CEDAR RAPIDS — Last Sunday morning, at Gospel Tabernacle Church, Linda Topinka and a few dozen others sat in red pews and listened to young Cedar Rapidians talk about their experiences with gun violence.
Topinka, 71, believes city leaders need to listen more to residents who are directly affected by violence in Cedar Rapids — where two young men, 18 and 22, were shot and killed in January.
“We need people from the community to be a part of this,” said Topinka, a clinical social worker who focuses on black families at her clinic, New Beginnings. “They need to hear from people who are living this stuff every day.”
Topinka spoke to The Gazette after the service about her work with black families and black youth, and what she thinks should be done to address gun violence in Cedar Rapids.
Q: How did you come to focus on working with black families in Cedar Rapids?
A: I worked at Tanager Place for 10 years in the foster care program, with children who were taken out of the home. I noticed issues black families were having that white families were not, and I didn’t see them being addressed.
I saw depression and trauma — a lot of trauma. That’s when I decided to go back to school and decided my focus would be specifically on black families.
Q: Why do you think they were experiencing issues white families often weren’t?
A: Black families deal with racism every day. I read an article not too long ago that said black children deal with racism five times a day, but I think it’s more. It’s constant. That is traumatic to have to deal with that daily, and they do.
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So do parents. A lot of single moms I work with are dealing with the stress of getting their kids back, may have substance abuse problems, there are layers of stuff. But generational trauma is not being addressed.
Q: What should we be doing to address it?
A: By talking about it. We can’t react to everything, but letting people be aware of microagressions that occur. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they have to learn how to deal with it. I think it’s very helpful in terms of getting yourself grounded, regulating your body — that stress is killing people. I don’t think people realize how detrimental it is.
Q: For white people who might not know what a microaggression is, how would you describe it?
A: It makes a difference when you’re ignored. That’s a microaggression. Sometimes they happen and we don’t even notice. When someone hands me a cup rather than a glass they’ve given someone else — that’s something that’s happened to me before.
Some things that are said, people being ignored, dismissed. For someone else, it might be something else. They happen so often that after a while you’re so used to it happening, but they’re still (adding trauma).
Q: During the church service, there was a conversation about how fixing this starts in the mind and should start really early in life.
A: Kids, even though they’re young and don’t understand it, they’re subject to (racism) at a very young age. They’re treated differently. Maybe it’s just the way people look at them or hold them or talk to them, but it can be different. It even starts happening when the child is in the womb. Moms are stressed out, and that impacts the fetus. They can start developing stress in the womb.
I think they need to start in early childhood to start addressing these things. I’d like to see them training not just black kids, but people across the board, in mindfulness.
Q: Do you think the city is doing enough to address recent violence?
A: No. In four years we’ve had eight kids killed from Washington High School from violence. Nothing has changed. When we have shootings at the Smoke Shack, we lost two kids at that shooting. That was a mass shooting. Was there any kind of open, public condolences to the family and to the community? No. That says something without saying something.
Q: What should we be doing?
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A: To get things started off we have to have change in policies and practices. That’s a biggie. Ban the box — the county has done it, and I would like to see the whole city do it. Talk about layers that add to the stress, unemployment, housing — many black men have been imprisoned and have a felony and they can’t find anywhere to live.
The expulsion and suspension rate is higher with black and brown children in school. Iowa, being such a small state, we rank the highest for racial disparities in the prison system. Kids start getting labeled as young as 5 years of age.
What I would really like to see here is a community center for families at risk with children, that would have an unemployment agency within the building and help with food and housing. Those are really basic things that are needed.
Unless you live it, you’re removed from it. We’re dealing with stakeholders who have lived their whole lives in white privilege.
Q: What do you think is lost when those stakeholders don’t listen to people directly affected?
A: I’ve been working with the public health department now for almost five years on youth violence. We are going around in circles because we don’t have the right people at the table. I’m indirectly impacted by the violence, but the people who are directly impacted are not at the table. They don’t know anything about it.
Young people should definitely be at the table, and so should the parents who can do it. We didn’t get here overnight, and it will take time and people working together to do it.
Part of people working together is talking about what the issues are, and we do a nice job of stepping around it. It’s about learning how to be uncomfortable in conversations. We have to do that to start helping our kids.
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