Unfinished business

Work still in early stages to address social justice, racism, inequity

Leader news staff
news@ptleader.com
Posted 6/12/21

It’s been a year since protests for racial justice filled the streets of cities across the country and around the globe.

In the largest demonstration in a generation in Port Townsend, …

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Unfinished business

Work still in early stages to address social justice, racism, inequity

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It’s been a year since protests for racial justice filled the streets of cities across the country and around the globe.

In the largest demonstration in a generation in Port Townsend, protesters closed Simms Way in a nonviolent gathering that saw hundreds march across the city carrying signs calling for the defunding of police, pleas to hold officers accountable, and the cry to “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks.”

In the year since the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer has been convicted of multiple charges of murder and manslaughter, and is awaiting sentencing.

And while the paint on Port Townsend’s “Black Lives Matter” street mural has faded to a faint outline, and most of the stencil-graffiti portraits of Floyd have been scrubbed from walls across town, people within organizations across Jefferson County continue to mark milestones of more lasting change.

On the anniversary of the region’s initial days of reckoning, The Leader reached out to local leaders to find out what’s been done to address the still-simmering issues surrounding racial equity and social justice.

 

The beginning of action, not the end

Still talking, still learning.

The Chimacum School District has made much progress on addressing issues that revolve around racism over the past year, said Acting Superintendent David Engle, and that work continues with a committed group of teacher leaders guiding the way.

Engle noted that when he joined Chimacum schools as acting superintendent last August, part of the planning process was to get the school started but to also look at professional development in the district.

The Legislature had earlier passed a bill to dismantle institutional racism in public schools. It was signed into the law in May by Gov. Jay Inslee, and took effect July 25.

The law required school districts across the state to educate staff about racial literacy, and school districts had to prioritize one of three professional learning days to focus on racial literacy, cultural responsiveness, and stereotype threat.

“Those were kind of the minimum topics to discus and develop expertise around,” Engle said.

“I put out feelers to the teaching staff here; ‘If you have any interest in the topics and expertise, let me know,’” he recalled.

A group of 10 teachers stepped forward to develop the district-wide conversation as a faculty-led leadership team, and Engle also reached out to the Community Wellness Project to expand it beyond Chimacum schools.

The Community Wellness Project, he said, provided expert facilitators to help the district’s effort and the Mandala Center for Change was brought in to provide racial equity training.

“They were the right people to get this initiative going,” he said.

An all-staff event was held online on Zoom, with four hours devoted to training on equity issues.

“Then the real meat of the project was to have the teacher groups meet in smaller conversation groups,” Engle said.

Fortunately, the spread of COVID-19 was starting to subside and staff were able to meet in groups of five, six, or seven  at a time for facilitated conversations hosted by the teacher leaders.

“Everyone got to meet in small groups so everyone was able to feel safe ... in unpacking their ideas about race,” Engle recalled.

The superintendent said he has gotten much feedback about the outreach.

“People are feeling really positive and supported in exploring those topics. And more than that, just how the issues play out in the classroom and how we can get better as a system to be sensitive to bias and issues around race and culture.”

“We had a good first year,” he said.

But that important work has just started, Engle explained.

“We’ve committed to the long haul. We know from these conversations that this is really, at the minimum, a 10-year sort of process. You’ve really got to dig in deep. And every year, you’ve got to get a little deeper.”

The Chimacum district will continue its internal examination in the coming year.

“Next year, we’ll take a more systematic approach in terms of looking at district policy and structure and the things we do,” he said.

That includes how staff are hired, and other employment practices, “to see what we can do to get more of an equity lens involved.”

“It’s not just about the individual classrooms,” Engle said, and an awareness that equity grows out of ingrained behaviors.

“We need to shift those behaviors. It takes time and commitment. And our district — we’ve made a decision just this past year to really dig in deeply and make sure it’s sort of community-based approach.”

That focus will extend into the future.

“It’s not one of those drive-by experiments where someone talks to us about best practices and goes away. It’s based on grassroots, and every teacher is involved and the whole system is looking at itself.

“We need experts and advice and input from outside sources,” Engle added, “but we need to be in charge of the process and be committed to it.”

The state requirement for staff training, he said, was a sideline to the district’s interest in moving forward on racial equity issues.

“We needed to be more serious in our commitment than that,” Engle said.

