Royceann Porter’s journey, from overcoming ‘culture shock’ in rural Iowa to making Johnson County history

Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Four days before the Iowa Caucus, Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter got a phone call from Pete Buttigieg.

“This was the first time I’d heard from him in the whole 14 months of the campaign,” Porter said. “He said, ‘Do you think I could persuade you to come over to my team?’”

Porter had endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president earlier that week.

“I said, ‘No sir,’” she recalled, laughing.

It’s no surprise Buttigieg would call Porter. He’s been trying to prove he can win over voters of color, and Porter made history in 2018 when she became the first black person elected to countywide office in Johnson County. And long before her election victory, Porter had a reputation as a leading social justice activist, someone people of color and others who felt unrepresented could turn to for help and advice.

Porter had started caucus season as a staunch supporter of Sen. Cory Booker, who had endorsed her when she was running for the Board of Supervisors. Despite her commitment to Booker, when Sen. Kamala Harris held her first town hall in Iowa City, Harris chose Porter to be its moderator. When Booker dropped out of the race in January, several campaigns tried to earn her endorsement before she chose Warren.

The results of the 2020 Iowa Caucus may have been muddled, but they did show one thing clearly: Royceann Porter has come a long way from when she moved to Iowa three decades ago to take a job at a slaughterhouse.

Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter greets Sen. Cory Booker outside the Center for Worker Justice Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“I was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan,” Porter said. “I grew up in the projects. To me, it was a wonderful childhood.”

But like a lot of cities, Saginaw saw a large influx of drugs in the 1980s, along with an increase in violence and other related problems.

“I just didn’t want to be there anymore,” Porter said.

In 1989, she went to an IBP job fair. IBP — Iowa Beef Processors — was a meatpacking company, the largest beef packer and the second-largest pork processor in the country. (In 2001, it was purchased by Tyson Foods.) The company was in Michigan recruiting workers for its pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa.

“At that time minimum wage was $3.35 an hour, and they were paying $6 an hour,” Porter recalled. IBP was also offering to arrange housing for workers.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

“They were telling us a lot of good stuff about living down here in Iowa,” Porter said. “So, a bunch of us packed up like the Beverly Hillbillies and came on down to Washington County.”

There was an immediate culture shock. Rural Iowa was very different than Saginaw, or any other place she’d spent time. There was also immediate disappointment.

The housing was a shared mobile home in a trailer court in Washington. The company was charging an exorbitant rent, and that rent was automatically deducted from an employee’s paycheck.

But the worst part was the job.

It’s difficult to imagine Royceann Porter at IBP. She’s vivacious, a presence in every room she enters. Porter laughs easily and often, but quickly turns serious when the occasion calls for it. She always seems busy, so it’s hard to picture her standing in one place hour after hour, as hogs are dismembered.

“I started on the kill floor,” Porter said. Her job was cutting connective tissue from hearts and kidneys. “It was so bloody. After the third day, I couldn’t even do it. It was making me sick to my stomach.”

She was moved to a less bloody area of the kill floor, where workers trimmed pig ears. But the smell of blood was still too much. So she was transferred to the cold floor, where hams were packaged. It wasn’t much better.

Porter quit IBP after 33 days. If she stuck it out for 35 days, IBP promised to pay her travel expenses back to Michigan, but Porter had decided to stay in Iowa anyway. She found a new job and a new place to live, both of which were big improvements. But one good thing did come of her time at the pork processing plant.

“I met my husband at IBP,” Porter recalled, with a big smile. Anthony Porter worked next to her during her brief time trimming ears. “We’ve been together ever since.”

Royceann White and Anthony Porter married in 1992. They have two daughters, Antonia and Staci, both of whom are now in their 20s.

Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter introduces Kamala Harris during an event at the Iowa Memorial Union. Wednesday, April 10, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The same year they got married, the Porters moved to Iowa City. At first, both worked at an auto parts factory, but Royceann eventually quit to spend more time at home with their daughters.

It was during this time she first engaged in community activism.

“I got involved because of what I saw at South East Junior High, where my daughter went to school,” Porter said. “I noticed that kids who were moving here from Chicago were getting into fights, and I noticed how the school was calling the police on those kids.”

She thought a lot of the problems stemmed from a cultural gap between teachers and administrators who didn’t understand the backgrounds and experiences of kids who were having a hard time adjusting to a new and very different city. Porter was sure there were ways to bridge the gap that would prevent problems from reaching the point where the police were called.

“I started a parents group, because we didn’t want these kids to be part of the pipeline to prison,” she explained.

Over the years, the scope of her activism has widened. She’s worked on such issues as improving access to mental health services, expanding affordable housing, promoting workers’ rights and trying to help newly arrived people of color adjust to life in Iowa. The jobs she’s held have also reflected her interests in social justice and community engagement. Porter’s been a juvenile court liaison and a caseworker for Shelter House; she’s run community outreach programs for the Salvation Army and organized workers for the Teamsters.

But Porter is best known in Iowa City for her work on issues regarding treatment of people of color by police and the justice system. She’s been a leader on the Coalition for Racial Justice, co-founded the Black Voices Project and served on the Iowa City Community Police Review Board (CPRB), as well as the Johnson County Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee and the Juvenile Justice Youth Development Policy Board.

