CEDAR RAPIDS — As Agnes Nyiramisago left an evening food pantry at Hoover Elementary School, Eliza Dushimemana walked the 71-year-old from Rwanda to her granddaughter’s idling car.
With little time left until Iowans gather Monday to choose a presidential candidate, Dushimemana called inside to the driver: Where are you caucusing?
“Here we’re going to have it in different languages instead,” Dushimemana, 27 and a first-time caucusgoer, said as cars lined up behind her. “So come to this one!”
The elementary school in northwest Cedar Rapids is one of the first places to let Iowans caucus in languages other than English as the Iowa Democratic Party tries to improve access to the first-in-the-nation presidential contests.
At Hoover Elementary — where students speak more than 20 languages and hail from as many countries, including Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Togo, Rwanda and Haiti — organizers plan to host caucuses in French, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, Spanish and English.
The school, 4141 Johnson Ave. NW, is an open satellite site, so any Iowa Democrat can meet there to discuss and choose candidates at 7 p.m. Monday. Caucusgoers can register to participate day-of at the site.
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“There are satellite caucus sites in overseas embassies and places where Iowans go for winter, like Arizona and Florida,” said Lemi Tilahun, Hoover’s community-school coordinator and the caucus site’s organizer. “If the access could be made for a winter getaway, there should be no reason for the language access not to happen, particularly when we have the resources and the capacity.”
Because of Hoover’s proximity to communities that historically have not participated in the electoral process, Tilahun applied to have the school recognized as a satellite caucus site. Iowa Democrats approved it and nine other sites with translation services this cycle, with all but Hoover located in Des Moines, said Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman Mandy McClure.
After approving four satellite locations in 2016 — all stateside and in assisted living facilities — the party approved 99 this cycle, located across the globe.
According to the League of United Latin American Citizens, six sites — in Davenport, Muscatine, Des Moines, Marshalltown, Storm Lake and Sioux City — caucus in Spanish.
“It’s great there is such a wide range of options and people are taking advantage of the satellites,” McClure said. “It adds opportunity to participate — and that’s exactly what the goal is of all these 2020 changes, but especially satellite sites. We want to meet people where they are.”
At Hoover, Tilahun is expecting most participants Monday to be first-time caucusgoers, either due to new eligibility or a lack of awareness during past election cycles.
That was the case for Dushimemana, a volunteer at Hoover.
“I didn’t know about it, honestly,” said Dushimemana, who has lived in Iowa for 20 years and was born in Rwanda. “I just knew about the presidential elections. … For me, it was just not having a good grasp of what a caucus is.”
Increasing the Hoover community’s understanding of the caucuses is another piece of hosting the satellite site, said Tilahun, who ran for Cedar Rapids mayor in 2017 and worked for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.
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“This started with looking at how we can engage Hoover families and the diversity we have here at Hoover,” he said. “Looking for ways to get these families to be civically engaged and able to take a role in contributing to the discourse — particularly because, right now with the political climate being so tense, people are asking questions of how do we understand, and participate and make a difference?”
It’s a chance, too, to showcase diversity in Iowa — a state known for its overwhelming whiteness. While more than 85 percent of the state’s overall population is white, Iowa schools are becoming increasingly diverse. At Hoover, only a quarter of students are white.
“Every day while I’m at Hoover, I am really experiencing what the future of our state looks like,” Tilahun, 29, said. “I think about some of the barriers that families and others in the community face, if it’s something as simple as a language issue, it’s a no-brainer.”
For Nyiramisago, who speaks Kinyarwanda and has voted in U.S. general elections in the past, the multilingual site could be her first chance to participate in Iowa’s caucus process.
“Simply,” she said, speaking through a translator, “it’s going to be nice to have something in my own language.”
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