As former legislator Wayne Ford is honored, he passes the public service baton to the next generation

Drake University President Marty Martin embraces Wayne Ford, former state legislator and founder of the social services nonprofit Urban Dreams, on May 19, 2022, at the unveiling of Ford's official portrait at Drake's Cowles Library. Photo Luke Lu / The Register

By Staff report, Des Moines Register

Former Iowa state Rep. Wayne Ford used an event intended to honor him and his public service legacy as a platform to call on the next generation to carry on his life’s work of lifting up his community and protecting public safety.

At a time of increased gun violence in Des Moines, Ford said he was “passing the baton” to today’s leaders, asking them to be fearless in supporting youth and protecting the community.


Drake University, from which Ford graduated in 1974, awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2018 and on Thursday hosted an unveiling of his official portrait and a tour of the university’s archives, which house the Wayne Ford papers. His papers join the collections of Iowa political luminaries such as former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, the late Gov. Robert Ray, the late U.S. Rep. Neal Smith and soon, those of former Gov. Terry Branstad.

Ford’s papers are organized in four major categories, said Hope Bibens, director of the university’s archives and special collections. Those are his 14 years as a state representative, from 1997 to 2011; his 1985 founding and leadership of Urban Dreams, a nonprofit social services organization that has provided drug abuse treatment, mental health counseling and job training services; general reference files; and his 1984 co-founding, with Mary Campos, of the nonpartisan Brown & Black Presidential Forum.

Drake University President Marty Martin called Ford “a big man with a big personality” who has been “always focused on how to improve the lives of others.” He said Ford’s papers are a key piece in establishing Drake as the place to go “if you want to know about politics and policy in Iowa and even in the country.”

‘This is a movement about fearlessness’

Ford’s son, Ryan Ford, president and chief creative officer of the Los Angeles-based Cashmere Agency lifestyle marketing firm, said his father, now 70, has been a guardian angel as a boss, neighbor, teammate, coach, father figure, community member, radio personality and legislator.

“He’s been there when we needed him, and he’s helped us see the potential, the possibilities and the opportunities, even in our darkest moments,” said the younger Ford, who was inducted into the Des Moines Roosevelt High School Foundation Hall of Fame Wednesday evening.


While the Drake ceremony celebrated important moments of his father’s life, his son said, his father’s life became a movement.

“This is a movement about fearlessness,” he said. “It’s about being passionate about change. It’s about never giving up on your neighborhood — he still lives walking distance from here. This is about relentless representation. This is deeper than that. This is about love … the love he has for all of you all, the love he has for this school, the love he has for this community.”

Drake University honors Wayne Ford, former state legislator and founder of the nonprofit social services agency Urban Dreams, on May 19, 2022, with the unveiling of his official portrait. From left are Ford’s son, Ryan Ford, and his wife, Renee Airo-Ford, and their daughter, Faven Ford; Linda Ford, Wayne Ford’s former wife and mother of their son; and Wayne Ford.
Photo Luke Lu / The Register

Before the crowd of admirers, Wayne Ford traced his childhood in “the hood” in Washington, D.C., then on to Rochester, Minnesota, Community College and Drake University as a football player, and finally his life and career in Des Moines.


He name-checked people who helped him on his journey. He mentioned former Drake President Wilbur Miller, who tapped Drake faculty as advisers to support Ford as he started Urban Dreams. And he called out some of those in the audience including Campos, now 93; former state Rep. David Schrader, who represented Marion County and recruited Ford to run for the Legislature; and former state Rep. Mark Smith, who worked with Ford to pass one of his signature legislative achievements — the nation’s first minority impact law.

That law, passed in 2008 and since replicated by states around the country, requires that any proposals to create new crimes or tougher penalties be evaluated for disproportionate impact on minority communities.

Ford then turned to those in the audience who have picked up his public service baton, including Romonda Belcher, the first Black female judge in Iowa; Dwana Bradley, chair of the Des Moines school board; and Izaah Knox, his successor in leading Urban Dreams and a current candidate for the Legislature.

At right is Wayne Ford, a former state legislator and founder of the nonprofit social services agency Urban Dreams, and Izaah Knox, his successor as leader of the organization, during a ceremony May 19, 2022, at Drake University to unveil Ford’s official portrait.
Photo Luke Lu / The Register

He spoke of his work to combat earlier crime waves in the city — “when everyone was running away from bullets, I was running toward bullets” — and the need to work from the ground up, in the streets and in the neighborhoods.

”It’s your time now. The world is messed up. You’ve got shootings everywhere,” he said, but “I see the future of Black and brown leadership in this room.”

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