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A study in black and white: Is the Cedar Valley really the worst place to be black in America?

WATERLOO — The article, published in November, spread through social media like wildfire. Some were shocked. Others found their beliefs were, tragically, confirmed.

The article was from a website called 24/7 Wall St., a financial commentary site owned by Huff Post. It culled data from the U.S. Census Bureau to put together a list of the 15 worst metro areas in the U.S. to be African-American.

In 2016, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area found itself 10th on that list. In the November article, the metro area was bumped to No. 1.

Waterloo, Cedar Falls and the towns included in the metropolitan statistical area are collectively the worst place in America to be black, in terms of the differences between black and white residents, according to that article.

“No U.S. metro area has larger social and economic disparities along racial lines than Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa,” the Nov. 9 article from 24/7 Wall St. states, citing an eight-measure index of the racial gap between white and black residents.

But though there’s some disagreement about whether the distinction is warranted — the list only includes metro areas with at least a 5 percent black population — there is one thing most can agree on:

“Waterloo has a problem,” said Denita Gadson, student diversity programs coordinator at the University of Northern Iowa. “And it’s not a hidden problem.”

There’s a lot to unpack from the list — education rates, incarceration rates, health disparities — but perhaps one of the biggest is the difference between the state’s white and black unemployment.

Metro-wide, unemployment for white residents was 4 percent in 2017 — the last year data was available — according to U.S. Census estimates. For black residents, that number jumps to a staggering 19.7 percent — meaning nearly a fifth of all black residents in the Cedar Valley are not employed. And that’s in the state with the overall lowest unemployment in the nation, a statistic touted by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in Waterloo on Wednesday.

That’s not news to Debra Hodges-Harmon, who helps people try to find work at Cedar Valley Iowa Works. She expressed her frustration with the disparities at a recent economic forum.

“I’m so sick of this,” said Hodges-Harmon. “The message should be going out to CEOs: What do you want your company to look like and reflect?”

Degrees, no jobs

Gadson was born and raised in Mississippi, a state that is no stranger to finding itself on “worst-of” lists. And yet, when Gadson finished her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and moved to Waterloo, she found it was inordinately difficult finding a job in her field.

“I was underemployed — and, in many ways, I still am,” Gadson said.

She’s not alone: A recent forum on closing the gap between employers and qualified non-white candidates included the voices of several black Cedar Valley residents discussing their current or past economic situation, both for themselves and their loved ones, despite obtaining master’s or doctoral degrees.

Local black professionals talk workplace inequities

WATERLOO — After serving in the Iowa Legislature for 14 years, master’s degree holder Deb Berry returned home to Waterloo to find meaningful work. Instead, she said she fell into a “very deep depression” with rejection after rejection and almost packed her bags to leave the place she calls home.

“I watched my husband apply for jobs for two years — it was embarrassing,” said Gwenne Berry, assistant to the president and chief diversity officer at UNI. “I had to say, ‘This is where I live. This is what’s happening.’”

Former state legislator Deb Berry, who holds a master’s degree, found herself in the same situation — unable to use both her advanced degree and her 10 years in the Iowa House of Representatives to garner any meaningful work, until she nearly left her hometown in disgust.

“We really have to address that there’s a problem,” she said. “These kinds of things hurt us all as a community. And I’m angry that, in 2019, we’re dealing with this.”

The numbers

Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, the city’s first black mayor, takes the 24/7 Wall St. article personally — much like any negative news about the city he grew up in and now presides over.

“I feel the burden and entire responsibility of having that article on top of my head,” he said. “Racism and discrimination has been happening since way before I was born.”

But though many spoke of Waterloo as the sole city with the problem, the 24/7 Wall St. list used the Waterloo/Cedar Falls metropolitan area as designated by the U.S. Census Bureau as its data set. The Courier double-checked their numbers directly with the five-year Census estimates from 2017, the last year for which estimates were available.

African-Americans make up 7.1 percent of the metro population, but the vast majority resides in Waterloo. Cedar Falls has an estimated 1,140 black residents, or 2.8 percent of the city’s population, while Waterloo has an estimated 10,600 black residents, or 15.6 percent of the city’s population.

