116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — One of Mohamed Traore’s favorite quotes is “I know that I know nothing,” Plato’s account of a saying by Greek philosopher Socrates.
The saying speaks to both Traore’s drive to learn everything he can — from how to speak French to understanding financial markets — to his belief that when he doesn’t know an answer, he has friends, mentors and members of the community at large who can help.
“To me, that quote just means that regardless of what I learn, I have more to learn,” said Traore, 25, of Iowa City. “Keeping that humbleness is important. Otherwise, you’re doing to overlook people who can teach you something.”
Traore became chairman of Iowa City’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission last month, after the previous chair, Royceann Porter, resigned and vice chairwoman T’Shailyn Harrington was voted out as chair following Porter.
The Iowa City Council formed the nine-member commission last year in response to demands from the Black Lives Matter movement. The group is charged with hearing evidence of racial injustice in Iowa City.
Traore was 3 when his parents moved their family from New York to Iowa City. He grew up speaking English and Bambara, his parents’ language from Mali.
He graduated from City High in 2013 after running track and cross-country, learning from coaches he considers bonus father figures and from teammates he considers brothers. Traore also ran track at the University of Iowa. The freedom of running — covering ground, seeing the world and moving one’s body — always has been important to Traore.
That’s why the Feb. 23, 2020, death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man who was fatally shot while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia, struck Traore to the core. Three men, Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, face federal hate crime charges and state murder charges in Arbery’s death.
“When I found out about that, it was really heartbreaking,” Traore said. “How close we were in age and also him running at the time.”
The day after learning about Arbery, Traore hung out under an Iowa City bridge with transient community members, learning about their lives and sharing a meal.
“I heard so much about the pain they had gone through,” he said. “What we need more of is this community feeling. We don’t have to just take care of ourselves. If people can feel that community presence and that community backing, they will just feel like they truly belong.”
Traore has had times he’s felt like an “other” in his hometown. Like when he was a college student and heard drunk people call him a racial slur. Or when he’s walking down the sidewalk and another pedestrian changes sides of the street. When friends talked about feeling like a pariah when people would cross to the other side of the street during the COVID-19 pandemic because of fears a casual passing would transmit the virus, Traore would remind them that is how he often feels — just for being a Black man.
In his commission application, Traore said his experience with the criminal justice system would be an asset. He pleaded guilty in 2019 of second-offense drunken driving.
“I regret those situations so much,” Traore said. “But the grace taken upon me by the Johnson County (court) system and my friends as well really gave me the faith that I made a mistake, but it’s not going to define my life.”
Traore has been working as a freelance web developer, but recently got a job as a sales development representative for Roboflow, a web development startup in Des Moines. He’ll have the freedom to work from Iowa City or travel to Des Moines to meet with co-workers or clients.
Iowa City Council member Laura Bergus recommended Traore apply for the commission after meeting him last year. She thought his life experiences would help him connect with community members who have been through similar situations.
“What we’ve heard from him so far is that he wants to be a bridge builder among different parts of the community,” she said.
Comments: (319) 339-3157; firstname.lastname@example.org