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How one Indianola group is trying to make this small Iowa town inclusive amid diversity

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How one Indianola group is trying to make this small Iowa town inclusive amid diversity

Video: Simpson College hosts Black Lives Matter demonstration
About 200 students and faculty gathered on Sept. 2, 2020, to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Shelby Fleig, Des Moines Register

Activists behind See Color-Be Change, a new group in Indianola, want Indianola to be an inclusive place for all people.

This group, formed by six core members in 2020, is trying to break the silence and jumpstart the conversation around diversity.

“We don’t have conversations about race here and we felt it very important to start leading that effort,” Nick Mahlstadt said.

Mahlstadt helped establish See Color-Be Change amid renewed calls for racial justice and fairness across the nation after the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in May 2020.

Mahlstadt first connected with Detavious Smith, from Indianola. Both of them quickly learned their children, who attend school in the Indianola Community School District, had similar experiences of racism and bullying.

“We thought if this is happening to us, we need to join together and start advocating for these conversations in our town,” Mahlstadt said.

He and Smith eventually reached out to other parents including Tara Elcock and Mekisha Barnes to form this proactive effort because all of their children had experienced racism in some way.

Smith said they chose See Color-Be Change as the name because he hates when people say they don’t see color.

“I can walk around and say ‘I don’t see color,’ but someone is always going to see my blackness when I walk into a room,” he said. “I need you to be able to see it and I need you to understand it and be okay with it.”

Building an inclusive community

Indianola, which has a 2020 estimated population of more than 16,000 according to the U.S. Census, is 96.4% white. This is reflective of Warren County, which has an estimated 51,466 people, 96.4% of whom are white.

Indianola, Carlisle and Norwalk, the county’s three biggest cities, are growing communities and Mahlstadt said all three will attract new residents and development, which in turn could attract more racial diversity.

Mahlstadt and Smith said the group’s goals are not to sow discord and division by talking about race and diversity, but to make Indianola a more inclusive city as it continues to grow.

“We’ve got to do something, but what we can’t do is go out and alienate everybody,” Smith said. “When we tell everyone they are bad, they are evil, they are racist, that is just not the case. They just don’t know how to approach it.”

Both Mahlstadt and Smith said inclusivity begins with conversations with school leaders, police officers and city administration about what these officials can do or are already doing to enact policies and best practices that help address racist or prejudice incidents and promote diversity and inclusion.

“We feel that what is absolutely key is to sit back without judgement, and listen to other people’s lived experiences. Just because it’s not my reality, it doesn’t not make it someone else’s,” Mahlstadt said.

See Color-Be Change is active on Facebook. Leaders hope to hold in-person listening sessions and town halls with community leaders, students and city residents in the future. They’ve already begun by meeting with Indianola Mayor Pamela Pepper and City Councilmember Greta Southall in hopes of bringing back a city civil rights commission.

Mahlstadt said the group could eventually host a block party to bring people together and help expose them to others in the community who may not have the same lived experiences as their own.

They also created a banner hanging outside the construction area of the Warren County Justice Center. Several groups have put up banners outside the building that is under construction.

“In my personal conversations with townspeople, people in Indianola pride themselves on being a very warm and welcoming community regardless of religious beliefs, ethnic backgrounds, race or anything like that,” Mahlstadt said.

Smith said the assumption of See Color – Be Change isn’t that Indianola is racist, but that the residents don’t know how to handle racism when it happens.

He said the group wants Indianola residents to view this effort as an opportunity to grow while the city itself grows.

Mahlstadt said See Color-Be Change isn’t necessarily calling for big structural changes at this point, but does want to push for the community to better itself through understanding other people around them who may not look like themselves.

“I feel we have a real opportunity to do the work necessary to actually present as a warm, welcoming and inclusive community and do that before something tragic happens,” he said.

This content was originally published here.

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