That’s why a discussion of black Cedar Valley residents turns into a discussion of Waterloo, though it shouldn’t, said Larry Stumme, an activist, attorney and pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls.

“This isn’t just Waterloo — this is the Cedar Valley. They gotta realize they’re a part of this,” said Stumme, who is white. “I’m a pastor from Cedar Falls, and they look down on Waterloo.”

The Census statistics certainly paint a picture of a stark gap between the metro area’s black and white residents — particularly when it comes to education, employment and earnings.

More than 93 percent of white residents in the metro area have a high school diploma, and 28 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Black residents, by contrast, are graduating high school at a rate of just 80 percent, and getting bachelor’s degrees at a rate of 16 percent.

The degree difference could be one factor in the stark unemployment difference. But it’s not the only factor, as Deb Berry and others with advanced degrees can attest.

“We’ve done everything society says. We’ve gone to college,” Berry said. “You worked hard to get this job you had to be 10 times as good at (as a white person). ... Or this (black) person has all of the qualifications, but does not get the job.”

Those things can portend future income. Median household income for the metro was $53,689. Whites surpassed the median, earning an average of $56,520 per household in 2017, while blacks fell far below — earning an average household income of just $27,811. The level to receive public energy, shelter and medical assistance in Black Hawk County for a family of four is $24,192.

And income can predict poverty: The poverty rate for the metro area is 14 percent. The percentage of white residents under the poverty level was 12.3 percent, while nearly a third of black residents were under the poverty level — 32.5 percent.

“The Waterloo/Cedar Falls metro is arguably one of the worst places for African-Americans to live, and it comes on the heels of a U.S. News and World report that said Iowa is the No. 1 state to live and get a good education,” said Abraham Funchess, executive director of the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights. “That reminds us of the two Americas Dr. King talks about — we’re the No. 1 state in the nation, but oh, by the way, the worst place in all of the nation for blacks to live.”

The problems

Cary Darrah, the CEO of the Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber, said she was “shocked” by the article.

“No community wants this designation, ever,” said Darrah, who is white. “This is not a new concern, but it’s been called to our attention in a heightened way — and more dramatically because unemployment is so low.”

Darrah pointed to the Chamber’s Diversity and Inclusion committee, begun in 2013 for those in the business community to put a focus on “promoting full inclusion in business,” according to its website.

“How do we make people feel welcome? How do we attract talent?” Darrah said at the recent economic forum. “We need to work at trying to help everyone.”

But it’s that “everyone” label that diminishes or ignores the problems black residents face in statistically greater proportions than whites, Funchess said.

“It’s just that blackness remains oppressed,” he said.

Those who are hired into majority white spaces, meanwhile, can feel singled out. Allen Robinson, who owns a digital marketing and web design business, Soul Concepts, said he was one of just three black employees among 80 employees across three offices when he went to work for a Cedar Falls company.

“I left because it was uncomfortable for me,” he said. “I have lived everywhere, and I feel uncomfortable here.”

Another factor contributing to income and unemployment disparity may be the stark gap between the percentage of black residents arrested, convicted and imprisoned as compared with whites.

The Sentencing Project noted in 2014 — the most recent year data was available — that Iowa imprisons black residents at a rate of 11-to-1 versus their white counterparts, a disparity second only to New Jersey.

But having a criminal record also was worse for black job applicants, with the NAACP reporting the negative impact of a criminal record was twice as large for African-American job applicants as it was for whites.

“It’s not enough to get them cleaned up,” Funchess said. “Who’s going to hire them?”

The solutions

Kyle Roed might.

The human resources director at CPM in Waterloo said he’s working to eliminate barriers to employment — and he started by “banning the box,” meaning employment applications for new hires now don’t immediately ask people if they have a criminal record.

“Asking the question up front is a barrier,” Roed said.

Roed, who is white, learned why that question was problematic at a minority unemployment listening tour held by Iowa Works a few years ago, he said. He also learned the U.S. imprisons far more people than the rest of the world — with just over 4 percent of the global population, the U.S. houses 22 percent of the global prison population.

“Oh and, by the way, Iowa is No. 1 for lowest unemployment,” he said. “We’re fighting a war for talent. And our perspective is, there’s talent out there, and they may have a criminal background.”

