The University of Iowa

Advancing Economic Inclusion and Black Entrepreneurship in Iowa City

Raina Harmon
Academic Year 
2020-2021
College/Department 
Planning & Public Affairs
Project Partner 

Courses from two University of Iowa departments - the Department of Theatre Arts and The School of Planning & Public Affairs - merged to explore the role of arts & culture in community and economic development, with a focus on economic inclusion and Black advancement in Iowa City.  

Through innovative and interdisciplinary collaboration, two courses from different departments - Community Development through Creative Placemaking in the School of Planning & Public Affairs and Art for the Public Good in the Department of Theatre Arts - merged into one, bringing together students in the arts, humanities, social sciences, engineering, and more. Both courses are designed to include a community-based project, and through this collaboration students were able to have an enriched experiential-learning opportunity while also providing a service to the community.

This collaboration was initiated, in part, in response to the message behind the new Oracles of Iowa City mural installation, declaring that "a mural is not enough to combat systemic racism in Iowa City".  The themes of economic inclusion and Black advancement steered the project toward storytelling - gathering and documenting in a public way the stories of local Black business owners.

Loosely following the Community Heart & Soul framework for community visioning, common themes emerging from these stories could illuminate opportunities to support businesses in the future and to inform artists and public art works. Based on what was learned through this project, an artist-designed resource intended to celebrate and promote local Black-owned businesses is being developed.

Fourteen Black entrepreneurs and community leaders generously donated their time to the project, despite the logistical challenges created by the COVID pandemic. The conversations focused on their personal journeys, which vary immensely in many ways, but also speak to common threads of self-determination, hard work, big dreams, and a passion for what they each do.

The project team analyzed these stories for elements that contributed to success, resources that the entrepreneurs would have found helpful as they first got started, and ideas for what could grow Black businesses and entrepreneurship into the future.

Students proposed a project oriented toward maps, ultimately proposing a Story Map to project partners.  In addition to a digital map element, Story Maps also include the various elements that comprise a story—photographs, text, audio, and even video.  The resulting Story Map - Grow Black Owned - includes a directory of local Black-owned businesses as well as featured profiles (interview summaries, photos, and audion clips) of the storytellers.  The Story Map also includes a discussion about the themes that emerged from the collection of entrepreneurial stories.