Updated: Oct 31, 2019
In 2006, Frederick Newell moved from Chicago to attend the University of Iowa. He was 18 years old and had a six-month-old baby. As a single dad, he found little support—like access to affordable daycare—in his new city, and remembers bringing his son to class with him. He also found a severe lack of community between other fathers. He earned a social work degree in four years while raising his son with little social support. This combined with his professional experience working in a social service culture that prioritizes the needs of women and children while often failing to foster father involvement sparked the beginnings of a somewhat dangerous idea: What if it’s the social infrastructure for fathers, and not the fathers themselves, that is the problem?
Inspired by his guiding question, in May 2012, Newell founded the Dream Center in a house across from Grant Wood Elementary School. The Dream Center’s core mission is to strengthen families by mentoring fathers and young men. With services such as the Fatherhood Academy, Dads Making a Difference and the Youth Leadership Academy, the Center is a budding one-stop shop where fathers and families are connected to educational advocacy, support groups, therapy, social services and spiritual resources.
A Dangerous Idea
In October 2012, Newell met Luke Benson, who was inspired by the work Newell was doing with young men and fathers in the community. At the time, Benson was teaching introductory writing courses at Kirkwood. The previous year, Benson had his students read In Defense of Dangerous Ideas, an essay by Steven Pinker that poses the value of considering ‘dangerous ideas’–ideas that can be unpleasant to think about because they challenge the social order or a society’s most profound convictions about itself. Later, when seven of his nine students of color failed to turn in a major paper assignment, Benson returned to the text he had once assigned to his students and asked himself a dangerous question: “Is cultural bias operating in my classroom?”
Benson, a whiteboy who grew up on a farm in a 400-person town in northwest Iowa, says, “I thought I understood race.” Yet faced with a glaring fact—that all of his white students but only two of his minority students were passing his course—Benson says, “I underestimated how real systemic issues are. I underestimated my privilege.”
Though from different backgrounds, Newell and Benson, who serves as the program director of the Dream Center’s Learning Center, base their work together on mutual respect and a willingness to explore dangerous ideas. Teaching in Cedar Rapids and trying to get Kirkwood to fund an intensive summer program for students on academic probation led Benson to the conclusion that equity in education can only be achieved, racial and economic divides can only be bridged and schools can only be transformed through grassroots educational reform, community activism and involvement in advocacy and mentorship. “Education is broken,” said Benson, “As a community, change must come from us.”
Growing a Dream
Together, Newell and Benson are working to grow the Dream Center through a community-based fundraising initiative they call Dollar a Day (DAD). With access to the greater corridor area, and the potential to reach donors throughout the rest of Iowa, Benson believes getting 1,000 people to commit to donating one dollar a day is possible and will create a stable funding base for salaries and programming.
The Inspireads program is another growth initiative that, in partnership with Prairie Lights and the National Council of Teachers of English, calls for individuals to write a personal inscription inside a book that inspired them and donate it to create a library at the Dream Center.
Newell’s vision for the growth of the Dream Center extends beyond Iowa City, providing support groups and advocacy throughout the state in less than five years.
But, in order for the Dream Center to succeed in reaching its advocacy goals within Iowa City, Newell says it may mean first crossing the boundaries of the greater community’s comfort zones and engaging more people in conversations about dangerous ideas. Newell says that he can’t advocate for fathers and young men, parents and students, without being vocal about the racial divide in Iowa City, the differential access to resources that effect the greater community and, most importantly, the lack of motivation from Iowa Citians to develop an inclusive community in its schools, local governing bodies and neighborhoods. Newell says, “We need community support to be able to speak against entrenched institutional power … I’m just struck by how little it would take to make a big difference and how much people fight change.” The effects of these issues contribute to what Benson describes as perhaps the most dangerous idea of all, “learning to recognize and reconcile the fact that there are really two Iowa Citys.”
While Newell and Benson acknowledge that change can be slow, they know they are already making an impact through the Center’s work with young people. Charles Johnson, a 14-year-old South East Junior High student, says he appreciates the tutoring and loves the Dream Team basketball program. He says, “Playing [basketball] is a big help. A lot of people from school play. You have to have a 3.0 GPA to be on the team.”
Johnson also participates in The Chosen Generation, a youth development program that offers mentoring, volunteer activities and a critical discussions of issues that affect the lives and potentials of the next generation of grown ups. Johnson remembers one moment during a poignant discussion that addressed the politics of law enforcement and incarceration, as well as the disparity between the black population living in Iowa City and the City’s incarcerated black population. As the conversation shifted to the economics of filling jail cells and the profits made by a network of interests—from construction companies to businesses that provide services such as healthcare, food or clothing—he looked around, counted all his peers in TCG and thought, that’d be like a million dollars of profit lost if all of us in this room stay out of jail.
With the Dream Center, Newell and Benson want to foster those kinds of moments of self-realization—moments of dream formation—by providing a space where youth can share ideas and experiences with engaged adults. They hope the Dream Center will grow to become an institution that helps Iowa City have the courage to explore and confront dangerous ideas, fosters cross-racial community building and continues to work toward building social and political structures that benefit ALL Iowa Citians.
Editor’s Note: When this article was originally published it incorrectly stated that Luke Benson had taught Steven Pinker’s essay In Defense of Dangerous Ideas during the same semester when he met Frederick Newell; which in fact happened the year prior to Benson and Newell’s meeting. In the digital version, we have made appropriate changes to accurately reflect the sequence of events.
Raquel Baker is a graduate student at the University of Iowa, studying Postcolonial Studies and African Literatures in English.