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Kameron Middlebrooks, 30, is working to improve the economic stability of black Iowans. He's also the next president of the Des Moines NAACP branch. Zachary Boyden-Holmes, DesMoines

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Kameron Middlebrooks knows that lifting up Des Moines' black community won't happen overnight. 

But that's not going to stop his work helping Africans and African-Americans become small-business owners.

Or his advocating for equality as the next president of Des Moines' chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Or his coordinating of six groups working to address disparities of black central Iowans in areas of housing, employment, education, health, small business and financial stability.

Change may be slow, but the 30-year-old knows the path to equality is forged one strike at a time.

"You're never gonna tear the wall down with one strike," Middlebrooks said. "It takes small wins after small wins."

For those reasons, Middlebrooks has been chosen as one of the Des Moines Register's 15 People to Watch in 2019.

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Middlebrooks was born in Atlanta but moved to Des Moines at a young age. Save for a few years playing football at the University of South Dakota and Iowa Western, he's made his home on Des Moines' northeast side.

"Kam is one of those people in the community who will always be dedicated to making Des Moines better," said Heather Jones, a fellow NAACP member. "Kam is kind, motivated, giving and helpful. And he's dedicated to this community."

Middlebrooks started advocating for Des Moines' black community at an early age. A friend asked him to join Des Moines' NAACP Youth Council when he was a junior at Roosevelt High School. At 17 years old, he managed to squeeze in the commitment between football, basketball and track practices.  

He quickly became the treasurer of the local branch, and at 19 began serving as a youth representative to the NAACP National Board of Directors. Five years later, he became the youngest person to serve as the Midwest regional field director for the NAACP.

As regional director, he organized a voter registration campaign that registered more than 15,000 people of color across the Midwest, he said.

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"Somebody saw it in me before I saw it in myself," Middlebrooks said. "I just stuck with it and it's been a passion of mine. My mom always taught me, 'Do for others that you would want them to do for you.'

"And you look at history, you look at our city, there's some real deep-seated issues, systematic issues that have not been solved."

The disparity among black people and white people in Polk County is laid out in a One Economy report released in 2017. The study, completed for The Directors Council, a group of community nonprofit leaders that serve Des Moines neighborhoods, describes a "tale of two cities" in which a racial gap persists in education, employment, finances, business ownership, housing, leadership, health, criminal justice and other areas.

More: Report: Structural racism evident in Polk County

For example:

  • The median household income for black families in Polk County is $26,725, compared to $59,844 for white families.
  • About 24 percent of black Polk County residents don't have a traditional checking or savings account — compared to just 4.5 percent statewide.
  • The unemployment rate for black Polk County residents is 16.7 percent, which is higher than African-Americans statewide average of 14.8 percent. 
  • And only 3.6 percent of black Polk County households have self-employment income, versus 9.4 percent of white Polk County households. 

Middlebrooks is organizing six working groups that have identified areas in the One Economy report that they'd like to change. They will be actively working on those changes in 2019. 

More: Read about other People to Watch

But he's also moving the needle in his job as the minority business coordinator for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. He coaches Africans and African-Americans who are interested in becoming small-business owners. They work together to draft business plans and get connected to financial resources. 

Because many black Iowans are unbanked or under-banked, it can be difficult for them to get a small-business loan, Middlebrooks said. And, because the rate of black Polk County residents who are small-business owners is so low, many African-Americans don't have access to the same resources and networks — their "social capital" — as other groups, he said.

Middlebrooks hosts a small-business boot camp two to three times a year at the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families. Participants are taught the office-type skills needed to run a business, like time management, accounting, marketing and lease negotiation. 

James Neely, who owns Bottle & Bottega with his wife, Bridget Cravens-Neely, took the business boot camp prior to opening the franchise in downtown Des Moines.

"The boot camp was very helpful in uncovering things I could be better at," he said, adding he's already referred three others to take the class. "(Kameron has) been a real good advocate for our business." 

There are other issues unique to the black community that — as the incoming president of the NAACP Des Moines branch — Middlebrooks hopes to tackle. Things like the high incarceration rate among black Iowans or the lack of representation on  on school boards and city councils. He's also pushing for a statewide anti-racial profiling law. 

It will be the first change in leadership for the local NAACP in eight years. Outgoing president Arnold Woods, 70, said he's eager to have a young face lead the organization, because, historically, it's been young people who have had led civil rights progress.  (Woods was 13 when he joined the NAACP.)

"It's hard for a 70-year-old to influence younger people," Woods said. "(Kameron) has fresh ideas, fresh connections. It's time for a new direction."

About 'People to Watch'

The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2019" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 6. To read about past People to Watch, visit desmoinesregister.com/peopletowatch.

Kameron Middlebrooks

BORN: Atlanta

RESIDENCE: Des Moines

EDUCATION: Roosevelt High School; continuing education at the University of South Dakota and Iowa Western

OCCUPATION: Minority business coordinator at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

TITLES OF NOTE: President, NAACP Des Moines; chair, Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission; board member, the Willkie House Inc.; board member, Metro Youth Athletics; work group facilitator, One Economy

FAMILY: Mother, Kimberly Middlebrooks; son, Kameron; daughter, Samia

More People to Watch:

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