Roed gave an example of a temporary hire at CPM who struggled to find work. Given a chance, he was “extremely” loyal to the company who gave it to him, Roed said — and now is in a leadership role within the company.

“I’ve done this the last three years, and the business results have been there — I’ve seen significant loyalty and retention from individuals I’ve given a chance to.”

Banning the question of a criminal record from applications doesn’t mean Roed doesn’t ask it. He just considers it as one piece of the puzzle — not an automatic disqualifier.

“If there’s ever a case that somebody’s going to cause an unsafe workplace, we would take that into consideration,” he said. But, in his experience, “that’s happened no more frequently for people with a criminal background than without.”

For those applicants who have committed crimes, Roed asks them about how they’ve changed since their conviction.

“If they can show me specific examples of how they’ve changed — nine times out of 10, I will hire them,” he said. “When they make a conscious effort to change their life, that grit and effort is exactly what I want.”

As the president of the Cedar Valley Society of Human Resources Managers, he also advises his group to do the same — plus find ways to eliminate other barriers to employment, such as help with transportation or day care, both huge barriers to employment in the area, he said.

In fact, the National Society of Human Resources Managers, along with Koch Industries, recently launched Getting Talent Back to Work, an initiative that helps businesses give opportunities to qualified applicants with criminal backgrounds.

Hodges-Harmon also points to Getting Talent Back to Work as a great starting point for CEOs, and one she uses at Iowa Works.

“We have to educate the employers with the low workforce that we have,” she said. “We just gotta look at hiring differently.”

But Roed knows he’s lucky to be able to “ban the box”: Most company HR managers don’t get to make those choices, their CEO does. But with such low unemployment, Roed argues, CEOs should consider it.

“It’s a different way of thinking about a candidate, as opposed to labeling out front as a convict,” he said. “There are some great people out there.”

For those with criminal records looking for jobs, Iowa Legal Aid in conjunction with Cedar Valley Iowa Works have been putting on grant-funded clinics that help people with court fees, get their driver’s license back or legally expunge their records with the help of a team of lawyers.

Michelle Jungers, the managing attorney with Iowa Legal Aid, said 101 people have been helped and 115 expungements — the vast majority convictions for simple misdemeanors — have happened since the clinics began in 2017.

Another is scheduled for March 28 at Payne AME Church. Clients must schedule appointments through Iowa Legal Aid.

“For each clinic, we have had more people signing up than we are able to take,” said Jungers, noting around 50 people were on the wait list from the last clinic.

The clinics came about, in part, because Hodges-Harmon at Cedar Valley Iowa Works went to the state’s prisons to identify what would best help inmates from returning to prison.

The top answer? Good jobs.

“It’s about second chances,” she said. “I remember standing up at the Diversity and Inclusion conference and challenging HR directors — ‘When are you going to start giving people chances?’”

Funchess, who led the recent economic forum last month, plans another this spring — and it won’t just be testimonials, he said.

“We’re hoping to get together again and talk about concrete steps,” he said. “These are deeply emotional issues.”

But for the metro to move forward, it can’t leave thousands of its residents behind, said Gwenne Berry.

“What kind of place do we want to be? Do we want to be the economic powerhouse, and what does that look like?” she said. “I’ve got high hopes.”

Mayor Hart agreed, noting programs were available if employers were ready to roll up their sleeves.

“Barriers to employment, housing — these are things we have more than enough potential to address if we want to get busy,” he said. “It’s time to take action.”


Larry Stumme, left, and Abraham Funchess are working together to organize a Selma civil rights march to happen in downtown Waterloo on March 25.

UPDATE: Testimony: Condition of baby's body showed he hadn't been fed, changed in days

LE MARS — Testimony from a forensic pathologist and a bug expert was at odds with the account Cheyanne Harris gave to investigators after her 4-month-old son was found dead in a swing seat on Aug. 30, 2017.

Harris, 21, currently on trial for first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death, told police she had changed and fed baby Sterling on Aug. 29 and placed him in the swing.

