Creating safe, equitable and thriving neighborhoods

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Gazette Writers Circle,

Last month, we invited Writers Circle members to participate in a series of community conversations hosted by the United Way. The topic: What does it mean to have a “safe, equitable and thriving” community? What challenges do our communities face in achieving this?

It’s up to us to make the community we want

Craig Harwood, Writers Circle

Safe, equitable and thriving, three simple words; easy to say, much more difficult to achieve. We can all agree we want this, but do we all agree what this means? Or, how we achieve it, if we can achieve it? Let’s look at each word individually to see if we can agree on what it means.

Safe. Pretty standard word, we can all agree that a safe community is one where you do not fear for your life, or bodily harm or loss of your property. But what about feeling safe to be who you are? There are people today who don’t feel safe to be themselves with their own family, let alone out in the community. Wouldn’t we want everyone to feel safe to be themselves, whatever that may be? How about safety to honestly speak their minds and ideas?

Equitable. This doesn’t mean equal, it implies fair. Something like this: It is fair for someone who makes more money to live in a bigger house. It is not fair for someone who makes less money to have less access to schools, community services, etc. It is fair for everyone to expect equal police protection. It is not fair for someone to be denied the ability to travel to the store because there are no sidewalks to accommodate his wheelchair. We all know fair and unfair when we see, we surely know when we experience it personally.

Thriving. This is a tough one, we all know when it when we see it, but it can be hard to describe. I would suggest an example of thriving: the wondrous mixture of retailers, eateries, outdoor events and affordable living cropping up in the NewBo area. The neighborhood has an energy about it that can be truly felt.

So, how de we achieve these three concepts? It starts and ends with each one of us as individuals. We must each respect our community, the people and the things. After all, this is our home. To feel safe, we must ensure we do not threaten the safety of others, including allowing others to be who they are. We must treat each other fairly, don’t expect handouts for nothing, but do expect rewards for hard work. We need to bring our individual level of energy to the community. Get involved in some small neighborhood project, help out your neighbor when she needs help, take a walk and talk to you neighbors.

Remember, this is our community, our home, it is up to us to make what we want.

• Craig Harwood lives and works in Cedar Rapids with his family, he advocates for the intellectually disabled community.

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We must address racism and divisiveness

Linda Topinka, guest columnist

Several weeks ago I participated in a conversation with The Gazette’s writer’s circle focusing on community equity, safety, and thriving. Our group was diverse in terms of ideology, education, life experience, gender and race. I was the only female and the only black person. However, an apparent consensus of the group centered on mentoring young people and providing community services.

In our discussion, I was reminded of what Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, one of the first pioneers in combating youth violence, identified the essentials to a communities ability to thrive. She stated that nurturing and being a part of a larger community promotes physical, social and emotional health and children reap the benefits of such environments.

We also addressed equity to the extent of systemic racism being the cause of poverty, gaps in education, mass incarceration and violence. The discussion was based on generalities because any other than that would be to delve into the discomfort zone.

Since our conversation at The Gazette, a black man was shot in Louisiana after being stop for a faulty taillight. Another black man was shot in St. Paul for reaching for his registration after he already told the officer he had a permit to carry. Killings of police officers in Houston and Baton Rouge escalated the violence.

I am not surprised by all the shootings. Since the killing of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown this country has had no choice but to examine the racial bias when it comes to the lives of young black men. The systematic exoneration of the police officers around the country for the killing of young black men, women and children, had led to the sentiments of many Americans reaching the boiling point. The most recent deaths have caused an emotional volcanic eruption. Unless there are some radical changes the eruption will continue to spread volcanic ash throughout our cities.

My heart goes out to the families of the police officers, the families of the perpetrators and all those cities that have been impacted by these horrific violent acts. Our own community has suffered the loss of young lives due to acts of violence. We are all victims of a system that has created a culture of violence.

For the last year, a statement Malcolm X made after the assassination of JFK has stuck in my head. Malcolm’s remark was that the “Chickens have come home to roost”. Whites and blacks alike were incensed by his remark. I didn’t fully comprehend the meaning of the statement at the time. I knew it had something to do with White power structure. As a result of the violence here in Cedar Rapids, the nation, and globally, the statement now rings loud and clear to my ears. I have begun to notice that whenever violence occurs mass or otherwise, the first thought that comes to my mind is that statement: “the chickens have come home to roost.” Those of you who know the history of this country and the colonization of others, will no doubt understand why.

John F. Kennedy said that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable”.

The words equity, safety and thriving sound like things that would be attainable in our communities. However, when we really began to deal with those three words we have to talk about racism, white privilege, and white supremacy, as those are the social constructs that keep our systematic divisiveness in place.

• Linda Topinka, of Cedar Rapids, is a clinical social worker.

