Board of Supervisors hears updates on diversity measures in Iowa City

BY BEN MARKS | DECEMBER 05, 2014 5:00 AM

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Supervisor Rod Sullivan placed a small yellow sign over his name plaque that read “Black Lives MATTER” at the start of the Johnson County Board of Supervisor’s meeting Thursday.

The sign referred to the popular slogan used by people across the country to protest police brutality and African-American deaths at the hands of white police officers.

Sullivan and the rest of the supervisors met with officials from Diversity Focus, a group form Cedar Rapids, to discuss diversity in Iowa City.

Chad Simmons, the executive director of Diversity Focus, which helps increase diversity in Corridor communities, noted that Iowa City partners with the nonprofit group. At the meeting, Simmons updated the board on Diversity Focus’ past, present, and future efforts to help decrease minority inequality in the area.

Diversity Focus operates on a three-phase plan called Awareness, Action, and Advocacy.

In 2005, during the “Awareness” phase, Simmons said Diversity Focus helped to raise awareness in the community about what exactly diversity meant.

During the “Action” phase, it created community-enhancing projects such as the Iowa Soul Festival and the Iowa Black Business Consortium, as well as diversity training for all Iowa City law-enforcement officials.

Currently, two years into the “Action” phase, Simmons said the group is beginning to lay the groundwork for the third phase, which in part includes more police training but mainly focuses on ways of addressing systemic challenges faced by minority communities.

“Even if individuals want to change the way they do things, the system doesn’t allow that to happen,” he said.

The supervisors also focused on ways of decreasing minority inequality in government.

Supervisor Terrance Neuzil said it’s a priority for the supervisors to focus on hiring people of color as well as trying to get the city’s labor pool to more accurately reflect what the community looks like.

Neuzil said he believes Diversity Focus is the mechanism that will help the supervisors to work more closely with local businesses and agencies to help break down stigma and look at barriers in business.

“Diversity Focus isn’t just about racial relations,” he said. “It’s about a lot of different minority issues, like gender or gay and lesbian issues.”

He believes the conversation needs to happen on a multitude of fronts and platforms.

“We need to hear more stories about what’s wrong and be introduced to it even more as elected officials,” Neuzil said.

Simmons acknowledged that change is often slow because of the resistance of a community, but he said forcibly changing minds is not what Diversity Focus’ main goal is.

“We put our emphasis on not having people leave the table,” he said. “We’re fine if you disagree, but we want you to stay at the table and continue to have that discussion.”

Sullivan said he thinks the support is sometimes lacking as well.

“I’ve never heard an elected official say anything terribly negative; that’s just not the world in which they operate,” he said. “But sometimes, just being silent says a lot, and I’m tired of people of being silent.”

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