On this federal holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Democratic presidential candidates will discuss critical issues impacting people of color in America.

The 2020 Iowa Brown & Black Forum gets underway today (January 20) in the state capital of Des Moines. Recognized as the oldest, non-partisan presidential gathering solely dedicated to Black and LatinX communities, it precedes Iowa’s February 3rdcaucuses, the first nominating contests in the country for presidential hopefuls. The first Iowa Caucus took place in 1972.

“Iowa is the fifth whitest state in our country that’s one of the largest hubs of American politics,” said forum co-founder Wayne Ford, a former Iowa State Representative and longtime community leader. “But it’s also home to many minorities whose voices are valued and can speak on behalf of the marginalized and underrepresented across the nation.”

Ford is a native of Washington, D.C. who escaped poverty and juvenile delinquency thanks to a college football scholarship. After graduating from Iowa’s Drake University, he describes himself as “a young, educated, Black man” who was eager to make his mark.

He called a local newspaper asking to attend a political debate, but was told he wasn’t welcome. “Well, if you won’t let me come, I’ll make my own presidential forum,” he figured. 

Ford hosted his first event in the 1970s at a local nightclub. The sponsoring organization was named Concerned Citizens for Minority Affairs and many candidates sent their surrogates. “But Jimmy Carter showed up,” said Ford. The rest is history: Carter captured the Democratic nomination, and later, the highest office in the land.

Ford made history, too, founding the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum along with Latino community advocate Mary Campos in 1984. For more than three decades, the event has fostered greater engagement of communities that have been historically underrepresented in the national political dialogue.

Multiple candidates are scheduled to attend this year’s forum, notably, the largest candidate involvement in its history.

Contenders slated to participate include former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Minnesota Senator, Amy Klobuchar. Additionally, businessman Andrew Yang, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, and former Maryland Congressman John Delaney are also confirmed.

The event is being presented by VICE News and Cashmere Originals, a production studio developed by the L.A.-based Cashmere Agency. The lifestyle marketing company has clients who include Google, Adidas, BMW of North America, SheaMoisture and Disney.

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Ryan Ford, Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer at the Cashmere Agency, oversees creative and communication strategies and builds out many of the agency’s programs and campaigns.

He also happens to be Wayne Ford’s son. Raised in the thick of Iowa’s ubiquitous political environment, he grew up attending the presidential forums with his father. He’s rubbed elbows with everyone from Rev. Jesse Jackson, to the Clintons and Barack Obama.

“In Iowa, you may interact with the candidates on a very intimate level,” said the younger Ford. “You see them at elementary schools, the state fair, the local diner.”

This campaign cycle, he encouraged his dad to bring younger voices to the table. In 2020, Millennials and Gen Z will make up 37 percent of the electorate and comprise one of the most racially and ethnically diverse generation of voters in U.S.  history. 

“The Iowa caucuses are so essential on the road to the White House and I thought it was important to engage Millennial audiences and Gen Z,” said Ford.

The forum will feature in-depth sit-downs with candidates and focus on five pillars: Criminal Justice, Immigration, Education, Economic Development, and Health. “The candidates will be questioned about issues that not just impact African Americans and Latinos, but all Americans,” said Ford.

VICE has a diverse group of correspondents who will serve as event moderators; they include Antonia Hylton, Alzo Slade, Paola Ramos, Dexter Thomas, David Noriega, Roberto Ferdman, and Krishna Andavolu. Additional questions for candidates will be sourced from social media and a live audience of Iowa constituents. VICE News will carry the presidential forum live across VICE.com and the VICE News Facebook page. VICE TV will broadcast the day’s events in a news special at 9pm ET/PT, featuring the best moments of the Forum and highlights from the candidates.

“We are so excited to bring such an impactful conversation forward,” said Russell Redeaux of Cashmere Originals. “We are committed to producing content that speaks to young, diverse audiences and excited to partner with VICE News to utilize their platform for such an important and on time discussion.” 

Paula A. Martinez, Brown & Black Co-Chair, echoed a similar sentiment. “It’s important to recognize the importance of why we continue to push for inclusion within our political system and for people of color to become educated and empowered to take action on palpable issues that have direct effects on the societies they are part of.”

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