When Kaleb Nichols discovered that studying sociology could lead him toward a career in community development, he was all in.
“I heard sociology was very community focused — learning how communities operate, what goes into a community and the different aspects that make a community function,” Nichols said. “Learning about those different details and the specifics that make a community run very well is what interested me the most about sociology.”
His ‘sole’ purpose
Nichols (’24 sociology) is finishing up his first year at Iowa State, but he already knows a thing or two about building strong communities. As a high school senior in Des Moines, Nichols launched a sneaker drive, aimed at providing Black men and boys with a new pair of sneakers. Nichols’ goal was to not only provide shoes to people who needed them, but to also create an event where young Black leaders in the Des Moines area could unite for the betterment of the community.
“Personally, I knew growing up that having good shoes or cool shoes was really important for people to have on their feet because it gives confidence and pride of wearing something new,” Nichols said.
Nichols and the other organizers raised money and purchased hundreds of pairs of name-brand shoes, like Nike, Adidas, Jordan and Vans. But those labels were not the point.
“We made it clear that it wasn’t necessarily about the name brand, but more about sending the message that young Black men in the community can get together and do something successful, and give back to the community. Hopefully, that’s the foundation to keep this practice going.”
The first drive was so successful, Nichols and other organizers planned a second event last January, while he was studying at Iowa State. He estimates that between both events, almost 500 people either received a new pair of sneakers or volunteered to help.
Art, activism and academics
The sneaker drive is not the only community-building event that Nichols leads. He, along with a friend who attends the University of Iowa, have organized numerous art shows that support Black youth. The centerpiece of all the art events is Black Art Mecca, first held last summer in Des Moines’ Water Works Park. From culinary arts, to performing artists and painters, the event showcased the extraordinary talents of Des Moines’ Black youth to approximately 800 people. Nichols is planning a second Black Art Mecca for this summer, possibly in conjunction with the Des Moines Arts Festival in June.
The art shows most closely align with Nichols’ goal of creating opportunities for youth that combine art, activism and academics.
“One of my biggest priorities and my purpose in life is that I want to give back to the Black community, and specifically Black youth,” Nichols said. “I have a motto of not waiting for opportunity, but creating the opportunity myself. Instead of waiting for opportunities to come to us or for people to make these programs, I would rather just do it myself.”
A firm foundation
There’s no question that Nichols already is positively impacting the Black youth of central Iowa, and he has no intention of stopping. Recently, he was accepted into the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which prepares qualified undergraduates for graduate school, with the primary goal of obtaining a Ph.D. The McNair Program supports students by focusing on three areas: academic research, graduate school preparation, and personal and professional development.
Nichols is honored to have been selected for the McNair Program, and he’s eager to sharpen the tools that will allow him to achieve his life’s purpose: giving back to the Black community.
“I see myself being an entrepreneur and running my own business or program where I can live my motto of creating opportunities instead of waiting for them,” he said. “I plan to make a difference in the world by impacting Black youth in a variety of ways. That’s my biggest priority, giving back to my community.”