Iowa is not all presidential campaign pit stops and long, winding farmland in the way that popular depictions of the state would have many believe. The Hawkeye State is as rooted in Buxton and Center Street’s rich, entrepreneurial history as it is in caucuses and cornfields. However, the stories of many Black and Brown Iowans are often marginalized or overlooked for a variety of reasons.
Despite these challenges, Black-owned publications, such as The Communicator and Iowa Colored Woman, have attempted to document the lives and events of marginalized communities throughout the state. Unfortunately, the last of those late 19th-century and early 20th-century publications — The Iowa Bystander — shut down in 2018. Rather than mourn the death of the historic newspaper, a collection of Black and Brown storytellers have found new ways of bringing the lives of everyday Iowans to nightly newscasts and digital front pages.
“I have a responsibility to make sure what I produce represents us well,” said Dana James, an Iowan truth seeker who has crafted stories about everything from the school-to-prison pipeline to the maternal mortality crisis.
James spent the better part of a decade as a reporter at the Des Moines Register before getting married and transitioning into the insurance industry. However, her plan to remain in the insurance industry was short-lived as the spread of COVID-19 consumed lives worldwide. Like many, she followed news reports regarding the pandemic, but grew concerned when she noticed there was a lack of reporting on how COVID-19 was impacting Black Iowans.
“I was trying to keep myself and my family safe, but I wasn’t seeing stories that said how many Black people were affected,” James explained.
“All of the reports and the data that was presented said, ‘X percent of Iowans are infected. X percent of Iowans are dying.’ But what about us specifically? What about Black people?”
With this in mind, James initially set out to write a few articles about the intersection of Black Iowan communities and the spread of COVID-19, but her plans quickly expanded following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Right after George Floyd was murdered, the insurance company I was working at, like many others at the time, was putting out messages of solidarity and condemning what happened,” James explained.
“The CEO of this insurance company, in his communication, said, ‘All people matter.’ That angered me. From zero to one hundred, I was so mad. I was also hurt. How dare you? As the CEO of a global company, you should know better. I was really angry. I cried on my husband’s shoulder and decided I would no longer work there.”
James didn’t allow her fusion of sadness and anger to stifle her. Instead, she used it to empower her mission of founding Black Iowa News, the state’s first Black-owned and operated news organization since the Iowa Bystander. Merging print and digital publication, James and a collection of thoughtful contributors have documented stories of Black Iowans with care and honesty.
“When I’m about to publish, I stop and pray over that story. I pray it does good, plants seeds, changes lives and saves lives. When I wrote at other publications, I never remotely viewed what I was doing the same way I view this,” James said as she sat outside the state capitol in Des Moines.
“There is definitely something different about owning a publication and believing that it’s up to us to save us. It’s up to us to improve conditions for other people in our community.”
Fortunately, James is not alone in her work. Instead, she is part of a larger movement. During the five years that followed the end of the Iowa Bystander, author Rachelle Chase chronicled the rich history of Black Iowan innovators in Creating the Black Utopia of Buxton and five news gatherers banded together to form the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Not to be forgotten, Ty Rushing, a Kansas City-born wordsmith, became the only active, Black journalist to hold the position of Chief Political Correspondent at a major media outlet in Iowa.
“Dana James…there hasn’t been a Black newspaper in Iowa since the Iowa Bystander. When the Iowa Bystander folded, it wasn’t the newspaper that it was in the 1900s. It was the source for Black news and Dana is bringing that back. She’s covering stories that need to be getting attention. It’s a void that hasn’t been filled in a long time,” Chase explained.
“If you look at Ty Rushing, he came after me at the Iowa Starting Line. He always says, ‘I wanted to be the first one at the Iowa Starting Line. I wanted to be the first.’ While he’s not the first, he’s the best one at the Iowa Starting Line. He’s in a leadership role there and giving the publication a more multicultural focus. There’s Nixson Benitez. He’s become the face of the Des Moines Register regarding social media. He’s introducing news at the Des Moines Register through TikTok and Reels in a way that hasn’t been done before. Then, there’s Jay Stahl. He’s done a lot of great stories about social media influencers, people who have overcome great odds and even celebrities. Each person of color that has come into these positions has filled a void that was previously vacant.”
The voids filled by journalists of color with Iowa ties aren’t confined to state lines either. Tisia Muzinga, a Wisconsin-raised reporter and anchor, spent several years in Des Moines and helped found the Iowa Association of Black Journalists before moving down to FOX 4 in Dallas, Texas. Elsewhere, Andrea Sahouri parlayed an internship at the Des Moines Register into an opportunity to become the outlet’s first social justice reporter before landing a position at the Detroit Free Press in her home state of Michigan. Not only did she dedicate her time to highlighting the challenges facing marginalized communities in the area, but she also beat the Des Moines Police Department in court after she was charged with interfering with the dispersal of protests following the murder of George Floyd.
“We all play a role in challenging the status quo with our reporting and our commitment to highlighting the voices of the voiceless,” Sahouri said days before visiting the city she once covered.
“Amplifying the voice of even one person is important and something to be proud of.”
Amplifying the stories of people of color across the state of Iowa is more important than ever because the challenges many residents face are a matter of life and death and freedom and imprisonment. Black people make up four percent of the Iowa population, but twenty-five percent of the prison population. Black mothers in Iowa are six times more likely to die as a result of childbirth than white mothers. The eye-brow-raising statistics are troubling across the board, but residents don’t need a particular position or a unique qualification to bring awareness to these issues. In fact, Iowans of color just need a laptop and the ability to turn nuggets of information into news stories.
Rachelle Chase was a business analyst before diving into the world of Black Iowan history. Dana James had landed a job at an insurance company before pivoting back into journalism. Andrea Sahouri was a wide-eyed 23-year-old intern before making history at the Des Moines Register. Ty Rushing settled into a communications job at an economic development corporation before finding his way back into journalism through the Iowa Starting Line. Each newsmaker had a unique starting point, but the finish line was the same. With each word written, interview conducted and story published, every journalist of color plays a significant role in documenting the history of communities that are so often overlooked. Outsiders may have a particular perception of Iowa, but those within the state are changing the narrative with each passing headline.
“I want people across the state to be represented in our work,” James emphasized.
“When our story is told 100 years from now, I want the world to have an accurate depiction of us.”