Sioux City Committee Gives Underrepresented Groups A Voice, But Advocates Want More Inclusion
In mid-May, the Inclusive Sioux City Advisory Committee gathered for its monthly meeting in Sioux City’s City Hall. The room was a melting pot of city staff and residents representing various races, ethnicities and cultures.
The committee invited Sioux City Police Chief Rex Mueller to talk about a recent incident that he said the police department is reviewing.
“There’s learning opportunities in every situation that we deal with, whether we’re within policy or not within policy,” Mueller told the committee.
Sioux City police were dispatched to a Perkins Restaurant & Bakery on an early morning in late April. They had received a complaint about an intoxicated white woman who, according to a news release, was “trying to fight with other (customers).”
Police say the woman complied and left. Then, police arrested 29-year-old John E. Wright Jr., a Black man, who they said was “agitated.”
Body camera footage shows a white police officer trying to restrain Wright and pushing him into a booth. The officer pointed his taser at Wright.
"Don't shoot me! Don't ... [inaudible]," Wright cried out.
Bystanders shouted things like, “He’s leaving!” and “He ain’t do nothing wrong!”
"Wright was charged with trespass, interference with official acts, and failure to comply with orders of a peace officer. He was suspected of being intoxicated in public but was not charged for that," the Sioux City Police Department said in a news release after the incident.
Short video clips of the incident filmed by bystanders caused a stir on social media, so the inclusive committee wanted to learn more. Committee members asked Mueller questions, like how he’ll review the incident, or how he’ll address some of the concerns people have.
“There’s probably a segment of the population, no matter how much public education we do, no matter how many times we put ourselves out there, they decide we’re in the wrong and that’s how they’re going to operate,” Mueller said.
Mueller said he recognizes that peoples’ views of the police have become much more critical since George Floyd’s murder. A committee member recommended police work with the city to do social media about their de-escalation training. Mueller also said the department plans to have more public meetings in the future.
Not a committee to 'check a box'
After George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer last year, people protested in Sioux City as they did in other cities in Iowa and thoughout the country. Sioux City’s City Manager Bob Padmore said city staff and the council started talking with the local chapter of the NAACP about what could be done to unite the community.
“We decided Sioux City needs to come together,” Padmore said. “We have a history of working very well with others throughout our community.”
The idea for the Inclusive Sioux City Advisory Committee was born. The committee’s purpose, according to the city, is to guide the all-white city council on inclusion and equity “strategies that strengthen connections among diverse communities living and working in Sioux City and with the city government and members of the Sioux City Business and non-profit communities” with a goal of creating “more equitable outcomes for the people who live and work in [the] community.”
There’s learning opportunities in every situation that we deal with, whether we’re within policy or not within policy.
The committee consists of one member each from the NAACP, Unity in the Community, the Asian Community, the Native American community, the religious community, the Latino community, the LGBTQ community, and two “residents at large." Committee members are not paid.
“We just felt it was important that they had a voice. Our council agreed,” Padmore said. “And the committee actually is intended to give voices to those where they don't know where else to go.”
After the city council approved the creation of the committee, Sioux City invited people to apply for the nine slots. Padmore and a city council member are also on the committee, though they are both “non-voting” members.
The inclusive committee has met a handful of times since February. Cody Hankerson, a community organizer who represents the NAACP on the committee, said the simple existence of the committee shows Sioux City is trying to be more inclusive. He called his peers on the committee “outspoken”, “creative” and people who “want answers.”
“I think everybody in the committee came in with a very specific mission of not being tokenized, of this not being a committee that was just going to exist to exist and to check a box, but to do something that was good and to try and put some armor, at least, on on the city's relationship, on all of these ties that we have at present,” said Hankerson, who identifies as Black.
Hankerson said the existence of the committee also shows the city is trying to be proactive rather than reactive.