She wasn’t able to provide an exact time for the changing and feeding, but Iowa State Medical Examiner Dennis Klein and forensic entomologist Timothy Huntington told jurors the condition of Sterling’s body and the maggots growing in his diaper showed he hadn’t been fed or changed for days.

“The diaper I saw didn’t appear to have been changed on the 29th,” Klein said Friday as the first week of testimony on Harris’ trial wrapped up at the Plymouth County Courthouse in Le Mars.

Some jurors looked away, and Harris looked down and covered her eyes, as Klein showed jurors photos of the condition of Sterling’s body. Skin around the diaper area was sloughing off, and the diaper rash had crawled halfway up his back and chest.

Sterling’s eyes and the soft spot on his head had sunken from dehydration, and Klein said he found evidence of a sodium deficiency.

Klein said he ruled Sterling died of malnutrition, dehydration and diaper rash. He said any of the ailments alone could have been enough to kill him. The cause of death was denial of critical care, and the manner was homicide, Klein said.

And there were maggots in different stages of development crawling on the clothing.

Huntington said he identified the insects as common scuttle flies that were likely attracted to the feces and laid eggs, which began to hatch and grow.

Huntington said considering the temperature of the bedroom where Sterling was found, the infestation likely started nine to 14 days before the 911 call that summoned authorities Aug. 30, 2017.

Sterling would likely would have noticed a crawling sensation with the insects moving about in the diaper.

“Certainly in a sensitive area like a genital area, you’d feel it,” he said.

He said he wasn’t able to pinpoint a time of death, but he concluded that because other insects hadn’t colonized Sterling’s mouth, nose and eyes, he likely would have been dead half a day or one day at the most.

The defense said postpartum depression played a role in Sterling’s death.

Earlier Friday, jurors heard that Harris had told Agent Chris Callaway with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation that she last fed and changed Sterling on Aug. 29, 2017, around the time the child’s father, Zachary Koehn, left for his third-shift trucking job.

Harris said when she was done, she was summoned by her almost-2-year-old daughter knocking on the bedroom door.

“I put him back in the swing and gave him the bottle. And turned it on and went to see what she wanted,” Harris told Callaway. She wasn’t able to put a time to it.

Harris explained she kept the children separated so the daughter wouldn’t disturb Sterling and because Sterling got cold easily.

Harris said she fed her daughter and recalled having difficulty getting the toddler to sleep. Koehn returned home around 4 or 5 a.m. Aug. 30, 2017. They ate grilled cheese and then went to sleep, she said. She said the daughter woke her around noon, and she discovered Sterling was dead when she went to check on him.

Harris told Callaway that Koehn suspected Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was behind Sterling’s death, and Callaway asked if she was concerned she had done something wrong.

“I can’t help but feel that I (unintelligible) him differently. Or I should have checked on him more,” Harris told the agent.

She also told Callaway that Koehn rarely helped out with caring for the infant. He didn’t change diapers because it made him sick, and during feeding he was always worried he wasn’t doing it right, she said.

Although Sterling died in Chickasaw County, Harris is being tried in Plymouth County on a change of venue.

Koehn was convicted of murder and child endangerment during a trial in the fall of 2018.

Photos: Cheyanne Harris murder case

A year before caucuses, Democrats play the field

DES MOINES — Like fish fry fans on a Friday during Lent, Iowa Democrats will have an overwhelming amount of choices for the biggest decision they will make over the next 12 months.

In almost exactly one year, Democrats will begin the process of selecting their party’s nominee for president by conducting the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

In the 12 months between now and then, those Democrats must sift through an expansive field.

Ultimately, they will have to choose one candidate to support as they begin their party’s process of choosing who will take on Republican President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

As of Friday, 10 candidates have declared their candidacies or are running in an exploratory phase. The size of the field could grow to two dozen or more before it’s finished.

Some of the more well-known are jumping into the race and visiting Iowa — the past month has featured declarations and visits from Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

Choosing a candidate to support will be a daunting challenge, Democrats say, because they expect the field to be great not only in quantity but also in quality.

