In 1908, on a triangular plot between Walnut and Lime, a church was raised in Waterloo, Iowa. It has stood on that corner for over one hundred years, a community hub for generations to come. Known as Walnut Street Baptist Church to some, and Faith Temple Baptist Church to others, the space is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.
It lasted the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, Black activists marching in their sharp Sunday Best. The relationship between activism, faith and purpose like a three-strand cord. It lived through wars and pain and progress. When the building was deemed unsafe in 2009, its doors were closed for ten years.
Last year, Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity bought the church, in hopes of preserving it for the Walnut Neighborhood Housing Coalition. A vital part of Waterloo’s history, the community has high hopes for the revitalization of the building and its potential.
On Sunday, September 27th, Uprising Magazine’s Editorial Director Melina Gotera sat down with community leader Joy Briscoe and five of her peers. Through policy, advocacy, mentorship and the arts, these Black leaders are doing the work to improve their city, state, and country. But–they can’t do it alone.
The former Faith Temple has special meaning for several of these folks. Briscoe’s grandfather was a deacon at the church, while Ras Smith’s mother, Pastor Belinda Creighton-Smith, was ordained and ministered there. We gathered in the old church for photographs and conversation to explore the intersections of faith, leadership, activism and style in their work and lives.
Like this old church, our circumstances may, at times, feel unsalvageable or irreparable. However, when we all show up and do our share of the work, that necessary change has a fighting chance.
Felicia D Smith-Nalls, JD
Waterloo Neighborhood Services Coordinator
Organizer of North End Culture and Arts Center
2020 Economic Inclusion Conference Moderator
20 under 40 Winner, 2016
BRISCOE: What have you been working on lately?
SMITH-NALLS: Really trying to keep people engaged in the arts and making sure the community weathers through this. I think this is the time we can truly show our sincere charity and loving nature for each other. I’m really trying to push forward in neighborhood services to let us see that instead of separate neighborhoods, we’re all one city. I’m trying to make sure that the arts don’t die in this vacuum that COVID has created. That’s my biggest push right now.
BRISCOE: So what keeps you going?
SMITH-NALLS: Because I understand that purpose is tied to a bigger whole. Part of my purpose is helping other people fulfill theirs. And I truly believe in the sense of tithing, but not just in the monetary sense. We have a tendency to look at our tithe as a financial offering when it’s much bigger than that. It’s a spiritual offering, an offering of time. It’s an offering of your resources and your skill set. So I feel like in order to honor the blessings that I've been given, I have to share them. And I’ve got little ones and I want them to live in a place that’s awesome. That’s what keeps me going.
BRISCOE: What role does dress play in your work and identity? How has that evolved over the years?
SMITH-NALLS: My mother always had a professional job so she dressed professionally. And I loved what my mother looked like. I idolized her for real, like on a real level.
BRISCOE: Because she’s dope.
SMITH-NALLS: She is! So when I was young, my friends now always say, “You dressed like an adult!” I was the only person under probably 32 that was wearing Casual Corner clothes. I would go in there and be like, “Ooh a two-piece set... Yes!” And all my friends were in jeans. I didn’t even buy a pair of jeans until I worked at The Buckle in college. So I’ve always been an older dresser.
I sing jazz and big band, so I’m very into the 30s, 40s, 50s style. I always feel like the time that I wanted to live in would’ve been the worst time for me. I wanted to be in the Cotton Club days when you dressed up to go to dinner. Or you dressed up to fly! I’m still one of those people, I’m sharp every time. It sets your tone.
Fashion for me has been timeless. After I had my first baby, I was like, “I earned my big Easter hat.” Because I went to a church where Easter hats were everything. And baby, after I had James, my hat was almost 27 inches around! I had a hat to end all hats. My hat was here for that work. So I feel like you dress for yourself.
BRISCOE: What does Sunday Best, this church and this neighborhood mean to you?
