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Racing Iowa Conference brings professional development for students of color

Emma Friedlander

Last Saturday, April 7, students Nomalanga Shields ’18 and Juliet Torres ’19 and Professors Deborah Michaels and Stephanie Jones, both education, hosted the first Racing Iowa Conference at Grinnell. The conference aimed to provide students of color with skills for leadership and professional development, and was funded with a grant from the Grinnell Innovation Fund. The organizers  believe that while Grinnell College is abound with professional development opportunities, these programs and resources do not always account for the needs of students of color.

“In the past I’ve been to a lot of conferences where I felt like it wasn’t specifically geared to the needs of students of color,” Shields said. “They were geared towards a broader audience, and students of color were expected to just fit in with that broader audience.”

When Michaels and Jones won the grant, Michaels spoke with Torres about what resources she felt were lacking for people of color on campus. Torres suggested that a leadership conference would be especially helpful, and the idea snowballed from there. While Michaels and Jones s

Professor Stephanie Jones, Nomalanga Shields ’18 and Juliet
Maria Torres ’19 organized the College’s first Racing Iowa Conference to discuss how people of color navigate predominately white settings. Contributed photo.

ecured and distributed the grant, they gave Shields and Torres near complete power in deciding the speakers, topics and workshops they wished to feature. 

“Stephanie was very open to everything we had to say, she was very receptive,” Torres said. “That was pretty powerful, to have two women of color deciding what’s best for everybody. Me being Latina and [Shields] being African-American, I think we have two very different and good perspectives.”

The conference was divided into three workshop blocks: one on “POC adulting 101,” a second on personal liberation and justice and a third on social engagement and activism. Each of these workshop blocks included presentations and demonstrations from various guest speakers, covering topics as varied as microaggressions in the workplace, entrepreneurship, trauma-based yoga, nutritious soul food and emotion-based journaling. 

“[These were] new ways of thinking about wellness and new ways of thinking about leadership and professional development,” Shields said.

Twelve guest speakers were brought into the conference in the Joe Rosenfield Center (JRC) at the conference on Saturday. Some of the highlights for Shields and Torres included a presentation by alumna Marlu Abarca ’14 on handling microaggressions in the workplace; a discussion between Director of Urban Dreams Izaah Knox and the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS)’s Jovan Johnson on the career paths of leading a multicultural world; and a talk by alumnus Alvin Irby ’07, recipient of the Wall Alumni Service Award for his organization Barbershop Books, which gives books to barbershops to improve literary rates among Black boys. 

“Professor Sharon Quinsaat, [sociology,] was also there to talk about interracial coalition building, which I felt was a huge theme of the conference given that it was between Black and Latinx students,” Shields said.

Bringing Grinnell’s Black and Latinx communities to the conference was a major aim of the organizers. Going forward, Torres expressed her hope that the conference and its related conference committee will continue to emphasize this collaboration. 

“I hope that the committee is evenly split with Latinx and Black students so that we have a good perspective,” Torres said. “It was good that [Shields] and I were able to represent both the groups, but I definitely think that next year it will be better if we have more perspective on what’s needed. [This includes] continuing this conversation, and maybe some more building between the groups, between CBS, SOL and ACSU.”

Before the second Racing Iowa Conference occurs next year, Shields hopes that the committee and campus resources like the CLS will continue to make sure that the needs of students of color are recognized.

“We’re hoping to collaborate more with the CLS, given that the CLS is the primary institution on campus that provides career, life and services opportunities for students,” Shields said. “Having the committee give advice to the CLS, or even host workshops on its own or in collaboration with ICA [Intercultural Affairs]. Collaborating more with on campus institutions so that it can be more sustainable for the future.”

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