Iowa community organizer Chelsea Chism-Vargas: Actions big and small can make a difference
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This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
When Chelsea Chism-Vargas announced last summer that she would run for a seat on the Des Moines City Council, she knew there would be barriers.
A first-time candidate, Chism-Vargas had limited name recognition and funds compared to the incumbent seeking reelection for Ward 4 on the city’s southeast side.
Chism-Vargas jumped in the race, in part, to challenge those expectations. Born and raised on the south side of Des Moines, she had long wanted the City Council to better address issues like expanding affordable housing, growing economic opportunities and improving infrastructure, including more sidewalks and bus stops.
"These issues are critical. They're not being talked about," Chism-Vargas said about her thinking. "We're going to do this."
Chism-Vargas, 28, ultimately lost the three-candidate race on Nov. 5. But the ripple effect of her candidacy — she is one of only a few Latinos to ever seek a seat on the City Council — is still taking shape. She is one of the Des Moines Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2020.
"She's so young and she's got so much to accomplish," said Monica Reyes, a community organizer who co-founded the immigrant advocacy group, DREAM Iowa. "I think that race was a clear example of the power that she holds."
Community organizing at a young age
Chism-Vargas said she was taught about the importance of community organizing at a young age. She remembers her family, including her Peruvian mother, bringing her to local rallies to advocate for such issues as racial justice and immigrant rights.
"It's what fueled my framework for everything," Chism-Vargas said of that early organizing, which she describes as "people power."
Chism-Vargas graduated from Dowling Catholic High School and attended Kirkwood Community College. She transferred to Naropa University, a liberal arts college in Colorado, where she briefly focused on religious studies and women’s and gender studies.
At the university, Chism-Vargas said she got more involved in organizing. She led a protest against what she described as institutionalized racism. She later traveled to the southern U.S. border and Mexico to provide humanitarian aid to migrants.
When Chism-Vargas returned to Iowa in 2015, she worked at Wells Fargo as a research and remediation representative. Despite the focus of her job, she helped lead diversity and inclusion efforts at the company.
In 2018, she became an Iowa outreach coordinator for NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organization that supports reproductive health issues including abortion access. That work sometimes took her to the state Capitol to track related legislation. Chism-Vargas is now an advocacy manager for Planned Parenthood of the North Central States in Iowa.
While her organizing has centered around women's rights and sexual reproductive health, she is a member of several local organizations that work on issues like changing the criminal justice system, immigration rights and civil liberties.
“Her community involvement is definitely rooted in a really deep sense of caring and compassion,” said Chelsea Lepley, who helped lead Chism-Vargas’ campaign.
Encouragement to run for office
In the fall of 2018, Chism-Vargas began thinking seriously about running for City Council.
She had been in the midst of starting several leadership training opportunities. She is a recent graduate of the New Leaders Council of Des Moines, a nonprofit that trains self-described “young progressives.” She is also a graduate of the Front Line Leaders Academy, a national political leadership organization.
But it was Chism-Vargas' peers, particularly the women in her life, who encouraged her to run.
Chism-Vargas said some of the strong female leaders in her community would make excellent candidates themselves, but they are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The future of the Obama-era program that provided temporary legal protection to immigrants brought to the United States as children is unclear.
"We also need to realize there's political systems keeping us out of institutionalized power," Chism-Vargas said.
There was immediate enthusiasm for her candidacy. The Asian & Latino Coalition endorsed her. Several other groups, including Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Central Iowa chapter of the Democratic Socialists, jumped on board. Chism-Vargas had been a longtime member of those groups.
"Leadership should come from the community," she said. "They should come from already having been organized, and knowing what the community is organizing around."
Some community leaders, according to Chism-Vargas, privately encouraged her to raise at least $50,000 for her campaign. A 2017 City Council race for a different council seat topped more than $300,000 in fundraising.
Chism-Vargas said she thought of all the ways that money could be used for the community. She wanted to run her campaign on a smaller budget.
“If I was to stick with that kind of status quo, no one in my community is ever going to run,” she said. “I just wanted to challenge that idea.”
Some of Chism-Vargas' volunteers had never worked on a campaign before. Others weren't initially interested in getting involved in politics, but they believed in the candidate and the issues she was advocating.
When volunteers gathered for door-knocking shifts in the ward, Chism-Vargas would take extra care ahead of canvassing to explain how to approach residents. Afterward, her mother would bring Peruvian food to the volunteers.
“She would make sure to keep everybody really rooted in the fact that these are real people who she feels close to,” Lepley said of Chism-Vargas. “And I think that that is a level of emotional commitment to social justice that a lot of people ... don't necessarily always have. She’s very much about the quality of people’s lives in a real, day-to-day way.”
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The next big thing
Chism-Vargas is still figuring out what comes next.
She is training to become a doula to help women during and after childbirth. Chism-Vargas wants to start an organization focused on reproductive health and "reproductive justice,” though those plans may still be a few years away.
“That’s really big for me: Supporting women in our own bodies,” she said.
Several people have encouraged her to run again for office. Chism-Vargas said she is open to it, but she has no immediate plans.
Heather Jones, who served as Chism-Vargas' campaign treasurer, said Chism-Vargas inspires people to get involved in their community.
“It is very evident, very very quickly, that she cares about the community and genuinely cares and wants the community to be better,” Jones said.
Chism-Vargas would have been the first Latino on the council had she been elected. She doesn't focus on that label, though she understands why others do. There have been concerted efforts in recent years to get more Latinos in Iowa to run for local and state races.
Chism-Vargas' candidacy caught the attention of Democratic presidential candidates and other high-profile politicians. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont both endorsed Chism-Vargas. When U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited Des Moines to campaign for Sanders, she met with Chism-Vargas and other community leaders. Chism-Vargas has been thinking about what Ocasio-Cortez told the group in Iowa.
“She was talking about how ... now is the time to really be brave politically,” Chism-Vargas said of Ocasio Cortez. "That just really meant a lot to me. I think it's really important to be authentic and to be ourselves."
Chism-Vargas wants others to get involved in their community, and it doesn't have to involve running for office. She thinks actions big and small help power the kind of organizing that creates change.
“You as an individual have so much power,” Chism-Vargas said.
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.
Get to know Chelsea Chism-Vargas
- BORN: Des Moines
- RESIDENCE: Des Moines
- EDUCATION: Dowling Catholic High School, Kirkwood Community College, Naropa University
- OCCUPATION: Advocacy manager at Planned Parenthood of the North Central States
- CLAIM TO FAME: She is one of only a few Latinos to ever seek office for the Des Moines City Council
- TITLES or POSITIONS of NOTE: New Leaders Council alumni; Front Line Leaders Academy alumni; former participant of the Latina Leadership Initiative
- FAMILY: partner; mother; two sisters; large extended family; pug named Jumanji
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