SMITH-NALLS: I’m a daughter of Waterloo. I’ve had several friends get married in this church. I sang in this church. Sunday Best to me, is a representation of how seriously we took church. It wasn’t a normal day. It wasn’t a weekday. It was somethin special. Something that we held in reverence. Getting dressed in your Sunday clothes signified how we felt God thought we were so special. So we were gonna put on our best and be our best selves to thank him and worship him on that day.
GOTERA: What are your thoughts on activists wearing their Sunday Best in civil rights era protest?
SMITH-NALLS: It’s a sad irony. It’s sad to have to do it in protest in order to be seen, to say, “No, I am equal.” Even going back to slavery days, what Sunday Best meant. Back in the day, you would get your hair pressed on Sunday to look more presentable. Because at that time, the way our hair grows naturally out of our heads wasn’t presentable to white culture. And we wanted to emulate the picture of success.
It’s a sad irony that a group of people would think that their clothing would make them worthy, when their mere existence wasn’t. You know what I mean? Like, maybe if I’m dressed up, I can be equal. Maybe if I'm dressed up and I look presentable, this might make me safer. This might make my children safer. Maybe we can sit at that counter. Maybe we can just make it home! So it’s just a sad irony that something as material (no pun intended) as clothes was an attempt to humanize themselves for another group of people.
GOTERA: The University of Northern Iowa is a Predominantly White Institution with 85% white population. What can white students do to get involved and be a part of the community?
SMITH-NALLS: I went to Wartburg and they were a PRWI. A Predominantly Really White Institution. And the most important thing is to step out of your comfort zone. One of the biggest privileges that white people have is the ability to stay in their comfort zone. Because their comfort zone is everywhere! You have to seek out those diverse experiences because they’re not going to fall into your lap. It’s not right in front of you, that’s why it’s a minority experience.
People sometimes think that the work of diversity just happens. Like a Disney movie. Like somebody waves their wand and everyone’s a different color and we all get along. No, this is work! This is work. One of the biggest privileges that white people have is the ability to stay in their comfort zone because it’s everywhere. Get out of your comfort zone and seek out those experiences, because they’re not going to fall into your lap.
I went to a powwow and as a Black person it blew my mind. This is their native land and I had to seek out the experience. And when I was in it, the culture and listening to their stories was amazing. The lady we were with said, “Every male in my bloodline has danced on this ground. This pow wow ground wasn’t constructed, it’s been pounded. So when my son dances here, every person that has shared his bloodline, for as long as we go back, has been there.” And I remember being jealous! I was jealous because I don’t have that connection to the land. So when I stepped out of my box, I was amazed.
You gotta seek that out and you gotta be intentional. A lot of people with good intentions aren’t intentional in seeking out new experiences. Ask yourself, “What can we do tonight that’s different? And even though I may be the only white person there, I'm still gonna go because I want the experience.” You have to have a hunger for it and people need to change their appetites.
BRISCOE: So what’s next for Felicia Smith-Nalls?
SMITH-NALLS: My album! The Virtual North End, with artists from all different genres. They’ll be aired on Fridays starting the second week of October. Coming up next, we have the 2020 Cedar Valley Economic Inclusion Conference. That is one of the most important, most necessary things at this time. We’ve got National Night Out and some innovative neighborhood activities that will tie together all of our communities. I just feel like this is a great time to be in Waterloo. I’m actually seeing people doing the work to make this a better place to live.
State Representative for House District 62
Owner/Operator of Rise Advocacy Services
20 under 40 Winner, 2017
BRISCOE: What have you been working on lately?
SMITH: Lots of good trouble, honestly. Preparing to go back to session. Currently working on the presidential campaign, which is a daunting task. But I feel like a lot of it is just making sure we keep people encouraged for the change that’s necessary. This election is like the first step. And it doesn’t get easier after this, it gets harder after this.
