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Meet Cedar Rapids’ young ‘power couple’ leading racial justice reform
Coe College students Angelina Ramirez and Harold Walehwa push for systemic change
CEDAR RAPIDS — If there were a dictionary entry for “power couple,” community leaders say Angelina Ramirez and Harold Walehwa would likely be the definition.
Since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police ignited swift calls for police reform and racial equity in communities across the nation in May 2020, the two have become leading voices on the movement for social and racial justice in the Cedar Rapids community. As Coe College rising seniors in their early 20s, they are some of the youngest leaders, and they have inspired others with their persistence in the fight for a more racially just city and state.
Although Floyd’s murder prompted a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism, Ramirez and Walehwa felt called to push for progressive policy change years before his death.
Walehwa, 22, from St. Louis, was in his sophomore year of high school when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer, sparking unrest. A grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, and a separate U.S. Department of Justice investigation found Wilson shot Brown in self-defense.
His grandma lived in Ferguson, so Walehwa said he saw the news coverage and pain the shooting caused. Familiar restaurants and buildings were burned down, and heavily militarized police shot tear gas and rubber bullets at people.
That “woke me up in a sense,” Walehwa said.
“We’re at a point where I was actually able to understand the implications of everything that’s going on and what it means to be Black in America and relationships with police and law enforcement,” he said.
Ramirez, 21, from California and Arizona, said that as a biracial woman — her father is Chicano and her mother is white — she grew up with a mixed racial lens and has long seen the racial inequities her father faced.
After Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016, Ramirez said the rhetoric that surrounded Mexican Americans propelled her to look at how policies disproportionately affect marginalized groups.
Ramirez founded and is president of Coe Votes, a nonpartisan club working against student disenfranchisement and encouraging student civic engagement, and Walehwa serves as the group’s vice president. The two also are part of the Advocates for Social Justice, which is the local Black Lives Matter organization, and interned for the nonprofit group.
Ramirez works for Coe’s Community and Civic Engagement Office and is a project assistant at West Wind Education Policy Inc., a consulting company for policy reform for K-12 education that looks to disrupt persistent inequities in the system. She has served as a legislative aide for state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, and is a Truman Scholarship finalist.
Walehwa is a member of Coe’s Black Self-Educated Organization. He was recently appointed vice president and chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee on the Student Senate and is part of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee on the college’s board of trustees. He earned the President’s Award for Student Leadership of 2021 — Iowa and Minnesota Campus Compact.
Fighting for change
The two say they have realized for a long time how America treats Black and brown people like themselves differently. But they add that seeing policies passed in Iowa such as the “Back the Blue” bill expanding police protections or legislation barring the teaching of certain concepts in public school, including that Iowa or the U.S. is systemically racist, shows how much progress is yet to be made.
“Part of the experience over the last few years is grappling with that frustration and how to channel the frustration of people not quite understanding into meaningful action, and changing other people’s hearts and minds into accepting fact and accepting the truth over our experiences,” Ramirez said.
It’s a constant fight to show others that these issues affect people’s lives, Walehwa said — but the battle has paid off, particularly at the local level.
As a then-vice president of the Black Self-Educated Organization, he said the group successfully pushed for new policies — having mandatory diversity training for staff, faculty and students, looking into increasing scholarships for students of color and audits to track retention of students and staff and faculty of color. The group’s advocacy also resulted in the development of a diversity, equity and inclusion action plan for the college.
And in Cedar Rapids, the Advocates for Social Justice successfully led the charge to press the city to adopt an ordinance creating a nine-member citizens’ police review board to provide oversight of local law enforcement.
While there has been some change locally, Ramirez said not enough people have kept the pressure on elected officials, making it difficult to implement sweeping reforms at the state level in a predominantly white state like Iowa.
“These issues of racial inequity and racial injustice isn’t necessarily in the forefront of white people’s lives, unless they actively try and implement that as a priority for them,” Ramirez said. “And we were able to see change, because they had placed it at a priority last summer. But now we’re seeing that fade. And that’s the worst thing we could do when we’re talking about the backlash that we’re seeing now, and it just emphasizes the need for people to be paying attention now more than ever.”
Still, Ramirez and Walehwa hope to see the Advocates for Social Justice’s seven demands — which the City Council committed to achieving June 19, 2020 — fully implemented. Some of them will require state or federal action, such as decriminalizing marijuana use or abolishing qualified immunity.
On campus, they hope to set up a pipeline to make navigating college and the community easier for those who come after them.
“I really do think it’s important that while we have these leadership positions and while people look to us, that we’re able to just pave a way for people that come after us,” Walehwa said.
Service-oriented ‘power couple’
Stacey Walker, chairman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors, said he first met Ramirez a couple of years ago when she was accepted as one of three Serekberhan Fellowship program members with the supervisors’ office. Ramirez “knocked his socks off” in the interview when she said she wanted to become a member of Congress, and Walker knew then that she was the kind of young person he wanted to help.
He eventually met Walehwa through the African American Museum of Iowa, where Walehwa worked. Walker said he was struck by Walehwa’s swagger as a young Black man with a pick in his afro, exuding a “bold Black man energy” that inspired him.
What Walker said he found remarkable about the pair was their ability to lead thousands of people looking to affect change in Cedar Rapids.
He sees Ramirez and Walehwa as a power couple: “Two people coming together who have a commitment to public service, who believe in the goodness of people, who believe that their communities can be better — and not only believe that their communities can be better, but they’re willing to work toward making it a reality. That’s a power couple. It has nothing to do with your relation to electoral politics and everything to do with your ability to bring people together and inspire change.”
“That is exactly what Harold and Angelina do, and our community is better off for it,” Walker said.
Coe Provost Paula O’Loughlin said the two are building bridges on campus and in the community. They are committed to the possibilities of what the world offers and are “persistently courageous in asking us all to be our better selves,” she said.
“I’m really proud of them and they inspire me daily,” O’Loughlin said. “ … Why we do what we do is to enable young people to have those opportunities. And they’ve taken every opportunity. They’re writing their own story, and that is what my goal is for our students, is that they’re writing their own stories.”
As emerging leaders, Ramirez said she and Walehwa recognize the weight their opinions hold to others working to advance racial equity.
That recognition “means so much because it gives us more autonomy and more power to really work hard on some of these initiatives like the kill-the-racist-bills initiatives that we did over the past few months,” Ramirez said. “The petition, the protests, the education letters, the campaign — we were able to do that because we were trusted to do that. And we don’t take that lightly at all.”
A senior’s favorite question: What’s next?
Now that the two have built relationships and fought for change in Iowa, Ramirez said the two are “strongly considering” staying in the state as they consider plans for law school or graduate school.
“We feel like we have a stake in the game … but frankly, it’s difficult to grapple with when you look at the policies and you try and see how safe we would actually be, specifically Harold, and it’s a hard thing to consider,” Ramirez said. “Because on one hand, we see that there’s definitely a need for our voices, to represent our respective demographics — young Hispanic women and young Black men being represented in local politics and all that.”
The pair stays focused on how they can still fight to make things better, Walehwa said, “even when we have such a huge wall to scale.”
“A lot of the times whenever we talk about Iowa as being a super white state, when we do that sometimes, we erase the voices of people of color who are here and who are still affected by policies that are by nature inherently racist or systemically racist,” Walehwa said. “ … There’s still more work to be done.”
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