Co-founders of Black Snohomish County Carissa Walker (left), Maïmouna Fame and Avianca Walker-Loundermon laugh while they work on social media posts for the BlackSnoCo accounts on Feb. 23 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Co-founders of Black Snohomish County Carissa Walker (left), Maïmouna Fame and Avianca Walker-Loundermon laugh while they work on social media posts for the BlackSnoCo accounts on Feb. 23 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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After 2020 protests, groups focus on laws, people, policies

National tragedies and widespread racism spurred growth and pushed new leaders into inclusion work.

EVERETT — Janice Greene remembers news images of white people in law enforcement turning fire hoses and loosing police dogs on Black people in the 1960s.

The pain of Black suffering and endurance 60 years later lingers, too.

Police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville were galvanizing moments in a year that Greene called traumatizing. Both were Black. Floyd died with a police officer kneeling on his neck as he said, “I can’t breathe.” Taylor died when officers raided her home on a drug investigation warrant and shot her.

“I don’t ever want to see another person die like that,” said Greene, president of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Snohomish County.

Floyd’s and Taylor’s deaths, among others, spurred protests in cities nationwide and across Snohomish County, where 77% of the population identified itself as white and just 3.7% Black in the previous U.S. Census.

People demonstrated in Everett, Granite Falls, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Marysville, Mill Creek, Monroe, Mukilteo, Snohomish and Stanwood. Instead of letting that motivation fade away, Greene and others are challenging discrimination and racism through coalition, economic, education and policy changes.

“When people are out protesting, and in my mind they had good reason to protest, it brings visibility and it makes people think of ways to contribute,” Greene said. “My hope is it stays front-of-mind for people and is not a flash in the bucket.”

Those demonstrations were followed by a surge of support for venerable organizations like NAACP and ACLU and the formation of new groups focused on anti-racism, equity, inclusion and racial justice work across Snohomish County.

The NAACP Snohomish County branch membership grew 25% last year, including filling out its executive committee with members such as John Agyapong, Louis Harris, Simone Tarver and Adasha Turner. That growth and large donations afforded the civil rights organization an office at the Labor Temple in Everett to help people apply for work, field discrimination complaints and find social service resources. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The NAACP Snohomish County branch membership grew 25% last year, including filling out its executive committee with members such as John Agyapong, Louis Harris, Simone Tarver and Adasha Turner. That growth and large donations afforded the civil rights organization an office at the Labor Temple in Everett to help people apply for work, field discrimination complaints and find social service resources. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

“I think that we, not just NAACP, but anti-racism groups are positioned to have a voice,” Greene said.

The NAACP has championed civil rights issues and combated discrimination since 1909 in response to violence against Black people. Membership in the Snohomish County branch operated solely by volunteers had dwindled and the chapter was re-established in the mid-2000s.

Last year’s protests helped spur a 25% growth to about 300 members, though Greene said that number is likely higher because of applicants who registered through the national organization not knowing the chapter’s ID number.

The overall growth helped fill out the executive committee for the first time in years. It helped to have more people available to respond to discrimination complaints, assist people looking for work or other social services, and distribute funds for bills, groceries and rent as unemployment soared during COVID-19 public health guidelines.

In the past two years, donations have expanded what NAACP Snohomish County can afford, including an office in downtown Everett. Group Health Foundation gave the organization $150,000 slated for business ownership, entrepreneurship as well as financial literacy classes. Another $50,000 donation went to people for groceries, prescriptions and rent during the pandemic. The Community Foundation of Snohomish County gave $100,000 through CARES Act grant funding and a $22,500 food security grant.

“That’s very substantial for us because we were financing many things on our own” and formerly on a “shoestring” budget, Greene said.

As part of a website overhaul, NAACP Snohomish County is working on a map to track self-reported incidents of discrimination and racism, in addition to the formal complaints the organization receives.

Inspired by work in Georgia that turned out more Black voters in 2020, Greene said a new focus for NAACP Snohomish County could be in bolstering voter registration and rights.

People gather Aug. 28, 2020 during the Change the Narrative rally in Granite Falls. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

People gather Aug. 28, 2020 during the Change the Narrative rally in Granite Falls. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Beyond waving signs

A few years ago Michael Adams, 32, moved to Granite Falls to be closer to his daughter. There aren’t a lot of Black people in town, and he’s one of them.

