August 24, 2021
Summer of rallies, marches sparks multiple approaches toward social justice in Whatcom
Ella Banken

Members of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force — one of the oldest social justice groups in the area — see their role as fierce advocates for people of color, the LGBTQ community and religious minorities, organizers say. Longtime board member Julie Mauermann is among group members who have organized the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Human Rights Conference for most of the past 20 years, among other activities. (Courtesy photo)

August 24, 2021
Summer of rallies, marches sparks multiple approaches toward social justice in Whatcom
Ella Banken

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The murder of George Floyd brought thousands in Whatcom County into streets and parks to call for committed, sustained social justice action. New groups formed and older ones have revitalized, each taking a variety of different approaches — developing virtual networks, holding potluck meals, forming a quasi-governmental entity — to create a more equitable community. 

Challenging long-established systems and building bridges between diverse groups is a massive undertaking. People of color are negatively impacted in almost every direction, according to Shu-Ling Zhao and Kristina Michele Martens, who founded the Racial Equity Commission (REC) last year. The commission was developed in partnership with the Chuckanut Health Foundation and has been awarded funding from Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham.

A public health crisis

A core tenet of the REC’s work is that racism is a public health crisis. A document compiled by Zhao and Martens shows the significant disadvantages that people of color in this community face when it comes to social determinants of health, from quality of health, to educational support, to incarceration rates, and more.

Last August, Zhao, Martens and others organized a march and petition to have this public health crisis officially recognized. In November 2020, the Whatcom County Board of Health adopted a resolution that recognized this fact. 

The REC is working to collect further data on the inequalities individuals face in the county. Supported by numbers, they will be able to further identify what work is needed to remedy the issues.

They are developing an ordinance which they hope to have completed and ready to present to city and county councils for approval by the end of the year. It will outline the work of the commission, define how the work is being done, with what tools and what the structure of the commission will look like. 

Shu-Ling Zhao (left) and Kristina Michele Martens are founders of the Racial Equity Commission, one of Whatcom’s newest social justice initiatives. (Courtesy photo)

These steps are the first towards building a foundation that is able to accurately assess need, and support direct action. 

The REC aims to support policy changes at the county level, in order to support other groups who have been doing specific work for their communities. 

“How we’ve thought about the Racial Equity Commission amongst ourselves is, at first … it was going to be an umbrella to shelter individuals from the rain,” Martens said. “Well, now that we realize there are so many gaps in there, so many community members and groups that want to be doing this, we see ourselves as an airport hangar.”

The variety of groups now working on racial justice issues reflects the range of communities, and of social needs, in Whatcom County.

Countering animosity in Lynden

On July 5, 2020, hundreds of people marched through the streets of Lynden in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In an event that demonstrated the deep divisions of the town, the marchers were met by counter protesters, some carrying assault weapons. 

Marco Daniel recalls the day with disappointment and shock. Daniel moved to the Lynden area nearly 40 years ago from Mexico. He and his wife raised their children in Lynden, and have witnessed a changing population, but also fluctuations in attitudes towards minority groups. 

Daniel’s kids were the ones who advocated for attending the march. They saw the support for the BLM cause, but they also saw the guns. 

Daniel said that there has always been friction in the community towards people of color, but that it has never been as bad as it is today. Despite having called Lynden their home for decades, the heightened animosity almost made them want to leave. 

Daniel is a Christian. He attends Amor Viviente, a Spanish-speaking Christian Reformed church, and is active in ministry work. Through this work, he met Ron Polinder, who has long advocated for cross-cultural cooperation. They became friends through conversation, the sharing of meals and shared faith. Now, they want to share this fellowship with their community. 

Daniel and Polinder along with several others sent a letter to the Lynden Tribune, condemning the “embarrassing behavior” that was demonstrated on July 5, and calling on the community to fight against racist behavior. Wanting to create an opportunity for sustained conversation and relationship building, the signers of the letter decided to form Racial Unity Now (RUN)

The group at its core is rooted in Christian beliefs. According to their mission statement, they are guided by the fundamental philosophies of loving your neighbors, and that every person is created in the image of God, regardless of skin color. 

Lynden has one of the highest numbers of churches per capita in the country, according to Lynden Chamber of Commerce information cited in a 2018 Lynden health assessment conducted by Whatcom County. Within this heavily Christian community, divisions run deep. Polinder, who identifies as a conservative — but “never Trumper” — believes that relationships can be formed and divisiveness overcome, regardless of religion or politics. 

Heather Muljat was among speakers at the Lynden United: A Time of Reflection and Prayer event sponsored by Racial Unity Now. (Courtesy photo)

RUN, although still in its early stages of development, is determined to stick around. The group has goals of starting a book club and speaker series and of working with schools to develop inclusive curriculums. They aim to provide spaces where people from different backgrounds can meet, engage in conversation, share food and build friendships. 

So far, they have hosted a few events, including virtual guest speakers, a prayer and conversation gathering, and most recently, a bilingual church service. 

On July 25, members from Daniel’s church attended Polinder’s, Sonlight Community Church, where a service was held in both Spanish and English. According to the pair, the event was a huge success, with members of both congregations asking for a repeat. Attendees appreciated the messages shared at the service and the conversations between new friends.

RUN has pledged for sustained action, according to Polinder. They hope to expand the group’s reach and invite people of other faiths. 

