For years, black residents of the Cedar Valley have been saying that Waterloo and Cedar Falls aren’t welcoming to them, treat them differently and are actively preventing them from achieving success. A study put together by 24/7 Wall St., a financial website, finally backed up those anecdotes with a whole host of data and proclaimed our metro area the No. 1 worst place to be black in America – which I reported on in February 2019.
It’s a dubious distinction, and one that immediately put the Cedar Valley on edge, with white leaders mostly stunned and taken aback, and black leaders feeling vindicated that their frustrations were being brought to light. Out of that, I wondered what would become of the study: Would it lead to a greater divide? Would it lead to any meaningful change?
I’ve continued following this story, from business forums to listening events. From countywide health care studies to address the disparities, to Waterloo becoming the first in the state to pass a “ban the box” ordinance, it’s clear that community leaders aren’t turning away from the problems the study addressed. They're trying to actively work toward positive change – and that should be good news for all of us.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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