The graduate school student studying mental health counseling didn’t aspire to be a local civil rights advocate. He started a private Facebook group, Change the Narrative: Granite Falls, in June after seeing video of Floyd dying, getting called the ‘N-word’ at a grocery store in town and getting “backlash” for posting about racism on community message boards.

He made the Facebook group for people to ask and learn about systemic racism as well as organize demonstrations and protests in Granite Falls and beyond. Anyone on Facebook can apply to join the group.

“I grew up in Eastern Washington, but it’s more diverse in Yakima than Granite Falls,” he said. “The best place to start is where you’re at.”

More than 500 members are in the group that has donated money to buy meals for unhoused people in the area, and given books about diversity and equity for Granite Falls School District libraries.

Community Foundation of Snohomish County gave $25,000 to the efforts, which Adams oversees. He plans to use it toward a mentorship program, ideally with the school district.

His goal is to connect with people individually and personally. That can be challenging in person and online. Sometimes it happened when he was waving signs in Granite Falls and Snohomish during the peak of protest activity in May and June.

“There are some people who wanted me to go away in the summer,” Adams said. “But then I build a relationship with someone they’re related to or work with, and it’s kind of changed their perception.”

This year, Adams plans to keep asking Change the Narrative’s supporters for equity and justice books, to mentor the city’s young people, and to help feed and find shelter for homeless people in the county.

He and Change the Narrative: Granite Falls are also part of a growing network of fledgling groups working on equity and racial justice in Snohomish County communities.

“We can scream that as loud as we want, but we also need allyship,” Adams said.

In Everett, coordination for advocacy and protest sprang out of social media, an effective tool during the pandemic. BLM Everett/SnoCo Activism, a private group that anyone on Facebook can apply to join, serves as a message board for news and organizing demonstrations.

“Last year was great, we made a lot of connections,” said Natalia Tune, 37, one of the Facebook group’s three moderators and organizers.

BLM Everett/SnoCo Activism doesn’t have official membership but has about 450 followers. They want to shed the “performative” protest marching and push for laws and policies that help minorities.

“So many people actually have the time to protest, call their local representatives, instead of going to sleep on doing this all over again,” Tune said.

Pursuit of that goal is already under way as they were appointed to Everett’s diversity advisory board.

Unlikely front line

Snohomish, a city of over 10,000 residents, became the county’s front line between anti-racism protests and some who opposed that message.

Unverified social media rumors circulated that anti-fascist activists were mobilizing to destroy quaint downtown Snohomish but the threat never materialized. But dozens of vigilantes, some of whom were armed and displayed hate group symbols, descended there ostensibly to keep the peace. Law enforcement, including in an armored personnel vehicle, also showed up.

Clashes there didn’t become fatal but resulted in strong words and some fights, including a man punching the face of a teenage boy protesting racism and racial injustice.

Snohomish For Equity had formed a few years earlier with a focus on improving racial equity in the schools there. That’s still the mission, even if the means to achieve it have broadened.

The organization’s Facebook page used to have between 200 and 300 likes. Over 2,500 people — most of whom are white, Snohomish For Equity president Tabitha Baty said — follow it now. Hundreds have taken the group’s online anti-racism and bystander intervention training classes.

“I personally have to wonder if the events of this spring and summer were so significant that it caused people to say, ‘No, I’m going to speak out now,’” Baty said. “Once a couple of people did and shared their experience, it gave others courage to come out.”

Snohomish For Equity’s board meets monthly with the Snohomish School District superintendent and regularly attends school board and district meetings.

The volunteer-run group doesn’t have official memberships, so there is no firm number of people supporting it. However, engagement in its monthly board meetings is such that there’s now dedicated time for anyone to speak.

“There are so many more people wanting to understand,” Baty said. “There’s more than just the voice of us, the board of Snohomish For Equity, there’s the voice of people in the community.”

When in-person gatherings are safe, Baty said the Snohomish For Equity board will encourage new members to join subcommittees and smaller groups to focus their interest and time. With online events still the best option, the group plans to host more virtual conversations and panels and screen movies. Baty said the goal is to provide enough information to turn participants — often parents of Snohomish students — into anti-racism and equity advocates in each building.

Olushola Bolonduro , 27, and Gus Underfoot, 41, protested in Seattle when law enforcement used non-lethal crowd tactics, including chemical sprays. Then they read about the confrontations in Snohomish.