We passed some historic legislation with our Plan for a More Perfect Union last year. We made good gains, but we were fixing something that was broken for a long time. We banned chokeholds in the state of Iowa, gave the attorney general the ability to investigate police involved shootings and now, if you’ve been decertified for serious misconduct, you can’t be hired in the state of Iowa. We passed it one hundred fifty to zero in the Republican House Senate and the Governor came and signed it that very day. It was the first time in history that the Governor’s been in the chamber while we’re passing legislation. So we’re trying to make tangible police reforms that actually move the needle forward in changing how the system works.
BRISCOE: So with the work you’re doing, what keeps you going?
SMITH: Part of it is the fear of if I were to stop, what that would look like for my daughters, for my family? Everybody has to show up. If we don’t, we’re one person short. And one person short means that we don’t make the change we need.
BRISCOE: What role does dress play in your work and identity? How has that evolved over the years?
SMITH: Oh my goodness. When I first came to the capitol, I left my desk to meet the lobbyists and they wouldn’t let me back in. I was wearing a blazer, khakis, shirt and tie. They asked me who I worked for and when I said I was a Representative, they didn’t believe me. They asked me which Representative I worked for. I said, “No, I am the Representative. That’s my desk.”
Dressing the part in my line of work is important. I try to stay suited and booted as often as I can -- me, my old vintage briefcase and my dad’s old coat. There’s only five Black people in the whole capitol. So for any of us to not be on our square is a disservice to all. That’s part of it. And right, wrong or indifferent, that’s the reality.
BRISCOE: So what does this church and this neighborhood mean to you, Ras?
SMITH: Everything. I grew up here, in this building. We’re standing in my mom’s office right now. And this used to be the office of Dr. Reverend Eugene H. Williams before he passed. He was one of the first mentors I ever really had. I didn’t really know what that meant as a young kid. But I remember he had a candy dish about right here. This was full of books. After church, my cousins and I would finish with prayer, run downstairs and it was royal rumble. My dad would come down the stairs and yell at us to stop running around. 2009 was the last year we were here. My wife and I wanted to get married here but we couldn’t because the building wasn’t safe anymore. I remember my wife had planned her wedding dress to walk down the middle aisle and up the pulpit.
It holds a really dear place. It’s where my mom was ordained as a minister. It’s where I used to wear dashikis* all the time. This is my family’s hub, Faith Temple. There was a point where our membership was one hundred fifty and everybody was a cousin or aunt, a brother or sister. It’s historic. It’s bittersweet for me to be in this place right now. Because I remember what it looked like when I was a kid and that's not what it is now, obviously. I’m walking down the stairs, saying, “Watch y’all head”. The muscle memory is in it. It’s in my DNA. It’s where my faith tradition started, here in this building.
BRISCOE: What’s next for you?
SMITH: Doing whatever I’m called to do to make things better for the people that surround me. We all have to be better than we’ve ever been before. It’s a constant personal reflection and battle every single day. It’s not always comfortable and it damn sure ain’t easy. It’s cost me my hairline. I thought that really mattered, and now I could care less because I know where it’s gone and why. I know the work I've been putting in.
As a young Black man in this community, the most blessed burden that you can ever carry, is leading your community forward and doing all you can. And for me, that’s what leadership is about.
*A dashiki is a colorful garment worn by women and men, originating from West Africa. Dashiki shirts are worn in African American culture to celebrate Black heritage and pride.
Nia “ShinDigg” Wilder
Community Engagement Advocate
Be Light Brand Founder
20 under 40 Winner, 2020
BRISCOE: What has Nia Wilder been working on lately?
WILDER: I've been mentoring adults. I just recently did a class on the importance of a positive attitude, focusing on their inner happiness and then projecting that out into the world. So, just showing people the best version of yourself. We all have our down days, but everybody doesn’t deserve to see us at our worst.
BRISCOE: In doing that work, what keeps you going, what keeps you motivated?
WILDER: What keeps me motivated is my faith and my purpose. I still have a lot of times where I feel discouraged but they don't usually last long. Because I understand that my purpose is a lot greater than the trials and tribulations that I've faced. My family and my partner support me a lot as well.
BRISCOE: What role does style play in your work and identity?
