The fight for inclusion

Iowa City is known to be a diverse are, but does this mean that everyone is being celebrated and treated equally?

Iowa City is home to more than seventy thousand inhabitants. People from all over the world come here for an education, making it seem like a community flourishing in diversity, yet the level of true acceptance and appreciation for different cultures has become a question to many minority citizens who claim to be underrepresented.

OK Ukah, University of Iowa graduate

University of Iowa graduate and former basketball player Okechukwu ‘OK’ Ukah, does not see Iowa City to be the liberal city most people speak proudly of.

“Iowa City is an interesting place because we are seen as one of the most liberal cities in the United States, so usually when people hear that, they think, ‘Okay, that means they are very inclusive and accepting of people from different cultures,’” Ukah said.  “I think there’s a double edge sword to that. Because we’re liberal, people will not be overt with their discrimination, but that just opens up the door for a lot of passive aggression.”

Diversity and acceptance are virtues the Iowa City community has strived towards for years, so when underlying issues come to surface, the community comes together and works to implement change. But despite this,  some believe that not enough is being done to authentically bring together the people of Iowa City, or affirm the people in minority groups that live or study here.

You would think if so many people came here for college, they’d stick around, but that’s not really the case, so I think that says a lot about how accepting Iowa City really is.”

— OK Ukah

“It is important when you enter spaces like educational institutions or professional places to see people who identify with you. Growing up in Iowa City, I know there are a lot of places where you won’t find people who look like you,” Ukah said, who is an active member in the community when it comes to encouraging others to accept and be woke in social issues. “You would think if so many people came here for college, they’d stick around, but that’s not really the case, so I think that says a lot about how accepting Iowa City really is.”

Many citizens would disagree as the Iowa City community works to put together events that encourage the community to come together. Whether they are sponsored by the University, local businesses or individuals, there are several events planned throughout the year celebrating things from the arts to diversity to pride month.

Due to the establishment of several celebrations of diversity throughout the year, the University of Iowa discontinued their annual celebration of  the deep-rooted Cultural Diversity Festival. This was an annual event that was established to encourage the people’s’ appreciation for different cultures and to encourage acceptance, but found it ineffective as it was seen as yet another celebration of diversity.

Some recognize Iowa City to be culturally diverse when you compare it with other cities in the state of Iowa.

Mariam Elhattab, University of Iowa student
Mariam Elhattab, University of Iowa student

“There have been instances when I walk into a room and feel out of place, and I think ‘Why am I getting weird stares?’” Mariam Elhattab, student at the University of Iowa said. “Then I remember, ‘oh yeah, I’m Muslim. I wear hijab.’ But this is usually the last thought. It is not a constant hassle [since] I’ve always been the one to strive for my goals, and I never really let anything get in the way of that.”

Elhattab experiences situations where she may be fully conscious of her differences, and times when she forgets them completely. If Elhattab has experienced judgement, it usually isn’t oppressive or extreme.

“When I started working in my research lab, most people got the impression that I was a really strict and serious person that doesn’t laugh or know anything. It was kind of weird to see that a lot of them were surprised that I knew who Beyonce is,” Elhattab said.

Asaju Walker is a graduate student at the University of Iowa and an active member in the Muslim community, Walker has been a resident in Iowa City for years, and has made the personal effort to emerge in different cultures. Through different events, Walker’s definition is different from what he sees being played in the community.

“Diversity is multiple cultures coming together, being able to fully express themselves freely. The diversity that I see here does not match my understanding of what diversity is,” Walker said. “The diversity I see here is more like a controlled version of it. It is more superficial. You don’t see many people fully embracing each other between communities like they should.”

Asaju Walker, University of Iowa graduate student
Asaju Walker, University of Iowa graduate student

Walker is a familiar with Iowa City and finds fun in attending events relating to cultural celebrations.

“Whenever I am invited to different cultural events, I always try to show the commonalities between the two if I know anything about another culture,” said Walker, who believes Iowa City could be a more accepting place.

“I hope we can have more professionals of color, and more inclusiveness between all people and all cultures. The people are here, but they aren’t being represented so it gets kind of tricky,” Walker said. “Diversity is important because it helps to remind people that even though there are differences, we’re all the same,” Walker said. “We all have the same needs, the same wants.”

View photos from some of Iowa City’s diversity festivals below.