Resilience is hereditary
On his first day of junior high in 2009, Julian Neely was excited to start a new school in his new neighborhood.
Neely, now a freshman in journalism at Iowa State and a leader in the Black Student Alliance, grew up in Johnston, Iowa, and attended church and school in a community that belonged predominantly to middle-class, white families. Although Neely didn’t look like most of the children he grew up with in Johnston, it hadn’t bothered him before.
Despite being raised in a family dedicated to civil rights activism, Neely lived mostly unaware of his otherness, up to this point.
He was well liked by his teachers, fellow students and church members, said his parents, James and Bridget. He was outgoing and kind and never had trouble making friends.
While getting off the bus to start his first day in the new school, in the new neighborhood with new friends, a white student yelled a racial slur at Neely. Although he had not experienced such blatant racism before, Neely remembered his mother’s warnings — the only way to react is not to react.
Neely ignored the outburst. For the first time, but certainly not the last, he became uncomfortably aware that he was different.
Throughout junior high, high school and college, Neely chose to take the high road when confronted by racism and discrimination.
When stopped by police frequently, Neely knew to address them politely, despite any excuse for why a young black man was pulled over driving through a nice neighborhood at night.
When followed at stores and shopping centers, Neely knew to ignore the suspicion he faced.
When he received dirty looks from teachers or parents who didn’t yet know him, he worked harder to prove himself as a good student and responsible young adult.
“Teachers look at you differently just because of the way you look,” Neely said. “I remember walking through my high school halls, and the teacher would give me a disgusting look—but once I was in their class, they would change their perception of me.”
When students and peers made racist jokes or used racial slurs, Neely said he would assess the situation. Would confronting the individual make a difference? Was this person willing to listen and learn? If he thought the issue could be resolved, he would explain to the person why the comment was problematic.
Though it was sometimes difficult not to react in anger, Neely’s parents had stressed the importance of maintaining his composure when put in these situations.
Bridget and James Neely met at Illinois State University, where they were active members in the black community. As members of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the Black Student Union, Bridget and James embraced activism.
Bridget was raised in Illinois by a single mother and a civil rights activist. As a child, Bridget marched with her mother in the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Bridget said she was encouraged from a young age to be a part of the solution to discrimination, not a part of the problem.
James had been raised in a small town in Iowa. He described his family as a “traditional southern family” that had faced segregation and racism and had relocated to Iowa.
James was one of two African American students in his high school’s graduating class. As a college student, James said he was one of the few black students in the science, technology, engineering and math education field.
After graduating from college, James and Bridget married and had three sons. Bridget said she tried to instill the sense of activism in her sons that her mother had instilled in her, insisting that they not complain about something they weren’t willing to change.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference,” reads the Serenity Prayer hanging from the rear-view mirror in Bridget’s vehicle. She said the prayer was a mantra for her household and a reminder to her children.
James and Bridget wanted their sons to understand the world they were growing up in.
“Because you’re a young black man, you’re going to be looked at differently,” Bridget warned her sons.
Bridget reminded her sons that their actions, and reactions, would be scrutinized and urged them to “follow the rules, follow the book and follow the process — that’s the only option.”
James’ father, a former Marine, would assign his grandsons books to read — both fictional and not — about the history, struggles and triumphs of black Americans. James said he made a point to discuss social and political issues at home.
Bridget and James strived not to create a sense of fear for their sons, but a sense of understanding and pride. They took their sons on trips to places like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., Howard University and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The Neelys urged their sons to be active participants in the many communities they belonged to.
Julian volunteered for his church’s vacation bible school program and performed in praise dance through miming and stepping. He volunteered at I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa -- Iowa’s premier African American festival.
Julian also helped organize a local rally in response to recent cases of police brutality and shootings. He met with Des Moines law enforcement to discuss ways to strengthen the relationship between police and the black community.
When President Obama was inaugurated, Julian was there -- both times.
Julian extended this appreciation of his culture to others. He became an ambassador for new students in high school and reached out to other minority students to create an informal organization for support.
“He has a natural respect and admiration for people who are different,” Bridget said.
Julian’s desire to help others was intensified after he experienced and witnessed racism and discrimination in the world around him. Though Julian said he had never been physically threatened, he was affected by the violence his brothers and friends faced -- someone made a racial slur and spit in his little brother’s face; his older brother was choked on a school bus.
