The Des Moines chapter of SURJ was established in October 2016. At our first meeting nearly 50 people interested in increasing the visibility of anti-racist organizing among white Iowans turned out.
Here is a reverse timeline of our activities since then.
January – April 2019
During this period the SURJ leadership core implemented a strategy to promote the engagement of our membership into direct action for racial justice in our community. This effort began with activities to deepen the connection between the leadership core and SURJ members and to identify the energy level around various types of racial justice work.
In March, we sent out an online member survey in order to hear from folks who cannot attend our regular meetings. We held a potluck and polled attendees on their interests. Based on the results of these activities we determined that we had the capacity to have two action groups, one focused on discrimination in education and the other on immigration justice. These groups meet at our Third Sunday meeting time and held their first meetings in March.
The Education Action Group accountability partners are CORE for Advancement and Al Exito while the current Immigration Action Group partners are a SURJ family sponsoring two transgender asylum seekers, American Friends Service Committee Iowa Immigrants Rights Program, Iowa Sanctuary Movement and Al Exito. Current education projects include raising money for refurbished laptops for CORE students in the Des Moines Public Schools and providing funds for the DMPS district to replace outdated classroom maps. The immigration action group is planning fundraisers for our accountability partners.
Another direct action project DSM SURJ supports is the NAACP-Iowa and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Racial Justice Team efforts to pass anti-racial profiling legislation at the state level and locally in the city of Des Moines. Unfortunately, the bill at the state level did not make it to a floor vote because of the resistance of the law enforcement lobby. In the city of Des Moines, however, through the persistence of local Black leaders, the city council agreed to draft an anti-racial profiling ordinance. DSM SURJ supports this effort by attending planning meetings, writing letters to the editor, and then getting the word out to our members to contact their city council members and to attend city council meetings.
The Iowa state legislative session occurs during this time period and in early January we presented “How a Bill Becomes Law” and introduced our members to online tools for tracking legislation. A few dedicated members have committed to tracking legislation that impact the poor and/or communities of color throughout the four months of the legislative session. They let us know when subcommittees are meeting and when votes are coming up in order to mobilize our members to contact their legislators or show up to subcommittee meetings. One of our February meetings was devoted to writing postcards to our state legislators in support of anti-racial profiling legislation and legislation reinstating voting rights to felons. We also encourage our members to attend “Day on the Hill” sessions with our accountability partners.
Other activities we engaged our members in included: Book discussions of I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo; volunteering at the annual I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa Celebration; interactive workshop on writing an Op-Ed; speaker series, Speaking from the CORE, sponsored by CORE for Advancement; the Des Moines Women’s March; and patronizing person-of-color owned businesses.
September – December 2018
SURJ activity focused on the 2018 midterm elections. SURJ hosted another voter registration training; provided assistance to Valley HS CORE at a voter registration booth; participated in GOTV neighborhood canvas sponsored by NAACP; published an op-ed in the Des Moines Register promoting the NAACP GOTV effort.
Another major focus was work to support the Iowa CCI Racial Justice team work in presenting an anti-racial profiling ordinance to the Des Moines City Council in November. SURJ members attended the planning meeting, submitted letters to the editor, met with and called city council members, and attended the Des Moines City Council presentation. SURJ members also attended Des Moines city government’s Bridging the Gap 2 – project presentations and voting.
Our meeting topics included a presentation by Madison DeShay-Duncan on the Center Street documentary; a letter-to-the-editor and op-ed writing workshop; an Iowa Legislature candidate forum on racial justice issues; white fragility; anti-racism conversations at the Thanksgiving table; presentation by CORE; and discrimination in education.
SURJ provided financial support to Legacy Matters which is producing the Center Street documentary.
May – August 2018
The summer of 2018 was full of action. Des Moines SURJ kicked off SURJ Summer 2018 with a call to our members to commit to at least 2 hours of racial justice work in June, July and August. Those who committed were assigned accountability coaches from the Leadership Core who provided a list of actions that could be used to fulfill their commitment. Participants reported their hours each month and at the end of three months over 470 hours of racial justice work were completed!
SURJ events included a voter registration booth at the four Summer in the City concerts. We hosted two book discussion groups – The Hate U Give and Homegoing – and we had a Racial Justice Now t-shirt fundraiser with a generous discount from Raygun.
SURJ members participated in the NAACP Juneteenth Parade and Iowa CCI Racial Justice team community meetings on racial profiling; published a letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register; took part in the Festival of Action to stop the Kavanaugh confirmation; supported Pyramid Theater Company, attending performances of Prowess and Intimate Apparel; provided food donations for a First Unitarian fundraiser for the Eastern Iowa Bond Project; and attended Des Moines City Government and Human Rights Commission Bridging the Gap Safety and Justice Community Dialogues.
Summer meeting topics included a Ban the Box presentation by Ramon Christopher; History of Policing and Alternatives to Calling the Police; Bystander Training; Dissent is Patriotic; Viewing and Discussion of the third episode in the PBS program Race – The Power of an Illusion; Taking Risks; and a presentation on the legal consequences of civil disobedience by Professor Sally Frank.
SURJ made donations to Al Exito and CORE, both organizations led by youth of color.
January – April 2018
This time period included the second session of the Iowa Legislature and our focus was on support for an anti-racial-profiling bill developed by NAACP. We also followed an education bill that had the potential to further impoverish the Des Moines public schools by restricting the ability of any school district to limit out-migration based on socio-economic status.
