A “Hip” and Progressive City Like Des Moines Should Be More Inclusive

Des Moines skyline.
Des Moines skyline.

An acquaintance of mine posted a link on Facebook recently, celebrating a friend of hers on a story he is doing on Des Moines for the National Journal. The National Journal is doing a series called “The Next America”, specifically focusing on the reality of 21st Century Iowa (as if the rest of the world thinks we’ve just climbed out of the 19th Century, but Scott Siepker would beg to differ).

It’s no surprise that Des Moines, the city I live in, is receiving recognition from publications for being a great place to live, work, to create startups, and other things. It is a city that is recognized, along with the state of Iowa, for legalizing gay marriages, the influx of young professionals, and exuding “Iowa nice”.

The current topic in Des Moines and Iowa is encouraging women to take on a larger leadership role in business and politics. Iowa, along with Mississippi, are the two lone states that have not elected a woman to Congress. All of that could change next month. Maybe it won’t, but it’s a big deal.

What many here in Iowa do not realize, or have ignored, is that Iowa haven’t elected a minority to Congress either. And another topic that’s not being discussed, despite the all of the progress taking place in Des Moines, is that the African-American community is a non-factor.

It is an invisible community. We see it everyday in Des Moines, and yet we prefer to tout how same-sex friendly we are and our pursuit to elect a woman to Congress.  There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s nice to pat ourselves on the back for being #1 on every list from Forbes to The Today Show, but we still have work to do to make it better.

A lot of work.

Iowa State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Iowa State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

State representative Ako Abdul-Samad spoke to reporter Matt Vasilogambros about how the urban core of Des Moines have been forgotten as the other cores of the city and suburbs like Beaverdale, Waukee, Downtown, and Gateway West has become desirable places for residents and businesses. While this is not surprising to me, what is disconcerting is that Abdul-Samad expressed his discouragement to a national publication…and not to the local media.

Did he tell the National Journal his sentiments because he felt that the local media, city/regional leaders, and the business community would continue to ignore the urban core? Is there a reason he chose to speak with a national publication about the plight of Des Moines’ urban core and the lack of progress from a business and quality of life standpoint?

For Abdul-Samad to tell a national publication and not address it locally puzzles me. He may have his reasons. The main point of this entry is that if Des Moines is going to brag about its “great” diversity when it comes to life and work, the African-American community should get the same attention and support that the growing Latino, Asian, and LGBT communities receive.

Des Moines and Polk County hasn’t had a minority on the city council or board of supervisors for nearly a decade. There has been little traction to encourage and engage African-Americans in the growing business sector, downtown projects, and overall when it comes to daily life. There are a few African-Americans in the Des Moines business community that people know of, but if you asked me, I hear of their names, but I never see their faces.

It’s discouraging for me as an African-American young professional to continue to have the sense of “I’m the only black in this meeting, event, or workplace.” I attended a local Young Non-Profit Network meetup recently. I surveyed the room before the meeting.

Yep, that feeling crept in. I don’t mind it because I can roll with it, but there has to be African-Americans in this city who are interested in non-profits, arts, and other stuff.

If there is an area of improvement that Des Moines has to work on, with genuine seriousness and not some make-shift short-term Band Aid solution to cover it up, is to re-engage themselves into the black community and encourage African-Americans YPs like myself to be active in the community, whether its volunteering at church, food pantries like Move the Food, or reading programs.

The Business Record, a local business publication, hosts forums and events to raise awareness of women in business. Why not do a similar one for minority groups?

I have to keep in mind that it is a choice. You can’t force people to “get involved” and “be engaged”. What is important is to make these opportunities available. If someone takes advantage of it, we need to embrace their opinions and perspective, for it helps us understand and improve our quality of life.

The Rose Garden at the Des Moines Art Center.
The Rose Garden at the Des Moines Art Center.

Des Moines is a good place to live and work, however, in order to reach its full potential, Des Moines need to address the lack of African-American involvement in the progression of this city. Awards are cute and nice, but everyone should be able to share in the accolades.

That means all citizens. No one should be forgotten or ignored as this city continues to progress towards newer and better things.

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