“Because by the time that you’re dealing with a police officer, by the time that you’re dealing with the negative impacts or negative consequences of a lack of inclusion or a lack of diversity from an entire city, that by then it’s almost too late and you have people who have suffered at the hands of it,” Hankerson said.
The committee hasn’t made any policy change recommendations to the city council, but members did get to weigh in on who they felt the city should hire for its first-ever “community inclusion liaison.” The job was created in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
Hankerson said he took weighing prospective hires “very seriously.”
“You have to think of it through this lens of ‘not only am I impressed, but is this person, after they get the position, going to truly help the people who I'm trying to represent?’” Hankerson said.
New city employee puts Sioux City, inclusion and equity under a microscope
The city hired 27-year-old Semehar Ghebrekidan for the community inclusion liaison position. Ghebrekidan is African American. Part of Ghebrekidan’s job, she said, is researching the city, talking with people and examining the state of things; putting Sioux City under a microscope to look at what it can do better on diversity, inclusion and equity.
“Because there are certain populations in the City of Sioux City that don’t have access to resources as readily as others,” Ghebrekidan said.
Ghebrekidan said another aspect of her job is going to different events and meeting with community organizations to “see what their needs are.”
“I see myself as someone who is helping plan the progress of our community and the inclusion of our community,” Ghebrekidan said.
Ghebrekidan started her job in mid-April. She said she works with the inclusive committee to get a pulse of the city.
The new city position is “geared towards helping provide a connection,” to the city for minority groups and businesses, said City Manager Bob Padmore.
“Whether it be a minority-owned business that doesn't know all the various programs that are available, [Ghebrekidan] can help shepherd them and get them to the right people, make the right connections so that they can succeed,” Padmore said.
'I really honestly don't feel represented'
City officials and committee members say hiring Ghebrekidan and forming the Inclusive Sioux City Advisory Committee is progress for Sioux City. But not everyone feels included in that progress. Trisha Etringer, the director of operations for Great Plains Action Society, lives in Sioux City and is a Native American enrolled with the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
“I’m not really trying to knock this committee,” Etringer said. “But at the same time, I really honestly don’t feel represented as an Indigenous woman.”
Etringer said the city is taking the right steps to bring people of color into its conversations, but she said she wants to see more representation of Native tribes.
“How could we miss Native American representation when that is the fabric of the history of Sioux City?” Etringer said.
Etringer applied to be on the committee, but wasn’t chosen. The Native American slot went to Tito Parker, who identifies as Native American, African American and Mexican American.
“The city placed me in the category for Native American, but I represent everybody,” said Parker, who works as a Title IX coordinator for students at Western Iowa Tech Community College.
Parker, who is the inclusive committee's chairman, pointed to the application that people had to fill out to be on the board. One section asks people to check all boxes that indicate what races, ethnicities and cultures they are a part of, and to confirm they live in Sioux City. Parker said his preference would’ve been to be chosen for one of the at-large positions. He added he isn’t registered with a Native American tribe, but that doesn’t mean he’s not Native American.
How could we miss Native American representation when that is the fabric of the history of Sioux City?
On forming the inclusive committee after George Floyd was killed, Parker called it “a good start” for Sioux City.
“It shouldn’t have to take that long,” Parker said. “It shouldn't have to take someone to see a video of somebody being murdered for someone to say, ‘Hey, what can we do for this and do for that?’”
Room to grow
The inclusive committee may expand in the future. Local pastor Jeremy Robertson, who is African American, is not part of the committee. But he supports the effort and said a larger group could be more successful.
“Make sure you have someone that represents each walk of life, each culture that's out there,” Robertson said. “I mean, I believe that's what really, really brings forth the change.”
And change, Robertson said, doesn’t happen overnight.
“It’s going to take different cultures, different races, different backgrounds to come sit down at the table to have these discussions, sometimes discussions that will make people uncomfortable,” Robertson said.
He continued, “But if we really come really wanting to grow, and to really invoke change, then we won't give up just because we don't see change within the first month or the first six months.”