“We want to tackle divisiveness at a personal level, then transform the community,” Daniel said. 

In the schools

In June, an open letter signed by 17 local parents was addressed to the Bellingham Public Schools that expressed strong issues with the equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) work that was being done in the schools. The letter accused the district of perpetuating political agendas, and deepening racial divides, and demanded that the district re-evaluate EDI materials. 

In July, the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force (WHRTF) and Whatcom Coalition for Anti-Racist Education (CARE) came together and authored a letter in response. The letter supported the EDI work being done in schools, and further explained how anti-racist action in schools is vital for the well-being of all students. As of Aug. 19, the letter has received 267 signatures. 

Whatcom CARE was formed last summer, as a resource for educators. According to co-founder Teizeen Mohamedali, George Floyd’s murder was not the trigger, but it made anti-rasict work more urgent than ever. 

As a parent, Mohamedali wants to make sure her children are fully seen and heard in the classroom. This desire extends to all children of color, and is a foundational goal of Whatcom CARE. 

At this stage, they are working to reach a larger audience for the letter, in order to get the word out to educators, parents, and others interested in the work. 

Currently, the group facilitates a virtual educator network via Slack. Its purpose is wide-ranging, with channels to share curriculum and articles, to give advice about classroom conversations, relevant events and more. Whatcom CARE does not create curriculum, but aims to connect educators with resources and with each other. 

Beyond curriculum

Other goals include establishing book clubs for teachers, hosting workshops, putting together kits for classrooms, and hosting an annual panel for BIPOC students to share their experiences and ideas. 

Siv Spain, another founding member of Whatcom CARE, was formerly the teacher for GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) for Bellingham Public Schools. She emphasized the importance of having teaching be reflective of the actual students in the classroom. 

According to Mohamedali, anti-racist education in the classroom goes beyond curriculum. It’s the posters on the walls, the holidays recognized, pronouncing children’s names correctly and the way educators examine their biases. She believes that if these basics become established practice, then a shift towards understanding the weaknesses and strengths of curriculum will follow.

Whatcom CARE volunteers share their message about the importance of anti-racist action in schools, at an event in a Bellingham park. (Courtesy photo)

As illustrated by the letter addressed to the Bellingham Public schools, people have strong feelings and ideas about the topics of equity, diversity and inclusion for children. What Mohamedali wants to stress, however, is that these topics and conversations do not need to be painful or scary. 

These conversations are only serious if the adults make them so, Mohamedali said. Especially for younger children, it’s just a conversation. It’s important to center the discussions around joy, celebration and love. 

“You have to start with having books about Black joy … so not all they hear when they hear ‘Black history’ is about enslavement and oppression,” Mohamedali said. “But when they hear about Black people, they think about explorers and adventurers and writers. They think about contributions and joy before you can delve into the harder conversations.”

A human rights focus

Co-authoring the letter in support of EDI work in Whatcom County schools with Whatcom CARE was just one of the recent roles that the WHRTF has played in the community. Founded in 1994, the nonprofit has supported various movements over the years. They have been responsible for hosting the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. Human Rights Conference, usually held at Whatcom Community College, for over 20 years, as well as an International Human Rights Day event each December. 

The group first came together after a cross-burning incident at a migrant worker residence in Lynden, where the organizers felt the police did not respond seriously enough, Vernon Damani Johnson, one of the founders of the WHRTF, said. The group became fierce advocates for people of color, the LGBTQ community and religious minorities, and gained recognition in the area. Their Joining Hands Against Hate logo is familiar in businesses and classrooms around the county.

The WHRTF experienced a period of limited dormancy from the early 2000s to 2016 [Ed.: year corrected Aug. 27, 2021], according to Julie Mauermann, board member since 2000. Under the Obama administration, folks were lulled into a “quieter period,” and volunteer participation waned. The Women’s March of January 2018 in response to the election of Donald Trump triggered movement. They reinstated their nonprofit status, which they had previously given up, and got busy again.

Having been around for nearly 30 years, the WHRTF name holds some authority in the community, Mauermann said. They have been able to use their platform to advocate for and support emerging groups, including Whatcom CARE. 

The exact future for the group is somewhat unclear, according to Johnson. Having been a board member for so long, he will soon be taking a step back. After the group’s revitalization in 2017, the group has become more intergenerational, with an influx of younger members joining longtime board members mostly in their 60s. Johnson hopes to see newer members take the lead in determining and pursuing the next steps.

“You have to redefine what you’re doing for this new era that [we] are in,” Johnson explained. 

Call to action

Zhao relates the work being done by different groups to a parable. There’s a flowing river, where babies are coming down that need to be caught. Each person can only stand at one point in the river, but together, they can stretch across. There is a trust that others will stand alongside you. Zhao believes that is what is happening in the community at this time. 

“We have so much work to do, that the more the merrier at different speeds, different tactics, different techniques. We’re starting from ground zero on this,” Martens said.

Martens encourages people to figure out what they’re most passionate about, whether it’s health equity, or anti-racist education, or any number of subjects, and seek out ways to get involved. She guarantees that there are folks out there addressing that topic, and they probably are looking for help. 

“In my heart, we’re standing in the river together. We’re just doing it in different ways. And we need as many people as possible standing in that river, doing the work that they’re doing,” Zhao said. “It’s division and things like that, that is one of the first tools for dismantling social justice.”

— Reported by Ella Banken

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