116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County has its first Black women duo taking the reins of leading the nonprofit.
Cedar Rapids native Rachel Rockwell was selected as executive director, and former staff member RaQuishia Harrington was chosen as associate director.
The Neighborhood Centers is a community-based and family-centered human services agency that offers programs in schools and neighborhoods. It was born in October 1973 in the Pheasant Ridge neighborhood and expanded to the Broadway neighborhood in 1990.
Rockwell wanted to join the Neighborhood Centers because of her experience consulting and leading nonprofits.
“I feel like all of the my life experiences and my work experiences and leading a nonprofit and consulting with nonprofit organizations, and my ability to solicit funds to support programming that can bring communities together, was just kind of a culminating piece that was perfect for this role,” Rockwell said.
Until March, Rockwell had worked since 2019 as the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Fund program officer at the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.
Harrington said it made sense for her to come back to the Neighborhood Centers because of her history and connection with the program.
Her first introduction to the Neighborhood Centers was in 2000 as a parent who took her daughter to the nonprofit’s programming. Harrington then worked staff member and later as a site director at the Broadway Neighborhood Center until 2017.
“I know programs. I know the ins and outs as a parent as a staff person,“ Harrington said. ”I'm a huge advocate of all the programs, mission and vision all of those things that Neighborhood Centers provides so many people from the beginning into adulthood.“
In addition to before- and after-school and family support programs, the Neighborhood Centers offers a program called G! World that is geared toward young Black women. Harrington co-founded it when she was a staff member.
The program aims to empower and inspire minority women ages 12-18 through group activities, discussions and workshops. Harrington said G! World’s goal is to provide advocacy and guidance for these young women.
Harrington said she’s reminded of herself when she works with younger women. She hopes to be a role model for them because she knows how it feels to come into predominantly white spaces and struggle to be seen and heard.
Harrington also believes it’s important to have diversity in leadership positions for representation and perspective.
“When people are making decisions that are so far removed and can't understand or identify as a woman of color, I have an opportunity to intervene and speak up, not saying that my personal experiences are the exact same as theirs,” Harrington said. “But they're close enough that I can speak on behalf or provide an opportunity for them to come speak for themselves.”
In her new role, Harrington wants to have a stronger presence in the community, strengthen partnerships and collaborations and expand programming to secondary schools.
“I think things that we’re missing is more emphasis on our youth that's in secondary schools,” Harrington said. “That's not necessarily our focal point … (but) I would like to see that strengthen more from middle school on to young adults, and provide more opportunities for them.”
Rockwell said she’s most excited about opportunity to use her role at Neighborhood Centers to support staff and help them feel confident in their roles.
She’s been working in nonprofits since she was 18 years old and started with Planned Parenthood of East Central Iowa. In 2008, she started her own nonprofit — an arts-based community center called Cultured Incorporated.
Rockwell said her passion for working with nonprofits and youth development stems from her own experiences growing up in Iowa.
“I went to school with mostly white students and lived in a neighborhood with mostly white people,” Rockwell said. “Things became really challenging because I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere in particular … so that's really the reason why I really thought about what I would have needed when I was a preteen and a teenager and young adult in my life to be on a different trajectory than that I was at different times.”
With a background of working on youth violence prevention in Cedar Rapids, Rockwell hopes to bring her experience to the Neighborhood Centers to create an environment where young people feel connected and have resources when they find themselves in conflict.
Cities across the country are turning to “resilience hubs” to address climate change and adaptation, and Rockwell said Neighborhood Centers is “halfway there” to implementing the hubs.
Resilience hubs are designed to provide vital services — such as safe shelter and off-grid energy sources — to communities during extreme weather events. While the Neighborhood Centers is currently unable to offer hubs itself, Rockwell said it will collaborate with partners to provide such services.
In the long-term, Rockwell wants to build upon the existing programs and connections but also address gaps in the community and evolve with the needs of the neighborhood.
“The most important thing is to take our time and to learn from our history, look at our present situation and make sure that we can sustain ourselves in the future and fill those needs in the communities that exist,” Rockwell said.