The Biden Administration and the new Democratic Congress has begun the arduous task of dismantling numerous policies and executive orders that proved damaging to underrepresented communities in our nation.
Iowa, on the other hand, controlled by Republicans, has remained loyal to former president Trump’s insufferable legacy. One of the worst bills they’ve offered up this year that’s still under debate is HF802. This bill would prohibit many forms of diversity and inclusion training taught or offered in colleges, public schools, and trainings offered to state, city and county governments, targeting “divisive concepts” such as racism, sexism and political ideology.
As a person of color, I know the consequences of ignoring these problems and how it will affect our communities, but I wanted to learn from professionals that have publicly expressed their opposition.
Justyn Lewis is a small business owner running for the Des Moines City Council and the founder of Des Moines’ Selma, a nonprofit organization working for racial justice. When he heard about this bill, Lewis took immediate action, emailing legislators and inviting them to have a conversation.
“I reached out to some legislators in good faith, because as an implicit bias and racial reconciliation trainer for the last five years, I couldn’t believe that people feel that using terms to direct people in understanding what it means to be a person of color in Iowa are divisive,” he said. “By talking to them, I’m hoping to move the needle with people of power in Iowa, within understanding these terms so they can be a little more knowledgeable on how to navigate these spaces instead of doing harm.”
Lewis shared that many of his friends are leaving Iowa because it is not a very welcoming state. For them, these types of bills are a detriment to the mental health of many in the African American community and other communities of color.
When he heard about this bill, he felt drained.
“After a summer of protests and marches and cries for understanding and reconciliation, justice and equity, I felt that a lot of people from both sides of the political spectrum had woken up from that, but for the Legislature to directly undermine us moving closer together … It pushes the needle back, it doesn’t move it forward,” he said.
Lewis has a passion for history, and he believes that we need to teach the entirety of the history of this country so we don’t repeat the mistakes from the past over and over again. He also believes that many institutions will find themselves handcuffed or walking on eggshells around the training issue, and may just avoid it altogether.
Connie Ryan, executive director of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, has launched a petition to stop the HF802 bill because it will prohibit effective diversity training and will limit what educators and trainers can do in those trainings.
“Typically in diversity trainings, the curriculum is very intentional and proactive in talking about bias, privilege, values, beliefs and the way it impacts our nation’s history regarding racism and sexism,” Ryan said. “The bill prohibits being proactive in addressing those issues. If the student or participant asks the question, the trainer can answer the question but they cannot initiate that conversation. So what’s the point of diversity training? How can you do these trainings without being proactive, initiating conversations around bias and privilege, and this is both in terms of racism and sexism, which impacts people of color, impacts women, and also the LGBTQ communities, and immigrants and refugees?”
By tying the hands of our government entities, this would impact all public education, the criminal justice and the judicial system, Ryan added.
“I think people who have privilege and don’t understand bias and privilege, when they are challenged to give up some of that privilege, to learn about privilege and bias, they react because it’s fear-inducing to be challenged in that way,” she said.
Another problem she sees is the economic impact. Iowa already has a hard time attracting and retaining businesses and new skilled workers to come and stay in our state, and this Legislature sends the message that Iowa is backwards and not welcoming — that diversity is not valued, and that would have an economic impact. Ryan is encouraging people to call their senators at 515-281-3371 to oppose HF802.
Joshua Barr is the director of Civil and Human Rights of the City of Des Moines.
“The key thing is ‘divisive concept,'” Barr explained. “In this day and age, everything is divisive. As someone who teaches on issues of race, I never walk into a room and say, ‘hey, all white people are racist,’ because I’ll never reach them.”
He singled out the bill’s goal of “any individual shouldn’t feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish or any form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.”
“Teaching these concepts, there’s always going to be some discomfort, when you are talking about things that people are afraid to talk about,” Barr said. “That’s problematic. If discomfort is divisive, we’re never going to get anywhere. Discomfort is what challenges you to be better.”
Barr said that having language like that is a step back. While he noted that it isn’t helpful to be saying that an entire race is racist, ultimately the goal should be to work through discomfort of what we’ve done to create a better future. The goal is to build bridges, not to tear people down, and to build connections.
“Talking about our history … it makes people uncomfortable,” Barr said. “Sometimes people push back, but in that push back you can have greater conversations.”
I will just close with the words of the American author, Jason Reynolds: “Be not afraid of discomfort. If you can’t put yourself in a situation where you are uncomfortable, then you will never grow. You will never change. You will never learn.”
by Claudia Thrane
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