We continued to build our relationship with the local NAACP chapter by attendance at the NAACP on the Hill day. This gave us the opportunity to listen and gain deeper perspective on the very long struggle to make systemic change, and the patience and perseverance required.
Other initiatives and activities included: the development of training on the new Voter ID law; participation in the Des Moines Human Rights Symposium where CORE students led a session; volunteering at the 2018 I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa event; and the Poor People’s Campaign 40 Days of Action. We provided financial support for teachers to attend a Lunch and Learn Workshop by Eddie Moore, a leading diversity and cultural competency educator and trainer.
September – December 2017
In the fall of 2017, SURJ connected with The Director’s Council (TDC), a group of Black business owners working to improve opportunities for the African American community of Des Moines. TDC received a grant to develop a report on the economic disparities faced by the Black community in Des Moines and to challenge the city to eliminate those disparities. It created work-groups in areas such as education, health care, and criminal justice. SURJ assisted with finding folks to participate in these work groups.
Immigrant justice groups asked SURJ to organize a counter-event to the Iowa Minuteman Convention on the Iowa State Capitol grounds, and we did. The “Minuet Many Unity” celebration included talented musicians from North High School playing minuets in the rain while we all learned how to minuet with the students of Al Éxito. This event was a positive counter-point to the fear-based parallel event, where we embraced the awkwardness and discomfort of learning a new dance as a metaphor for how it can feel as white people learn to show up for racial justice.
Other actions included: writing letters to the Ames School Board in support of high school band members who, during the national anthem at a football game, protested against racial disparities in the criminal justice system; marching in the multi-cultural fall festival; advocating for the Welcoming City resolution submitted to the Des Moines City Council by Iowa CCI’s Immigration Justice team; and practicing how to have conversations about racial justice at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
May -August 2017
In the summer of 2017 we focused on building relationships with and supporting local Black-led organizations. We marched in the NAACP’s Juneteenth Celebration parade and attended performances of Mississippi Goddamn and Amen Corner by the talented artists of the Pyramid Theater Company. In the aftermath of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Des Moines SURJ reached out to the Des Moines black community to show our support.
We hosted a book discussion of Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson, and members attended the White Privilege Symposium, which was held at Drake University in the fall.
We spent a meeting in thoughtful consideration of criticisms of SURJ by Black Lives Matter activists and reaffirmed our commitment to fighting white supremacy and being accountable to leaders within communities of color.
In a response to gentrification in Des Moines’ East Village and removal of rental units that accept Section 8 housing vouchers, SURJ held discussions about the affordable housing crisis in Des Moines. One of our members had a letter-to-the-editor published in opposition to this gentrification.
SURJ donated to NationalBailout.org in order to provide bail money to mothers who are in jail only because they cannot afford their bail money.
January – April 2017
The focus of our work was on challenging the anti-immigrant legislation that became the focus of the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature and the threats against the DACA program at the national level. We co-sponsored a workshop on “How a Bill Becomes a Law” with the Iowa Commission on Latino Affairs, and learned about how to make our voices heard by in-person lobbying, calls and emails to our legislators, and speaking out at town halls and legislative committee meetings. Through this experience we connected with other allied groups such as Iowa CCI Immigration Justice team, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, LULAC, AFSC, and ACLU-Iowa.
We challenged several pieces of legislation that threatened to coerce local governing bodies against declaring “sanctuary” and to compel local law enforcement to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We participated as a sponsor to host a grassroots teach-in on how the legislative process functions. We mobilized in response to reports of ICE raids. Other state legislation we advocated against that was damaging to people of color was a gun bill that included a Stand Your Ground provision. We failed to stop any of these bills. However, we learned much from the experience: how state government works, who our allies are, and the importance of voter engagement in every election.
Educational components of our work included developing a Teacher Toolkit for educators in the Des Moines Public Schools to learn how to advocate for their immigrant students. We partnered with Al Éxito, an organization for Latinx youth, for a workshop on the undocumented experience. We donated to C.O.R.E. for Advancement groups in Des Moines area high schools. CORE stands for Community of Racial Equity and they are student-led groups whose purpose is to unite strong student-leaders in support of students of color pursuing college-level courses.
We participated in many justice marches and initiatives in the Des Moines area including The Women’s March and a march associated with the Day Without Immigrants event. We were invited by Monsoon United Asian Women of Iowa, NISAA African Family Services, and local Black Lives Matter activists to support their organizing of a march from the Iowa State Capitol to the Federal Building for International Women’s Day.
October – December 2016
The Des Moines chapter of SURJ was established in October 2016. At our first meeting, nearly 50 people interested in increasing the visibility of anti-racist organizing among white Iowans turned out. Over the course of that fall and the next spring, we familiarized ourselves with national SURJ’s values, built connections with other organizations, and began anti-racist education work among ourselves, as well as supporting such efforts in the Des Moines area more broadly.
Within a few months of our early organizing we broke into several working groups–immigrant justice, education, and racial justice. We hosted numerous newcomer orientation meetings. Early participants in SURJ hosted individual “house parties” in order to invite Iowans into more active engagement against racism and for racial justice in the Des Moines area.
SURJ sponsored community educational activities including a lecture by Chris Crass, who speaks on themes of anti-racism, social justice organizing, and feminism for men. We also sponsored a viewing and discussion of the documentary, 13th.
SURJ built relationships with religious communities that are targets of hate. We were invited to learn about the Sikh community in the Des Moines area and attended a social gathering at their worship space and volunteered with them at a Meals from the Heartland event. We co-sponsored with AMOS and ACLU-Iowa a “Know Your Rights” event at a local mosque.