‘Blood, sweat and tears’: UNI student helps lead the charge for racial equality

The first time Joyce Levingston watched the video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the mother of four said her heart “shattered.”

Seeing Floyd on the ground, crying out for his mother brought back all the battles she’s fought for her own children - how, as a single, Black mother, she’s sometimes felt overwhelmed fighting her own battles against racism in America.

“It reminded me just how heavy that weight is and how much we try to fight for our children,” said Levingston, 33, who is pursuing her doctorate in education in Allied Health, Recreation and Community Services at the University of Northern Iowa.

Her own experiences overcoming poverty, food insecurity and racism as a child growing up in Cedar Falls became a catalyst for Levington’s life and career. She has not only developed programs to combat hunger in the Cedar Valley but organized demonstrations to advocate for police reform - all while raising her four children and earning a doctorate degree. 

“We all have to work together to make sure that there is that awareness of what is happening to our African Americans in the United States and the whole world,” she said. “This has been going on for way too long.” 

Her sadness at Floyd’s death soon became anger. And Levingston knew she needed to do something.

“I was so angry that people don’t have any problems abusing their power, and there was nothing that those who were watching could do to intervene,” she  said. “That’s just not OK. We have to really start calling things out at its roots..” 

So, Levingston, inspired by protesting with the Black Lives Matters movement in Minneapolis for three days following the death of Philando Castile, helped organize one of the larger protests in downtown Waterloo in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

On May 29, more than 500 protestors led by Levingston marched through downtown Waterloo and across the 6th Street Bridge. The march finished in Lincoln Park, where newly hired Waterloo Police Chief Joel Ftizgerald spoke with community leaders.

“It was overwhelming to see, but I was glad everyone came out. I was at the very front of the march. I remember turning around and looking behind me and thinking, ‘Wow, this community really cares,’” Levingston said. “We all came together and stood united. We all yelled ‘Black lives matter.’ We all yelled ‘no justice, no peace.’ We were all angry, we were all hurt and mourning together. Just because it was a peaceful protest, doesn’t mean we were quiet.”

For those on campus who knew Levingston, her ascension to a leadership role in the community was no surprise. 

“Joyce has become very knowledgeable about critical race theory, examining systemic racism,” said Julianne Gassman, a UNI professor and director of the Office of Community Engagement who is serving on the chair of Levingston’s doctoral dissertation. “Her experiences with racism personally, and with her children, layered with a level of expertise has created a platform for her to take action, challenge systems that inherently advantage white people, and make our community and the world equitable.” 

Levingston credits UNI with giving her the foundation she has used to create successful programs in the community aimed at providing families and youths with food assistance and crisis resources. Her passion for this work rose from a lifetime of experience with systemic racism.

Growing up, her family was on housing assistance and food stamps, while her mother worked full-time. Oftentimes, food was scarce.

“When I was a little girl, I would try to eat from outside as much as possible,” Levingston said. “I could tell you where all the apple and pear trees were, where the mulberry trees and raspberry bushes were, or the garden that was OK to get rhubarb from and the house that grew strawberries that let us get them. I could show you all those places because that was how I survived.”

Her most reliable meal of the day was from school. But, as a Black girl at a predominately white institution, that was also where she said she experienced daily racism and microaggressions.

“Students would comment about my hair or place their arm next to mine and say that we were similar in color even though they were white and I was black,” Levingston said. “I also had classmates that were scared of me just because I was black. They were able to hang out with me at school, but would never include me in anything after school, no parties, going to the mall or those types of activities.”

She dropped out of school at 15, had her first child and the first of what she said were many instances of being violently mistreated by police. 

These experiences are always in the background as she sees police violence against the black community continue.

“I’m always fearful, but, over time, the police killing black people has been normalized. Now, you hear about it and it’s like ‘oh darn.’ And the media portrays it as our fault, like we should just comply,” Levingston said. “If you make one small movement, then you’re resisting and things escalate very quickly when a police officer feels like they are threatened. And for us, just the color of our skin makes them feel threatened.”

As she got older and continued to learn more about Black history and systemic racism, she started to frame her experiences with the pervasive issues of race in the country.

“I started realizing what had happened to me in my life, and I didn’t even know that all this oppression was going on in our school system and our healthcare system and the corrections department,” Levingston said. “I didn’t understand why these things were happening, and I just thought that it was how it was and blacks were less than.”

Levingston is now a community leader and racial equality advocate, both in UNI classrooms and beyond. Her dissertation focuses on food insecurity in Waterloo schools, and she has used her experience growing up food insecure to start a project to address these issues, Cedar Valley’s Little Free Pantries. The pantries are small boxes at several locations throughout Waterloo where people can either take or donate food.

At UNI, she is a vocal presence on campus when it comes to calling out racism and inequality.

Kristina Kofoot completed her Master’s degree with Levingston and also worked with her while Levingston was a graduate assistant at the Office of Community Engagement, where Kofoot is now a program coordinator.

“She is not afraid to share her opinions in an effort to help educate those around her,” Kofoot said. “She brings her unique perspective as an individual of color who grew up in the Cedar Valley into conversations. She is never afraid to call out acts of racism, prejudice and bias. She is willing to fight for her children's rights as well as for the rights of everyone she knows. I know that I've personally grown from having her as a colleague and friend. She helps provide a different perspective on issues and everyday experiences.”

The path hasn’t been easy for Levingston. She is balancing her work as a doctoral student and community organizer with her responsibilities as a mother of four. But she said the struggle is worth it if it means creating a better community for her children.

“It’s all worth it. The stress, the blood sweat and tears,” Levingston said. “The example I’m setting for my children and others who look like me and came from where I come from can not be made up. I see it in my children everyday how my actions impact their lives and decisions. Others know they can call on me, and I’ll be there. I follow my spirit and do what I am called to do.”