A little over two weeks ago, Iola was host to a Black Lives Matter Solidarity rally, joining over 2,000 communities nationwide that have rallied to stand against racism.
The marches and protests continue, as the recent death of Rayshard Brooks, who was shot to death by a police officer outside an Atlanta Wendy’s on June 12, and the commemoration last Friday of Juneteenth, which celebrates Black emancipation, keep our national conversation fixated on racism and injustice.
America has seen its share of outrage sparked by the unjust death of African Americans. This time, though, it feels different. Large numbers of white Americans have participated in events where their presence has, in the past, been secondary. The crowds now marching across the country reveal a rainbow of skin colors. And while the outcomes secured by this multiracial coalition are still to be determined, its very existence is notable, and for some, signs of hope for a moment of national reckoning.
Daniel and Nicole Schowengerdt of Iola have joined the cause, taking an increasingly active role in fighting for racial justice. Over the past month, they’ve attended several marches, created an online petition that has amassed signatures from 28 states and had several tough, honest conversations with friends and family. In short, they’ve become activists.
Both Daniel and Nicole point to their childhoods in Kansas City as the root of their activism. For Daniel, it was when he was 8 years old. He had some Black friends over at his house. Friends of Daniel’s brother arrived, and when they saw Daniel’s friends, they took Daniel to the basement, sat him down on a couch and explained to him, using a racial slur, that he couldn’t hang out with Black kids.
The subsequent pain and anger are seared into Daniel’s memory.
“I started crying,” he recalls. “My sister comforted me, then my dad. But the crying only lasted about five minutes. Then, the anger at the unfairness and the desire to do something about it began. And that’s part of why I became an attorney. I wanted to be able to do something about it, and I knew that I had to be trained.”
NICOLE’S first experiences with race also came at an early age. Her parents told her that her brown skin meant she was more likely than a white person to be accused of shoplifting. Their advice: always, always keep your receipt.
“I had experiences growing up with racism and things said to me,” says Nicole. Usually more of a quiet person who does everything possible to avoid conflict, the death of George Floyd instilled in her a new urgency to speak out. “It hasn’t been until recent times that it’s given me an empowering feeling. When I have said something, it’s given me the confidence to move forward and say more when injustices occur.”
The Schowengerdts’ energy to engage in tough conversations extends to their two children, Noah, 13, and Bella, 11.
Nicole expands, saying, “We do a lot of explaining to our kids. It’s an open discussion on all topics. We’ve built that for them — it’s not strange for them to have a full-on discussion about George Floyd.”
Daniel agrees, saying they don’t shy away from tough topics. “I think kids can handle more than we give them credit for,” he says. Don’t the kids get tired of all the talking? Daniel laughs, saying, “They give us the ‘I don’t want another lecture’ about a lot of things. This is not one of them.”
He continues, “The topic hits home for them. Nicole’s grandma came to the USA from Mexico on her dad’s shoulders. They have family members of color they can see.”
And while both Daniel and Nicole work to make sure the focus remains on the Black community at the moment, they hope their children understand the value of their own heritage.
The couple has been intentional about presenting their kids to a variety of cultures. Daniel says, “From a young age, kids need to be exposed and have a face so that they can see humanity. Children have a big sense of fairness.”
When the kids were younger, that translated to trips to Kansas City, where they’d often attend storytime at libraries in communities of color, or even visits to Chanute’s annual Mexican Fiesta.
The family has lived in Iola for 10 years, and they cherish the tight community and circle of friends they’ve developed. Yet both also feel an obligation to help their children appreciate the diversity other environments offer. “We want to protect our children from the evil of this world,” Daniel says. “But that doesn’t mean putting them in a bubble where they don’t know these things exist.”
He continues, “People say it starts within your own home, and that’s true. But I’m also hearing that it ends there. But I think there’s so much more.”
Key to Daniel and Nicole’s growth as activists has been the concept of moving from neutrality to action, from saying “I’m not racist” to working actively to end racial injustice.
It’s not enough, they believe, to pretend to not see color. Daniel explains, “The opposite of being racist is actually being anti-racist. That’s being intentional about combating racism.”
Not everyone is going to go to a march, he stresses, not everyone will sign a petition. “But we can all talk to our community members.”
For Daniel and Nicole, being neutral or staying silent in situations where they can make serious social changes isn’t enough. “I don’t want to take from Black voices right now, but I feel the need to speak out,” Daniel says.
“Neutrality leads to our heads being stuck in the sand,” he remarks. “My push now is to be anti-racist, not to just be in that neutrality.”
When asked to describe the last month, both Daniel and Nicole pause to find the right words. It’s been exhausting, enraging, inspiring and hopeful all at once. They spent their 15th wedding anniversary in Kansas City attending a march for racial justice. Upon learning Iola would host a rally, Daniel says he was “bursting with pride” for his community. Nicole says, “I was excited and proud. My parents came down. Without a question, my whole family was happy to be there.”
In Daniel and Nicole’s eyes, the present moment offers a real chance to make a difference in our country. They see no reason why we shouldn’t seize it. Daniel describes it this way: “There’s a train driving me right now that cannot stop. I’ve only felt this way once before in my life.”
He jokes with Nicole about it, but he’s already given her instructions for his tombstone. Emblazoned across it, he wants written: “If not me, then who?”
He explains, “I’m certainly not the authority on this issue. The more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know. But I feel an obligation to try.”