Equity issues at North Thurston schools among topics raised at Black community forum

About 50 people gathered at a Lacey church Tuesday evening for the Black and African American Community Forum, the first in a series of meetings the city of Lacey’s equity commission aims to hold this year.

The goals of the meetings are to get direct input from the community about issues the equity commission can address, and to ultimately help shape city policy. The equity commission is working on a draft of a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan that is expected to be adopted by Lacey City Council later this year, said Assistant City Manager Shannon Kelley-Fong.

Tuesday’s meeting at New Life Baptist Church on Pacific Avenue began with an overview of the equity commission. From there, the commissioners turned to the audience for a question-and-answer session.

The first question of the night was about North Thurston Public Schools and what role the equity commission can play in helping the district.

Parents and students in the district have raised questions about race and equity issues at the school district after students protested about those topics at North Thurston and River Ridge high schools last year.

Equity Commission Chairman Cliff Brown said the group had a “vigorous discussion” with a representative of the district at its February meeting. He said the equity commission has made some recommendations and shared some insight about how the community is feeling about the district.

“They know the community is concerned and they know the community is asking hard questions,” Brown said.

Commissioner Thelma Jackson said that one of the principles they shared is that “we can’t work toward an equitable community if we don’t have equitable schools.”

“And therein lies the connection between our interests and what’s going on in the community,” she said.

Jackson added that it won’t be a one-time meeting with the district.

“The issues are real,” she said. “We are constantly hearing about them and Lacey City Council is constantly hearing about them. The best we can do is facilitate ongoing and future discussions. We see that as part of our role as an equity commission.”

Alanis Blackburn, a River Ridge High School student who serves as a youth representative on the equity commission, reminded the audience that even though the equity commission and city council aren’t directly involved with the district, that doesn’t mean those in power can’t still be held accountable.

She urged audience members to speak during public comment at city council and equity commission meetings. Although not mentioned by Blackburn on Tuesday, North Thurston school board meetings also have a public comment period.

The district has repeatedly defended its steps to address equity and inclusion at its schools since last year’s protests. Spokeswoman Amy Blondin added Wednesday that the district will continue to engage on those issues and work with its partners on them as well, including the city of Lacey.

Other topics were raised at the meeting: after-school programs for at-risk youth, barriers to employment and health care, and simply getting information out to the community.

Resident Erin Jones suggested that there is a need for a one-stop shop of information, especially for those who are new to the city and are looking for black neighborhoods or churches or elders in the community or this: Where can I get my hair done?

“I can’t tell you the number of times on Facebook people have reached out to me about this,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t think about the little things. It might feel small, but it’s a really big deal.”

Troubling topics also surfaced at the meeting.

One woman said she used to live in Lacey and the city has a great hometown feel to it, but it doesn’t have an “inclusive atmosphere.”

Jones added how unwelcoming it can sometimes feel when she sees a Confederate flag, a symbol of the South during the Civil War, flying in a Lacey neighborhood, or sees images displayed by supporters of the far-right Three Percenters’ group.

Resident Nat Jackson shared his disappointment in seeing an area gun business misappropriate terms important to the Black community, such as “Let Freedom Ring,” which originates with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or to see Black Lives Matter become “Black Guns Matter.”

“It insults me when I see that,” he said.

Up next for the equity commission is to have a gathering of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in either May or June, followed by forums for those with disabilities and immigrants.