Kendyl Larson: Learning from historic housing discrimination helps communities do better
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
A key player behind the thought-provoking and important sharing of redlining in Des Moines is Kendyl Larson, Director of Research and Planning for PCHTF. Kendyl and her partner will be moving to the Twin Cities soon, so we captured some discussion highlights about the Undesign the Redline exhibit and the current Redlining in DSM online platform and personal insights before she leaves.
Q: Your college degrees include a focus on history, social justice, and equity planning, any connection to that leading to the Undesign the Redline exhibit in Des Moines?
KENDYL: It was a total coincidence. Eric and the PCHTF team had already been in discussions with an organization named “Designing the WE” to display their national exhibit during the 2019 Affordable Housing Week and collaborate on a localized exhibit. In fact, talk about a coincidence, in 2019, I was still in school finishing a project called “The Legacy of Redlining and Segregation in Des Moines” as PCHTF’s plans were underway to share the history of housing inequity and related discriminatory policies. So clearly, the topic is near and dear to my heart.
Q: Speaking of timing, the exhibit was intended to be an in-person experience for about a year, and the pandemic hit just 3-4 months after it was open. What were those opening months like?
KENDYL: When we had groups coming through in-person, January through early March 2020, the level of interest and enlightenment was fantastic. All who passed through were shocked about the history of redlining and systemic discrimination in their community. So much of people’s knowledge about these practices were focused on large cities with large nonwhite populations. This shouldn’t have been surprising from a research standpoint because it’s not taught in schools, but the look of shock on peoples’ faces as they connected the dots of past policies and how they shaped our community and continue to impact lives was something I’ll never forget.
Q: I know some other Redlining exhibits across the country shut down because of the pandemic. What about Des Moines?
KENDYL: We focused on what we could do rather than what we couldn’t. As you’ll recall, everyone quickly learned to use platforms such as Zoom, Teams, Facebook Live, etc. The only questions for us were if we provided the tours virtually, would people sign up, and would the experience be as impactful. The answer to both questions was YES. In fact, we had around 1,200 residents experience the in-person tour. The virtual events reached as many as 3,000 and included more groups from companies, community organizations, and schools, rather than small teams and individuals. We also created content and repackaged it for others in our community who shared our mission on this front. For example, the United Way of Central Iowa’s 21-Day Equity Challenge designated day seven as housing and redlining.
Q: What is available today?
KENDYL: We created a 5-part video series covering everything from the basics of redlining and how to read a redlining map to the history of Des Moines and the State of Iowa regarding race and housing policies and where we go from here. We also created the website redliningdsm.com as a place for people to access everything — the history, maps, local stories, reading lists, resources, and of course, the 5-part series and other local videos such as the history of jazz on Center Street, the Gray brothers’ story and audio interviews with current residents.
Q: Of those stories you collected from our community, are there any that especially stood out?
KENDYL: Bobbretta Brewton’s family’s story and the impact on her as a child stands out because of what it demonstrates. She was about 10 years old when Interstate 235 was moved, and it cut through her neighborhood. They were forced to leave their home and move into a smaller house farther east. This led to riding a bus and changing schools where she and the other Crocker Elementary students were put in special education classes because it was assumed they couldn’t read. She shared how her parents had no idea and only became aware when the school called to say she was “disrupting the teacher” because she kept getting out of her seat to help the other kids. How eye-opening. Take that, all of the other families and business owners displaced, and no doubt generations continue to live with the effects.
Housing is holistic. Its impact is broad, deep, and more than if you simply do or do not have it.
Q: It seems like there are many reasons to be frustrated or even angry given the policies and related systemic racism of the past that continues today. As a facilitator, how did you manage?
KENDYL: I think it’s okay to be angry. However, what I saw and heard more was frustration and disbelief; those whose families were directly impacted, those who had no awareness and were shocked by what happened. Whatever skin color or experience, there was often a shared question, ‘With all we know, why don’t we do better and demand better?’.
Learning the actual history and what our government initially intended to accomplish is a great way to diffuse some anger. With perfect hindsight, we can see both the unintended and intended consequences of the housing acts and policies and how they enabled and even encouraged community planners, lenders, and realtors to discriminate against nonwhites, particularly African Americans.
Q: Greatest hopes or last words?
KENDYL: As you know, I love history and think it plays a significant role in seeking actionable change. So this experience of getting that message across through tours, virtual sessions, media interviews, and online resource listings has been incredible. In addition, it has allowed me to start asking the tougher questions for the future. In short, now that we know all of this, how do we move forward? How do we mitigate the past, have conversations with people who may be different from ourselves, and create a future where local history, social justice, and equity are a standard part of community planning and decision making?
That’s my greatest hope. It really could be as simple as that — for local history, social justice, and equity to be at the heart of every community planning and policy discussion.
Q: Do you think the Des Moines region can get there?
KENDYL: Given the level of engagement I’ve seen and discussions I’ve heard, there is undeniable support for creating a more equitable future for everyone who lives here. It feels like there’s been a shift. A good shift. So, to answer the question, yes, I believe that if there was a collective commitment, Des Moines and the entire region would be the place that could create a future of equity, inclusion, and housing justice for all.