Journalist Ty Rushing speaks with Black Iowans to explore racism and discrimination across rural and urban landscapes. Examine race relations from the perspective of Black Iowans, who share what they think can be done to end racism in their state.
This is going to shock some of you, but here it is. There are some people who don't believe there are black people in Iowa.
I was born and raised here in Sioux City.
I was born and raised here in Waterloo.
My name is Jalesha Johnson, I'm from Des Moines.
My name is Nia Wilder and I am a proud product of Waterloo, Iowa.
My mother had to go to Wisconsin over the bridge for us to be born.
But we lived here in Iowa.
You get the idea.
Hi, my name is Ty Rushing. I'm one of the more than 130,000 black people who call Iowa home. About a decade ago, I moved from Kansas City to Iowa to start my career as a journalist. Since then, I have learned there is a rich history of black activism and trailblazers all across this great state.
Ty Rushing: We saw that in action when so many people took to the streets to speak out against hate after George Floyd's murder. I even spoke at rallies around me in Northwest Iowa and two towns that happened to be some of the whitest, most conservative communities in the state.
The system needs to change. We need reform, we need accountability and most of all, black and proud -- stop the racism, racial profiling --
It's a tall order to fix all of that and I don't know how we can. However, today, in the movements across the country leading up to this, we can start. Black people aren't asking for special treatment. On the contrary, we want the same thing we always wanted, true equality.
Ty Rushing: While 2020 was a battle cry, the fight against racism is far from over and finding the solution to such an insidious issue is hard. The onus on solving racism shouldn't fall on just the black people, but we still take on the cause, including here in Iowa. So join me as I travel across the Hawkeye State to talk to black activists, community leaders and elected officials to highlight their work and to see if we can answer this question. How do we end racism?
Somebody has got to open the door.
It also creates so many opportunities for those --
I go hunting and fishing --
Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.
Leo Landis: Iowa really has a mixed history of course relative to equality for blacks.
Meet Leo Landis. He is the State Curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa. He helped provide some historical context around black and white relations in Iowa as we started to work on this project. Leo also shared some of Iowa's incredible black history with us.
Leo Landis: For those of us who come out of a background as being white European ancestry, we learned history one way and you could say, well there's not enough time for those other stories. Well, those are important stories and to truly understand the mosaic of American history and it's not being critical of our country, it's just understanding the richness of these stories. That may make you uncomfortable, but if you really want to understand the United States and the state of Iowa, you need to understand the adversity other people have faced. And to understand that, you need to study those wide-ranging stories.
One of those stories we're studying is that of Des Moines native Jalesha Johnson.
Jalesha Johnson: There's always something better waiting if I fight for it.
An organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, Jalesha was 16 when she organized her first protest in 2016 in response to Donald Trump's election during her junior year of high school. It drew hundreds of kids across the Des Moines Metro.
Jalesha Johnson: It was really beautiful and I think it showed me that my voice has value and it showed me that there are lots of people who are behind me who look like me and live like me, who believe in the same things that I believe in.
The Des Moines Black Liberation Movement formed organically after several large protests in Iowa's capital and largest city following the murder of George Floyd. Jalesha has been there since day one and has helped the organization flourish. Its primary goal is true freedom for black people.
Jalesha Johnson: So, our organization is broken up into departments. So at first we kind of operated in a big group and this is when there were 13 of us organizers in our collective. And so it was very much too many cooks in the kitchen. And then also we officially became a 501c3 and 501c4 so we also had to make sure we had all our ducks in a row.
Jalesha works as teaching artist where she helps young people find their voice and shows them how to utilize it. She doesn't take her position lightly.
Jalesha Johnson: When you're someone's teacher, it pushes you to stay a student. It makes you really understand how much power and influence I have over people and that makes me really want to be super transparent, super authentic.
Her own voice was on display during countless protests in 2020. In fact, Jalesha was banned from the Iowa Capitol Complex because of her protesting. She was eventually awarded a settlement from the Iowa State Patrol after a successful ACLU-backed lawsuit overturned her ban. Jalesha also helped push for more representation and change within BLM addressing internalized instances of colorism, fat phobia and homophobia.
Jalesha Johnson: I want to make this city safer than it was for me growing up and I think that every year I'm learning that I can and every year, at least I feel like, I hope I'm doing things that are making it safer and that makes me feel very good and it makes me really grateful that I didn't give up. And it literally keeps me inspired.
