My American Journey: Lessons from Middle America

After completing our meetings in the nation’s capital, the IVLP trip continued to Des Moines, Iowa.

In addition to introducing the group to the Midwest, the goal of the visit was for us to gain an understanding of protecting human rights at the municipal level, with a focus on minority groups.

Despite the fact that Des Moines is relatively an homogeneous city, it still addresses a number of civil rights challenges at the local level.

We began our meetings in Des Moines with the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on providing services to refugees. According to USCRI, one of the main challenges for refugees is the psychological impact of relocating to a foreign country. The organization discussed how they cooperate with the US State Department, the State of Iowa, and a broad coalition of NGOs and community leaders in their work. This broad coalition and significant support was particularly notable, considering that the refugee community in Des Moines numbers at just about 650 refugees per year. I particularly appreciated their closing remarks,  an expression often forgot by many self-serving organizations, that “we working on the hearts and minds of people.”

We also met with a group that works to aid victims of domestic violence – the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV). ICADV receives the majority of its funding from federal grants. The organization spoke about how it needed to adjust its original services in order to accommodate victims residing in rural areas. ICADV accomplished this task by working with local groups and creating a “Mobile Service Delivery” in these areas.

We then met with a small group, One Iowa, which is working on addressing challenges within the LGBT community.

Disability Rights IOWA is a federally-funded NGO that works on the legal rights of people with disabilities. The NGO is part of the national Disability Rights organization, which has branches in all 51 states and six territories. After presenting their activities, they raised two interesting points:  Emmanuel Smith, an advocate for the NGO, suggested that his disability defines his cultural identity and experience, which brought the group back to the discussion on intersectionality. The second issue, was the rights of prisoners with disabilities in the American prison system. The United States has the largest amount of prisoners per capita (724 people for 100,000) compared to every other country in the world. Staff Attorney Whitney Driscoll specifically works on advocating for prisoners with disabilities in Iowa’s prison system and investigating if the prisoners are provided with their needed adjusted facilities and services.

During our conversation we discussed the strides Israel takes to address disability rights, and the challenges Israeli society faces in improving care for individuals with disabilities such as post-army PTSD and Down’s syndrome.

One of the most valuable meetings during our time in Iowa was with the Des Moines Police Department. After a short tour of the S.W.A.T. team headquarters, we met with the unit in charge of community outreach, “Neighborhood Based Service Delivery.” The unit serves as the link between the police and the civilians, specifically focusing on outreach to minority communities. Each of these communities is assigned a police officer, who is familiar with the local culture, language, and specific details in order to perform his/her job. Unlike in Israel, and mainly because the police structure in the US is decentralized, the police officers view themselves firstly as  civil servants and secondly as law enforcers. During our meeting, we learned about the methods they use in engaging with the communities in order to prevent violence and enforce the law. One of my fellow participants raised the issue of under-policing in the Israeli-Arab society, the lack of trust between the Arab community and the police, and the recent efforts by the government and the police chief of staff to solve these issues.

We also spent time volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, an NGO that helps individuals with a  low socio-economic status obtain affordable housing. Our group volunteered in Habitat for Humanity’s store, “Re-Store,” which accepts donated construction material and re-sells them at affordable prices.

By this point in my journey I have begun to take a particular interest in two main areas: the management of local NGOs and the partnership of NGOs with other like-minded groups and government frameworks.

Our next stop is Salt Lake City, Utah.

To be continued…

About the Author
Itai Reuveni is director of the Israel desk at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.
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