DSM BLM activist, Iowa House District 36 candidate, wants to bring 'voice of the people in the streets inside' Iowa Capitol

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Get to know Iowa’s Black candidates. Black Iowa News interviewed Jaylen Cavil, who is running as a Democrat in Iowa House District 36, which includes diverse neighborhoods south of I-235, parts of downtown and south of Grand Avenue. Cavil, who gained prominence as an activist with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement after the murder of George Floyd, said the district is often historically thought of “as a really wealthy and white district,” and some neighborhoods fit that designation.

But he said other neighborhoods “aren’t represented” and are “ignored” by other candidates like the Oakridge Neighborhood, a nonprofit housing and human services agency that began in the late 1960s at a time when the historic Center Street, a booming Black business district, was being dismantled “purposefully” to make way for I-235 construction. Racial justice issues drive Cavil, who studied journalism and political science and graduated from the University of Kansas.

“I’m running because I want to represent and fight for the most marginalized people in our community,’ he said. “You know, for Black people, for people of color, for immigrants, low-income folks, disabled people, LGBTQ Iowans, and I want to run and fight for those people.”

Cavil will face five democratic opponents in the June 7 primary.

Black Iowa News: What motivated you to run for office?

Jaylen Cavil: “I’ve been really involved in the community for the past few years through a lot of like community organizing and activism that I’ve done, and I think that real dedication for me to be full-time involved in advocating for the Black community really occurred from the murder of George Floyd. That’s kind of the catalyst that got me into organizing with Des Moines BLM and to really start advocating for change up at the Capitol through grassroots movements and organizing.

I saw the success that we had through our organizing at the State Capitol when we had a mass movement of people who were up there demanding change, and they were demanding that the state take action on racial justice, and we saw how the state was able to pass legislation — like the plan for a more perfect union. They were able to sign an executive order to reinstate voting rights. And I think that seeing those wins come from a mass movement of people and come from organizing that I helped to lead really helped inspire me to want to push further and run for office myself and be someone who can be both on the ground protesting and organizing with the people, but also in the Capitol drafting legislation, voting on legislation and bringing that voice of the people in the streets inside of the Capitol so that it cannot be denied.

And we must be listened to because I will have a seat up there. And I’ll have the same amount of power as every other representative who’s been elected by their constituents. And so, I’m really inspired to take this movement that we have here in Des Moines that we have been building and that has gotten the wins and to continue building and continue winning and building more power for our movement. And I see that, to me, winning this race and getting into the Statehouse.”

Black Iowa News: What difference do you hope to make once you’re elected?

Jaylen Cavil: “I hope to make a lot of differences. There’s so many problems here in our state. There are so many issues that folks are dealing with every single day that absolutely needs to be addressed with urgency. And so I hope to bring back urgency to the office as well. I’m someone who is always going to be grounded and stay true to the movement I come from and the people who I’m supposed to be representing. And I think I’ll be a completely different kind of legislator than anyone else who is elected in office right now. Because I do have those like organizing roots. And I’m not running because I want to get power for myself or because I want to be an elected official or a politician, I’m running because I want this movement to continue getting power and continue to win.

So you know, the difference I hope to make once elected is I hope to shift a lot of the conversations that are being heard. I come at these issues from a much different lived experience than a lot of these other elected officials do. I have a much different perspective on how these issues should be handled in our state that aligns really closely with how a lot of people in our state feel and they’re just not being represented. Their voices are not being amplified up at the Statehouse. So I hope to amplify those voices and really shift some of these conversations right now.

Because you know, right now we see Democrats and Republicans both basically trying to outflank each other on the right and show that they both love cops and jails and prisons more than the other one does. And I don’t think that’s right. I think that if Democrats want to say that they, you know, stand with Black people, they want to represent Black people and fight for racial justice, then I don’t think that they should be up there, calling for more funding for police.

And so I want to call that out. You know, I’m not someone to be bound by party loyalty. And once I’m up at the Capitol, I’m just going to be bound to the people so I hope that my election, me being elected, can really shift a lot of the conversations and a lot of the way that these issues are being handled in Iowa politics. I think people need to wake up and realize that there are a ton of really engaged young progressive people and Black people and people of color in this state who know what they need and are demanding what they need, and they’re not being listened to.”

Black Iowa News: Are there issues that you’re more passionate about?

Jaylen Cavil: “There’s so many issues. I can run down a list of probably 100 things that are wrong in the state that we need to fix. But when it comes to my campaign, I’m really rooted in racial justice. My three key issues: racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice. We have to we have to fix these issues in our state first before we can really start addressing anything else.”

Black Iowa News: How do you distinguish yourself amongst the 5 other candidates? What differentiates you from them?

Jaylen Cavil: “I’m, you know, by far the youngest candidate in the race. I’m 25 years old. I think I’m the only member of the Gen Z generation, which I think brings a different perspective than other candidates do. I’m the only Black candidate in the race which obviously brings a different perspective than other candidates do. I am definitely the least wealthy candidate in the race. I don’t have a lot of money. The only jobs I’ve ever really worked have been in the nonprofit world or working on campaigns and just organizing in my community.

But I think the thing that really sets me apart from all the other candidates in the race, is that I have been in the community doing this work and fighting on these issues every single day for years now. I’m not someone who’s coming at this new. I’m not someone who is running just because I want to be an elected official and like, this seems like an opportunity to get in this open seat. I’m someone who has been doing the work, who has been organizing alongside our most marginalized community members in our state and advocating for their needs with them for multiple years now.