Jaylen is another organization with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement and a spring 2022 candidate for the Iowa House.
Jaylen Cavil: Me and a few other folks who are standing right here in this same spot behind the barricade watching a bunch of Des Moines Police Department officers clean up blood in the street right there.
For Jaylen, taking on the fight against racism is a natural extension of who he is.
Jaylen Cavil: I think being born black kind of radicalizes you in a sense, you're kind of born radicalized. I've always been a very, very vocal person. I've always been one to speak my mind and let my opinions be known. I haven't been one to really hold back, definitely got me in trouble while I was in school.
Jaylen grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, but his parents are from Iowa. He has always had a connection to the Hawkeye State and has gone back and forth his whole life. Jaylen moved to Iowa full-time after graduating from college to work on a U.S. Senate campaign but changed course after George Floyd's murder and went all in on organizing.
Jaylen Cavil: Ever since then I've been organizing alongside those folks. I'm the advocacy director of the organization so a lot of the politics stuff, the lobbying, the stuff that happens at Des Moines City Council or at the Iowa State Legislature, that's kind of the wheelhouse I'm in. So organizing around policy and trying to put some action on some of these elected officials to actually make a change in the city and the state.
Jaylen has become probably one of Iowa's most outspoken voices on white supremacy, racism and police violence, all of which has placed him in a lot of crosshairs.
Since 2020, Jaylen has been arrested once, charged multiple times and has had two trials, all related to protesting.
Jaylen Cavil: So, did I expect to become a target? I mean, kind of, but not to the extent that I feel like I have become a target to law enforcement. Obviously I a hundred percent understood the risks from day one going out to protest.
Jaylen says he has been exposed to chemical irritants, handcuffed and held in the back of a police car in the summer with the windows rolled up without the benefit of air conditioning, hit by a car carrying Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, the circumstances of how this happened are disputed by the Iowa State Patrol. Jaylen also says he has had anonymous threats mailed to his parents' home in Kansas and endured much more all in the name of black liberation.
Jaylen Cavil: So I always understood the risks that came with protesting, knowing that you can be arrested, knowing that you can be seriously injured by police or worse. I wouldn't say it has deterred me.
While the Liberation Movement's protests garnered the most attention, the organization also does a lot of mutual aid work. BLM either overseas or works directly with organizations that provide rent relief, bail for arrested protestors, community fridges, abortion access, support for the trans community and more.
Jaylen Cavil: Our bread and butter, our thing that we're really about is direct action protesting. And then on the other side is mutual aid and building up a strong community. We are abolitionists. We believe in defunding the police. We believe in a future that doesn't need police. But we know that for that to actually come to fruition we have to build up a community that is able to thrive and help each other out without the need for police.
Actions by some police officers aren't the only problem when it comes to race and racism in Iowa. The negative experiences with law enforcement came up a few times during our travels across the state.
In Waterloo, Iowa's blackest city per capita, Nia Wilder took a different approach to the issues between black residents and police by working with law enforcement to try and improve relations.
Nia Wilder: Law enforcement isn't going anywhere. And as much as everyone wants to defund them, some places it happens and it doesn't always have a good turn. Some places it happens and it does have a good turn. But here, some of our officers really do want to make a change and they really do care about Waterloo. I feel like they deserve a chance and the opportunity to make a difference in the community. And if there are bad apples, they need to go.
Nia Wilder is about as Waterloo as they come. She is an entrepreneur, photographer, mentor, public speaker and community activist. When we met her, she was running to become Waterloo's first openly gay city council member. Nia helped lead Black Lives Matter marchers in Waterloo and other Blackhawk County communities.
Nia Wilder: Anywhere we had to go to protest, to make sure the community knew that Black Lives Matter, we were there. We walked with the police. I even talked to a couple of officers during that time and I told them, you should know why we're here and if you support us then you should be on one knee with us. And they took a knee with us. I respect that because they could have just stood there like we were just ants. But instead they took a knee with us.
Nia took some criticism for working with the police.
Nia Wilder: I had got called an Uncle Tom, I got called a coon, I got called all types of things and I couldn't understand why anyone would be upset about me sitting next to someone that we have an issue with and figuring out how we can mend it.
One of the outcomes from BLM protests in Waterloo was a final push in a longstanding fight about black Waterloo residents to change the logo for the Waterloo Police Department. The logo was implemented in 1964 and some black residents have had issues with it since day one.
