Black leaders in the state of Iowa

Representative RasTafari I. Smith.

JERRELL BATES, Guest Columnist

Editor’s Note: This article is from Feb. 24 2022

Black History Month: A time dedicated to the celebration of Black history, culture and excellence. According to National Geographic, the first official celebration of Black history started with Negro History Week in 1926. At this point, Black history was not recognized nationwide, but with the creation of Negro History Week, Black history began its journey towards recognization. In 1976, President Gerald Ford extended Negro History in order to give proper recognition of the accomplishments of African-Americans, and it officially became the nationally recognized month that we know today, Black History Month. 

Today, we see many African-Americans following in the footsteps of the leaders of the past. 

“I got involved with Black Student Union (BSU) because it was the first place here on campus that I could meet people who looked like me and were going through the same things I was,” Black Student Union Vice President Christiana Downey said. “Though I have been involved in leadership positions before college, this one seemed to be so much more important because I was representing a larger, underrepresented population.” 

An example of the importance of Black leadership, Downey is one of many people dedicated to service and leadership. UNI alum and Director of Multicultural Student Services at Wartburg College Krystal Madlock was heavily involved during her undergraduate career. “At UNI I was involved in the typical student organizations created for students of color, Black Student Union, Ethnic Student Senate, and I made a lifetime commitment and became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. I was on the Maucker Union student board.” 

Many years later, she continues to find ways to be involved and serve her campus and Waterloo community. “My current involvement continues to be in my church, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., March Against the Darkness Board of Directors, Youth Art Team Board of Directors, Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa Scholarship committee, a member of Club Les Dames and hopefully soon the UNI Alumni Association Board of Managers.” Madlock said. 

Another UNI Alum and Black leader, Yakira Sanders, has dedicated a lot of her time to leadership and was inspired by another Black leader. “My first interaction with someone at UNI was my Jumpstart pathfinder, Juana Hollingsworth. It was really cool to have a Black woman who I could look up to.” Sanders has served in many roles on UNI’s campus, including serving as the current Program Assistant for the Center of Multicultural Education. 

When speaking further on her journey, and providing advice to students growing in their own leadership journeys, Sanders said, “Trust the process. Things will constantly change from a year, two years, three years, four years down the line. So just trust the process and make sure that you are holding yourself accountable to make sure that you are accomplishing those goals that you set for yourself.” 

Apart from the Black excellence that has graced UNI’s campus in the past and present, there are a number of influential Black leaders in the surrounding Waterloo community. “Growing up, I thought leadership was just about being one with the ‘big idea.’ It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I understood I was a leader by engaging in what was happening in my school and community through volunteering and showing my support. The more I served, as a student senate representative and on the judicial committee, the more my self-confidence grew as I saw the impact of my participation.” Mayor of Waterloo Quentin Hart said. When asked if he ever envisioned himself as mayor, Hart said, “I did not grow up dreaming about being the Mayor of Waterloo. With each act of service, my circle of influence grew and my network of resources grew as well, leading me to greater and greater opportunities.” 

Sharing similar sentiments with Mayor Hart is Nia Wilder, businesswoman and Councilwoman for Waterloo’s Ward 3. “We don’t always realize when leadership starts. We don’t always realize when we are being a leader. Leadership doesn’t have certain characteristics” Wilder said.

To her, leadership is important and a journey that we continue to grow in. “Don’t ever stop growing. Don’t ever feel like you know what the answer is. Keep seeking answers. Know that your purpose is something serious.” 

Recently, the UNI campus community has had the honor of welcoming Rastafari Smith back to campus. Smith is not just a UNI alum; he also serves as the Student Services Coordinator at UNI and as a legislator in the Iowa House of Representatives. For him, civic engagement was a part of his upbringing but he never expected to land in the position he is in now. “If you would’ve asked me seven years ago if I would be here today, I would’ve laughed at you,” Smith said. “I was never someone who would consider me to be politically engaged. I was all about social advocacy. I would protest, be at marches and speak out against things but I never saw myself running for office.” Smith was presented with the opportunity to run for the House of Representatives and hasn’t looked back. To the young adults growing in life, Smith says, “Be authentically who you are, because that’s when your success comes. 

As people of color, we bring our creativity, our uniqueness and our lived experiences to help the overarching system improve so don’t feel like you have to change.” 

With the conclusion of February 2022, we have had another successful month of celebrating the accomplishments and the excellence of Black history. Our Black colleagues have continued to do great things and serve as inspirational leaders like our ancestors before us. Even though Black History Month has concluded, may we still continue to shine bright and highlight the achievements of our African-American colleagues, friends and leaders.