WILDER: So for me, appearance is everything. I have to make sure that I'm representing my family, my brand, my purpose and myself in a fashionable, yet tasteful way. So dressing and getting put together is everything for me.
BRISCOE: And has your style evolved over the years?
WILDER: My style has drastically evolved over the years. Before I stepped into my purpose, I kinda just wore whatever. But now that I'm getting involved with different individuals, and entering the room and tables with different people, I have to dress for the occasion. So you gotta dress for brunch, you gotta dress for meetings, you gotta dress for chill time. You gotta have a switch-up for every different mode that you put yourself in. I would describe my style as vintage hip-hop. Goodwill is my favorite store. I shop at Goodwill for everything.
BRISCOE: So when you think about this shoot and it’s your Sunday Best, what does that mean to you?
WILDER: For me, when I hear Sunday Best, I think that’s how you would look if you were to go before God. Like, get dressed, clean up, look nice, smell good, go like you were going in to see someone that is very important. Sunday Best is just getting ready for the big question.
BRISCOE: And hope he says, “Yeah,” right?
BRISCOE: So what do these neighborhoods mean to you?
WILDER: To me, the neighborhoods in Waterloo mean strength. Resilience. Tenacity. The people inside the homes, outside the homes, they deal with a lot. So when I ride by Waterloo, I feel like people on the East side have got to have strength, to endure what they go through to even get ahead.
BRISCOE: And what’s next for ShinDigg?
WILDER: I think just grounding myself and putting more focus into the business. And making sure that I am fully giving my community the best I have.
GOTERA: What’s your hope for your community?
WILDER: That they can just walk in light and walk in love. My hope for the community is that everyone will learn to love themselves a little bit more, put out a little bit more light.
District Representative for Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer
Former Field Organizer for Cory Booker
20 under 40 Winner, 2020
BRISCOE: What have you been working on lately?
STEVENSON: In my job, my role is on the official side now, so I can actually help people, rather than painting a picture of what a particular candidate would do. I’m helping people obtain social security, passports, and stimulus checks. I worked on Plan for a More Perfect Union with Ras and another friend. He ran with it. Went down there and said, “This is what we want and we’re not budging on it.” I think that’s the greatest accomplishment I've had in my professional life.
I’m also pushing for quality, affordable housing. Median income isn’t very high here and there are a lot of hard-working poor people. People are filing complaints to get things fixed, but Waterloo doesn’t have any regulations or restrictions on landlords. Slumlords don’t have an issue putting people out of homes, but they’re not held accountable for those homes. Housing is a necessity. We’re not asking for low-income housing, we’re asking for quality housing. There’s a difference but the narrative kinda turns people off.
BRISCOE: What keeps you going? What drives you?
STEVENSON: Man! Just helping people. I was just raised in a belief that you help those that you can. I know a lot of people might not understand how the political process affects them. But it’s important to bring people into the decisions that affect their everyday life. Meeting resistance really motivates me too. If I meet resistance, I just work harder.
BRISCOE: So when you think about all that, what role does dress play in your work and identity, in who you are?
STEVENSON: I’ve always been into clothes and dressing. The last campaign I was on, they called me the “best dressed political”. So that is funny that y’all asked that. My mom and her friends always told me, when you look good you feel good. Especially in this line of work, you gotta have that confidence, that aura that you ready for whatever’s gonna come. Fashion is important to me. I don't really believe in identity politics, but I think there’s a certain way that you can present yourself and your appearance that has an effect on people.
BRISCOE: When you think about this church and this neighborhood, what does that mean to you?
STEVENSON: I think this is a beautiful place, the woodwork, the history behind it. Ras said there was only one other church built like this in the country that burned down. This was his mother’s church. I know there’s other places that wouldn’t even allow women in the pulpit, so that’s historical. Women are allowed to lead here and she was one of the first. She was with my aunt, a group of them that were trailblazers. They didn’t allow no structured organization or no men tell them what they could or couldn’t do. So I think that’s dope.
