The 'Iowa Nice' Culture Creates Complacency Toward Local Civic Engagement

Failing to address Des Moines' earnings gap isn’t very “nice.”
10/06/2017 12:11 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2017
Alyssa Spatola/HuffPost

Disclaimer: The following views are mine alone and do not represent the views of my employer.

If you’ve spent any time in Iowa, it is likely you’ve heard a local proudly proclaim that we are “Iowa nice.” While there is no actual definition of “Iowa nice,” in practice it means that we are overly friendly and go out of our way to help our fellow citizens. “Iowa nice” means that we pull over on the side of the road to help a stranger change a tire. However, “Iowa nice” has caused the city of Des Moines, and the state of Iowa, to slow progressive ideals that were once the cornerstone of the state.

'Iowa nice' has caused the city of Des Moines, and the state of Iowa, to slow progressive ideals that were once the cornerstone of the state.

Before my current position, my knowledge about local government was limited to the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” However, I came to realize that my ignorance to civic engagement was not unique, but rather an endemic to the populace. Des Moines, Iowa was a once beacon of progress throughout not only the state but also the U.S. In 1948, civil rights pioneer Edna Griffin organized a series of sit-ins and boycotts at Katz Drug Store in Downtown Des Moines. This was seven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955. The Des Moines Human Rights Commission was established in 1951, more than a decade before Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Same-sex marriage was legally recognized by the state of Iowa in 2009, six years before Obergefell v. Hodges legalized it across America. So what happened?

Civic engagement at the local level has a greater impact on the everyday lives of citizens than anything occurring in D.C. under Donald Trump or Barack Obama. If not for people in small communities voicing their opinions to their leaders, we would be in a constant state of stagnation.  While everyone may not agree with the institution of federalism, it undeniably allows constituents to voice their opinions to local leaders who have the power to affect the laws and policies where they live. If “Iowa nice” is a characteristic of our communities, why doesn’t “Iowa nice” translate into municipal or state policy?

On November 15, 2016 the Des Moines School Board responded to a student demonstration protesting the election. This meeting was standing room only, and after leaving, I felt a sense of pride, because Des Moines had shown up to support its students and their beliefs. The meeting concluded with the school board declaring that they stood with the teachers and students who protested the election. The student demonstration and support from the community resulted in a school board vote passing a resolution to declare the Des Moines Public Schools a sanctuary district. This was the best instance of civic engagement I can remember from the past year. However, far too often, less than five people attend city meetings that are open for public comment.

If no one shows up to inform local leadership about issues in the city, how can city leaders be expected to resolve problems they do not know about?

If no one shows up to inform local leadership about issues in the city, how can city leaders be expected to resolve problems they do not know about? There are numerous issues in the city that are not being actively addressed. Despite the flurry of development in the downtown area, there continues to be slum housing conditions that primarily impact the refugee and immigrant population, while black or African American households in Polk County continue to earn an average of $33,119 less than the median household income in the county. Allowing members of the Des Moines community to endure substandard housing and failing to address the earnings gap isn’t very “nice.” Has it somehow become “mean” to speak out and pressure elected officials to help change a flat tire in the name of progress? 

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“Iowa nice” has led to complacency and an expectation that issues needing to be addressed will be handled by our local leaders. But when our leaders are focusing their attention on economic development that wins Des Moines numerous awards, how can they be expected to address systemic issues of inequality? There is currently very little political pressure placed on local leadership to address these issues. The Des Moines City Council is elected by the people of Des Moines to represent the ideals of their constituents. However, when the biggest problem these leaders are forced to address is the placement of a bike lane, then maybe it is not the leaders who are failing but instead the people who are too “nice” to point out where the city’s policies are failing. In last November’s general election, Hillary Clinton received over 26,000 more votes than Donald Trump in Polk County. If a majority of the residents in Des Moines are progressive, then why are residents of Des Moines failing to take action and instead relying on city leaders to act for us. 

When our leaders are focusing their attention on economic development that wins Des Moines numerous awards, how can they be expected to address systemic issues of inequality?

On Monday, October 9, 2017 at 4:00 p.m., the Des Moines City Council will be discussing an “Inclusivity Proclamation.” The purpose of this proclamation is to notify undocumented residents that the City of Des Moines Police Department recognizes the power to regulate immigration remains exclusive to the federal government, and the DMPD will not assist I.C.E. This proclamation does not establish Des Moines as a sanctuary city. While any policy coming out of City Council may only have power within the city of Des Moines, the impact that a unified voice and vision has in the state’s capitol cannot be ignored. The principles of “Iowa nice” should be reflected in the actions of state leaders who are elected to reflect and represent the beliefs of their constituency. Welcoming city and inclusivity proclamations would do wonders in small communities in Iowa that heavily rely on an immigrant workforce. It is our duty and responsibility as the capitol of Iowa to show these communities they have support here in Des Moines. Helping those who are in need of assistance is the “Iowa nice” thing to do.

Des Moines, I guess what I am trying to tell you is stop being so damn nice.

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