“We did way more than the state required. We made it a year-long project and they were only funding one day of in-service,” he said. “We’re going to give it the time it needs. It’s two or three years, that’s what we’ll devote to it.”

That engagement must extend from the top to the bottom, Engle noted.

“The personal commitment of each teacher and staff person is important, too. We want our bus drivers, our food servers, our paraprofessionals, our education assistants, to all be part of this process. We have to figure out how to include them in the process going forward.”

“A bad incident on a bus could undo years of good work. We want to include everyone who has contact with our children.”

Engle leaves his post as superintendent June 30, as the district’s new superintendent, Scott Mauk, starts work July 1.

Engle said he wants to be accountable for the effort at the end of the school year for what’s been done, and has had several meetings with the teacher leader group to get input.

That’s essential to keep the momentum going.

“The continuity is so important. We didn’t get to George Floyd all of sudden. That was a long time coming.

“It’s going to be a long time to undo that culture,” Engle said. “I think we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

 

Historical museum broadens the historical lens

Following a promise made last year, the Jefferson County Historical Society is actively addressing issues of representation, decolonization, and equity within the museum sector.

In the past, historical societies have presented a narrow lens of historical interpretation and collection, representing a small portion of people who have contributed to history.

“We’re looking to expand those stories,” said Shelly Leavens, the historical society’s executive director.

“We want to really pull in many more stories that haven’t been represented.”

With a lot of internal work being done, the society is committed to an ongoing education.

“The staff and board, we’re continually learning so much and attending as many kinds of workshops and learning opportunities that we can,” Leavens said.

They have been working with a consultant to facilitate a racial justice literacy training course, meeting every other Thursday to work together.

She described the course as an incredible step for the community and its leaders.

“It’s amazing,” Leavens said. “It’s leaders of organizations in our community who are having really honest and vulnerable conversations about race and about the history of injustice toward people of color.”

“I think our partnerships will be stronger. I think our conversations will be ongoing,” she added.

These courses are coupled with ongoing book discussions between the museum’s team a couple of times a month. Book topics include the history of underrepresented people and racial justice.

Just this past March, they adopted a land acknowledgement statement in consultation with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

“We now use that statement at the start of all of our public programs and our formal meetings,” Leavens noted.

The statement is something they will continue to use into the future.

There is more ongoing training being planned, training that is specific to museums.

By taking the time to examine their collections, they are also looking into the ways in which the underrepresented are absent from their collection.

“We are working on an analysis of what is in the collection and what we feel is missing and how we are going to address those gaps in the collection,” she said.

“It’s going to take time and resources, but we are committed to doing that work.”

The team is committed to discussions around this work and the necessary actions that will follow.

“We’re looking at how we integrate some of that training material in with our volunteer program as well,” she added.

She explained how this is just the beginning, recognizing these as steps forward in a continuous journey.

“There is no end,” she said, “This work is ongoing.”

Leavens expressed her hope of soon seeing tangible aspects of this work at the museum.

It will result in more representative collections and exhibitions that will reflect a broader history, incorporating the underrepresented.

 

Library system continues to reflect, act, learn

We will work, but we will work together.

Coming roughly two months after racial justice demonstrations enveloped Port Townsend, Washington state and the world, the Board of Trustees for Jefferson County Library unanimously adopted a statement on equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“The Jefferson County Library commits to being a partner in the work to bring an end to systemic and structural racism. Our core values include welcoming new ideas, honoring diversity, providing access to all ideas and perspectives, and ensuring our services are accessible to every county resident,” the trustees said.

Signed by members Ellen Hargis, Michael Kubec, Hal Beattie, Joan Chapdelain, and Raj Rakhra, it continued: “We also recognize that we cannot promote justice and equity externally without looking internally at our own operations, policies, procedures, practices, beliefs, and unconscious biases.”

The trustees, recalled Jefferson County Library Director Tamara R. Meredith, took it upon themselves to address systemic racism and the library district’s role.

“Our Board of Trustees really felt it was important,” Meredith said. “The board really felt that it was necessary that they make a statement for the entire district.”

From that point on, the focus has remained on how the library district could have a positive impact on equity and inclusion.

The library hired a consultant, CiKeithia Pugh of Equity Matters, a Seattle-based company that specializes in racial equity and systemic change, to provide equity training for the district’s staff. And as interest intensified on issues of equity and diversity in the community, the library system moved to assist the conversation on discrimination and racism.

