Black Lives Matter seeks community awareness on Vashon
By Halle Wyatt, Feature & Managing Editor, and Milo Carr, Co-Content & Social Media Editor
Over the course of this summer, the country has seen a racial justice reckoning. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, protesters have taken to the streets demanding justice for him and other lives that have been lost to police violence and crimes rooted in racism. Although the island, with few police and a white majority population, has not seen protests to the same scale as in larger cities, community members are working for increased equity, justice, and greater racial awareness.
The island is not immune to racist behavior and racial inequity despite its liberal reputation. In its schools and in the community, Vashon lacks diversity, and many Black students feel like staff and administrators have paid little attention to them.
According to the 2019 estimate after the 2010 census, 0.1 percent of the island’s population is Black or African-American. In contrast, 96.5 percent is estimated to be white. In a February Seattle Times article, Vashon was noted as being one of the least diverse areas in the county.
Graphic by Aidan Janssen.
Since the protests began, signs in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have become a common sight around downtown Vashon. The clearest display has been the images of Black victims of police violence in shop windows, put up by the Vashon Remembrance Project.
The Vashon Remembrance Project was started by West McLean in order to honor the lives that have been lost because of the actions of police officers across the country.
“After George Floyd was murdered… I began painting the faces of victims of police violence,” McLean said. “It was a way for me to clear my head and meditate at the time.”
Although the subjects are disconnected from the island, he stresses the importance of remembering them as individuals and not just as the victims of violence that they are solely portrayed as in national news.
“I like the four-way stops in town, and seeing the other people in their cars as they slowly turn in front of me, and imagine what their living rooms look like or what they're on their way to do… These small details are sonder - the realization that other people have lives just as intricate and full of emotion, toil, and minutiae as my own,” McLean said. “I want to apply that understanding to the subjects in the portraits, so that they don't become just a name, or just a statistic, or just a summer headline.”
At US Bank, you will find a portrait of Elijah McClain of Aurora, Colorado. At Vashon Island Pizza, Breonna Taylor of Louisville, Kentucky. In total, there are nineteen portraits in about nineteen businesses. They are tall, taking up most of the window space, and appear in different colors. The images themselves are paintings of the recognizable photographs shared on social media.
The process is simple. McLean contacts the business, or in some cases the business will reach out to him, and if they are interested in displaying the portrait, they will discuss the project, the subject, and the logistics involved in the installation. Creating the piece is one of the easiest parts.
“I paint in my living room, listening to audiobooks from the library, until the painting is complete,” McLean said.
Although the Vashon Remembrance Project technically is only made up of McLean, he has worked with Vashon Events to get into contact with businesses, and has been speaking to organizations like Vashon in Solidarity Alliance. McLean also hopes to work with the school district to create educational materials surrounding social justice or restorative history.
As well as remembrance, McLean wants onlookers to reflect on themselves and their thinking around racism when observing the portraits.
“I get a lot out of looking into the eyes of these individuals, and wondering what their thoughts, hopes, fears, and normal lives were like,” he said. “ I'd like to convey those emotions to others, so that they see the humanity of the life that was lost.”
McLean believes that the island and majority-white liberal places like it are often complacent in the ignorance and negligence surrounding racial justice discrimination, although he stresses that they do not have to be.
“Disconnection is a choice, if someone is fully aware of the violence and chooses not to feel or contemplate the pain,” McLean said. “As far as involvement in activism, our world is a digital world, there are resources and groups online, and there are ways to contribute remotely. And for those struggling to 'get involved' because of anxiety or schedule or good old fashion introversion, staying educated and informed — especially these days — can be activism in itself, especially if you share what you learn with others.”
School staff efforts
With a look around the high school, whether that be in person or in digital classrooms, it doesn’t take long to see that Vashon is a very non-diverse and white place. In the student body, and in the teaching staff, there are very few Black people, or even people of color (POC) at all.
“I worked in Tacoma for 4 years prior to coming to Vashon, and I've spoken about [hiring Black teachers] with Black colleagues on several occasions,” vice-principal Andrew Guss said. “What I learned from those conversations was that Black educators want to work with Black communities, which Vashon isn't.”
Other schools have found great success in recruiting Black or POC teachers through their own high school systems. Teacher/Educator pathways are built into their elective curriculum, such as through the CTE classes, and if students pursue the Teacher/Educator pathway, they will complete the class, go to college, and then be taken back into their home district.
The course is 540 hours, or three years total. Because of the district’s small size and limited resources, this pathway is unavailable to VHS students, although administrators have proposed a 180 hour course that has so far been rejected by OSPI.
Without a course like this, Vashon has to look outside the box to recruit a more diverse staff.
“One option we have right now is to rely on current educators to use their networks to recruit staff of color,” Guss said. “I've spoken highly of this district, its students, its staff, with my network on several occasions in the hopes of planting the seed of interest in case there is ever an opening that suits them.”
