by KENDALL HUNT
Abdul Samad remembers the birth of black rights activism in Des Moines, as a lieutenant in the Black Panther Party.
“I started my work because of injustice – injustice of black folk, of colored people, and people in general,” Samad said. “With the Black Panther Party, I made a commitment to do this work until I die. I have and will continue to do this work until I die.”
These comments came as part of a panel discussion on racial issues in Des Moines held at 6:00 p.m. Feb. 29 at Drake University. Panelists included members from Children and Family Urban Movement, YMCA and the Willkie House, all non-profit organizations working to better the lives of black people in the Des Moines community.
The Black Panther event was organized by Jazlin Coley, the Service Coordinator for Equity and Inclusion at Drake. Coley hoped that through the event, students would not only be exposed to the culture of black people and the Black Panther Party, but also feel encouraged to undertake community engagement and service learning within Des Moines.
The root of the Des Moines Black Panther movement traces back to the mid-1960s. According to The Annals of Iowa, black politics and activism for civil rights played a prominent role in the city of Des Moines, and on one evening in particular, a large group of young African Americans took a stand against racial discrimination in housing, employment, education and politics with a violent demonstration against police in Good Park, Des Moines’ largest black neighborhood. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was created in response to the riots to help augment black pride, bring to light black oppression and encourage African American leaders in politics.
The Black Panther movement still persists with sixty survival programs, of which include the organizations of the five panelists. The party’s ideals, ingrained in the black organizations around Des Moines, underline the fight for black empowerment today.
Samad, who is the Iowa State representative of District 35, has experienced a long history of racial prejudice throughout his life. As a result, he built the organization Creative Visions, with the mission of helping economically burdened families in Des Moines as well as guiding black communities to become self-empowered and self-sufficient.
“Black power is the essence of identity,” said Iowa State representative Abdul Samad. “The Black Panthers were started to empower black people, and the way we continue that today is by taking ownership in our own community.”
In a similar manner to Samad, Dionna Langford, one of the panelists at the event and a youth developer director at the YMCA, has worked all of her life to combat racism and challenge the political systems in Des Moines.
“I want black people to have the ability and ownership to live the lives they want to live,” Langford said. “But this idea is severely limited in this community. We talk about black power as our ability to act and live freely, but it’s not happening in Iowa yet.”
In noting the need for more community involvement with racial problems in Des Moines, Langford encourages all students, not just those of color, to take a stand.
“If we are going to heal this community, we have a lot of work to do,” Langford said, causing audience members to snap in agreement. “For my white students, someday you are going to lead organizations and have the opportunity to make a difference. Not just black folks can fight for equality. Take these seeds that are being planted, and challenge the ways of thinking that have had adverse effects on black communities. We need students.”
AJ Salinas, development assistant at Children and Family Urban Movement, echoed Langford’s comments during the panel.
“We need students and volunteers to help long term,” Salinas said. “We work with hundreds of kids who need a regular role model, someone to look up to and someone they know is invested in them. We want to put commitment in our youth so they can do better than us.”
Panelist John Douglas, executive director of the Willkie House, the longest running non-profit in Des Moines, also encouraged students to get involved around the community. However, in his mission to develop character and self-esteem in young people, Douglas extended his argument further to encourage students to have tough conversations with community leaders and become more educated on black lives and opportunities to get involved.
“The best way to combat ignorance is through exposure,” Douglas said, receiving applause from the audience. “I challenge every single person in this room to do something within the next week that makes you feel uncomfortable. We need to have these difficult conversations. We need to grow and learn from them and take these ideas back to our friends and family.”
The Black Panther event was packed full of students, many of whom were eager to ask questions to each of the panelists during and after the event and learn more about the Des Moines history of black prejudice.
One such student was Kyle Loecke, who had never been exposed to the history of black prejudice in Des Moines. He felt engaged throughout the presentation and asked several questions to individual panelists afterward.
“I decided to attend the event as a learning experience, because I did not know what the Black Panther Party was, especially as a white male,” said Loecke. “But I loved the program and felt very inspired by the panelists. It was amazing to be able to ask questions and stay afterwards to talk to State Representative Samad. He gave me a couple of book recommendations and helped me understand how to just be better, how to get outside this room and get conversations happening.”
Mariah Crawford, who also attended the event, is an active volunteer at Drake and in the Des Moines community. Working weekly with the community children at the Willkie House, Crawford has already made a significant impact on the surrounding black community, and hopes to continue to do so, as well as motivate others to do the same.
“Students right now want to learn, it seems. This event was important because the speakers forced students to think about and confront challenging topics,” Crawford said. “At Drake, students have easy ways to get involved. The opportunities are all right here, the students just have to make the choice to get involved.”