“Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” in Iowa City

[Note: I first drafted this post in mid-December, 2014. In light of the cascade of events in Ferguson (Missouri), Baltimore (Ohio), Charleston (South Carolina), and elsewhere, I believe the content of the post remains relevant.]

During the Iowa City City Council’s work session on November 18, 2014, Equity Director Stefanie Bowers skillfully summarized information contained in the City’s 2013 Equity Report and the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education & Families’ 2012 action guide City Leadership to Promote Black Male Achievement. At the end of her presentation, Stefanie identified several possible topics for City Council/staff action. We council members discussed her summary and briefly suggested some specific steps to take. Councilor Kingsley Botchway, for example, recommended that we schedule a follow up work session in which we could explore the possible actions more thoroughly. Mayor Matt Hayek suggested that we submit our suggested courses of action to the Council as a whole.

Here’s what I suggested.

Bowers began her presentation by noting that the Equity Report exists primarily because of recommendations made by the Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity Issues. She’s right, of course, and it is important not to lose sight of the fact that we created that committee primarily in response to events surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin and concerns expressed by black members of the Iowa City community about their experiences of living in Iowa City.

We have taken several good steps since that committee was created, including producing the Equity Report and initiating all the other actions highlighted in Stefanie’s report. They deserve more attention and credit they have received.

But a great deal more remains to be done. I want to offer three specific suggestions.

Build Stronger Bonds Based on Mutual Trust

The Equity Report presents a great deal of data. The data are enlightening, sometimes quite troubling, and necessary for managing the City staff’s actions efficiently.

Although having good data is important for management and policy-making purposes, it is not sufficient as a response to public concerns. Building trust throughout the community is at least as important.

Bowers highlighted out some good steps the Police Department has made this year to improve community relations. These steps constitute an excellent start. But we City Council members have a particularly important role to play.

We need to get out of City Hall, go into the various communities of this city, and meet with people who currently feel little reason to trust local government. It is especially important that we meet with lower income, black, and Hispanic residents of the city in places they feel most comfortable.

What I specifically recommend is an action that Councilor Susan Mims and I discussed a few months ago. I believe we need to schedule a regular series of community conversations in which Council members and key staff members meet with diverse members of the public away from City Hall. I would suggest that we conduct quarterly forums at night in schools or equivalent settings (e.g., the Center for Worker Justice’s office, the Broadway and Pheasant Ridge Neighborhood Centers, Uptown Bill’s, The Spot, The Senior Center). In light of legal constraints, and because most of us are very busy with our day jobs, I would further suggest that only two or three council members attend each of these forums, and that we establish a rotating schedule of attendance, somewhat like we currently do with KXIC.

The primary purpose of these interactive meetings would be to develop stronger bonds of mutual trust between the City Council and diverse parts of the Iowa City community. This means we would have to listen actively to what residents tell us. But it also means that we would be able to share with the public (in a very informal setting) what we know about what the City is doing, and why. In other words, we would conduct these forums very differently from how we conduct our “public discussion” periods or public hearings.

Given the events that led to us creating the Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity, I think it is especially important that we find ways to improve mutual understanding and trust with young, lower-income black men and women. To do this, I think we need to identify black adults who come from lower-income backgrounds and who already have established strong bonds of trust with younger people. People like Fred Newell. Royceann Porter, and Henri Harper come to mind. Those adults could be enormously important intermediaries or liaisons.

Address Deeper Inequities

My second recommendation concerns the race-related disparities in education, employment, income, traffic stops, arrests, incarceration, etc. presented in Stefanie’s two reports. The data concerning those disparities do not explain themselves. People might agree that the data show large disparities and inequities, and yet differ dramatically about what they think produces the disparities and hence what should be done in response.

On this point, I note that our Equity Report focuses almost exclusively on internal City operations and pays virtually no attention to the deeper inequities identified in the NLC report about black male achievement. I think, therefore, that future versions of the Equity Report should focus more attention on those deeper inequities, especially with regard to lower-income black members of the Iowa City community.

More important, we need to devise actions that will reduce those deeper disparities. This leads to my third suggestion.

Identify Ways to Use Future LOST Funds to Reduce Inequities

Given State-mandated reductions in commercial property tax rates, it appears very likely that we will have to find new sources of revenue or else cut services. The voters chose not to approve the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) proposal we placed on the ballot earlier this month (November 2014). Given the financial situation, however, I think it is very likely we will have to return to the voters with a new version of the tax, one that will warrant a yes vote from a majority of voters in the five contiguous cities. I have already sent the Mayor, Mayor Pro-tem, and City Manager specific suggestions about how to do that.

Here I simply want to note that the NLC report provides us with some good ideas about how to allocate part of any future LOST revenues. We need to devise some community-based programs – funded with LOST revenues and devised collaboratively with community members – that would increase employment opportunities and practical hands-on educational opportunities for our lower income residents, especially those of color. I am especially intrigued by the NLC report’s discussion about “YouthBuilds” in Footnote 6. People like Joe Williams at Northwest Mutual and Chad Simmons at Diversity Focus might be especially helpful in designing such programs.

In sum, I propose that we take three actions: (1) build stronger bonds based on mutual trust, (2) address deeper inequities, and (3) devise programs that could potentially be funded with LOST funds.

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