On its website Jefferson County Library added a section to its “Research & Learning” menu with resource lists of items in its collection, including books, memoirs and other contributions from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities, as well as materials on anti-racism resources, social justice, and LGBTQI inclusiveness.

Following the Zoom meetings with its consultant, the library created a staff equity workgroup, which began meeting once a month for discussion and planning.

“We have just really taken what our consultant advised and delved deeply into a number of areas,” Meredith explained.

The group has since met five or six times.

“That particular work group is my favorite. I always come away from it feeling full of hope,” she said.

The board also called for the development of an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Plan including a comprehensive service assessment of the library district as it exists now, and where it needs to be.

While racial issues were one critical piece, equity in general was also a primary focus.

Meredith noted that those who work in libraries, Jefferson County included, have long concentrated on issues of access and equity.

It’s part of the value system, she said.

Jefferson County Library, for example, eliminated overdue fines on materials — a past practice that hit families in financial distress the hardest. The library system has provided services to those with limited transportation options through its bookmobile services. And for residents who face hurdles accessing online programming, it’s provided free Wi-Fi connections.

“I felt pretty good about where the library was to start with,” she said.

“We’ve spent a lot of time with the digital equity piece, as well as general accessibility,” she said, which includes access for the handicapped.

“We’re really coming at it from several different angles. The racial equity portion is a huge piece of it, and everything.”

District policies were reviewed, and language that needed to be changed was identified. Hiring and recruitment policies were also examined.

“We picked out a few areas where we saw we could be doing some work,” she said.

There has also been talk about the materials in the library’s collection, and the diversity of its offerings.

At the time of the Black Lives Matter protest last spring, Meredith said the library had “an incredibly long wait list” for materials on racism-related titles.

More digital materials were purchased, she said.

Interest in those issues has not waned, Meredith added. 

“We continue to see an uptick in that,” she said.

The materials offered, and access itself, remains on the radar.

“One of our biggest areas right now is that digital equity piece. That’s really right in our wheelhouse.”

One recent example is a change made to the library’s website that allows content to be translated into another language. Text on the library can now be translated into one of 100 different languages with just a few clicks.

Another recent change has been the recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday.

Juneteenth marks the date in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation was read to slaves in Texas, where there were still slaves despite President Lincoln’s signing of the document nearly three years earlier.

The Legislature, in April, passed a bill making Juneteenth a paid day off for state employees starting in 2022.

On this year’s Juneteenth, Jefferson County Library will mark it as a holiday, and the library system will be closed.

“When the governor declared a state holiday our board decided it was important for us to achieve that as soon as possible as part of our equity work,” Meredith said.

A reoccurring theme has emerged since the events of last year: “We’re all learning in this space.”

“This is ongoing work for us,” Meredith said.

“It’s challenging right now, because of the pandemic, to try to reach out to local groups to include them in our conversation. As things continue to open up, we are going to be really focused on connecting with our community to find out what needs there might be,” she said.

 

PT School District addresses gaps

The Port Townsend School District’s work on racial equity revolved around the numbers.

Last fall, the school board reviewed a snapshot of data prepared by the administrative staff, a collection of demographic data in their programs along with disparity in discipline data and more.

The results have been used to address gaps in demographic data that details on-time graduation, attendance, state tests, and progress of students by program.

This data was accompanied by suggestions for moving forward with racial equity and social justice within the schools.

These suggestions included looking for gaps between demographic cohorts and program cohorts; hosting student focus groups and inclusive student surveys to ask questions about equity; finding ways to integrate racial equity lessons into core content and Social Emotional Learning; providing free programs to teach about equity, as well as racial and cultural respect; teaching judicious social media watching; and addressing the cultural climate within the school community to create a space of mutual respect, personal responsibility, and safe action.

With the snapshot as a focal point, the district has addressed many items on the topics of racial equity and social justice this school year, according to district officials.

When it comes to teaching and administrative staff, the school district began a professional development series on racial equity, culturally responsive schools, and multiculturalism. Like the Chimacum School District,

he Port Townsend district partnered with the Mandala Center for Change, which provided more than seven hours of professional learning for staff.

Under the direction of District Librarian Joy Wentzel, there has been growth to the collection of fiction and non-fiction books at each school that helps students and staff better understand each other, officials said.