Teachers in relevant departments have begun discussing how they plan on working current issues into their coursework.
“Teaching and talking about race tends to be an uncomfortable conversation, regardless of the make-up of the class and teacher. Therefore, continuing to practice and face it head-on, even if it is awkward at times, is my first goal,” social studies teacher Heather Miller said. “Expanding my worldview to include more people of color, such as reading more books and attending professional development about race and inequality is crucial.”
English teacher Stephen Floyd has been working to incorporate more non-white authors to his teachings, in an attempt to broaden students perspective. Students have been working on a major essay about their perspective of America. During brainstorming sessions, many brought up the BLM movement.
“[Students] are articulating a vision of America that addresses our current discourse around issues of race and the impact of racism,” Floyd said.
In order to raise more awareness among students around racial injustice, the high school in recent years has formed the staff and student Racial Equity Teams, the latter of which is primarily composed of students of color. The staff team has been meeting regularly over video chat school started, and the student team has also been meeting.
Science teacher Karah Weber, who is Asian-American, advises the student Racial Equity Team and is a part of the staff Racial Equity Team. She and other staff members have had in depth discussions regarding the wave of BLM protests over the summer, and how they will appropriately address them and the widespread injustice faced by racial minorities.
“We support the Black Lives Matter movement and it’s unfortunate that it’s transgressed into what some perceive as a fad, or trending or anything like that,” Weber said. “One of the things that we want to focus on this year as a theme is sustainability for racial equity and for drawing attention — the deserved and necessary attention — to Black Lives Matter.”
Other teachers have expressed plans to continue the conversation within the classroom by building it into their existing curriculum.
“I plan to continue to incorporate these current events topics into my curriculum as they are relevant to so much of US history and the continuing struggles of people of color,” Miller said. “One of the main skills in any history class is making connections across time and these events tie into events throughout US History.”
Although the protests in Seattle have simmered down, Weber wants to keep pushing education around anti-racism.
“We’re not in this … as a community, because it’s a trend,” she said. “We’re in it because it’s a forever goal that we’re going to continue to work towards.”
Last school year, the student Equity Team held an assembly for Martin Luther King Jr. Day that highlighted modern-day racism. Their primary goal last year was to promote compassion and understanding to the struggles of people from all racial backgrounds, and so far, that goal has not changed.
“It just expanded into the community and the unprecedented events of now, and how just sort of an equity in health care availability and socio-economic equity is very integral to racial equity,” Weber said. “That’s just become glaringly apparent as we tried to sort of navigate this whole COVID thing. I think that it gives students another lens to look at racial equity through and not just the halls of school. So if anything, that goal has just expanded to encompass that.”
Getting their message across to students, however, has become more difficult because of the stay-at-home orders. The Racial Equity Teams are discussing potential events held outdoors and cultivating an effective social media presence.
“[Social media] has become ever more prevalent [and necessary] to communicating. That whole aspect of perpetuating racism through social media has only been amplified,” she said. “That’s definitely something that we could use to include more students in the discussion because that’s something the students are far more literate in than us teachers.”
Weber highlighted the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on racial equity and how it has revealed the great disparity in technological resources.
“The students who struggle to complete courses and to get online for long enough to stay in class an entire class session are the ones whose families are socioeconomically disadvantaged, so… they haven’t been afforded the opportunity that their white counterparts, or people who are just more fortunate than them and had more privilege to begin with,” Weber said. “Us teachers can absolutely see [this inequity] and we definitely sympathize with those students because the systems [were] built against them for distance learning.”
Black students and students of color are often more likely to live in a crowded home, which makes distanced learning more challenging.
“This doesn't necessarily mean every BIPOC student comes from a family with a lot of siblings, rather it means they have less living space per person in their family, which can make it harder to focus on schoolwork, or the internet bandwidth is pushed to its limit with multiple family members using it,” Guss said.
Last spring, the district provided both internet hotspots and affordable internet from both Comcast and CenturyLink. The affordable internet access, which cost about $10 a month, was preferred because of its reliability. This school year, administrators have been upgrading students’ hotspots and their quality of service. All students who have requested a hotspot have been provided one.
“Our tech team has done an incredible job, and have worked hard to address every need as it arises,” Guss said.
As well as more accessible internet, the district has also provided Chromebooks to all students with the expectation that they use them for each of their classes.
“By creating that platform where everybody has equal access to these resources… was a way to help alleviate some of the inequity for distance learning,” Weber said. “By providing [those resources], hopefully we can help eliminate some of that disparity… between our disenfranchised and less privileged groups.”
Although the district and its staff is making progress in making the island’s schools more equitable and welcoming to Black students and students of color, Weber acknowledges that there is still plenty more to do.