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Doing it ourselves

Nicholas Johnson, Writers Circle

I started life in a house on the former underground railroad, in an Iowa City with “northern racism” — few black students and fewer professors, none of whom could find a barber to cut their hair, or a landlord to rent them an apartment.

I spent the 1950s in a Texas with “southern racism” — including the poll tax and other remnants of slavery those underground travelers escaped. I clerked for a federal court of appeals judge when civil rights decisions sparked burning crosses in judges’ yards.

Later, as a President Johnson appointee, I watched how he passed the Voting Rights Act, knowing it would hand the South to the Republicans.

And how, as a result of that act, the mud and gravel roads in southern black neighborhoods began to be paved. The number of southern black legislators increased from 5 to 313.

Those memories came back to me as I read that Cedar Rapids’ leaders had met regarding a subset of local gun violence that gets little public or media attention: young black gang members shooting each other.

Ultimately, those leaders created the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force (SET).

Wisely, the members chose to focus, not merely upon the existence and consequences of these shootings, but upon their causes. They mentioned “poverty, social vulnerabilities, and other systemic hardships.”

Having done so, they realized their challenge is less about race relations (though that’s involved) than about the basic needs of all residents — a challenge confronting most American cities.

The usual approach lists things like jobs at livable wages, housing, transportation, and health care — noting their interrelationship. Three weeks ago this paper addressed the adverse effect on education from both inadequate housing (in an editorial) and insufficient transportation (in a column).

Perhaps our answer this time will be found, not alone in substance (like housing proposals) but in process. The Task Force might first find the problems by focusing on those most impacted by what Cedar Rapids lacks (for them), rather than those most benefitted by what it has. It might focus more on listening to their stories, recording and reporting anecdotal evidence, than on cold data and multiple choice questions.

What if identifying each individual’s problems came before those of the community, a search through the catalog of alternative solutions, pilot projects, and the difficult task of final implementation?

We might just find that, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, we too have been “waiting for someone/to really discover America,” and that our democracy requires more than voting. It needs citizens who feel, and are, included in the identification as well as the resolution of our challenges.

Indeed, our leaders might wish to meditate upon Lao Tsu’s 2500-year-old observation that the goal of a good leader is that “When his work is done [the people] will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”

Iowa City now has less “northern racism.” And Cedar Rapids can have less shooting by gang members. We can do it. But only when the people can say, “We did this ourselves.”

• As a former FCC commissioner, Nicholas Johnson highlighted the role of media in race perceptions and relations and urged increased station ownership by women and minorities.

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Share stories to share understanding

Sara Sedlacek, Writers Circle

In my position with The Crisis Center of Johnson County, I don’t do direct client work; however, I see the impact our work has every day and I see the need in our community continue to grow. Currently more than 19,000 individuals in Johnson County and more than 26,000 in Linn County are experiencing food insecurity. The very first conversation we should be having about how to make our communities safe, equitable and thriving must begin with what we’re doing to ensure families are able to meet their most basic needs. That has to begin with conversations about affordable housing, public transportation and education.

Thankfully, people in places of greater power than me are finally having these conversations. In the weeks since the Writers Group was invited to a roundtable discussion on this issue, I have determined that my place in this conversation is to share stories that help reduce the stigma of those experiencing food insecurity, living in poverty, or otherwise just trying to get by.

The Johnson County Hunger Task Force released its report several months ago, which showed that 81 percent of pantry clients surveyed spend more than half their income on housing. To be clear, the average family visiting The Crisis Center Food Bank includes at least one working adult and many families are not eligible for food assistance. Little is left for food, let alone anything else, after covering housing. Affordable housing is a critical component to this conversation and I’m relieved it’s finally being addressed. The conversation must go beyond just affordable housing and the benefits of mixed-income housing must also be discussed. By segregating our city, no one benefits.

I had a conversation with someone the other day who told me that everyone should just start cooking from scratch. I explained that cooking from scratch takes a lot of time. When someone has a two-hour bus ride just to pick their child up from day care and another bus ride to get home, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for cooking before bed. Respondents to the Hunger Task Force survey reported overwhelmingly that transportation was a barrier to putting food on the table. Low-income families, who would most benefit financially from cooking from scratch don’t have the luxury of time, especially when they work multiple jobs or depend on public transportation.

All these things factor into whether or not a child will be able to break the cycle of poverty. Last week, the Center for the Study of Social Policy released new information showing the detrimental and lasting effects of food insecurity on children. Additionally, food insecurity affects children of color at a disproportionately higher rate than white children. According to Feeding America, when kids go to school hungry, they have a harder time concentrating, higher instances of problem behaviors in school, and an increased rate of truancy and absenteeism.

Having our basic needs met should be something everyone in the Corridor can count on. Let’s work together to understand a little better, judge a little less and take those steps toward the safe, equitable, thriving communities of which we all dream.

• Sara Sedlacek was born and raised in Johnson County and is the Communications & Development Director for The Crisis Center of Johnson County.

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