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'Trying to save the world': Advocates for Social Justice founders strive for equity in Cedar Rapids

Founders 'blessed' with group's growth since first Black Lives matter protest

Organizers Leslie Neely (from left), Tamara Marcus and Nicole LeGrand approach the front door of Mayor Brad Hart's home
Organizers Leslie Neely (from left), Tamara Marcus and Nicole LeGrand approach the front door of Mayor Brad Hart’s home July 3 during a rally organized by Advocates for Social Justice in Cedar Rapids. The three women are the founders of the local Black Lives Matter group. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Advocating for racial justice in Iowa’s second-largest city has become another job to juggle for three Cedar Rapids residents.

In between parenting, taking classes and working regular jobs, Nicole LeGrand, Leslie Neely and Tamara Marcus lead the Advocates for Social Justice as the three founders. The local Black Lives Matter group has pushed the city of Cedar Rapids for police reform after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police May 25.

Their advocacy started out as a protest against police brutality, but the three quickly realized the group’s efforts would have a larger influence than they initially expected.

“Who wouldn’t see these things happening and witness these tragedies and these murders and this racism and not feel compelled to do whatever they can within their power?” LeGrand said.

The group used its platform to draft seven demands for police reform, which the City Council unanimously backed June 19, the same day as the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the day the last slaves were freed in 1865.

That effort brought together a coalition of community members and local elected officials to contemplate how to make the Cedar Rapids police force more representative of and responsive to the community.

“As a group, we pretty much all want the same thing, and that’s to make us better for Black and brown people and making sure that things become equitable,” Neely said.

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City staff working to recommend a structure for a citizens’ police review board have involved the advocates in the process.

After some city officials opted not to continue participating in weekly talks with the advocates about their demands, Marcus said the Cedar Rapids community development staff has largely maintained open lines of communication.

For now, Marcus said the advocates “remain cautiously optimistic that ASJ will be an equal partner” in finalizing the structure of the citizens’ police review board.

Since the group first drew a crowd of more than 2,000 to Greene Square in June, Neely said there’s a sense that the Cedar Rapids community — from city officials to residents — is more inclined to listen and understand the racism that exists here.

“I think Iowa is very sheltered within itself, and I feel like a lot of the time, people need to see stuff like that for them to believe that it’s a thing and for them to feel that change needs to happen,” Neely said. “ … With George Floyd, it was so abhorrent and so obviously biased and racist, and I think it just touched a lot of people in all different places. There were protests around the world. I think our community was shaken just like the rest of the world was.”

Storm exposes ‘broken’ system

Now, the group is taking aim at other systemic injustices and has helped coordinate much-needed resources for residents after the Aug. 10 derecho devastated the city.

The storm ravaged more than 70 square miles of Cedar Rapids, but the advocates said when disaster strikes, the aftermath typically weighs heavier on people of color, immigrants and other underserved populations. So, they strove to advance equity in their response to the storm, too.

Neely grew up in Cedarwood Hills apartments until she graduated high school and then lived in Cambridge Townhomes until she could afford her own house.

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She said she knew these housing units that typically shelter underserved populations would be hit particularly hard. For her, responding to fulfill the community’s needs after the storm was about “remembering where you came from.”

LeGrand said the group tried to reach those spots right away and use resources to help those who lost it all — those who had no power, minimal food, slept in tents outside and had no roof over their heads after the derecho.

“Even in a situation like this with the storm, you can still see the way that the system was broken,” LeGrand said.

‘Trying to save the world’

The trio was already busy before the storm hit, and the work has amped up since then with volunteer efforts and returning focus to police reform again.

Neely works in financial services in Toyota’s collection department and is a mother of four children. LeGrand has just started a surgical technician program at Kirkwood Community College while parenting two little girls. And Marcus is in a Ph.D. program at the University of New Hampshire, studying remotely while starting a new job in the Cedar Rapids area.

To juggle their families, jobs and classes, the advocates plan to hire student interns on a stipend to help with schedule coordination, responding to messages, producing creative content and running social media accounts. That way, the advocates can focus on meeting with city officials and other community leaders to advance their larger goals of ending systemic racism.

“I don’t know that we’ll have another moment in history like the one we have right now to change the path that our community is on,” Neely said.

Marcus said the group’s work to provide disaster relief shows the community that the advocates’ goal is to make Cedar Rapids better.

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“We are not protesting, advocating and challenging our local government to incite violence or anger,” Marcus said. “We are here to help improve the lives of those within the community who have been silenced, disenfranchised and forgotten for generations. We will continue to work hard to make this dream a reality.”

While continuing storm relief efforts and holding the city accountable for meeting police reform demands, the group is organizing events to support refugees and immigrants, LeGrand said, and ultimately looking ahead at the “endless” possibilities for advocacy.

“It was so unexpected, but it’s so wonderful to be able to help, and that’s all we want to do,” LeGrand said. “There is nothing else behind it. We just want to help our community, and the more we learn and the more need we find, I think the more inspired we are.”

The three feel blessed to be in this position to make Cedar Rapids a better, more equitable place and for the strong bond they’ve forged with each other.

“We’ve joked about just quitting our jobs and trying to save the world,” LeGrand said. “That’s what we wish we could do.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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