'Worst place to be black' addressed in Waterloo

'Worst place to be black' addressed in Waterloo

'Worst place to be black' addressed at Waterloo business forum

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

Amie Rivers

Oct. 2, 2019

It’s the online article — and resulting negative designation — that refuses to die.

The 24/7 Wall Street article that analyzed census data to arrive at the conclusion the Waterloo/Cedar Falls metro area was the No. 1 worst place for African Americans to live in the U.S. continues to weigh on Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart since it was published nearly a year ago.

“That was a blow for me and a lot of the leadership here,” Hart said Monday night to a small gathering of business leaders. “The entire world was looking at that report.”

But what came next wasn’t resignation or dismissal: Hart said he heard from lots of people — including local business leaders — wondering how they could help turn it around.

“For years, you had one group saying one thing and another saying another, and people would walk away from each other,” Hart said. “I’ve been proud to see people around the community stand up and say, ‘What can we do to make a difference? What can we do to solve the challenges?’”

Those challenges were detailed during the Iowa Business Council’s Vision to Vitality forum Monday at the Van G. Miller Adult Learning Center, one of four forums around the state the IBC holds annually to address Iowa’s competitive advantages and disadvantages.

“It’s great to be with Cedar Valley leaders who are passionate about finding the best ways to enhance the economic vitality of the Cedar Valley and the state of Iowa broadly,” said Raj Kalathur, chief information officer of Deere and Company and an IBC member.

IBC executive director Georgia Van Gundy presented the group’s research to attendees, pointing out Iowa’s strengths — like high numbers of manufacturing jobs, high school graduation rates and the number of people with health insurance — and contrasted that with the state’s disadvantages, like low numbers of tech jobs, low percentages of bachelor’s degrees and high obesity rates.

And several big disadvantages came up in demographics: The state’s population growth has stalled, the nonwhite population was at just 14.1% — 45th in the nation — and net overall migration to the state was rated “poor,” according to the IBC.

“No, we don’t have mountains, and no, we don’t have beaches,” Van Gundy said. “The No. 1 reason people don’t choose Iowa is they don’t understand the opportunities we have here.”

Waterloo Schools Superintendent Jane Lindaman said the district’s Waterloo Career Center, begun in the fall of 2016, was helping connect students with those opportunities by partnering with employers like Care Initiatives, GMT Corporation, VGM Forbin and the University of Northern Iowa in 14 different career pathways.

“We’re really excited — enrollment’s growing,” Lindaman said.

Where they lacked was in diversity of their staff — just 8% of the teachers in the district were nonwhite, compared with around 55% of students -- and that meant students aren’t seeing a lot of people who look like them in positions of power, demotivating them at the middle school level and leading to higher drop-out rates.

“We have to diversify, because we lose kids emotionally and engagement-wise,” she said. “It’s what keeps me up at night.”

Grow Cedar Valley CEO Cary Darrah added that businesses could assist in the larger effort by reaching out to those communities left behind.

“The relationship-building and establishing trust — and it does take some time — those are real opportunities,” she said.

Hart agreed.

“We need to really understand, as a local community, that diversity is the greatest strength we could possibly have,” he said.