WATERLOO — “Iowa is a good place,” begins one section of a new University of Northern Iowa website.
“And yet, many of us featured here — who are not white or rural — have not experienced ‘Iowa Nice’ in exactly the same way.”
Shuaib Meacham had few preconceived notions about Iowa when he moved here from the East Coast. Shopping for a refrigerator in Waverly, he chatted with the owner of an appliance store who asked him what he’d be doing now that he lived here.
“I told this lady I was going to be working with kids in Waterloo,” Meacham remembered. “It was almost this look of, she felt sorry for me.”
It seemed strange to Meacham. But other, similar interactions kept happening: During a new faculty orientation at the University of Northern Iowa, where Meacham is associate professor of literacy education, officials identified a “typical” UNI student as rural, small-town and white. And a student in his classroom said the only way she could attend the university was by promising her grandmother “she would stay away from Waterloo.”
Waterloo, and its distinction of being the most racially diverse city in Iowa, didn’t fit in with others’ perception of Iowa, Meacham realized. And because it didn’t, the city and its people were ignored, avoided or outright scorned.
“We’re operating off of an almost nostalgic interpretation of Iowa,” he said. “There isn’t really anything that shows Iowa is a diverse place.”
A new wheat-paste mural on the side of the building that houses Jameson’s Public House, as well as an accompanying website, shows 52 faces to the contrary.
The project, “Diversity Is Our Strength,” is now not only on a building but online, at dios.uni.edu. On the website, each face is clickable, and shows a short bio of each person as well as their “immigration story,” and what “Iowa Nice” and “Diversity Is Our Strength” means to them.
It’s a timely response to the Black Lives Matter protests, but was inspired before demonstrations erupted this spring, said Bettina Fabos, UNI professor of interactive digital studies.
The project is this year’s real-world component to Fabos’ practicum, a culminating course which brings together students studying web development, imaging, computation, design, writing, advertising and more to work on a community project.
Fabos said she always partners with a fellow UNI employee on that project, and this time teamed with Meacham, whom she calls by his nickname, “Meach.”
The project also was based on guidance from Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writer and Waterloo native who visited UNI last fall.
“All of my practicum students were immersed — they were reading all of this content, looking at the 24/7 Wall St. report in 2018 which identified Waterloo as the worst place to be Black,” Fabos said. “All that is kind of chilling information, and we wanted to work with Meach to develop a project that is very much a celebration of what we are as a city and the Cedar Valley.”
The website delves into statistics and a report on the project, then lists additional resources — from articles to videos to podcasts to books for adults and children, as well as films and television series to watch and organizations to follow on social media — all of which students drew upon for their project.
“I’m just so happy that the website got done despite (coronavirus restrictions),” Fabos said. “My students are amazing. Hats off to them.”
The pandemic did stop Waterloo West High School and Hip Hop Literacy students from helping to put up the mural, which was finished last week. Some of those students are themselves featured on the mural.
Meacham thinks of the mural as a way to instill pride in a diverse Waterloo, much like a nearby mural on Lafayette Street tells the history of Waterloo’s immigrants. He learned the power of such murals by visiting Philadelphia and seeing murals depict musical and artistic legends, which has transformed those neighborhoods.
“Instead of those areas known for negative attributes, people were taking tours to see those beautiful murals,” Meacham said. “The physical depiction of those accomplishments has really started to change that sense of identity and pride in being Black.”
And perhaps others can feel a sense of pride in what Iowa looks like today, Fabos said.
“We have such an incredibly rich collection of ethnicities in our Cedar Valley,” Fabos said. “My hope is that everybody experiences Iowa Nice — that Iowa Nice can extend beyond our small communities that are homogeneous, and that it can extend to every community, and that people are not fearful of other cultures.”