Guest Columnist

Black History Month: Can you hear our voices?

Shirts and coffee mugs on display during the Juneteenth celebration hosted by the African American Museum of Iowa at Vio
Shirts and coffee mugs on display during the Juneteenth celebration hosted by the African American Museum of Iowa at Viola Gibson Park in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, June 15, 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

While maybe not the likeliest partnership (at first glimpse), The Voice Project is a joint venture with the African American Museum of Iowa. This unique opportunity is possible because of a collaboration between the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, City of Cedar Rapids, Linn County and the Cedar Rapids Community School District to establish the Creating Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Fund to address the inter-relational factors that lead to youth violence in Cedar Rapids.

Why partner with the African American Museum? Often, the voiceless in our communities are our youth. Together with the African American Museum, the Voice Project is a vehicle providing a platform for the voiceless to be heard, valued and respected. The AAMI provides a historical perspective of the past and current achievements of African American Iowans that Voice Project’s participants can draw inspiration. The vision for the museum is to build a community that comes together in order to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of Iowa’s African American history and culture. This is accomplished through conversation, engagement, and reflection. The AAMI is not simply a repository of history, it’s interactive. The Voice Project provides students a safe space for interactive self-reflection and behavioral skill development.

The Voice Project is a program that specifically works with Cedar Rapids high school students of color. As a licensed independent social worker, I (Corye) work with students to build soft skills that minimize conflict between and among students. This increases participants’ awareness of who they are, why that is important and how it impacts their voice. I believe everything begins with a word. Students learn to be intentional and how their words build and uplift or destroy and lead to despair. Group discussions help participants learn active listening skills, awareness and understanding of behavioral responses to threat and effective ways of coping. Projects are designed to build community. Partnerships create pathways for acquiring resources and support. The VP’s cognitive and emotional development is paired with AAMI awareness and understanding of our history results in tools needed for a successful future.

In 2018, the African American Museum of Iowa took up the charge to address socially relevant issues head-on. With the development and opening of Driven By Hope, an exhibit detailing African American migration to Iowa at the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression, a new path was paved. A year later, the Museum opened Untangling the Roots: The Culture of Black Hair, an exhibit befitting the highly charged climate of today. The exhibit explores the cultural and historical roots of beauty ideals surrounding African American hair, from the historical effects of slavery and colonialism, to modern issues of cultural appropriation and societal reactions. This September, the Museum will open Unwavering: 21st Century Activism, which will delve into coordinated modern protests like Black Lives Matter, Me Too and other relevant movements in recent history.

There is no better time for the AAMI to align with the mission of The Voice Project in order to strengthen the community. In concert with The Voice Project curriculum of guest speakers, role playing, mentoring, the Museum can provide the historical perspective and authentic stories of real African American Iowans for The Voice Project participants. This is a winning collaboration for our community!

James “Corye” Johnson is founder of The Voice Project. LaNisha Cassell is executive director of the African American Museum of Iowa.

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