Guest Columnist

Issues of equality and justice affect us all

Okpara Rice, CEO at Tanager Place, speaks on a panel in the Human Social Services track, Protecting Iowa's Kids, at the second annual Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Okpara Rice, CEO at Tanager Place, speaks on a panel in the Human Social Services track, Protecting Iowa's Kids, at the second annual Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

As a black executive raising two biracial sons, issues of social justice and equality are a personal passion of mine. Growing up in Chicago, I experienced firsthand the effects of inequality in a public school system, a system that didn’t care, a system that showed a lack of support for both those struggling with addiction and for their families, and a system that led young black men more easily into incarceration than into college. Many of us have lived complicated lives and have not given up hope. I, too, choose to stay engaged in the fight to ensure all families have the opportunities to thrive.

I have to say at the outset, I am not an expert in criminal justice reform; however, I pride myself on being someone who works to be aware of the issues that face not only our community but also our nation. I have witnessed and read countless stories of how the scales of justice are unequal. I have participated in many roundtables and worked with groups that are trying to address disparities in multiple systems. There are no easy solutions or quick fixes. Sometimes these conversations make us uneasy and uncomfortable. It is hard to address issues of bias in the systems we rely on as a nation. It makes us uncomfortable to think that the playing field is indeed not equal and difficult to own that we as a society don’t always live up to our rhetoric.

I am a person of optimism. I have lived in various parts of the country and have engaged in these conversations with diverse groups. What makes our community different is that we actually listen to each other. When I was considering moving here, I was told about the historic “Iowa nice,” and it has lived up to its billing. In my work at Tanager Place, I have the unique opportunity to meet many types of people. I get to hear their concerns, their fears, their hopes and their pain. I have had many conversations that have left me with much hope and optimism for our shared future; I smile as I write this. We are a community that cares about each other; however, sometimes we need to engage in conversations that may be uncomfortable but are crucial — conversations that push us out of our personal comfort zones.

The national headlines talk about historic tribalism as a country. I challenge that concept. Issues of fairness, equality, bias and justice affect us all. We all have a vested interest in making sure that our community lives up to the promises of our nation. Our local law enforcement and school districts have actively been engaged in addressing these issues, as have many community members and local politicians from all types of political persuasions. I know we can continue to have these conversations. We can debate differences, and we can strive to make sure the playing field is level for all.

To that end, I am excited that I have been a part of a community initiative that will be hosting two very valuable community conversations this month. As you talk about criminal justice reform and bias, Adam Foss’s name rises to the top of the list of national thought leaders. His TED Talk has garnered over 2 million views and has given him a voice across the country in helping lead conversations about justice. Adam will be here in Cedar Rapids on February 15 at 10 a.m., Sinclair Auditorium, Coe College campus for a presentation entitled “Swords and Shields: A Conversation about Power, Privilege and Opportunity.” This event is free to the public, thanks to community donors. Following his presentation, he will be a part of two roundtable discussions with community leaders and students.

In addition, a public screening of the documentary film, “Uncommon Allies,” will be held on February 23 at 1 p.m., Kesler Lecture Hall, Hickok Hall, Coe College campus. This documentary is a powerful story of how one mother’s tragedy resulted in her working with the police department to address violence in her community. A panel discussion with the film’s director and the documentary participants will immediately follow the screening.

I believe these events will provide an opportunity for those in attendance to reflect on issues of equality, and I know they will create valuable conversations in our community. I invite you to join me at these events and encourage you to lend your voice to the conversations. Collectively, we are the change that can improve equality for all.

• Okpara Rice is chief executive officer of Tanager Place in Cedar Rapids.

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