“She is a very driven person, especially on equity issues,” Iowa City Chief of Police Jody Matherly told Little Village. “She’s not afraid to get out front and say something is wrong and we need to fix it.”

“But she doesn’t just complain, she also brings ideas for solutions. I find that admirable.”

“And this is not just with me and my agency,” continued Matherly, who’s been in Iowa City since 2017. “I’ve seen her help others to come up with ideas to fix problems.”

He added, “She’s got a big heart.”

Porter’s relations with the ICPD, however, haven’t always been this good.

Royceann Porter speaks during a candidate forum for the Dec. 18 special election. Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

In 2011, Porter held a birthday party at the Saddlebrook Clubhouse for her youngest daughter, who was turning 17.

“We probably had 75 or 80 kids come to the party,” Porter recalled. “A fight broke out between Cedar Rapids kids and Iowa City kids.”

It was a big fight. Porter called the police, but by the time they arrived — according to a Daily Iowan report, 12 officers responded — most of the kids involved in the fight were gone.

“It ended up being total chaos. We cleaned things up and went home. That was Saturday night.”

On Tuesday morning, Porter was stunned to learn she had been charged with “keeping a disorderly house,” a simple misdemeanor, because of the party.

Porter was confused because she had working relationships with many police officers — she was serving on the CPRB at the time, and working as a juvenile court liaison — and none of them had let her know there was a problem.

Porter remains convinced that then-Iowa City Chief of Police Sam Hargadine wanted her charged as payback for her criticisms of the department, even though Hargadine denied the allegation.

Rather than pay the $100 fine for a disorderly house violation, Porter went to court. She won the case, but ended up losing her job as a juvenile court liaison as a result of the incident. Porter filed a complaint with the CPRB over the police department’s behavior in the case. In response, Chief Hargadine reviewed his department’s conduct. He found no wrong-doing. The CPRB, with Porter abstaining, voted unanimously to accept the chief’s report.

Elizabeth Warren greets Royceann Porter at a campaign event at Iowa City West High School. Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Porter said she found the whole episode incredibly stressful, but didn’t let it discourage her. Temporarily unemployed, she started taking classes at Kirkwood Community College, which eventually led to a degree in social work. Troubled by the behavior of the police and the CPRB, she helped found the Coalition for Racial Justice. Porter also started thinking about becoming more directly involved in politics.

In 2013, she ran for Iowa City Council and lost. In October 2018, when Johnson County Supervisor Kurt Friese died, Porter was working for the social justice arm of Teamsters Local 238. Porter said it was Jesse Case, the union’s secretary-treasurer and principal officer, who first encouraged her to run in the special election for Friese’s seat.

“I never really thought about how nobody black had won countywide before, until people started telling me I’d be the first,” Porter said. “So I thought, that just means I’ve got to fight a little harder.”

She easily scored the Democratic Party nomination, and won the special election with 56 percent of the vote.

Even as a supervisor, she’s still involved in activism through the Black Voices Project. And she’s still focused on school issues: she’s the Board of Supervisors’ liaison to the Iowa City Community School District.

Asked about her biggest accomplishment, Porter didn’t know what to say. But after giving the question some thought, she replied, “If I’ve made a difference in one person’s life, then I’ve done OK.”

Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter — Zak Neumann/Little Village

A Recipe from Royceann Porter

“Food will bring people out.” These are words Royceann Porter lives by. She has been using food to attract folks to community events for years, cooking classic soul food dishes using recipes and techniques she learned watching her mother in the kitchen, including fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, fried cabbage, green beans and corn.

Porter is especially well-known for her mac and cheese, but it’s a recipe she doesn’t share. “I can’t give up the macaroni,” she told Little Village, shaking her head and laughing. “That’s sacred.” But she was willing to divulge how she prepares her no-batter fried chicken.

Wash that chicken off really good.
Sprinkle with salt, pepper, seasoning salt and a little Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning.
Rub it in so it’s all over the chicken.
Put your oil in the pan, and let it get hot. While it’s getting hot, you put the chicken you seasoned in flour. Just flour.
Shake the flour off, and put the chicken in the oil. (I like to put the top on my pan, because it keeps the chicken juicy.)
Let the chicken cook for approximately five minutes, then turn it over and put the cover back on the pan and cook for another five minutes. After that, I take the top off — now I want it to get crispy.
Flip the chicken, let it cook for a couple of minutes. Then flip it again, and let the other side cook for a couple of minutes.

Porter’s fried chicken, mac and cheese and much more will be on offer at the Black Voices Project’s annual soul food dinner, Friday, Feb. 28 at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center in Iowa City. The dinner is free and open to the public. (Porter has launched a GoFundMe page, collecting contributions to help cover expenses.) This year’s dinner will also honor longtime community activist Charlie Eastham, one of the co-founders of the Black Voices Project.

“This is just to bring the community together in fellowship,” Porter said. “And to help celebrate Black History Month.”

Paul Brennan is Little Village’s news director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 279.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misnamed Anthony Porter. Little Village regrets this error.