The board has continued to implement the “Since Time Immemorial Curriculum,” engaging in the tribal consultation process and building relationships with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

After conducting an equity analysis to develop the recovery plan and determine areas of focus, an OSPI Academic and Student Well Being Recovery Plan is being drafted by members of the board.

 

Equity targeted by hospital initiatives

Jefferson Healthcare has embarked upon a process by which hospital officials hope the district can better serve Jefferson County’s BIPOC and Latinx communities who might otherwise go under served.

According to Dunia Faulx, Jefferson Healthcare’s director of care transformation and population health, more than simply announcing their intent to study the matter of healthcare equity, the hospital has actually begun taking action to address issues identified through their analyses.

Faulx said the group recently saw some success after reaching out to the local Latinx community in an attempt get more members of the community vaccinated against COVID-19.

Dr. David Harris, was featured on short video shared via the messaging application WhatsApp. In the video, Harris encouraged members of the community to get their vaccine, which Faulx said helped increase their trust.

“I think the work that we did impacted the trust in that community,” she said. “I think they trust a few of our providers, especially Dr. Harris — who speaks Spanish — implicitly, so when he did that video … we did see that differential start to go down over time.”

Faulx said Jefferson Healthcare continues to gather data from those in their healthcare system as it seeks to understand how the BIPOC community utilizes medical services.

Preliminary data, she explained, suggests that disparities exist within the realms of cancer screening and general wellness checkups.

But she added that more data is needed before the hospital can begin taking concrete steps to address the apparent disparities. 

“We have a fair number of initiatives; we’re building community partnerships,” Faulx said.

“I’m really interested in the way that we spend our money, especially as a large organization. I think that we have the opportunity to be really intentional and make a lot of difference with the way we spend our money.”

To that end, Faulx said Jefferson Healthcare has been working to identify local businesses operated by members of the BIPOC or Latinx communities through which the hospital could procure various necessities.

“If there are community agencies that we could then support through what we already buy — we’re a huge purchaser in the community because we’re the largest employer — could that be something we think more intentionally about?”

“Also, looking at our policies and the way that we look at our contracts and building it into everything that we do, so it’s just hard-wired,” she continued.

After examining whether a contract or plan meets the requirements set forth in the planning phases, Faulx said Jefferson Healthcare is looking to incorporate an added filter which questions whether any specific contract would also contain any element which would serve to perpetuate inequity.

“I think that really is how we’re going to address [inequity] institutionally,” she added.

Jefferson Healthcare, Faulx said, was also re-evaluating its use of pronouns such as “he,” or “she” when drafting policies and contracts in favor of more inclusive language that doesn’t omit persons who prefer non-binary pronouns.

While COVID-19 still has the public hospital district playing it safe, Faulx said she and her colleagues hoped to see Jefferson Healthcare’s Juneteenth celebration become a community-wide event.

This year, though, the celebration will remain a mostly internal one, out of an abundance of caution for the pandemic.

 

Law enforcement takes an inward look

Elected representatives from county and city government, the Port Townsend Police Department, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and Prosecuting Attorney’s Office met recently following the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder.

Fittingly, the discussion of the meeting centered around whether local law enforcement was doing all it can to serve the community. 

“It was almost a year ago that George Floyd died,” County Commissioner Kate Dean said at the head of the online meeting.

“That event started a national conversation about a stark reality. Admittedly, too many people of color die at the hands of police,” Dean said.

Port Townsend is included in the long list of cities that played host to public demonstrations calling for police reform in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“Our community has had to grapple with this in our own way and luckily our outcomes are much less dire,” Dean said. “But I still think that we all share a feeling that it’s incumbent upon those of us who work in government that law enforcement take a long hard look to ensure that safety justice and dignity are provided to everyone we serve.”

Jefferson County Sheriff Joe Nole said that in the days following the Floyd protests, he found himself frustrated at the inability to meet with members of the public as they called for changes to policing.

“To me, it’s been particularly tough this past year that we couldn’t have public meetings and get-togethers to talk about stuff,” he said. “Even my office is closed.”

In the midst of the social justice demonstrations, the city of Port Townsend formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Public Safety and Law Enforcement. The purpose of the committee was to review the policies and procedures of the police department and recommend any changes where necessary.

The committee found that the Port Townsend Police Department was largely acting in accordance with the values and concerns outlined by the committee after its inception. 

