Since 2015, Johnson County has maintained its Welcoming America Banner Project which embraces newcomers to the area with banners hung throughout Iowa City, Coralville and Kirkwood Community College. As a part of this project, the banners for 2021 will include black & white photographs of everyday Johnson County residents, from students and University professors, to city council members and business owners. The purpose of this project is to foster greater cultural diversity within our communities and amplify the work of our citizens. The Iowa City Area Development group took the lead on the banner project for this year, and, as ICAD’s 2021 Project Better Together intern, I was thrilled to have been asked to, not only contact influential community members about their involvement, but contribute by having my photo taken at Plaza Centre One downtown.
I must admit that the emailing process for this project wasn’t terribly exciting. Verifying the participation for dozens of people was tricky as some were more elusive than others, and circulating a Google document for photo sign-ups with times that worked for everyone required that I be able to coordinate things fairly quickly, having been added to the project just one week out from the first photo shoot. But ultimately, the time I spent on this assignment was well worth it as I was able to chat, or network, with well-known Johnson County residents like Dasia Taylor, Marlén Mendoza, and Candice Smith, among others.
The photo shoots took place on June 8 & 9 and included a diverse group of Johnson County residents with various racial, gendered, classed and religious backgrounds.
Despite my having lived in Iowa City for nearly eight years, I was unaware of how non-homogenous this community actually is. According to datausa.io, people of color represent 25 percent of Iowa City’s population, which is roughly 10 percent greater than Iowa’s total population by race. I was born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa, which is an extremely segregated city, that has a Black population nearly double that of Iowa City’s. For that reason, and because Black student enrollment at the University of Iowa is only 3.3 percent, I’ve come to understand Iowa City as a white city. Ultimately, this makes the banner project all the more important because I’m sure I’m not alone in my thinking. Showcasing the diversity of Johnson County is essential to inclusion efforts that are meant to make everyone feel welcome.
Through my work with ICAD and the BIPOC Business group — a group of organizations in Johnson County addressing economic development for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color business owners — I’ve found that there are more than 90 Black-owned businesses in Johnson County, a number that I can only assume is similar for other people of color business owners in Johnson County. Additionally, according to Council Member Mazahir Salih, co-founder of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa — a non-profit on S 1st Ave — Iowa City is home to a growing population of Latinx and Sudanese Americans with “between 700 to 900 families” living in the area. I believe the banner project is helping to increase knowledge of BIPOC residents in Johnson County by centering Black, Asian and Latinx community members, disrupting notions of Iowa City as a white space. As someone who comes from a city where there is a strong sense of community among the Black and Latinx populations, it’s important to me to find that same sense of community here in Iowa City — a place I call home.