Southeast Side residents share stories in final forum

BY JOSEPH BELK | APRIL 08, 2010 7:30 AM

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Cindy Roberts told a crowd of around 50 people Wednesday about her young daughter making a new friend at school.

She likes the same cafeteria food, her daughter said. And they kind of looked alike.

That comparison surprised Roberts when they invited the friend’s family over and realized they were her different ethnicities, she said.

Her daughter, with no hesitation, grabbed her new friend’s hand and rushed off to play. Roberts said both mothers were pleased that their daughters could see beyond any issues.

“I think a mix in the neighborhood is the way it should be,” Roberts said.

Roberts was one of four Southeast Side residents who shared personal stories in a forum Wednesday night. The seminar, “Stories Matter: Creating Community and Boundaries Through Stories About the ‘Southeast Side,’ ” was the final event in a series hosted by the University of Iowa’s Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry.

UI African-American studies Associate Professor Vershawn Young, a co-organizer of the discussion series, said the talks on Southeast Iowa City have been hostile at times.

“There’s a historical pattern about the rhetoric and discourse about black people that seems to, many times, overly criminalize, overly pathologize, and overly stigmatize people who are black and especially poor,” Young said.

Presentations by UI graduate assistants Benjamin Lawson and Matine Spence contested those perceptions of the Southeast Side and some residents’ associations of poverty, crime, and minority populations with the area.

Lawson cited census data that suggest residents of the Southeast Side make up only about 1,000 of the more than 12,000 Iowa City inhabitants living below the poverty line.

But audience member Joyce Barker contested the validity of those numbers, citing the distorting effect large numbers of college students can have on census data.

Iowa City School Board member Sarah Swisher expressed concern that the graduate students had begun their research with the mentality of reversing perceptions.

“I agree with your premise, but I have to say I’m a little disappointed with your fact finding,” she said, adding that the data weren’t current. “I’m grateful that you did it, [but] you just left too much out.”

Swisher said the correlation between Free and Reduced Lunch programs and test scores at local schools needs to be addressed.

James Throgmorton, a UI professor of Urban & Regional Planning, said a forum for Southeast Side residents was important because their narratives affect perceptions of the area.

“I know the way cities develop are influenced by the stories people tell,” he said.

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