Those events pushed them to form the Pink Umbrella Society, which they described as being like a night club bouncer, a barrier between the inside and outside of an event.

“It came out of a long-time desire to create an intersection for people to have spaces to speak,” Underfoot said.

The society’s volunteers, armed only with their bodies, a shared signal system and de-escalation tactics, patrolled the perimeter of a gathering in Everett. They also waved “Black lives matter” signs along Everett Mall Way on Election Day to demonstrate that the nearby ballot dropoff was safe for voters of color, Bolonduro and Underfoot said.

In general, the society exists to advocate ways for people to care for each other. That includes mutual aid, supporting neighbors who don’t have housing, and even giving rides to people.

They have collected donations to pay for signs, T-shirts and patches, and mainly encourage people to support the Northwest Bail Fund and Black, Indigenous and people of color groups.

Avianca Walker-Loundermon adds items to a to-do list on Feb. 23 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Avianca Walker-Loundermon adds items to a to-do list on Feb. 23 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Voting with dollars

Maïmouna Fame, Avianca Walker and Carissa Walker started Black Snohomish County as a simple idea: make a list of Black-owned businesses in the county. Ashley Kay Smith had started one in 2019 on the Black Snohomish Women Facebook group page. It inspired Fame and the Walker sisters to formalize and publicize the directory.

“I’d say their visibility wasn’t high,” Carissa Walker, 36, said of the county’s Black-owned businesses. “Being a Black person, I knew of a few, but there definitely were more than I knew were out there.”

Nationally, Black American households earned almost $10,000 less than other races in 2019, according to Census data. In Snohomish County, that average gap could be as large as $23,000.

“We started Black SnoCo because that’s our community,” Avianca Walker, 40, said. “But we want to see all people feel welcome in Snohomish County… for that to happen, we all need to be able to thrive, we need to support our families, we need to support our kids and their dreams.”

There’s no cost to join the directory or for events calendar submissions, which include social media posts from the BlackSnoCo accounts.

By February, the directory had 90 businesses. Now anyone can tangibly support — “vote with your dollar” — Black people through patronage, Avianca Walker said.

Fame said one recent addition to the directory was a barbershop where she took her son for a haircut. After a short conversation about the website it was added to the ranks.

Their venture has morphed into a website and workplace design business of its own.

“There is no better way to help a Black business than to spend your money there, and not just once, but consistently,” Fame, 38, said.

Hundreds of people turned out June 4, 2020 for the Justice March for George Floyd in Monroe. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Hundreds of people turned out June 4, 2020 for the Justice March for George Floyd in Monroe. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

The conversation continues

Some Black activists and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office began a program last year called “Cops and Barbers” as a space for conversations about law enforcement and race. The group was looking to host events at barber shops, which can serve as Black community hubs.

People in Monroe waved signs in support of Black people and racial justice for months last year.

A large protest there helped boost the Monroe Equity Council, whose committee members are in contact and partner with several similar groups in the county. The council’s Facebook page has over 300 followers and regularly has 30 people in its monthly general meeting, steering committee member Melanie Ryan said.

“None of these issues are new,” said Ryan, 49. “The events of 2020 just woke up a lot of people.”

Monroe Equity Council’s mission to improve equity in the schools became pronounced after a school board director’s child was on video using a racial slur. He later resigned.

Ryan and the other steering committee members are applying for nonprofit status for the council. They envision it with three pillars: identify structural issues in the school district that have led to discrimination and exclusion for race, gender identity and sexual orientation; raise awareness of inequity and education opportunities in the community; and screen city policy decisions based on equity.

Already some of the council’s members serve on city boards and committees where they advocate for those issues. Many of the members are white like she is, Ryan said. That’s useful because they need to demand racial justice but must be careful not to dictate what’s best for people of color, she said.

Even with the influx of people forming, joining and supporting anti-racism, equity and inclusion groups, racism isn’t solved. But scores more people decided they won’t be silent about it.

“A lot of people felt really compelled when the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor things happened,” Ryan said. “You already see a dropoff. We will have another George Floyd, we will have another Breonna Taylor, we will have these things happen over and over and over again, if we don’t do this work in ourselves and as a community.”

Ben Watanabe: bwatanabe@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.

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