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Program eyes ethnicity after election

BY EMILY MELVOLD | MAY 06, 2009 7:30 AM

While the topic of ethnicity has been thrown into the spotlight since President Obama took office, local residents said Tuesday night there needs to be more action on the continual problems in the United States.

Community members gathered to discuss the subject at “Meanings of Obama: A forum on race” — held at the Iowa City Public Library and sponsored by a new organization, Iowa Citians for Racial Progress.

The number of people representing each ethnicity in the library meeting room was not proportional to the demographics of Iowa City or UI — half of the people in attendance were black and the other half white.

Tuesday night’s three panelists included UI law Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, and Vershawn Ashanti Young, a UI assistant professor of rhetoric and African-American studies.

One of the points from the discussion leaders included Obama’s ability to speak about ethnicity without explicitly acknowledging the issue.

“Barack ran a brilliant campaign. He didn’t talk explicitly about race, but he left it open to speak to those looking for it,” Onwuachi-Willig said.

Panelists also acknowledged Iowans’ sense of pride in selecting Obama during its first-in-the-nation caucuses.

“I have renewed hope since the election, and I find myself clinging to that hope every day,” Onwuachi-Willig said.

Following the panel discussion, audience members brought up topics relevant to the Iowa City area, including the idea of implementing education policies to decrease bigotry.

Two UI law students — Daniel Zeno and Jerome Coenic-Taylor — from Louisiana and Chicago, respectively, talked about their experiences as black students in Iowa City.

“People say that Iowa City is the most diverse city in Iowa, but I’m like, this is diverse?” said Coenic-Taylor, a second-year law student.

They both agreed more programs through the university could be started to educate students about ethnicity.

Roughly 2.5 percent of the UI’s population is made up of black students, and the total minority-student population is 9.6 percent.

“There are so many programs for international students to help them at the university,” said Zeno, a third-year law student. “But I feel like there could be more in regard to race to help out-of-state students adjust to Iowa and Iowa people adjust to other races.”

The idea for the event came from Iowa Citians for Racial Progress group’s cofounder Brian Goedde, who said the topic was on his mind since Obama’s inauguration.

“The motivation for the event was individual,” Goedde said. “I wanted to arrange to have the conversation I would like to have.”

Because the group is so new, Goedde said he is unsure of its future plans.

“From tonight’s discussion and from the comments from the audience, we can see that a real hit-the-road advocacy is in order,” Goedde said. “But I’m just going to let the group grow organically and see.”


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