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Grasping the Roots: Community Engagement at Work

Skylor Andrews | 12.6.17

I sat down with Briana Gipson, a junior majoring in Economics and African American Studies, to discuss her presentation at the inaugural Iowa Civic Action Academy. Held by the Iowa Campus Compact in Des Moines, Iowa on November 3rd and 4th, this conference focused on professional development for students interested in community and civic engagement. Sessions touched on topics such as philanthropy, service-learning, nonprofit leadership, dialogue, and advocacy. In its first year, the conference brought students and professionals alike to share ideas and strategies as well as network with others committed to community engagement.

Briana Gipson, an accomplished student leader who serves as Parliamentarian of the newest sorority on campus Zeta Phi Beta, presented her own session entitled “Grasp the Roots: Using Community Development to Create Just Cities”. Her presentation used the Des Moines chapter of the Black Panther Party as an example of effective grassroots organization and community building. One of only two chapters founded by a black woman, the Des Moines Black Panthers garnered some dissatisfaction from the national organization for their atypical methodology, which prioritized the local community as a means of making change. This apparently stood in contrast to the national organization, which emphasized fundraising and care for members jailed across the country in response to their protest efforts. According to Gipson, this difference ultimately led to a split so the DMBPP could continue to focus solely on their local community where considerable strides had already been made.

When asked why the DMBPP drew her attention, Gipson stated that the local-oriented mission of the Party and their commitment to grassroots political organizing was inspiring. She came across the DMBPP through a research program at the University of Iowa this last summer, but her interest in Black community organizing started long before in one of Gipson’s courses at Coe in African-American Studies. It was there that she discovered the self-liberation of slaves in pre-Civil War America. The history of free Blacks led right into the founding of the Black Panther Party, and the rest is, well, history. There are many ways to make a difference and to Gipson, and the DMBPP, big change comes from the local level first.

Using this sentiment as her guide, Gipson led the conference attendees in a community development workshop. Attendees were tasked with the goal of creating a community-owned, community-controlled program. The one criterion: advocate for something you are passionate about. Ideas reportedly varied widely, from issues of race to animal welfare. The Office of Community Engagement’s own Ariel Thompson was at the workshop and developed an idea for a program with animals on Coe’s campus, entitled P.A.W.S. Gipson was quick to remark she was excited that fellow Kohawks were taking the lesson to heart and bringing what they learned back to Coe.

Speaking about her experience as a presenter, Gipson said she felt nervous and somewhat shocked at her achievement, in spite of the nerves. Working through that anxiety allowed her to find self-confidence. “We are powerful people,” Gipson stated, speaking of underrepresented populations. “You are a powerful human being.”

With that offering of strength, Gipson encouraged interested students to go after their big ideas. She suggested looking into summer research opportunities, particularly at Big Ten universities. Emphatic about her experience at the University of Iowa, Gipson said students should go for opportunities like that because they are life-changing. Students concerned about the costs should look into GSEF (Graduate School Exploration Fellowship) through the ACM, departmental scholarships, and outside grants that are awarded to underrepresented identities, including first-generation college students. Of course, students could also apply to participate in next year’s Iowa Civic Action Academy. More information can be found here.

Gipson’s last word of advice to students interested in community building and grassroots organizing? “Be ambitious and don’t take no for an answer.”

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