“I catch myself doing something that makes me feel better, but it’s not about me,” Weber said. “It’s not about me feeling better. It’s not about absolving guilt. It’s about lifting up these communities and ensuring that they have a voice and that they are heard and that they have access to everything that we are granted just by default because we are privileged and we have white skin.”
Vashon has a reputation as an extremely liberal town often described as a safe, accepting, and politically aware place. Yet in spite of the many “Black Lives Matter” signs plastered around town, racism is still present, and many islanders are unwilling to acknowledge that truth.
“I was bullied for my race and someone… spat in my face and called me the n-word and told me that I was a slave and pushed me to the ground,” an anonymous islander said. “I remember telling a lot of families that ‘cause I didn’t know what to do and they were like, ‘That’s not correct, racism is not here on the island.’ I remember being quiet after that because everyone just like defended these people cause apparently they were ‘uneducated.’”
Many minority students feel that when they share stories of abuse, adults and staff members are unlikely to believe them or do anything to reprimand the offending student. At times, a staff member may be the one doing the harm.
In Floyd’s junior English class during the 2019-2020 school year, he opened up a discussion around the use of the n-word in the novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and his classes’ comfort levels using the word out loud during their group readings. Floyd, a white teacher, did use the word while reading from the book, which made some students, particularly the students of color, uncomfortable.
“I voiced my opinion and it seemed like pretty much the whole class agreed, and then he stopped,” Jesse Townsend, a Black student, said. “I don’t really understand how [the n-word] can just kind of slip in like that. I feel like [using that word] shouldn’t be up to the teacher.”
School staff does not always respond to their own racist behavior or to others’ in ways that are most respectful to Black students.
“When I was in middle school, I told the principal that I was bullied for my race and he said it was ‘just a phase’ that they were gonna grow out of,” the anonymous source said.
Racism on the island extends beyond the classroom walls as Black residents experience microaggressions that can make living here feel less safe.
“I was walking down the street, I was wearing this … hoodie and this mom with her kids looked at me, and grabbed her purse and crossed the street,” the anonymous source said.
Townsend was not comfortable speaking out specific experiences at the high school or on the island. However, he does agree that racism is more of a problem on Vashon than many people acknowledge.
“I feel like [the bubble of white privilege] has been a thing for a long time and feels like it isn’t really gonna go anywhere soon,” Townsend said. “People saying f***** up s*** all the time, [they] kinda get numb to it. And to be honest, I have to. Thinking about it, it can be pretty bad.”
During the height of the BLM protests, the island held one in town on a much smaller scale.
“A lot of the population probably would be more a Blue Lives Matter kind of group… so if people say that the [Vashon] protests aren’t protesting anybody, they kind of are,” Townsend said.
The school will often broach topics of racism, but students and teachers alike often cut those discussions short. This occurred during a conversation with Townsend’s fellow ASB members about possibly sharing Black Lives Matter petitions on their Instagram account.
“I thought it’d be fun to have petitions up,” he said. “But at the end, the verdict was like, ‘it’s too sensitive a topic, and we don’t want to politicize ASB’… I know it’s uncomfortable, but it’s something that needs to be addressed sometimes.”
Some Black residents are upset that even amidst the BLM movement and protests, there still has been little recognition of white people’s own behavior towards Black people on the island.
“As pretty much the only African-American on the island, no one has come up to me and been like ‘I hear you’ or ‘I’m here for you,’ [and] been like a white ally,” the anonymous source said.
Townsend also discussed the lack of diversity among staff compared to his old high school in Washington DC, where 45.5 percent of the population is Black. Although most of his teachers were still white there, a larger percentage of the other staff members, such as the cafeteria staff, were Black or POC.
“At the end of the day, we’re all humans, like just because a person looks a certain way doesn’t mean they can teach a class better than somebody else,” Townsend said. “It’s nice to familiarize kids with Black teachers and colored teachers… because it’s weird if they don’t have any. Thinking about myself, it would make me more comfortable.”
Townsend noted that while the school itself has not always properly supported Black students, the MLK assembly put on by the Racial Equity Team last school year was a strong step in acknowledging racial issues at VHS.
Townsend was surprised at how little long-time islanders knew about Black culture and history before the assembly.
“Nobody had heard the Black National Anthem before that assembly and that’s something I was taught in elementary school… and that we would perform for our families,” Townsend said.
Townsend hopes that the attention brought onto the BLM movement will help educators start better discussions around racial issues in the country.
“Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to be open,” he said. “We know there are problems. It’s not bad to talk about problems that are happening.”
Other islanders express the same observations, that Vashon does not often like to discuss problems within the community and that many white islanders don’t think racism is an issue on the island.
“I just think that it's stupid, that they think since it’s a white little island they don't have to be educated, because there's not really any people of color,” the anonymous source said. “They should be super educated because then they know how to act [and] they know how to respect people.”