“No U.S. metro area has larger social and economic disparities along racial lines than Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa.”
So stated the November 2018 24/7 Wall St. report, singling out Waterloo-Cedar Falls as the worst metro for African Americans to live. The report dealt a hard blow to the Cedar Valley, bringing the racial tensions and economic disparities the community has long struggled with to the national stage. A year later, many reflected on the report: both the initial impact and the progress made.
As part of this reflection, UNI's TRIO Educational Opportunity Center (EOP) within the Center for Urban Education (UNI-CUE) and CSBS turned to the theme, "Neighbors for Peace, Prosperity & Compassion," for their second annual System of Support Conference.
Oriented towards “helping professionals,” the conference specifically targeted audiences within the Cedar Valley who were working directly within human services.
“The [conference] is our opportunity to give back to the community and connect further with all the wonderful service providers out there,” stated CSBS Dean Brenda Bass.
“I think, as a community partner, the university has an obligation and responsibility to think about how we use our resources, our expertise and really connect the dots between education, research and practice,” said Center for Violence Prevention Director and Conference Committee Chair Alan Heisterkamp.
“[The report] was a big concern for us, at our program and our center,” stated Kathy Martin, director of EOP. “We’re primarily working with first-generation, low-income adults, helping them to further their education. So we wanted to partner with campus get practicing professionals together, have them talk about what they’re doing in their offices and discuss some of the different support services they can provide.”
The conference began with a community panel featuring representatives from prominent Waterloo organizations, including Cedar Valley Iowa Works, Grow Cedar Valley and People's Community Health Clinic, alongside the Waterloo and Cedar Falls mayors and police departments.
The panelists addressed how the 24/7 report hit home.
“When the article came out, I took it personally,” commented Mayor Quentin Hart, '03, who in 2015 became the first African American elected to the office of mayor for the city of Waterloo. “They waited until I was elected huh?”
Mayor Hart contended many of the statistics of the 24/7 report took incidents occurring from 2009-2015 into account, which didn’t seem to give an accurate depiction of the Cedar Valley today. But he recognized that regardless of what the statistics said, it was obvious that the lives of African Americans in Cedar Falls-Waterloo still need to be improved.
“Here we were trying so hard, but yet we were still not doing enough,” said Christine Kemp, CEO of People’s Community Health Clinic. “But if that’s what it took to have conversations and put it all on the table, let’s do it.”
“After getting through the bruise of the article, we realized it created some great dialogue,” remarked Carry Darrah, president and CEO of Grow Cedar Valley. “No one wants to have that blemish on their community. But if it took that article to have us talk seriously about identifying it ... progress needs to be made. It’s not going to happen overnight, or be solved by any one person, organization or entity. It has to be a shift in the culture of what we do and how we do it.”
“For everyone who’s lived it, it was like well, now you know,” Debra Hodges-Harmon, team lead at Cedar Valley Iowa Works, pointed out. “It was an embarrassment, but sometimes being embarrassed is not the worst thing to happen.”
So what steps have been taken in the last year to move forward?
Community organizers worked hard to appropriately identify barriers, figure out who’s going to work through them, who needs to be at the table at this moment and who needs to be invited in the future.
“The best thing is, now, we stand as one community working on many issues,” said Hodges-Harmon.
Collaboration, connection and staying positive were key takeaways from the conference. Panelists stressed the importance of looking at what initiatives were already being done in the community. What organizations were doing similar things and could start collaborating? In what other ways could the audience, filled with community “doers,” help?
For employers: Don’t just look at who you’re hiring into your company to help create a diverse workplace environment. It’s equally, if not more important, to look at workplace culture, and how those hires will be supported.
For allies: Find ways to be a part of the community culture, learn and listen. Hire those who can help bridge relationships. Talk about implicit biases.
Listen. Find allies. Build relationships. Act.
For more stories about CSBS faculty, students and alumni, visit csbs.uni.edu/magazine.