Nia Wilder: In the city of Waterloo we had a logo and it was a gryphon, it was a red mystical creature with green eyes. I had been told the creator of the logo and whomever is in that circle nicknamed it the green-eyed nigger eater. And so when I heard that I was immediately turned off. I was like yeah, we've got to get this changed. And if you are someone in the community and you're not black and you hear that, you should be offended. And I didn't understand why the community wasn't offended by that.
This is crazy. My name is legitely on the ballot.
The logo was changed, but not without a contentious political fight that actually ended up backfiring on the group that politicized the issue. Every candidate supported by the pack which wanted to keep the original logo wound up losing in November.
Nia's election was part of a larger victory that led to Waterloo having its first ever minority majority council. Historic as it may be, Nia still isn't done doing her part to make Waterloo a better place for all.
Nia Wilder: I am in this fight for the generations that come after me. I have a stepson, I have a little brother, I have little cousins, I have people that need Waterloo to be at its best and I wouldn't feel right leaving it to them in the condition that it's in now.
Another Waterloo resident trying to make the world better is Ras Smith. Ras is a State Legislator and former gubernatorial candidate. Outside of politics, a bulk of his professional life has been dedicated to working with youth, including teaching a class on how to survive a police encounter. A married father of two, Ras is also an organic farmer and the son of a mother who is a pastor and a father who is a card-carrying union member and retired John Deere worker.
Ras Smith: My experience growing up in Waterloo was unique because I'd go hunting and fishing and outdoors but lived in an almost exclusively black community.
Ras said his unique background has allowed him to connect with Iowans from all walks of life, from urban to rural, which he noted is just another word for country. Still, he's always keenly aware of his race and the additional obstacles that come with it.
Ras Smith: The one thing that you can't out-status no matter how much money you make, no matter if you become the President of the United States, you're still black. But at the same time, it's still one of those things that for me I'm aware and maybe being an Iowan makes me more aware. Maybe being an Iowan who loves to hunt and to fish makes me extremely aware. You have to be mindful, I have to be mindful of the fact that by myself in the middle of nowhere carrying a gun over my shoulder with my dog and that could be a threat to some people sometimes.
Like most black men, he has a police encounter story. He was leaving a campaign event at a downtown Waterloo church while wearing khakis and a shirt with his name on it as he headed to his wife's car. Waterloo police were looking for a suspect and they surrounded him. He called his wife on the car's Bluetooth so she could hear everything that was going on as he was questioned by officers, some of whom recognized him as their state representative. Ras had to put the skills he once taught young men on how to survive a police encounter to practical use.
Ras Smith: After I had to go through that process myself, comply, even if I know I don't have to, comply because to not comply could mean life or death. Suck it up. They're searching my food, searching my car, going through my container of rice pilaf, asking me for more than one form of ID, all the things that I know I don't have to legally comply with, but I do because I want to get home to see my wife and my daughter.
Ras has tried to use his legislative position to make a difference.
Ras Smith: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Thank you, Representative Kaufmann. A friend, we chatted on Monday about how important this legislation was to us and that we would run through any wall we had to, to make sure it got here and here we are today. So I appreciate your commitment to doing that.
In 2020, he authored the A More Perfect Union Bill, which ban law enforcement from using chokeholds unless it is to prevent deadly force, allows the Iowa Attorney General's Office to prosecute officers whose actions result in death, prohibits law enforcement officers fired for serious misconduct from being rehired, and strengthened the requirement for anti-bias and de-escalation training for officers. Ras, a democrat, managed to pull that off in the fourth year of a republican trifecta in the Statehouse. A photo of him looking exhausted after the House approved the bill went viral.
Ras Smith: To craft that bill, to have democrats, republicans, Black Lives Matter, law enforcement, with insight be a part of that process to me was something that I don't know if we'll see again and we had two weeks, we had two weeks in a special session to get something done. It took all that I had, I think it took all that the black caucus had to get to that point. But we got it passed and the Governor signed it and we passed it with 150 to 0.
Whenever there has been social change in Sioux City over the last 50 or so years, you're more than likely going to find a connection to the Lee family. Flora, her late husband Rudy and their daughter Treyla, have often been the first black insert whatever title, position, label you want in Sioux City. Their range of firsts include Rudy being the city's first black firefighter to Flora being the first black woman elected to the school board to Treyla being the first black drum major at West High School.
