There are moments throughout history that cause a shift in course.
In a year already marked by significant changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, May 25, 2020, is among them.
It’s the day when a 46-year-old African American man named George Floyd was killed at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers, pinned down by one who knelt upon Floyd’s neck for an excruciating eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Stunned bystanders watched the scene unfold, with captured video of the event going viral.
It signaled an immediate outcry, sparking protests throughout the world and conversations that had been overdue regarding systemic racism, police brutality and perception of the Black experience in America.
For three Dubuque women, it further inspired a call to action through education, awareness and in providing a platform for those marginalized to give voice and value to their story.
It was something Floyd never got the opportunity to do, as he cried out, “I can’t breathe,” and pleaded for his mother in his final moments.
“Watching his last words is what did it for me,” said Gwendolyn Fountain. “He was calling for his mom. That was so overwhelmingly heartbreaking. For me, that was worth getting involved.”
Fountain, along with Dereka Williams and Monique McCauley who call themselves the Queens for Peace, established the Switching Places Foundation in early June in Dubuque. Its mission is focused on bringing awareness to racial issues within the community, all the while promoting peace.
In its infancy, the organization has organized four peaceful protests, as well as a Community United event at Dubuque’s Comiskey Park, bringing together a multiracial group of community members in celebration and solidarity.
The Queens serve as mentors through their relationships with community members and are in the early stages of developing a program intended to inspire young Black women and children in the community, supporting them in becoming leaders and entrepreneurs.
“We were motivated by passion,” Williams said. “We attended a protest and became inspired. We knew that as Black women, it was our duty to stand up and be a voice for our community. We were with the rest of the world to demand justice for our people.”
Williams, 39, moved to Dubuque in 1995 with her sister and mother, who was hoping to provide a better life for her daughters. But, Williams said, that proved to be a struggle in a community immersed in racial tension.
“It was really hard for me,” she said. “I knew that racism existed, but to experience from my teachers and peers in the 1990s what my mother experienced from her teachers and peers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was weird.”
Williams eventually found herself at Dubuque’s now defunct Central Alternative High School, where she met Fountain, who shared a similar experience, and where both said they thrived.
“It showed me that there are teachers who really care,” Williams said. “They showed me that it’s always worth the discussion to try to understand another person. I don’t think I would be where I am today without that.”
Williams went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts in business management from the University of Dubuque. Until helping establish the Switching Places Foundation, she spent approximately five years mentoring children through other local organizations. Now, she’s setting out to do that on her own.
“I’m very passionate about helping people, especially Black children,” she said. “I became a mother young in life. I have four children — a daughter, who is 22 and who graduated from Iowa State University and now works for the Department of Human Services in Des Moines. She was my blessing and helped me get through high school. I also have three sons — 17, 10 and 5. So this cause is important to me. My babies are my reasons. I don’t want them to live in fear of the people who are supposed to protect them. I want them to know that they can do whatever they want to do without the color of their skin holding them back.”
Fountain, 42, moved to Dubuque in 1994 and, along with her investment in the newly established foundation, continues to work as paraprofessional. She got her start with Hillcrest Family Services before joining the Cornerstone Academy through the Dubuque Community School District.
Much of her enthusiasm for the Switching Places Foundation also was born in her love of working with youth.
“I always adored working with kids,” said Fountain, who has three children — daughters, ages 18 and 23; and a son, age 16. “A lot of what kids are still going through today are things that I went through. So when it comes to getting to the bottom of trying to settle differences and understand why a child might be acting out, I have a lot I can bring to trying to decipher what’s going on.”
McCauley, 40, moved to Dubuque in 2002. While she doesn’t have children, she shares the same motivation in working with them as Williams and Fountain. She also has started a business, creating activities for kids.
“I was raised to love everybody,” she said of her childhood upbringing. “So that’s the thing for me, helping children today have that same sense of love instilled in them.”
Though longtime friends, the three said that life caused them to lose touch in recent years. The events surrounding the death of Floyd, and attending the same local protests that resulted, reunited them.
“I feel like we found ourselves in a moment that was supposed to happen,” Williams said. “George Floyd awakened people. And the three of us were here to fight, to say no more and to standing on the side of good. It was destiny.”
Through their educational efforts in the community, they’ve been able to foster other relationships, too. The women said others also are standing up in solidarity, building bridges and creating an empowering sense of community with a new willingness to speak up, to listen and to understand.
“People who are White are speaking up, too,” McCauley said. “We’ve met people who attended our protests even though their families felt differently and didn’t want them to. That’s powerful.”
It also has broken ground to three engaging in positive and progressive dialogue with not only community residents but leaders, emphasizing that while all lives indeed matter, it’s the value of the Black lives that has, over time, been threatened and needs to be addressed.
“When it comes to racism, it’s not always the fault of the person who thinks that way,” Williams said. “Racism is something that is received. It’s about a lack of knowledge and fear. And it comes from a place of how people were taught. That’s why an organization like this is so important. It creates a place for people to understand what the Black community goes through from firsthand experience. And it gives a voice to the unheard.”
The trio said they are humbled by being recognized as Women of the Year for their efforts, as well as seeing measures taking place within in the community.
Among them are the creation of the “Solidarity” mural at Five Flags Center, for which they each had a hand in helping to paint, as well as Loras College’s decision to remove the statue of its founder after he was revealed to be a slave owner.
“The support of the community and everyone standing by us has been really amazing to see,” Fountain said. “I feel like this is a really big step in a positive direction.”