CEDAR RAPIDS — Before becoming one of the front-line faces for the Black Lives Matter movement in Cedar Rapids, Tamara Marcus had been involved in only one protest before.
“Before this, I can’t say I’ve been too involved in activism in the past, at least not in the police reform space,” she said. “But I’ve been in STEM for more than 10 years and there’s not a lot of diversity in science or academia, so I would say I have definitely been involved in advocating for increased access to higher education. So I think in the STEM spaces, I would definitely consider myself an activist.”
A former Fulbright scholar, Switzer fellow, NASA New Hampshire Space Grant fellow, a National Center for Atmospheric Research fellow and a doctorate candidate in the Natural Resources and Earth System Sciences program at the University of New Hampshire, 28-year-old Marcus was named Linn County’s first sustainability program manager as part of the county’s plan to address climate change and environmental sustainability.
But when George Floyd — a Black, 46-year-old Minnesota man — was killed when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for roughly nearly nine minutes and Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country calling for police reform, Marcus said she felt called to get involved.
“I think I was just so tired of nothing changing,” she said. “I was tired of the shootings, of violence toward Black bodies and the world just continuing to go on as if there’s nothing wrong.”
When Floyd was killed, Marcus said it seemed as if there was a noticeable lack of outrage among the public, as if the nation had become desensitized.
“But I think for most Black people, there is no being desensitized to it,” she said. “Like every time you hear about another incident, you have to take space and process it — and you have to do that for every single one. And no one is doing anything about it. Elected officials, policymakers — the people who have the ability and power to make the changes — they’re not doing anything, or if they are, it’s slow or insufficient. And we’re literally talking about people’s lives.”
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Marcus didn’t set out to become one of the front-line faces for the Cedar Rapids movement. She had been living abroad in Australia and India and was preparing to head to Sweden when the pandemic hit and she found herself returning home to Cedar Rapids.
“I guess it was just kind of a perfect storm of events,” she said. “Here I am in Cedar Rapids when these protests are breaking out across the country and that’s about when I met Nicole (LeGrand) Hauskins and Leslie Neely.”
The two were working together to organize one of the many protests over the summer in Cedar Rapids when Marcus became involved.
“We just clicked,” she said. “They had already started planning the event and we were bouncing ideas back and forth and bringing more people in to get involved and before we knew it, things had just exploded to the point where thousands of people were showing up to these protests.”
And from there, Advocates for Social Justice — a nonprofit advocacy organization that focused on police reform, voter engagement and community needs — was born.
“I think we recognized what an important opportunity it was to use this platform to push these issues front and center and beyond the protests,” she said. “We wanted to put these issues before our local leaders and make it clear that something needed to be done.”
The three women began working closely with about 30 local leaders on dozens of reform pieces that they believed needed to happen in Cedar Rapids. That list was then whittled down to seven demands — including the creation of a citizen’s review board for the police department; investment in diversity, equity and inclusion; banning the use of police chokeholds and decriminalizing marijuana offenses. The demands were presented to the City Council on June 6, and the group set a deadline of 12 days for the council to agree.
“It was really inspiring to see the City Council and the mayor kind go from kind of writing us off — at least it felt that way at times — to holding a special City Council meeting on Juneteenth and unanimously approve our demands. In my opinion, this is democracy — you know, a grassroots organization organically comes together around one shared objective and goal and mobilizes and takes action to push elected officials to do the right thing. And that for me has been a huge bright spot for me to see this year.”
And though 2020 was packed with challenges, Marcus said it also was a year filled with lessons.
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“I’d say one of the biggest lessons I learned was to be flexible and adaptable,” she said. “You know, we all plan the best we can, but you never really know what’s going to happen — things inevitably will come up and plans will change. And I think a lot of us have been learning how to be more flexible this year.”
Finding the good was another lesson Marcus has taken to heart. Since 2020 has been particularly difficult for everyone, Marcus said finding the positives has helped her keep perspective and stay away from getting sucked into negativity.
Marcus said she was reminded of the importance of standing up for what you believe in and surrounding yourself with people who care about the those things.
“And I hope we can keep plugging away and keep getting things done in 2021.” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
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