Sioux City has, for a long time, had a diverse population made up of different ethnic groups, nationalities, beliefs, and religious groups. This diversity, however, has not always been as apparent and recognized as it has become in recent years.
Monique Scarlett, president of Unity in the Community, remembers that when she was a young girl in the 70s, she was the only black girl in her elementary school class at Smith Villa, which today is Liberty Elementary School. Moreover, she recalls that there were only around 20 black children in her school altogether.
Since then, she has seen Sioux City come a long way. “While a lot of things are still evolving, the biggest thing I have welcomed and am elated to see is diversity,” she said.
One particular part of Sioux City she has gladly watched embrace diversity is Leeds. In her youth in the 80s, Scarlett was told to never be in Leeds after dark because of the racial tension in the city. Watching even that part of town evolve is great, she said and added, “To see Asians, and Asian Americans, and Hispanics living there now – that’s growth.”
Sioux City’s increased appreciation of diversity is not least due to the efforts of organizations such as Unity in the Community. Scarlett’s primary goal for the organization was to connect the community with law enforcement at a time where police violence against young black men in the US was rising. “I just cried one day and said, I have to protect this community,” she recalled. The question was just how to achieve that goal before Sioux City got to the point of violence.
Her approach was to create a space of dialogue by bringing members of the city council, as well as then police chief Doug Young together in 2016. “Everyone was on board with the idea of embracing and building relationships between citizens and law enforcement,” Scarlett said about that meeting.
The next step was to get the community to buy in. When community members gradually began to see what she was trying to do, a lot of them got on board. As a result, Scarlett recalled observing a perceptible shift in mentalities, from “us versus them” to an increased demand for unity.
“People are now willing to sit down at the table and listen, before it was either my way or the highway,” Scarlett said and added, “It’s about getting people sitting down, listening to one another, respecting one another, and working together to bring a cohesiveness that will speak to the next generation.”
To fulfill that mission, Unity in the Community foremostly hosts educational forums such as a fall forum in October and celebratory park events in July. Additionally, for the past two years, Scarlett and Unity in the Community have focused on bringing their vision to students in schools and colleges.
The number of people interested in the events is high. While a thousand people usually flock to the park event, Scarlett has received feedback from the last October forum that indicates that people want more of what Unity in the Community is offering. The organization is now looking at creating a spring forum.
For Scarlett, the events are mostly about people coming together without having to keep their guard up. To further bring the community together, however, she also seeks to support other organizations that align with Unity in the Community’s vision.
These efforts of cooperation between organizations and different groups within the community have not gone unnoticed. Jim Jung is a historical advocate who also serves on the city’s Diversity Committee. He said the good news is that the city has representation from different groups such as the local black community, the native American community, and the LGBTQIA+ community. He added that today he sees more cooperation between the groups and increased representation through festivals.
Despite all the positive change in diversity, both Scarlett and Jung continue to see room for improvement on part of the city and the community. Jung thinks the city still needs to further identify its population to better understand its make-up.
Scarlett said Sioux City still has a long way to “grow” in terms of awareness of its diversity and wishes for more balance. “When I look at photos when I go to different places, I don’t see many black people in them. You can’t tell me we weren’t fighting in the war; we weren’t in the trenches doing this and that, but the photos were not captured,” she said and continued, “It saddens me. We had an integral part in building the city. But we’re not acknowledged for that.”
Nevertheless, Scarlett acknowledges the city’s diversification efforts and particularly appreciates the city hiring Semehar Ghebrekidan as Community Inclusion Liaison. In the past, creating discussions meant physically knocking on doors. Now, the community inclusion position allows for the easier start of conversations by facilitating gatherings of the right people in the right places at the right time. According to Scarlett, a huge step in the right direction.
By Emily Rotthaler