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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.

“Seeing African-Americans with degrees, including myself, and the difficulty I had in getting a job, so many people in my community feel hopeless,” Berry said Tuesday evening. “Many educated women have left. We really do need to talk about this.”

Even those who eventually secured decent jobs, like University of Northern Iowa student diversity programs coordinator Denita Gadson, who holds a Ph.D., lamented how long it took.

“When we moved here, I could tell there was a problem,” said Gadson, who is a Mississippi native. “Waterloo has so much potential, but we haven’t come together as a community to harness that potential.”

That frustration with area employers not taking a chance on qualified black candidates was one of the main issues discussed at “Economic Inclusion: Closing the Disparity Gap,” a round-table disccusion that brought out a couple of dozen people to Jubilee United Methodist Church in Waterloo.

Abraham Funchess, Waterloo Commission on Human Rights executive director, began by reading aloud a column by Washington Post freelance writer Peniel Joseph, posted on the occasion of the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s 90th birthday and talking about the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

Funchess then brought up two recent articles: One was the 2018 report by online financial site 24/7 Wall Street that rated the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan area as the worst in the United States for African-Americans to live in terms of economic, educational and health disparities. The other was a U.S. News and World report showing Iowa was the No. 1 state in the nation for all people to live in terms of the same conditions, a study the governor touted in her re-election campaign.

“That reminds us of the two Americas Dr. King talks about,” Funchess said. “We’re the No. 1 state in the nation, but oh, by the way, Waterloo/Cedar Falls is the worst place in all of the nation for blacks to live. So this is what we hope to reconcile tonight.”

The 24/7 Wall Street study nearly kept Robert Welch, who is from Florida, from taking a position as director of student advising at UNI’s College of Education.

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“The article came out a week after I was offered the job here at UNI and, boy, I had a serious conversation with my wife about, ‘Do we really want to move to Waterloo?’” he said.

Gwenne Berry, UNI’s first chief diversity officer, noted it took two years of her college-educated husband searching for employment to no avail to bring her to the same grim conclusion.

“I sat there and said, ‘I have no other answer for you than racism,’” Gwenne Berry said. “It was embarrassing.”

The discussion included the voices of Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber CEO Cary Darrah as well as Waterloo Community Schools Superintendent Jane Lindaman, both white, who pointed out initiatives already in place to help the community as a whole.

But both said they also wanted to listen to concerns.

“I, too, was shocked” by the 24/7 Wall Street study,” Darrah said. “No community wants this designation ever.”

Organizers say another round table — with concrete, actionable steps — will likely take place in April.

“The narrative about Waterloo is not good, but whatever I can do to help, I’m with that,” Welch said.

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Staff Writer

Staff writer at The Courier 2005 (college intern), 2007-2012, 2015-present. Graduate of UNI 2006. Three-time Iowa APME award winner (investigative reporting 2008, lifestyle feature 2016, business feature 2018)

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