BRISCOE: What's next for Ryan Stevenson?
STEVENSON: Make it through these next thirty days, probably start volunteering more. The way this election turns out will tell us a lot about the direction the country’s gonna go in. Just the difference in getting back to some sense of stability or complete chaos. The things that we see, how imperfect the democracy is. There are some basic things that we’re risking losing. It’s getting real.
BRISCOE: What is your life mantra?
STEVENSON: The work I do is much bigger than me. After that, work hard and play harder. You gotta work hard, you gotta make some sacrifices. But you also gotta live. You can’t be just caught up, ‘cause then your whole life will go by. What memories will you have?
BRISCOE: Yeah, I'm at the point where there's all this urgency, we gotta push. That way if the window tries to shut, we’ve broken off the hinges. We gotta catch that opportunity. But let me just take a moment to reflect on the work everyone’s doing. As a community we’ve done some amazing things. And even if it hasn’t manifested to the level of progress we wanna be at, we’re making strides.
STEVENSON: Yeah, take time to celebrate! But it’s hard to do when that opportunity is so fertile. That window don’t open too often. So when it do, like you said, we gotta knock if off the hinges. They ain’t gonna be just closing it, you’re gonna have to repair this thing.
Joyce Levingston, MA
Director of the Momentum Program
Founder of Cedar Valley’s Little Free Pantries
20 under 40 Winner, 2020
Doctoral Student in Allied Health, Recreation and Community Services
BRISCOE: Tell us what you’ve been working on lately.
LEVINGSTON: After organizing a protest for George Floyd that brought out over one thousand community members, I've been working on bringing peace and unity to our community, having peace walks and peaceful protests. I’m working with a group called Engage on actionable outcomes for different social justice areas. I’m the director of the Momentum program, which helps folks gain sustainable employment and overcome life’s barriers. And I’m a doctoral student at UNI.
GOTERA: What is your dissertation on?
LEVINGSTON: For the last four or five years, I've had a strong focus on food insecurity. I created the Cedar Valley’s Little Free Pantries, where people can donate or get food from. So for my dissertation, I’m looking at Waterloo schools and the before and after variables of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
BRISCOE: So what keeps you motivated?
LEVINGSTON: My friends are all like mentors to me— Joy, Felicia, Sharina, Ras, Ryan, and Nia. I trust them and we know each other’s strong points. I have a lot of hopes and dreams and they pull me up and show me how to get there. There are a lot of people in the community doing work who are so encouraging to me. There’s Belinda Creighton-Smith, Vikki Brown, Rhonda McRina, Teresa Culpepper, Abraham Funchess, Mike Robinson, and Gina and Angela Weekley. They’re spiritual and you need that first in life.
GOTERA: Critical Race Theory* is under attack right now. Why is it vital?
LEVINGSTON: It’s absolutely imperative that people have a strong hold on Critical Race Theory. White folks created what we teach in the classroom, what’s seen as credible data, even what’s published. With Critical Race Theory, we can tell our lived experiences to disrupt those hegemonies and dismantle White Supremacy.
When white folks say, “This is a good neighborhood, that doesn’t happen here,” people of color should be able to say, “That wasn’t my experience.” We have to share those lived experiences because we all have them. We’ve been to the doctor, in pain and they don’t believe us or think we’re seeking drugs. We tell our kids to be quiet when they play outside so we don’t draw attention to ourselves.
In Iowa, Black girls are arrested nine times higher than their white counterparts. You can’t tell me that little Black girls are just bad at school and little white girls just know how to behave. A lot of those Black girls come from strong, two-parent households with faith, ethics, values, morals.
The racial trauma that happens in this area is often ignored and that needs to be explored. Critical Race Theory will bring that to the forefront, while taking a look at all the systems and how we can dismantle them. We need to understand what has been taught to us and where that came from. We weren’t seated at that table.
GOTERA: Another important thing to touch on, especially with you growing up in Cedar Falls, raising your kids in Cedar Falls, and being a UNI student, is white privilege.