The moment that really motivated Julian to work toward racial equality, though, was the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case.
Trayvon Martin, a black teenager living in Florida, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a member of the neighborhood watch, while walking alone at night. Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder after claiming he shot Martin in self-defense.
“I think these types of situations bring out people’s true colors,” Julian said.
Julian said he was disappointed by the amount of hate he saw in comment threads on Facebook or Yik Yak.
“There [was] a lot of emotion,” Julian said. “I took screenshots for proof.”
Now as a freshman at Iowa State, Julian uses those hate-filled comments to fuel his passion as a member of the Black Student Alliance and president of the Freshman Action Team, an initiative to get freshmen involved in the black community.
“We do certain events trying to get freshmen involved with our organization and Black Student Alliance so they can just feel more comfortable on campus, especially for those trying to adapt to the Iowa State campus who don’t see a lot of people who look like them,” Julian said.
The Black Student Alliance and Freshman Action Team hold bi-monthly meetings to discuss issues important to the black community.
“It allows us to have discussions and feel comfortable around campus when we know we have a support system that we can go to if we have an issue or if we just need to vent,” Julian said.
Brandon Jackson, a fellow freshman and vice president of the Freshman Action Team, described Julian as outgoing and sociable. He said peers appreciated Julian’s willingness to voice an opinion and his desire to be inclusive.
“He comforts everyone,” Jackson said. “He never leaves anyone singled out.”
Julian’s breakthrough moment as president of the Freshman Action Team came this fall during a Black Student Alliance demonstration to show solidarity with the students facing discrimination at the University of Missouri, Jackson said.
Julian spoke to a large crowd at Beardshear Hall. He called on ISU President Steven Leath and other administrators to show solidarity with minority students.
Jackson said it was a defining moment for Julian, who was later given the Most Outstanding New Black Student Alliance Member award.
“He’s far beyond where I was at that age,” James said about his son.
With his first semester on campus behind him, Julian reflected on the atmosphere in Iowa for young, black people.
“Iowa is ranked as one of the worst places for African Americans to live,” Julian said, referring to a study conducted by 24/7 Wall St., a financial news and commentary website. “There are issues here in Iowa that need to be fixed.”
Julian described two types of racism and discrimination that black Americans face.
“Systematic racism comes from those who are in power, such as administration or police officers,” Neely said. “From peers, I think it’s more just prejudice or ignorance.”
He said confronting micro-aggressions, the type of discrimination he believes students face most often on campus — such as students asking to touch a black person’s hair or saying things like, “Do you rap because you’re black?” — is a good first step. He said addressing what he calls the “unconscious bias” is the major short-term goal for the alliance.
“It’s hard to change somebody’s mindset, but you have to make them aware of what they’re saying — this is not right, and this is not correct.”
Julian said the alliance also hopes to continue to reach out to other minority student organizations and strengthen a support network for those who are marginalized.
Ultimately, Julian said he wants to promote the change his parents encouraged him to make growing up — to change the things worth complaining about.
True to its name, the Black Student Alliance is prepared to make this change with the help of the Iowa State community, Julian said.
“[The alliance] is for everybody, it’s not just for the black community,” Julian said. “It’s for anybody who sees the issues, recognizes the issues and is willing to help change what is going on. We welcome anybody.”
Julian is now the vice president of the Black Students Alliance. He’s also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. He was officially appointed chair of the Iowa State Student Government’s Diversity Committee in January 2017.
“Last year I probably lost 10 to 15 pounds due to stress,” Neely said, “just from everything happening in the country, statewide and personal stuff.”
Neely said the struggles of his past have pushed him to become more involved on campus. Since last year, he’s been involved in search committees for the university and a subcommittee for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences strategic plan.
“I thought I would just be the type of activist you see on TV,” Neely said. “I didn’t expect to be on the forefront of certain issues until I got here.”
Though he admits his schedule can be hectic at times, Neely enjoys the heavy load of responsibility that he has placed on himself. He will consider picking up a minor in political science in pursuit of a better understanding of the U.S. government and the system it’s built on.
Neely will also be considering law school after graduation.
←Return to Homepage