Despite a cold wind, more than 30 people gathered in front of the brightly colored mural at Pepperwood Plaza on Friday evening for the kickoff of Megan Alter’s campaign for an at-large seat on the Iowa City Council.
Alter, a resident of the South District and a board member of the South District Neighborhood Association (SDNA), said she chose the location “not just because it’s the coolest mural in town … but for what it represents for me and what it represents for this neighborhood.”
The mural is part of the SDNA’s effort to help foster the sense of community in the area through public art. It is “the product of a lot of determination over time,” Alter said. The mural was painted by neighborhood residents under the direction of local artist Nick Meister, who incorporated ideas form students at Alexander and Grant Wood elementary schools into his design.
Alter pointed out that the painting of the mural was done the same week the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd began in Iowa City. The painting project became a place for people to gather, Alter said, where they could feel safe as they joined together to support each other and their community.
In an interview with Little Village before her campaign event, Alter said she wants the mural to serve as a backdrop for her entire campaign.
“I really see this as an emblem of resilience and determination, hope and joy, and what can get done through effort,” she said.
Alter moved to Iowa City to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa. After earning her Ph.D. in English Literature, she decided to make the city her home. Alter says she’s seen Iowa City from many different vantage points, including a student in a college town, a professional working as a senior manager at ACT, and a parent raising two children — a daughter in elementary school and a son in junior high — with her husband.
In addition to volunteering with SDNA, Alter also works with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Johnson County, serves on the board of the Iowa Women’s Foundation and is a member of the Iowa City Housing and Community Development Commission.
Alter cited those experiences, and how they led her to realize the interconnectedness of the problems and inequities facing Iowa City, as the reason she ran for an at-large seat on the Iowa City Council in 2019 and why she is running again this year.
Her campaign slogan — Equity, Economy, Community — reflects the same issues she ran on in 2019, but Alter said during the interview that the impact of COVID-19 has both made people more aware of problems that had always been present in the city, and exacerbated them.
“People talk about going back to normal after COVID,” Alter said. “I don’t think we want to go back to normal. This is a great city to live in — there are so many attractions — but I think that this is a real opportunity for us to address some things that the community really didn’t know about, except for the people who were living it.”
One the issues that needs attention, and which COVID-19 has forced people to think about, is the lack of affordable, quality childcare, Alter said. It’s a responsibility that had increasingly been relegated to schools, until the pandemic forced schools to close.
Necessary community services, such as ensuring children have enough to eat or providing families with reliable internet connection so students can do their homework or engage in remote learning, should not be left to the schools alone.
“The government really can model the way for bringing people together to work on these issues,” Alter said.
Likewise, the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers have made the need for changes to policing more obvious and urgent, Alter said. And like schools, the police have increasingly been tasked with responsibilities that could be better handled by others.
“I think it is important that we put a lot more money towards social services and mental health, and have experts in those fields come out on calls,” she said.
Alter doesn’t favor the strategy of defunding the police, but said she does support increasing funding for social service-based alternatives to law enforcement separate from the police budget in order to build trust with those who don’t currently trust the police.
“I want to see an emphasis on community policing and community engagement through proactive trust-building, so that residents feel more safe,” she said.
Alter stressed that the major issues facing Iowa City, whether it is affordable housing or policing reform, are connected and need to be examined “though the lens of equity.”
Speaking in front of the mural on Friday, Alter said her approach to city government as a councilmember would be, “What can we do together [as a community] and what can we do better?”
She said she wants to build on the work the city council is currently doing.
“The council has stepped up,” Alter said. “They have heard a lot of voices, they really want to move. … I’m just going to be that nudging voice that says, ‘Yes, that’s great, but let’s keep going. Let’s not have this be a checklist, let’s not have this be a matter of success through benchmarks. Let’s have people’s lives made better in a real, concrete way.’”
Iowa City’s current at-large city councilmembers include Laura Bergus, Mayor Bruce Teague, Mayor Pro Tem Mazahir Salih and Janice Weiner.