“The Port Townsend Police Department’s commitment to continuous improvement and the adoption of best evidence-based industry practices allows the department to stay ahead of the community-oriented and progressive policing policies national curve,” the final report from the committee said. “In the spirit of continuous quality improvement, this committee hopes that the Port Townsend Police Department maintains that culture and continues to evolve to meet the needs and reflect the values of Port Townsend residents.”

Police body cameras were not mandated by this year’s raft of law enforcement-related legislation from Olympia.

City Manager John Mauro noted the city’s department has equipped its officers with body cameras for quite some time now.

“The city purchased body cameras in 2019, they replaced in-car camera system,” Mauro said. “It quite immediately increased transparency, there were concerns about privacy, they were overcome.”

Despite some initial objections, Mauro said the incorporation of body cameras by the Port Townsend Police Department has been largely considered a success.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, on the other hand, has yet to adopt the use of body cameras.

Nole said that their absence wasn’t the result of any philosophical objection to their use.

“We looked into getting body cams a year or two ago. The price was outside of our price range and we had some other priorities that we needed to deal with, so we made the decision to forego body cams,” Nole said.

“We got an x-ray machine for the jail [instead]. There were a lot of drugs being smuggled into the jail and we had a few overdoses in there … I felt that was more important with the money that we had.”

A lack of citizen complaints, Noel added, also played into his decision not to purchase body cams for his deputies. 

“I know that it probably doesn’t sound good, but we haven’t had a problem with anything that would cause us to have to have body cameras,” the sheriff said.

“If we had a problem with deputies doing things and getting complaints from the public that they were acting inappropriately and whatnot, that would’ve made it more of a priority … I’m not averse to body cameras at all, if we had the money to have them, I would gladly welcome them.”

Dean said she expected to see a county budget proposal for the cameras in the near future.

“The undersheriff and I have been talking about body cams for a while, and he plans to bring forth some proposal for body cams in this upcoming budget cycle,” Dean said.

“I certainly plan on supporting it. I suspect there will be support from the commissioners for that expenditure.”

 

Centrum’s ongoing work to learn, evolve

It is through exploration, reflection, critical analysis, training, and collaboration with the community, that Centrum is on an ongoing journey toward racial equity and social justice. 

“The uprisings and events of 2020 in response to racial injustice deeply affected the staff of Centrum and led to a series of soul-searching conversations through which we began a critical look at our total operations,” Centrum executive director Robert Birman said in an email to The Leader.

“We intend to create conditions for a culture shift that take into account both personal and organizational opportunities to learn and evolve, and to be actively anti-racist and non-discriminatory in living our organizational vision, mission, and values.”

“All of us are proud of the work that we do, and the values that underpin Centrum’s mission and programming. We feel we have a strong foundation upon which to continue to build,” Birman continued.

Centrum has identified two consultant firms to help with the work.

One is a California-based firm that follows ​The Denver Foundation’s Inclusiveness Project guidelines. The guidelines​ involve six steps, including creating a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, or DEI, structure; engaging in DEI training; defining and making a case for DEI; gathering information and conducting research; creating a DEI blueprint; and implementing the DEI blueprint.

Spanning 12 months with two-hour meetings, twice a month, the process has involved the full staff along with five board members at Centrum.

“We are just beginning step four right now,” Birman said. “I regard this process as internal work of building consensus and alignment across the organization.”

Centum has also identified two consultants in Seattle to help with the translation of their work during 2021 and as they move forward.

“We have a highly engaged board nominations committee helping us to diversify participation in Centrum’s governance. And we are looking forward to gathering feedback from the global community of artists and participants who have helped Centrum to be one of the leading arts organizations in this area in all of Washington,” Birman explained.

“Our work, of course, never ends.”

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Pamela Roberts

I completed a documentary titled "The Kawamotos of Lake Leland" about a Japanese-American pioneer family in Jefferson County. It features an interview with Ray Kawamoto, who has since passed. The Kawamoto farm is located on HWY101 north of Quilcene. Its beauty was captured in a nationally distributed puzzle. Ray's family was sent to the internment camps during WWII, but their farm was saved because friends agreed to run the dairy farm in their absence. In this interview Ray shares not only about the history of his family farm, but also about the family's experience in the internment camps. You can see the film at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlIMWvPSBVk&t=280s

Sunday, June 13