Flora Lee: You get tired, I get tired of being the first. But somebody's got to open the door because I'm hoping that when I open the door and I'm the first, I won't be the last, because you don't want to be the last.
Treyla Lee: I think that is key, like in being the first it brings on so many nuances, but it also creates so many opportunities for those that may not have ever thought that they could walk that path.
Flora Lee: And you learn a lot by being the first.
The family has always been involved in the community, something Flora is adamant about. They served on boards and committees for dozens of organizations and Flora even cofounded Siouxland Human Investment Partnership non-profit.
Flora Lee: It's better to be at the table because if you're not at the table you are on the menu. And you need to be at the table so that you can provide your input and your ideas in order to impact the entire project or committee that you're serving on.
Dubuque is Iowa's oldest city and considered by many as one of its most beautiful. But it also has a history of extreme racism.
Lynn Sutton: There's 150 homes here in Dubuque that the abstracts in the house say the house will not be sold to anyone Negro or Mongolian descent for the next 50 years. This house has that abstract. I was like, you've got to be kidding me.
This is Lynn Sutton, a second generation civil rights activist standing in front of her childhood home and talking about her hometown of Dubuque. Here's how her late mother, Ruby, described the city.
Lynn Sutton: She always said, this isn't down south, this is up south, they just don't have the signs up.
There was a cross burning as recent as the 1990s and a major KKK rally in the 1980s. All eight Sutton children were raised in Dubuque but were born out-of-state although there are two hospitals in the city.
Lynn Sutton: If you were black, we had to go across the river.
To give additional context, Lynn is 58 and her youngest sibling is 53.
Lynn Sutton: That's crazy, huh? Not as long as you think. And it was after the Civil Rights Movement at that.
A lot of Lynn's recent activism has centered on addressing housing inequalities in her hometown, which negatively affect residents of color and/or people with lower incomes. Some of the rental properties Lynn and her allies have inspected are beyond repair. They've also run across mold, faulty plumbing, bug or rodent infestations and other issues.
Are there some more houses in this neighborhood that you'd like to check?
Lynn Sutton: Probably the majority of them down this way we filled out inspection reports on.
Lynn Sutton: And so they were really taking advantage of them because sometimes some of them didn't have anywhere else to go because maybe they didn't have the best rental history or had a criminal background that was sometimes held against them. But once again, they were taken advantage of.
A 2018 class action lawsuit she helped spearhead for some negligent landlords to make improvements to their properties, give their tenants lawful leases and pay their tenants restitution.
Lynn Sutton: In result to that, it has made other landlords like ooh, I better fix this up before they call them because then I'm going to be in trouble. But it shouldn't have ever gotten to that point.
Ty Rushing: These black Iowans are working to make their communities and the state better. But it's time we ask the thesis of this film, how do we end racism?
How do we end racism?
Lynn Sutton: Ooh! Woo! You just said the million dollar question. One person at a time. One group at a time. And we have to see each other as human first.
Nia Wilder: Raw, open, honest communication, not sugarcoating anything. If it gets a little tense, then fine. But after this we need to leave with a better understanding of each other. And if you still have racism on your mind, then we're going to do a crash course. We're going to keep it going.
Treyla Lee: I don't think we need to end racism because I think it's how we learn, it's how we grow and I think we have to continuously educate people on ignorance as it relates to culture, ethnicity and just our differences.
Jaylen Cavil: A big part of it is changing the culture, just our culture in general. I feel like a lot of it has to do with capitalism. I think that capitalism breeds racism.
Jalesha Johnson: I think that in order to end racism and all of the isms we have to end capitalism. I think that when we understand the commodification of black people and black labor and black bodies literally came from greed and literally came from a desire for capital, that is literally the reason racism exists.
Flora Lee: What we as black folks need to do is stop waiting for white folks to change. And we've got to stop being afraid of that and we've got to join with our allies and our other brothers and sisters of color so that we can move forward.
Ras Smith: Because I don't know how we do away with something that is so part of the fabric of our society, of our state. I don't know how we do away with something that's like breathing to people in this country. I don't know how you do away with something that a large part of the population can't even acknowledge exists. I know it's here. But fish don't see water, you can't tell them that they're drowning, you can't tell them that I'm drowning, because they don't see that. And so I don't know how we end racism, I don't know if we can end racism. My focus right now is reducing the impacts of racism on my ability to live every day.
Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.