Liberation Through Literacy

1619 Freedom School

When schools began sending students home due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Sheritta Stokes was worried. As a third-grade teacher at Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence in Waterloo, she knew online learning would expand the already existing literacy achievement gap for her majority Black student population.  

Sheritta discussed her experience of teaching online and her concerns with her best friend and fellow West Waterloo High School graduate, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. From this conversation, the 1619 Freedom School was born, an after-school literacy program in Waterloo for students below grade level in reading with a curriculum focus on Black history and literature. “Overall, it’s just the students we serve being able to see people in books who look like them, who have experiences closer to their experiences that they can relate to,” said Sheritta.

The friends, along with other community leaders, looked for a partner to help get the project off the ground and found the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa. As the 1619 Freedom School idea took shape and gathered momentum, CFNEIA served as the fiscal sponsor, handling thousands of donations from across the country along with administrative tasks and provided the first grant to the project. “The Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa was our first supporter. They helped us get to where we are now. I feel like the Community Foundation has always supported us 110 percent,” said Sheritta.

Today the 1619 Freedom School is a nonprofit organization serving over 40 students from the Waterloo Community School District. “If you have an education and are literate, you can liberate yourself from things that bind you,” said Sheritta.   

“The Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa was our first supporter. They helped us get to where we are now. I feel like the Community Foundation has always supported us 110 percent.

Sheritta Stokes

PaTi’s Libelulas

Embracing Latino culture, from the organization’s name to how it provides services, is significant to PaTi’s Libelulas, a Latina-led Waterloo nonprofit. Executive Director Claudia Rivera understands the struggles immigrant families experience and opened the cultural center to advocate for, educate, and empower Latinas and Latinos. According to Claudia, Latinos are one of the fastest-growing populations in Waterloo, filling critical workforce needs and bringing money to the community despite the disparities they encounter. The organization assists families and individuals in overcoming the language barrier, navigating social and civic systems, and better understanding the community where they live. PaTi’s Libelulas received a $20,000 Black Hawk County grant in 2022 to help the new organization strengthen the Cedar Valley though empowering the Latino community.

Vision To Learn

Health inequities exist across Iowa, and this includes vision health, where in low-income communities, 95 percent of kids who need glasses do not have them. Vision To Learn is bringing this barrier to education into focus, providing access to better vision for kids in an academic setting through services including free screenings, eye exams, and glasses to students, all free of charge, in nine Iowa school districts. This includes the Waterloo Community School District, where, according to Corrine Kroger, Iowa Regional Director, the nonprofit has completed over 1,800 exams and provided over 1,600 students with eyeglasses since 2017. CFNEIA, an early funding partner, awarded a $13,500 grant to Vision To Learn Iowa in 2022 to provide equitable access to vision.