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Indira Sheumaker takes on historic role in Des Moines City Council

Representing Ward 1, Sheumaker is the third person of color and only the second woman of color to serve on the city council.

DES MOINES, Iowa — On Nov. 2, 2021, Indira Sheumaker made Des Moines history by unseating a two-time incumbent for Des Moines City Council. Monday night, she made history again as she was officially sworn in as a city councilperson. 

Her campaign for Ward 1 ran on a platform centered on defunding the police and bringing power back to the people of her hometown. In an interview with Local 5's Laryssa Leone, Sheumaker recalled the shooting that left 18-year-old Michael Brown dead in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

"I really wanted to start taking action and doing something about you know, the things that I was seeing," Sheumaker said. "But what happened in Des Moines was, we had one rally at the Capitol where everyone showed up, took pictures with signs and then went home." 

Sheumaker said she assumed the same thing would happen again following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. 

"So when I heard there was a protest, I was like, 'that's all it's gonna be.' And so I didn't go," she said. "And then I turned on the news like at home with my family, just turned on the news and saw tear gas at the Capitol building. And I realized, like, something is actually happening here. For the first time, I knew there were problems."

So the next day, Sheumaker began protesting. Over the next few weeks, she said she was out every night. 

"We were being encouraged to go to city council meetings by members of the community who had been organizing," Sheumaker said. "And so I went to my first city council meeting on June 8 of 2020, which is when they were considering passing the racial profiling ban." 

At the next meeting she went to on June 22, the council passed the racial profiling ban. 

"And what I noticed was, with all the public input, with all of the attention that the Des Moines City Council was getting, they did not take any of our input," Sheumaker said. "They listened to us and then did whatever they were already going to do. That's when I realized people didn't have a voice in their government."  

RELATED: Des Moines passes anti-racial profiling ordinance following tense City Council meeting

Sheumaker didn't think of running for office until a family member suggested it.

"My sister turned to me and said, 'Hey, the race is up for Ward 1 where we live. You should run,' and I was like, 'OK, cool, I will,'" Sheumaker said. 

She began the process of running a campaign, contemplating if being in the council was something she wanted to do. 

"I came to the idea of people's councils and really giving people a voice in their government by making them the decision-makers. And so that's what really led me to this," Sheumaker said.

Sheumaker acknowledged her casual conversation style isn't something most people on the council are used to. 

"You know, the standard for decades and decades has been like this professionalism, and it's something that I kind of reject because it's based in a lot of, like, white society," she said. " You know, like, historical, like ways that kept people of color out of, you know, decision-making spaces." 

How Sheumaker's position is historic to Des Moines

In a growing city with growing diversity, Joshua Barr, the former director of the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission, said Sheumaker's seat on the council matters now more than ever. 

"Because representation matters and groups that have been historically excluded from the process and from reaping the benefits, the economic benefits that government can help provide and open the door to, is very important," Barr said. "And typically, when those communities have been excluded from the process, their voices are not heard. And when their voices are not heard, that can have economic repercussions, educational repercussions that even wind up in the penal system. And so the goal is to remove those barriers. So people have the opportunity to move up the socio-economic ladder and be all that they can be."

Barr noted that 72% of Des Moines residents are of European descent with about 12% being of African descent and 14% being Latinx.

"And she's also young, so she's going to give a voice to young people as well. And it's... the future belongs to the young people," Barr said. "And I think since most of city council is much older, she can be the voice for a demographic that is typically ignored in local government and sometimes don't even understand a local government affects them."

RELATED: Sheumaker unseats incumbent for Des Moines City Council seat, Boesen and Mandelbaum reelected

"I am the third-ever Black person to be on the city council in Des Moines, in all of history," Sheumaker said. "And it's kind of a frustrating thing because I grew up here." 

Sheumaker is also the second woman of color ever to hold a seat in the council. 

One of Sheumaker's points of pride is that she went to Hoover High School, one of the most diverse in the state. Ward 1 is also a very diverse community, both racially and economically. 

"There's so many immigrant communities because of the wonderful history we had with, you know, programs pushed by Gov. Ray to bring like immigrant refugee communities into Des Moines and into Iowa in general," Sheumaker said. 

Looking at the council, Sheumaker didn't see a reflection of her community. 

"They were all white, they were majority, like, retired or, you know, older generation," Sheumaker said. "And there's just a point where there's a disconnect with the people that you are serving the people that you're supposed to be representing, and who is making those decisions." 

Not only is her identity historic, but she said her strategy is as well. 

"My priority is the most marginalized people and to work up from there. Because I do believe that if you make things better for the people who are struggling the most, it makes things better for everybody else as well," Sheumaker said.

The councilperson said her historic role could be something that would bring a lot of pressure, but instead, she feels otherwise. 

"I really just feel empowered by my community who is, you know, coming in supporting me and standing by me," she said. "And the goal of the work that I'm doing that it is so important that any kind of insecurity is just insignificant."

Sheumaker's priorities and goals as councilperson

Sheumaker said she is focused on the crises the city is in right now: the COVID-19 pandemic and keeping residents warm. 

The councilperson said she wants to figure out how to help people through the city when the federal and state governments can't. 

"So something that I am looking at, this is being advocated by, you know, people who would be affected by it and by CCI (Citizens for Community Improvement), is the excluded worker fund," Sheumaker said. "We have $95 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds, and I would like to see a good portion of that go towards direct relief payments, like an excluded worker fund." 

Sheumaker said she's also thinking of those experiencing homelessness as colder and colder temps roll in through the city. 

"I'm thinking about our houseless neighbors and how they are being affected by that weather and how we could be doing a lot more to help," she said. 

The councilperson also said she is still working to defund the Des Moines Police Department. 

"I think that we have an extremely inflated budget for the Des Moines Police Department, and we've got budget discussions coming up, you know, we're going to be moving towards making the budget for the next fiscal year," Sheumaker said. "And so that is a huge priority for me is reallocating resources to these programs that would improve housing, that would improve food security, that would improve all of the things that we need to be improving, and away from this carceral police system that I do not believe provides us with true public safety, looking at building up a new public safety system." 

RELATED: Black Liberation Movement activist Jaylen Cavil running for Iowa House seat

Sheumaker also said she is advocating for municipal utilities as the council settles into renegotiations with MidAmerican. She also said that she is pushing to shut down coal plants and focus on how climate change is impacting the city. 

"Because climate change, climate disasters are something that we need to be ready for, so I want to make sure that we have a more resilient utility system and I do believe municipalization is the way to go," she said. 

Besides those "heavy" topics, Sheumaker said she wants to help cultivate joy. 

"What I'm doing right now is I'm, you know, getting set up," Sheumaker said. "I'm figuring out how I can reach out more into the community, but what we're really focusing on is building up people's councils so that we can have that decision-making body of the people so that I can live by the ideals that I said like in my oath— that I am going to be actively seeking out the voices and the needs of the people and uplifting those voices and so that is my biggest goal." 

WATCH | Full interview: Indira Sheumaker unseats incumbent Bill Gray in Des Moines City Council election