LEVINGSTON: The White Privilege Conferences is how I am where I am today. I had never seen that many Black people in Cedar Falls on the same day. The whole Schindler Education Center was full. But what was more important to me was that on the agenda, there were over 20 Black people that had their PhDs. And I was like, “Oh, well Imma get my PhD because I didn’t know we could do that.”
And that really opened my eyes to white privilege. I grew up in Cedar Falls so most of my friends were white, but they were really bringing a lot of racial trauma to me that I didn’t know about. My friends could hang out with me all day at school but I was never invited to parties or sleepovers. I just had a lot of real instances happen.
I’ve been at UNI for eight years straight, sitting in a classroom dealing with -- I don’t even call it microaggressions anymore, I just call it what it is. It’s racial abuse. Sitting in a classroom like that for 8 years, day after day. I used to have the worst anxiety from just having to go. I could never be unprepared. If I was quiet one day, they’d ask what’s wrong or if I spoke up about something, then I'm the angry Black woman. Sometimes I would have to speak up for our whole entire race. They don’t understand the racial trauma that we go through. And then, you have one Diversity Inclusion Chief Officer for one thousand Black students. Like the weight that she would have to carry. And how much help would we really even get, seeking that out?
UNI likes to smooth things over so they don’t get in trouble, but they also like to tokenize us. They like to get a story from us but then they whitewash it. They even use us to recruit other Black students like, “Joyce Levingston is doing all this great stuff in the community through UNI.” I didn't keep going forward or get to where I'm at because of UNI. I got to where I’m at because I need to get there. Because I have a goal of getting out of poverty for my children.
I've had a really good professor, Dr. David Hernandez-Saca, who’s taking on White Supremacy with me on campus and in the community. The past few years have been better because of that, but I don’t know if I would’ve made it through my doctorate without that.
BRISCOE: You’re doing so much work. What keeps you motivated?
LEVINGSTON: As long as White Supremacy exists, Imma be out here working.
*Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a theoretical framework that examines how our current systems of power (law, education, housing, health, justice...) were and are affected by racial bias. On September 4th, the Trump administration ordered a cease and desist on all Federal agency trainings that relate to CRT, acknowledge system racism, or mention “white privilege”.
How to Start “The Work”
Listen and Learn
21-Day Racial Equity Building Habit Challenge
“For 21 days, do one action to further your understanding of power, privilege, supremacy, oppression, and equity.”
The 1619 Project
“An audio series on how slavery has transformed America.” Written by New York Times journalist, Hannah Nikole-Jones, who grew up in Waterloo.
Volunteer, Donate, Intern, Experience
ONE CITY’s Momentum Program
“Connecting people to resources and services, equipping individuals who need a second chance and restoring community. “
“Activating the next generation of diverse leaders in tech, business, entrepreneurship and the public sector.”
The 2020 Virtual Cedar Valley Fashion, Art and Culture Expo
November 27th, 2020
“Ignite the spirit of African American culture in the heart of the Cedar Valley.”
24/7 Black Leadership Advancement Consortium
“Navigational Development & Networking for Black Professionals & Businesses in the Cedar Valley”
“Critical Race Theory.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Oct. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_race_theory.
Curry, Tommy. Critical Race Theory. 28 May 2020, www.britannica.com/topic/critical-race-theory.
Friedman, Vanessa. “The Dress Codes of the Uprising.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/16/fashion/the-dress-codes-of-the-uprising.html.
Jamison, Tim. “Neighborhood Plans to Save Historic Walnut Street Baptist Church.” Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, 27 Nov. 2019, wcfcourier.com/news/local/neighborhood-plans-to-save-historic-walnut-street-baptist-church/article_b5cf1e32-a518-5b5d-88fa-4c391ea956e2.html.
United States. Office of Management and Budget. MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES. Executive Office of the President. 4 Sept. 2020.
Words / Melina Gotera and Joy Briscoe
Photography / Isaac Hackman