, all over Iowa, and across the nation since 1985, and we won’t stop now.
— Izaah Knox, executive director, Urban Dreams
Implementing a citizen review board
As a Des Moines native, I take pride in this community, which has made me who I am. But for far too long, when it comes to how certain areas of Des Moines and certain races are policed, I have heard the same stories from people who look like me.
For four years I have worked with organizations mobilizing to push Des Moines City Council to make changes that would help my community and the betterment of Black lives.
During the recent protests and marches, I recognized the need to bring together the Black community and white allies in solidarity for social justice and government accountability. To build these bridges, I formed the organization Des Moines’ Selma.
I’m focused on and passionate about getting a citizen review board implemented.
I believe an effective review board should operate under guidance of surrounding community members with representation of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds. The group should also include community activists and advocates, business leaders, retired public servants, neighborhood watch and neighborhood association members, local community scholars, defense lawyers, academic scholars of minority groups and members of historical organizations like NAACP, Iowa CCI and ACLU. The balance of the group is important to cover perspectives from all facets of life.
The citizen review board should offer an unbiased review of issues, questioning why something has been the standard and whether or not the standard should be better.
A citizen review board provides an opportunity to give feedback that would cultivate community trust, which leads to more citizens involved in investigations. Citizens would be more prone to talk to police if they are part of the decision-making process.
Creating a citizen review board that allows real participation, input and decision making is pivotal to building bridges between the Black community and law enforcement.
— Justyn Lewis, founder, Des Moines’ Selma
Protecting community from virus, violence
As we face unprecedented times and new realities during this global pandemic, and incidents of hate that have led to routine brutalization of African Americans, the health and safety of our people are at an unparalleled risk.
Senseless racially motivated crimes and incidence of coronavirus cases and deaths spreading throughout the Black community display the continuance of systemic racism. Now is the time to protect our communities more fiercely than before.
As our communities suffer from the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become painfully obvious that we are still not immune to the racism and prejudice that has afflicted this country for generations. We must demand that local, state and national leaders take every measure possible to curtail the Black death rate and provide an equitable recovery from this COVID-19 pandemic.
We look forward to working with community members, organizations and elected officials to adopt an equity workforce plan to ensure that city staff is reflective of our community. We’ll also work with cities throughout the Des Moines metro area to adopt anti-racial-profiling ordinances to ensure police departments are held to the highest standard.
It is also our goal that an executive order for felony voter restoration be passed as soon as possible, but we also will continue to work for an amendment to the state constitution to make this a permanent action.
— Kameron Middlebrooks, president, Des Moines branch of NAACP
Personally working to achieve equal justice
As we tackle racism and COVID-19, I have reassessed the contributions I will make to further Iowa’s rich history of justice and equality.
I will work to improve my own sensitivity to racial inequities. I will read, discuss and share expert opinions, media accounts, literature and rulings with friends and colleagues. My office will increase its representation of minority, poor and disenfranchised persons, and increase its pro bono representation in civil rights cases. I will help create a template legal brief for submission to judges sentencing minorities, spelling out racial disparities in sentencing.
I will create a databank of complaints against law enforcement officers who harass minorities or testify falsely. I will help establish a clearinghouse through which these records can be shared. I will push for a board to review them.
I will assist in reducing minority expulsion in schools and mentor more minorities interested in the legal profession. Inner-city violence is a facet of racism, and I will continue to address it so young Black men understand there is no good outcome to gun violence or gang activity. I will advocate for legalization of marijuana, the prosecution for which falls disproportionately on minorities. Restoration of felon voting rights will continue to be a priority.
My 1995 book, “Know Your Rights — A Guide Through Iowa’s Criminal Justice System,” will be updated, with an emphasis on racial disparity.
This time is different. If not now, when? And if not us, who?
— Alfredo Parrish, attorney, Parrish Kruidenier
Changing racist mind-sets, apathy
First and foremost, we want to emphasize our support for a City Council ban on racial profiling and the elimination of the state’s ban on felon voting. It is embarrassing that we are the only state that currently permanently disenfranchises those with felony convictions, which has a disproportionate effect on African Americans.
We are hopeful that we will see an executive order to reinstate voting rights for felons expediently. Politics aside, it is simply the right thing to do. It is astonishing that we are yet experiencing the effects of salary and Jim Crow in 2020. Reversing 400-plus years of systemic racism will not happen overnight. We are prepared to do our part to advance the next runner in the race for equality.
We believe that we must first address racist mind-sets in order to effect long-lasting and real change. We must not simply treat the symptoms, but we must also dig up the root of the disease that is racism.
Through our recently started organization, Together We Make Change, we plan to have a voter registration event before the upcoming presidential election. As well, we are planning a series of cultural competency trainings in which people will be educated on race relations in American history and have real and honest dialogue about where we are today.
The goal will be to deal with racist mind-sets, apathy and to open eyes to see the value and humanity of all people. Tangible change can happen only when we work together.
— April Wells and Charmaine Bell, founders,Together We Make Change
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