“It’s going to be exhausting, fun, interesting,” said JoAnn Hardy, chairwoman of the Cerro Gordo County Democrats in northern Iowa. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Wide-open field

Because they are pleased with the ever-growing field of candidates, Iowa Democrats are keeping their options open and doing some candidate shopping.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to up here in Woodbury County is really open-minded about it. I don’t think anybody’s picked anybody that they’re going to caucus for yet,” said Jeremy Dumkrieger, chairman of the Woodbury County Democrats in western Iowa. “I think everyone’s excited about the challenges.”

In past years many Democrats went into the caucuses having a good idea who they would ultimately support. A smaller share of party activists was truly undecided, Democrats say.

That’s not the case this time.

Some campaigns are frustrated because they have been unable to secure endorsements to accompany their candidacy announcements, said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats in central Iowa.

“It’s an embarrassment of riches,” Bagniewski said. “All BS aside, there are a lot of really good candidates. Unlike past years when people kind of went in knowing who they were going to be supporting, I would say 75 to 85 percent of Democrats who are going to be caucusing have no idea who they’re going to end up supporting. That’s pretty rare.

“I think that’s a reflection of how many people are in the race, but also the quality of people who are in the race. There are a lot of rock stars this time.”

Those rock stars are drawing big crowds. Candidate events regularly have drawn dozens and often hundreds of people.

Bagniewski said he helped Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign put together an event, and on short notice with only an email blast and a Facebook notification, an event expected to draw roughly 50 people was attended by 200.

Dumkrieger said the morning Kamala Harris announced he was getting phone calls before he heard the news himself.

“People are super excited,” he said. “Hopefully we can maintain that throughout the general election.”

Caucus criteria

So how will Democrats make such a difficult choice?

Bagniewski said the successful candidate will have to be different than previous caucus winners, some of whom leaned on policy and others on personality, he said. The successful candidate will have to have both.

“In the past you had people who tapped into the passion, like Howard Dean. And you had people who tapped into more of their record and policy and leadership traits (like) John Kerry and Hillary Clinton,” Bagniewski said. “I think the people who will do well this time, and you kind of see the leaders already going toward it, is people want somebody who is experienced, who is a leader, who has policy chops, but who also captures the fire of the moment.

“You can’t have somebody just firing bombs all day, but you can’t have a candidate from central casting, either. They have to be both, and that’s harder than it sounds, for sure.”

Because many of the candidates will have similar policy proposals most Democrats will be able to support, personality and an ability to deliver that message will be crucial, Hardy said.

“I think a lot of them are going to say sort of the same thing. (So) they’ve got to be somebody who can spark some excitement,” Hardy said. “They’ve got to inspire. ... I think it’s related to their personality. There are people who want to be like that, but it’s innate. You can either do it or you can’t. I don’t think it can be trained.”

On those policy issues, one topic comes up most: health care.

“I think the takeaway from the 2018 election is the Democratic base, and really all Democrats, are motivated by health care,” Bagniewski said. “I think what we’re discovering really quickly is what we mean by health care is very much up for debate.”

Bagniewski noted the discussion over myriad types of so-called universal health care plans the candidates are proposing. Some include lowering the age to qualify for Medicare, others call for a hybrid of both public and private insurance options for everyone, and others may push for a Medicare-for-all system that eliminates private insurance.

The health care discussion could also include issues like prescription drug prices.

“The main focus is still the same ol’ same ol’. It’s jobsm and it’s health care,” Dumkrieger said. “We all know people who have been through (health care issues). My wife had thyroid cancer and lost her health insurance before Obamacare. ... I think that’s a big worry for a lot of people.”

Taking on Trump

Democrats also know part of their calculus will be to nominate someone whom they believe can beat Trump.

That means different things, Bagniewski said, including trying to win over Trump voters who previously voted for Democrats, and going head-to-head with Trump throughout a campaign, on the debate stages and in social media.

“The desire to defeat Donald Trump is all-encompassing at this point,” Bagniewski said.

But at the same time, the Democratic candidate’s campaign cannot be all about Trump.

“Donald Trump cannot be the focus. And the reason he can’t is he’s a shapeshifter. He has this position today and tomorrow you can’t nail him down. He can’t be the focus,” Hardy said. “(The focus) has to be the people of this country, the regular, working people, the middle class, and the lower (income) class.

“We need to encourage unions, better prices for medicines, build up schools, no tax breaks for millionaires.”