Equity & Diversity Photo Essay

Rachel Mummey: Southeast Iowa City

By Nicole Frugé — November 04, 2011 4 min read
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Tajeria Beacham at Lakeside apartments during a birthday party. Holly Orr, Tajeria's mother, said the family used to live in the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago, which were subsequently torn down. Looking for a fresh start, the family moved to Iowa City. Tajeria, who recently graduated from Iowa City High School, is the first in her family to attend college.

Tell us a little about your story. The project is about African-American families who have moved to the southeast side of Iowa City from the greater metropolitan Chicago area. There has been an influx of minority families from inner-city areas to more rural mid-sized towns across the Midwest in the last decade. The families I spoke to are looking to build a new foundation for the future. Many of them have cited education, work, and safety as key elements that brought them to Iowa City.

What drew you this story? The neighborhood was being portrayed in a particular light by the media and I wanted to find out about the families who lived there. This project raises questions about how we define “community.” There were a few incidents in the southeast side of town—a few fights and some shootings. They were covered by the media in an alarmist way and it painted the neighborhoods in a bad light. Little information was given to the residents in the articles and I thought that was strange. I became really kind of shocked at the things that would be said conversationally about the neighborhood when it was painfully clear that nobody knew anything about the African-American families who lived there. I was drawn to do this story because I knew there had to be more to it. I wanted to give this community a voice.

Darnell Myers embraces his pit bull in the park at Grant Wood Elementary School near where he lives with his mom and siblings. Myers said there were no grass fields like this where he lived in Chicago. He and his family moved to Iowa City nearly a decade ago, following other family members who had been displaced after the Robert Taylor Homes housing project was torn down on the south side of Chicago. His mother Charlene said the wait for Section 8 housing in Chicago was so long that by the time she would have received the funding many of children would have left home and needed the housing for their own families.

As a product of the Iowa City schools, how have things changed since you attended high school? Historically, Iowa has been predominately white. Iowa City, arguably the most liberal town in Iowa, has always prided itself on being a diverse and educated community because of the University of Iowa. But there seems to be a double standard: It’s acceptable to be a person of color if your parents are professors at the university, but if your parents work at Oral-B while going to community college and caring for five of your siblings at the same time, it’s completely different. I think it is a constant struggle to make ourselves aware of those stereotypes and to challenge the way we think about how we define our community. As a whole, the school populations are much more diverse now than when I was in school. I remember high school as a place with a lot of racial tension. There were a couple fights that got really serious. I’ve heard from students that those racial tensions are still present despite the growing diversity.

Rachel Sullivan dishes up dinner for her friends before prom. Her family moved to Iowa City from Gary, Ind., after her brother was hit by a car and died. The family hasn't fully recovered from the tragedy and strained relations have led Rachel to move out early. She lives with the family of a white classmate but goes to visit her parents and other siblings regularly.

Most of your images take place outside the classroom and yet this is an important education story. Why did you make the choice to focus more on the kids’ lives outside of school? Was it an access issue? I focused on the kids because they are out in the community the most. They are often the ones who bear the burden of stereotypes. Access at the schools was an issue and it seemed that a lot is going on outside the school. Life outside of school is a little more intimate and more interesting. It is about education but it is also about family.

What have you learned? How has this project affected you? I’ve just been surprised in the process of telling this story how a group of people can be represented one way and it may not really be how things are. Cultural differences between defined communities are often misread by those who aren’t a part of them. I can’t really put into words how I’ve changed. I guess I try to be open to everything and everyone. You never know a person by how they look and I think this work is proof of that. Photographer Ed Kashi said to me the other day, “Keep an open heart and open mind.” I think that is very true in this profession. People are surprising. They surprise me, all the time.

Arthur “LeShawn“ McGee meets the horse he will be learning to ride at Centaur Stables.

This is a real fish out of water story perfectly illustrated by the horse photo. How did you make the photo? What were you thinking? I was trying to illustrate the transition from urban culture to rural landscape in this project. The photo with Arthur and the horse is one of the more successful attempts at doing that. The program was called Urban Dreams and it was geared toward disadvantaged youth in the juvenile system. The goal was to teach kids how to take care of and ride horses at a local stable. This was the first time Arthur met the horse he was going to learn to ride. Unfortunately, the program fizzled out after a few weeks. It lost funding and there were no rides for the kids from their homes to the stables.

What do you want people to take away from your story? I’d like people to look at the project and be able to identify with the people and the families in the pictures. I think there are universal struggles that families deal with. I want the community to feel like they’ve been represented accurately and fairly, too.

Originally from Iowa City, Iowa, Rachel Mummey was recently awarded the 65th College Photographer of the Year from the University of Missouri. She has spent the last two years working toward a master’s in photography from Ohio University. Her work has also been recognized by the Pictures of the Year International competition and featured in Photo District News, News Photographer, and The New York Times Lens blog. She is currently based in Washington, D.C., while completing an internship with National Geographic.

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A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.


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