Nancy Humbles grew up in Des Moines knowing that education — and giving back to your community — were important.
“My father — he worked at a packing plant — would always say, ‘I don’t want you to have to work as hard as I work. You need to get your education, because with that, you can pick and choose what you want to do. An education is something no one can take away from you,’ ” Humbles said.
Humbles, now president of the Cedar Rapids school board, took to heart what her father said.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa in physical education with a minor in business. She earned her master’s degree in student development in post-secondary education while working full-time at the University of Iowa.
She spent 24 years at the UI advocating for students, first as an academic adviser and then as director of the UI’s Center for Diversity and Enrichment, the position she held when she retired in 2014.
“Our office worked with underrepresented students, first gen(eration) and students with disabilities, helping them navigate the university, providing support and guidance,” she said. “The end goal was that they graduate … that they leave with their degree.”
VOICE FOR STUDENTS
Humbles was elected to the Cedar Rapids school board in 2009. The board has faced many issues over the past decade, including the need for new school buildings, how to bring students safely back to school during a pandemic and how to get kids back to schools damaged in the Aug. 10 derecho.
With each problem that arises, Humbles tries to be a voice for students.
“I want everyone to thrive in our school district and to reach their goals,” she said. “That’s why I sit on the school board, because I believe I can help make a difference in students’ lives. That’s what it’s all about to me.”
Being a school board member is a volunteer position, guiding and setting policies. The board hires the superintendent, who handles the day-to-day operations.
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“We’re fortunate because our superintendent (Noreen Bush) has done a great job keeping the board informed on what is happening with regards to this fall,” Humbles said.
“They’ve been working ’round the clock to figure out what’s going to be best for our teachers, for anybody affiliated with the Cedar Rapids school district — how can we keep folks safe. And safety is a real concern for all.”
Humbles can relate to parents’ concerns. Her three adult children went to Cedar Rapids schools. She said she and her husband of 47 years, Shelby, passed along the same emphasis on education she grew up with.
Their son, Shelby Humbles III, has his master’s degree in business administration and works in banking in Texas. Their daughter, Heather Lechner, just finished her doctorate and works in education in Seattle. And their daughter, Shamara Humbles, works for the FDIC in Washington, D.C.
“My children got it when we said education was very important, and that impacted their lives,” she said. “They had some great teachers, and we had a great connection with the teachers in the district.”
When Humbles was first elected to the board, she was still working full-time and commuting to Iowa City daily.
“It was hard because I’d come home exhausted at night, so I didn’t have a lot of time to volunteer. Now, because I have the freedom to pick and choose, that has changed a lot,” Humbles said.
Humbles is board president of the African-American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. She’s on the LGBTQ advisory board for Tanager Place and on the clinical and translational science advisory board at the UI. She chairs the WIN (Women in the NAACP) committee. And she is the finance chairwoman of her church, Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids.
In the past, she volunteered with the United Way and Area Substance Abuse Council.
She also volunteered at Hoover Elementary last year, working with kindergarten students.
“It was fun, but I did say, ‘You guys have to give me a normal-sized chair,’ ” Humbles said, laughing. “I loved doing that. I was glad that I did that. I learned a lot, and I see what goes on in our schools, and I applaud our teachers, I do.”
Humbles, believed to be the first African American to lead the Cedar Rapids school board, has received awards for her service, including the UI Distinguished Alumni Award, the Iowa Women’s Foundation Ovation Award and Waypoint’s Women of Achievement award. She was inducted into the Iowa African American Hall of Fame and was named one of the Corridor Business Journal’s 2020 Women of Influence.
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In addition to her work on the school board and her volunteering, she enjoys gardening with her husband and a book club she started.
She has no plans to slow down.
“I will keep doing what I’m doing until I can’t do it anymore,” she said. “I am an advocate. That’s where I see my role, to have a voice.
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