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Iowa City's Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins focus on racial injustice

9-member panel has first meeting on Monday, will report to City Council

Protesters flee June 3 as flash grenades are set off and tear gas is released on Dubuque Street during a march against r
Protesters flee June 3 as flash grenades are set off and tear gas is released on Dubuque Street during a march against racial injustice in Iowa City. Authorities used the flash grenades and tear gas in an attempt to stop protesters from entering Interstate 80. The incident became a defining moment in this summer’s protests and the city’s response. “This is a moment when we’re going to need bigger community healing,” City Council member Laura Bergus said in an interview. Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — In T’Shailyn Harrington’s 21 years in Iowa City, she’s never seen anything like she witnessed this summer in the city.

“Growing up and living in Johnson County, I don’t think there’s ever been — in my experience — racial tensions boiling,” she said, describing an “eruption” following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Like many others, Harrington, 23, took part in the demonstrations in Iowa City that followed Floyd’s death. She participated in a peaceful protest in North Liberty, where she now lives.

Now, Harrington is taking on a new role in the effort to achieve social justice in Iowa City.

Responding to demands of Black Lives Matter protesters, the Iowa City Council on June 16 approved an expansive resolution. Among the items listed in the resolution was the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” designed to “bear witness to the truth of racial injustice in Iowa City and to carry out restorative justice.”

Last month, Harrington was one of nine members selected for the commission.

“It’s always been — ‘OK, so the leaders are doing this, but how can I assist as well?’” Harrington said of her desire to address social justice in the community. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was one of the places I thought I could fit in most and bring a piece to the table.”

The City Council has tasked the commission with three duties. The first is to find evidence and hear testimony of discrimination and racial injustice throughout the city. The second is to provide opportunities for those impacted by racism to share their stories with the community — including key decision-makers — and explore ways to express those truths through art, theater and other avenues. Finally, the commission will facilitate conversations between the minority and white communities, create a model for enabling the conversations throughout the community and identity policy reforms, social practices and other means of creating better social harmony that will be recommended to the City Council.

“Once you have these conversations, there’s no way someone in good conscience can say instances of racial injustice don’t happen in Iowa City,” Harrington said. “If there’s evidence of something, there’s no way you can say, ‘That’s fake news.’”

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The commission is scheduled to have its first meeting Monday. The agenda calls for the election of a chair and vice chair, determining the frequency of meetings and holding public comment.

For City Council member Laura Bergus, the protests — particularly one June 3 in which tear gas was deployed against demonstrators — demonstrated the need for broader conversations.

“The tear gassing to me felt like kind of hearing so immediately from so many people who were hurt and traumatized by that,” Bergus said. “This is a moment when we’re going to need bigger community healing.”

Bergus said she started reaching out to members of the community, including members of the Iowa Freedom Riders, the group primarily representing demands of the local Black Lives Matter movement. Iowa Freedom Riders included a truth and reconciliation commission in its demands to city leaders.

Raneem Hamad, an organizer and now a member of the commission, said she learned about truth commissions as a human rights major at Columbia University.

“We all really believed we could create this same thing, a similar project in Iowa City,” said Hamad, 20. “We wanted to scale the size and focus on citywide issues.”

Last month, the City Council approved members of the commission — Harrington, Hamad, Amel Ali, Anthony Currin, Eric Harris, Layana Navarre-Jackson, Royceann Porter, Kevin John Rivera and Mohamed Traore. The group represents a range of ages, experiences and backgrounds.

“We had great applicants,” said City Council member Janice Weiner. “What I was looking for was — within the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community — diversity of background, age, approach and experience. My goal was to get as many facets of the community represented as possible.”

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New member Rivera praised the representation of diverse voices on the commission. As a resident physician in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa, Rivera said he hopes to bring a medical and mental health care perspective.

“I’ve worked in a lot of different settings,” he said. “I also work in some of the community clinics, as well Shelter House. I have some sense of the pipeline people go through when they interact with our mental health care system.”

A 30-year resident of Iowa City, Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter is representing the Black Voices Project on the commission. Porter, who said she “never ever” could predict Iowa City taking steps to address racial injustice in this way, said the commission gives her a sense of hope.

“We’ll be able to involve the community,” Porter said. “I think people will come forth and talk about what’s needed. ... We’ll be there to listen. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s going to involve a lot of people in our community, not just one set of people.”

Rivera said he doesn’t have any specific goals for the commission beyond listening to those sharing their stories.

“I don’t have any lived experience as a Black person in Iowa City,” he said. “My job trains me to be a listener, to hear people suffering. ... In evidence-based practice, we have to obtain data before we know the path forward.”

Harrington said she hopes that the credibility of a City Council-backed commission helps create a better “sense of understanding” throughout the community and leads people to examine their own lives and actions.

“I hope that with the information we’re giving out to the community, that they take it and see the work we’re trying to do on a higher level, but also take these practices within their own lives, into their own circles ... and try to make changes however measurable they can see,” she said. “If everyone makes small changes, then there will be a big impact with racial justice.”

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Hamad said she wants to include as many people and organizations as possible in the truth-telling aspect of the commission, including the UI, businesses and local leaders.

“Having as many people involved in it is really important,” Hamad said. “If the TRC is going to do the work it needs to do, everyone needs to be involved in this project.”

Bergus said she hopes the commission normalizes talking about racism in a way that is safe and supported, and that it becomes a community priority to support all residents.

“As a well-to-do white woman, I can’t tell you what the answers are,” Bergus said. “But I hope I can support what needs to happen and provide that through my role as a council member and provide that support and credibility.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one part of a larger look at racial injustice in the city, Weiner said.

“This is really the beginning of a process,” she said. “Every single thing we’re doing as part of the resolution we passed in June; it’s not the end, it’s the beginning. Nothing we do here is intended to be an end point.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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