And I think that experience and the work that I have done sets me apart from the other candidates. Because I have been doing this work, and I do understand, I think, in a different way, the needs of a lot of these people.”

Black Iowa News: What are at least two areas specific to Black Iowans that you would identify as troubling or problematic, and what will you do, if elected, to address it?

Jaylen Cavil: “This is why I’m running really is to fight for racial justice and to fight for Black Iowans who I think are not being represented and are being ignored, and then are being harmed daily by the policies that are being pushed out by the state. We live in a racist state. You know this. I think most Black people who live here know this. Iowa is racist. We’re not going to sugarcoat it. It is a state controlled by a white supremacist government who inflicts harm daily on Black people. Iowa is one of the worst states in the entire country for Black people to live in. Third worst state in the country for Black people to live in. But that’s not a surprise to Black people who already live here. And the city of Des Moines in a recent study was ranked 15th worst city in the entire country for Black women to live in. These issues are not being talked about by our supposed leaders, and it’s why I’m running to fight for Black people.

And there’s so many reasons why we see these rankings of Iowa being the worst place for Black people to live in or Des Moines being the worst city for Black women to live in. And it really comes down to some of the issues I was already talking about: economic justice. Black people have one of the worst pay disparities in the state, in the entire country and it comes down to a racist carceral system.

You know, we’re living in the state that where Black people make up about 3% of the population but over 25% of the prison population. That’s not by mistake. Black people are being enslaved by the Iowa prison system (for profit) to Iowa Prison Industries and through these other systems where people are extracting profit off of locking people up in our state. I don’t think it can be fixed, but deconstructing the racist carceral system that we have in our state, I think is a huge issue and something that I want to fight on. (Decarcerate the state. We need to dismantle the current criminal justice system that we have in our state, and we need to build up something new. I don’t believe in Iowa prisons.) It’s an area that is extremely troubling and problematic for Black Iowans. I just said the statistics of how many Black people are locked up in our state. But it’s ridiculous. You’re seven, or eight times more likely to be incarcerated for cannabis offense if you’re Black, than if you’re white. You know, we need to fix these issues. We need to legalize cannabis so that police officers are no longer able to use that as a pretext to incarcerate Black people. And we need to decriminalize so many aspects of our society and move away from this huge prison industrial complex that we’ve created in our state and move to a restorative system, where we’re not creating a cycle, especially in Black communities, a harmful cycle where people are locked up and incarcerated. Children are growing up without parents and without support and are not receiving proper education, and it’s a cycle that Black Iowans are living through. You talk to probably any Black Iowan and they can tell you a family member that they have that’s either currently incarcerated or has been incarcerated.

So I see that as a huge issue, and something that I’m going to fight to fix and something that I don’t think that other candidates are necessarily talking about or they aren’t talking about it in the correct way. We see so many Democrats today who are talking about how we need more money for prisons, we need more prison guards, because they say our prisons are understaffed is the talking point that comes out of both Democrats and Republicans yet no one wants to ever talk about how our prisons are overcrowded with people. And what why do we have this many people locked up in all of our different prisons? You know, that’s the issue that we need to be talking about.

So that’s huge. I didn’t get the chance to talk about health care yet. But health care is another issue. That is huge for my campaign. I believe in universal health care. I think that we need to have health care for everyone. And there should be no profit motive within our healthcare system. And you know, we look at health disparities with Black Iowans and it’s bad in the state. The maternal health disparities for Black Iowans are worse than any other state in the country. I think it’s the worst in the country or like in the top three.

It’s awful, right? And it’s not something that you see a lot of people talking about. We see like, like, for example, Des Moines BLM and the advocacy team that I lead. We have been trying to push for some sort of legislative action to address the maternal health disparity in our state for the past couple years. Last year, we put out demands asking for the state to pass legislation to address this. One of those demands was to pass legislation that allowed for certified professional midwives in our state. Iowa is one of the only states in the country that doesn’t allow for licensures of certified professional midwives, which has been proven to be a solution or a tactic that helps bring down that disparity with Black maternal health and helps provide access to everybody. Any birthing person that wants to have access to that because we also live in a rural state where people don’t have access to OBGYNs. That’s one specific bill that we have been trying to advocate for at Des Moines BLM that I’ve been trying to push for at the legislature. It got passed in the House a couple of weeks ago, the bill did, with 97 votes from the Democrats. And then it goes over to the Senate and they just completely gut the bill. Take everything out of it. Put in new amendments, they’re trying to kill the bill now. And so that’s an area that I think we need to fight on and we need to make sure that that we’re screaming about this, because it’s unacceptable that we have these kinds of disparities in our state.

And the list can go on. We’re talking about the carceral system, the health care system, we’re talking about wages and economic impacts and the jobs opportunities for Black people in our state. The education disparities in our state. There’s so many areas that I want to go up to the statehouse and fight on for Black people.”

Black Iowa News: Where were you born?

Jaylen Cavil: “Des Moines, Iowa.”

Black Iowa News: Tell us about your family.

Jaylen Cavil: “I have a really big family. I have a ton of different cousins and folks all over Des Moines. I’m constantly running into people who I’m family with. I actually met somebody door knocking a couple of weeks ago on the south side who is my grandma’s cousin, and I had never met him before . . . A lot of folks end up realizing they know my family in some way. I’m pretty sure my great, great grandparents moved here to Des Moines from Missouri, I believe. So, you know, been here for a while. And then on my mom’s side of the family, I’m not exactly sure how long they’ve been in Des Moines. My mom’s family is a lot smaller. Dallas Center is where my mom’s family’s from: the Des Moines area but more rural.”

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