116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Washington High School senior Danny Levy has a dream of launching an indoor market for Black-owned microbusinesses in Cedar Rapids.
Levy, 18, developed the idea as a part of the Iowa Youth Action Squad, which gives opportunities for students who come from diverse backgrounds and an interest in advocacy to expand their learning, research and leadership skills.
The Youth Action Squad was created by the Iowa Department of Human Rights and Iowa Collaboration for Youth Development — an effort involving multiple state-level departments — after receiving a grant in 2020 from the Washington, D.C.-based Forum for Youth Investment to develop the program. Students conduct research and turn it in to an actionable plan to present to city, state or school officials.
Levy was one of two students in the Cedar Rapids Community School District to be selected to be a part of the Iowa Youth Action Squad this year.
“My grandfather has been in this community for 50 years, but he always feels ostracized,” Levy said. “I feel compelled to change this for him. He’s been here for so long and told me nothing has changed.”
Nzobaho Ngiriweneza, 16, a sophomore at Washington High, researched equity and diversity in high school curriculum with a team of students from across the state.
Incorporating diversity in to course curriculum, including text written by historically marginalized people and talking about contributions people of color have made to the math and science fields, will help students develop “empathy, kindness and understanding of others,” Ngiriweneza said.
‘The brown dollar’
For Levy’s project, she researched “the brown dollar” and how it could be strengthened in her community.
The brown dollar refers to how long a dollar circulates in the Black community compared with white, Asian or other communities. For example, Levy said, a dollar circulates for six hours in a Black community, compared to 28 days in an Asian community and 17 days in a white community.
“Black people aren’t making enough money and immediately their paycheck goes toward necessities like rent,” Levy said. “There isn’t an ability to put money back in to Black-owned businesses and strengthen it and create a foundation for the Black community to thrive.”
Black Americans spend $1.3 trillion every year, but only about 2 percent goes back in to the Black community, Levy said.
For her project, Levy spoke with community members, people with the NAACP and people with the Iowa Department of Human Rights. She learned Black households face systematic obstacles in building wealth, which creates barriers for families in investing in their children’s education, starting a business, relocating for new and better opportunities, buying a house and participating in the democratic process, Levy said.
Redlining, a form of lending discrimination that technically has been outlawed for decades, continues to create racial disparity in homeownership. The practice of redlining started in the 1930s, with banks denying mortgages mostly to people of color, preventing them from buying a home in certain neighborhoods.
Today, historically redlined neighborhoods are connected to a variety of poor health conditions, lower life expectancy, police brutality, less access to healthy food, retail depression and gentrification. About 30 percent of Black people in Iowa own their homes compared with 75 percent of white people.
Black people “don’t have the ability to put their money back in to Black businesses to strengthen it and create a foundation for the Black community to thrive,” Levy said.
Levy found that there are over 50 Black-owned businesses in Cedar Rapids, and she would like to see that number rise.
An indoor market for Black-owned microbusinesses — like NewBo City Market, a business incubator in Cedar Rapids — could create more equity for Black entrepreneurs, Levy said.
“One of the hardest things to do is get a business off the ground, and it’s hard to find Black businesses (in Cedar Rapids) to give your dollar to,” Levy said.
Equity in curriculum
Ngiriweneza said curriculum is changing, but it still has a long way to go.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, students and educators took a hard look at racial equity in school curriculum.
“Curriculum changes should have happened way earlier than now, but after George Floyd died there was a bigger push to get this work done,” Ngiriweneza said.
Ngiriweneza and his team surveyed over 200 students across Iowa asking them what they want to see in their class curriculum. He said the results show students want more information about the “real world” and are “demanding changes” for equity.
In May 2021, Linn-Mar students at a racial justice rally said they are being taught a “whitewashed” version of history, prompting the district to launch an equity department.
Educators in the Cedar Rapids Community School District have been revisiting social studies, language arts, Advanced Placement and music curriculum across all grade levels to incorporate inclusive, anti-racist teaching and include perspectives from different cultures. Teachers and school staff are being trained in cultural proficiency, implicit bias and accountability.
“If we know our past, we can create a better future,” Ngiriweneza said.
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