Monday’s celebration of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Iowa City’s Grant Wood Elementary elevated the voices and highlighted the accomplishments of youth in the community.
“There’s so many groups in the Iowa City Community School District that we wanted to showcase here through the performances and the speakers, because it’s really, really important to get the youth involved, to let them know that their voices are heard and that social justice is something that affects everyone,” Simone Frierson, one of the event organizers, said.
West High Students Against Hate and Discrimination spoke out about their experiences and were recognized for their work in the community with an award during the day’s main event, a program featuring speakers and performances including dance troupes and musical guests.
During the program, two students shared their idea for a TV show, Next Generation Voices, which they plan to launch on public access Channel 18 in February in honor of Black History Month. The program will go into schools, interview students and share their perspectives, they said.
“A lot of people don’t listen to them, because of their age and where they’re from and how they look and stuff like that, the way they speak,” said Gabrielle Williams of Next Generation.
Williams said the show will cover issues that kids often don’t talk about, like poverty, social media and relationships.
“We’ll actually let them voice their opinion on TV and be seen,” she said.
Iowa City School Board Member LaTasha DeLoach said she has been coming to the annual celebration for years and was glad to see more youth being acknowledge this year.
“Some of them have done some phenomenal things to really, actually speak to MLK Day, speak to the work that others have done before,” DeLoach said.
DeLoach said Iowa City schools could do more to acknowledge the many people who contributed to the civil rights movement, and to give students the full story of what Dr. King stood for, building on the previous year’s curriculum instead of repeating it.
“There was more beyond the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” DeLoach said. “Nobody really knows about his opposition against the Vietnam War, nobody knows that the March on Washington was for freedom, it was for jobs, for economic justice.”
Iowa City Human Rights Commissioner Barbara Kutzko urged schools to do more to recognize diversity within the community.
“I think the students need to be encouraged to express themselves and to have a voice,” Kutzko said, adding that more work is needed to combat discrimination at West High and throughout the school system. “I’m glad to see that students are speaking up about it, but more needs to be done. I’m hoping that teachers and administrators there and at other schools are taking notice.”
The event featured a hallway of resources, including organizations like Iowa Legal Aid, Johnson County Restorative Justice, the League of Women Voters, the Crisis Center of Johnson County, Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa, Habitat for Humanity and Johnson County Empowerment, an organization focused on young children and their families that gave away children’s books featuring characters of color.
“We contacted a lot of different resources in the county, because were trying to serve underserved populations with this event,” Frierson said.
The celebration offered the chance for kids to both express themselves creatively and contribute to their community. United Action for Youth’s Kylie Buddin coordinated donations of fleece and sweaters, which children used to make mittens and blankets for the winter shelter. Kids also wrote on colorful card stock about their dreams, families, injustices they’d seen at school and anything else that moved them, then put them together to create an “I Have a Dream” wall in the gym.
Guests at the event shared a meal courtesy of Costco, Chipotle, Bluebird Diner, numerous volunteers and the Iowa City Police Department.
“It’s a family event. There’s definitely a lot of kids here, a lot of parents here that don’t often get holidays off from work to come to family events and come to get a hot lunch,” Frierson said.
Henri Harper, the Iowa City Police Department community outreach assistant, helped secure donations and also brought out-of-uniform police officers to the celebration. Harper said that his role with the police department is to act as a bridge between law enforcement and the community, but particularly youth, facilitating opportunities for conversation.
“I work with youth and trying to get trust among those that don’t have a lot of trust in our police department, or police in general,” Harper said. “I figure we all want the same things sometimes, we just don’t listen. We’ve got to start there, by listening, before we talk.”
RaQuishia Harrington — who has been spearheading Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations for the past three or four years, and has been the site director at the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County’s Broadway Neighborhood Center, which sponsored the event — agreed that common ground can be found with anyone, and that it can help bring the community together.
“He [Dr. King] wanted us to unite and that’s one thing that I do believe we can do,” she said. “Everybody needs housing, everybody needs transportation, everybody needs a roof over their head, to live comfortably in a safe environment and not have bad encounters with law enforcement.”
Harrington said she hoped the event motivated attendees to work for change every day, not just on the holiday.
“Whatever that long list of complaints or things that you want to see change, you have to have some action behind it,” she said.