January 10, 2024
Governor Robert D. Ray speaks at a celebration of World Refugee Day in 2003. Photo Source: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo
By: Macey Shofroth
While growing up in rural Iowa, I developed a pretty narrow perspective of the state and the people who lived here.
I would walk through the halls of my school and see people I had gone to kindergarten with, people who looked just like me, participated in the same summer activities as me, rode their bikes down the same streets as me. Nearly all of us were of some denomination of Christianity, we mostly grew up in middle class families, and differences were rarely encouraged or celebrated.
“Iowa Nice” was the reigning ethos in my small Iowa town. We’d give you the two-finger wave as we drove past, or we’d help you carry your groceries to your car. But that was often as far as the gestures went, especially when welcoming new people to our community who were different from the rest of us. If you tried to introduce new cultural traditions or asked for more consideration for those outside of the status quo, the answer was almost always no.
This upbringing cemented in my head this idea of Iowa being unwelcoming. I focused on our stark lack of diversity instead of the diverse communities that already lived here. I believed most people held politics that were abhorrent to me, that they’d approach change with a hateful heart, and that Iowans were never going to develop more inclusive behaviors. My lack of knowledge led me to misunderstand Iowa’s capacity to grow into the welcoming home we all desire.
It wasn’t until I began working at CultureALL in January 2023 that I learned that I was not looking at the full picture of Iowa. I had never been introduced to key moments in our history where we welcomed newcomers with open arms and believed Iowa was a place for everyone.
In the spring of 2023, CultureALL’s Executive Director, Sherry Gupta, connected me with Stephanie Moris. Stephanie is Director of the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa (RACI), which supports refugees by providing access to services, resources, and programs that will assure they are able to resettle and establish themselves in central Iowa.
Stephanie was in the midst of planning Des Moines’ World Refugee Day event, which celebrates and honors the experiences of refugees who have settled in Iowa. I served on the PR committee, so I spoke with Stephanie to write a story about the event.
As I listened, I started to see how I had misunderstood my home state. What I didn’t realize was that Iowa has long been home to people from all around the world. These new Iowans just lived where I didn’t. My lack of knowledge was simply a visibility problem.
Stephanie explained to me how refugees had survived wars and natural disasters, fleeing their homes, leaving behind everything familiar to wait for years in crowded and dangerous refugee camps. She talked about the anti-immigration and anti-refugee legislation enacted in the last ten years that made these experiences even more difficult.
That’s when Stephanie mentioned a name I had never heard before: Governor Robert D. Ray.
Governor Ray served as Iowa’s governor from 1969 to 1983. A Des Moines native, the Republican governor left behind a legacy of humanitarianism and support for civil rights. He enacted the first legislation in the United States that protected Native American burial grounds and established the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women.
His work to welcome refugees to Iowa may be his most impactful contribution to our state.
Stephanie told me the story of how Governor Ray developed Iowa into a leader in refugee resettlement after the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s, Governor Ray urged the U.S. State Department to increase the limits on how many refugees a state could resettle. His work allowed nearly 1,400 Tai Dam—a distinct ethnic group originating from Vietnam—to settle as a group in Iowa.
In 1979, he observed a documentary that showed refugees from Vietnam fleeing in a boat that fell apart in the water. He immediately knew Iowans had a moral obligation to help. He went to the federal government and said these refugees could resettle in Iowa.
Stephanie explained Governor Ray’s point of view:
“He said over and over that if we have the ability to help the most vulnerable in the world, then that’s what we were going to do.”
As Stephanie shared this Iowa history with me, I reflected on the assumptions and biases I’d long held about the place I grew up.
I had believed for so long that Iowans were cold to newcomers when in reality, we had a proud history as a leader in humanitarian efforts, ensuring refugees have what they need to remake a safe home here.
This misguided belief was not without cause. My entire life, I’d heard calls from Iowa leaders to close down our borders and send Iowa troops to Texas to stop migration. I’d heard about banning travel from Muslim-populated nations and witnessed politicians legitimizing white supremacist ideals.
But now, knowing that a beloved Republican governor turned my home state into a world-class leader, I had a much clearer understanding of our history and the potential in our future.
I was curious if other Iowans had more or less knowledge about Robert Ray and his legacy in Iowa. I conducted an informal research process (which means I texted the various group chats I’m in with different friends and family members) and asked 63 people if they had ever heard of Robert Ray or why he was important in Iowa history.
Overall, I received a pretty resounding “No.” My brother-in-law, Kevin, learned who he was when he lived in Des Moines’ East Village and came upon the half-mile street named Robert D. Ray Drive. My mom recognized his name after she Googled him. My best friend’s mom, Jackie, knew he was a former Iowa governor but didn’t know why he was important. My dad knew him first by his support of Iowa newspapers before mentioning his refugee work. (My family has been involved with the Monticello newspaper since my grandpa began working there in 1956, and my dad was president of the Iowa Newspaper Foundation). A friend of mine had learned about Governor Ray’s legacy through his dad.
I may have been uninformed, but I am not naive. I know that despite Gov. Ray’s humanitarian work, Iowa has always contended with xenophobic, racist, and oppressive attitudes. One friend told me that as a child growing up in the Midwest at the end of the Vietnam War, she witnessed “awful and racist behavior” towards refugees at her school. I know that we still contend with these problems today.
But as a young professional in my 20s who knows Iowans are capable of doing a lot of good, I feel cheated. I wasn’t taught about strong leaders like Gov. Ray, and because of that, I lacked a nuanced understanding of our collective strength to be better neighbors than we were yesterday.
Gov. Ray’s decisive, proactive, and compassionate leadership could serve as inspiration for every Iowan. Then, we might be more united across our state, able to envision possibilities for more inclusive policies around immigration, refugee resettlement, and other issues facing minoritized communities. Employers might combine efforts to attract new Iowans to live and work in our rural communities. And we might collectively learn what it takes to provide a supportive, comfortable environment for newcomers to thrive.
And every young Iowan could know that the way we did things yesterday does not have to be the way we do things tomorrow.
Creating an inclusive community like Governor Ray is possible for us all. Email CultureALL DEI Planning at Insight@CultureALL.org to learn how you can develop the skills necessary to navigate differences.