Voices: Julian Neely

Omar Waheed

A face known by many here at Iowa State, Julian Neely sat down to give a deeper insight into who he is and what he has been up to since his time as Student Government President.

A busy man in all respects, Neely has been a person synonymous with activism in Iowa, a place he said he found his voice best in. While we can track the Neely’s action at Iowa State, his past is something known very little by others.

“Where I found my voice in regard to activism and advocacy was honestly right after the murder of Trayvon Martin. I immediately that I still have today that says, ‘I am Trayvon Martin’ and my first form of activism was wearing that to my predominately White school that I knew would have a heyday with it, and they did,” Neely said. “I had a lot of students and even faculty give me weird looks when I wore the shirt. I even had a student in one of my classes say that it was Trayvon Martin’s fault, and in that moment, I thought ‘Oh we have a lot of work to do.’”

Speaking on his first experience in activism while in high school, Neely talked about the dichotomy in understanding the gravity of Trayvon Martin’s killing from the understanding of a predominately white school in Johnston, Iowa.

Neely found the opportunity to go further in activism at Johnston High School when he enrolled in a video production class. Given the opportunity to make projects that interested him, Neely made his own reproduction of World Star Questions centered around Black History Month through going around the high school asking the student about what Black History Month is.

Not much to his surprise, the students of the mostly White school did not really know anything about Black History Month. Not its history, importance or why it was celebrated. Seeing this as an opportunity to confirm what he already knew; Neely was able to gather evidence to substantiate his claim that there was a large gap in the school’s curriculum as it pertains to education of Black history.

Seeing this as an opportunity to improve on how Johnston high school celebrated Black History, Neely worked with the school to create flyers promoting Black History Month, only to be met with resistance along the way from those unwilling to address the problem at hand.

Unknown to Neely at the time, his parents had actually been working with the school themselves in bi-weekly and monthly meetings for quite some time to address these issues before Neely had put his own work in.

Coming to the end of his time at Johnston, Neely understood that these are issues that will take a very long time to overcome at a predominately white school. Looking forward to his next steps in life, Neely went on to make a choice between where he wanted to attend college.

Initially seeking to go to Brown due to it being a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), Neely did not want to go to Iowa State at first due to knowing he would run into the same issues at Johnston. Not wanting to go into debt with his undergrad, Neely chose Iowa State but used the opportunity to push working on the issues he was passionate about further.

While it could be simple to sum up that after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 is what caused him to find this path, which Neely has attributed to his push into activism, a look into Neely’s upbringing shows a source of why he stays busy and involved.

A Des Moines native, Neely credits his upbringing as very intentional on how his parents presented Blackness in their household.

“I would have to say my parents were very, very intentional about us knowing who we were and building self-love as Black individuals,” Neely said. “When it came to outside of school and our home, they were very intentional in getting us involved in the Black community in Des Moines. Every summer, our father would assign us book reports and the first book I remember reading… was by Hill Harper. It was called Letters to a Young Brother.

Being inspired by the books his father assigned, Letters to a Young Brother showed Neely what is what like to be a young Black man in this world and building up confidence as such.

Fostering a strong Black identity growing, Neely did things to further his identity, one being joining the Black Student Alliance. Finding a place of belonging that he credits as one of his starting points, Neely eventually moved up to student government to tackle issues in circling around diverse students at Iowa State.

As one of the few non-white student government presidents at Iowa State, Neely paved way to bring heightened importance on diversity and the experience of diverse students.

With no shortage of work done on his end, from the Tree of Oppression to working to give better access to resources for BIPOC students, Neely credits his best accomplishment to making the unheard finally feel like they belong and are heard at Iowa State.

Managing to shift some typically White held seats to those of diverse students, Neely helped usher in a more diverse student government that trickled down into making his greatest accomplishment as president a reality. While temporary and not lasting, Neely still felt like his work made a lasting impression.

While he acknowledges the things he managed to accomplish, one shortfall he states was the inability to help retain diverse students at Iowa State who experienced hardships in their experiences here.

“I think we have a lot of students that come to Iowa State and then sometimes don’t have the support they need psychologically, emotionally academically [or] financially to stay,” Neely said. “I would say some people are just like completely fed up with their experience and based upon the ways that our administration moves or their experiences that they have with students that don’t look like them and how they’re treated.”

Wishing he could have done more in that realm to help students stay and find their place at Iowa State, Neely could have worked endlessly, but never be able to fix the issues that these students faced.

“I think a lot of what happened, especially during the 2016 elections really exposed our culture and also I feel how people didn’t feel like they were protected,” Neely said.

Despite shortcomings, nothing has ever stopped Neely from moving forward. After receiving his B.S. at Iowa State, he went on to attend graduate school at Syracuse University studying media before coming back to Iowa State to transition into the Greenlee’s Journalism and Mass Communications studies M.A. program, with his focus on #BlackBoyJoy in “how it reshapes Black masculinity and manhood within media and sociality.”

Not stopping there, Neely remains busy with his work as a project coordinator at Flynn Wright, serves on the DSM USA Equity Task Force with city councilperson Renee Hardman to work on action plans made to better the community and the Future Forward committee and the director at the Supply Hive.

While doing a lot for others, Neely still takes time for himself, currently being engaged and working on some entrepreneurial media ventures himself, Neely claims he’s in a transitional phase in his journey.

“We talk about like just the endpoint of that like evolution stage and the different whirlwinds that we can go through throughout that transition,” Neely said. “I think I’m beginning to understand the lessons I’ve learned in the past and highly could possibly lead me into this next chapter. When it comes to leadership, when it comes to networking, when it comes to relationship building, when it comes to understanding my purpose, understanding my role and life in general.”

Life goes on and Neely does not plan to slow down. As he continues to venture out into the world and transitions into new roles, who knows where he may end up? One thing for certain is that Julian Neely is a man that is about serving those who need it most.