It was standing-room only at Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island when more than 120 people showed up Nov. 9 for a community book discussion about racism.
They talked about the first book selected by the BI Reads for Justice program — “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” — for the community to talk about racism with the people who work and live on the island. The six-month reading program will include speakers, film screenings and community discussions about the book. For details go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
City manager Blair King shared with the audience that he is a Korean adoptee, and when he was growing up people assumed he was Native American. In the spirit of discussing racism, King shared some of his early life experiences.
“This is our son, Blair. He’s adopted, and we love him anyway.” That’s how King’s parents would introduce him to people. He said they felt the need to explain his presence, which led to a childhood that was “a confusing experience of mixed emotions and mixed experiences.”
People nodded in understanding as the conversation led to moments of vulnerability and openness as they quietly listened to different community members talk about racism.
The city of BI and its Race Equity Advisory Committee presented the first in a series of community conversations focused on, “Why talk about race on Bainbridge Island?”
Choosing “Stamped” came from a group of parents who learned the book would be part of Woodward Middle School’s eighth-grade social studies curriculum. They thought it would work for an all-community discussion.
With the aim of raising awareness, increasing education and spurring action about injustice in society, the city’s aim is to normalize, broaden and deepen conversations about race while asking participants to imagine a community where everyone belongs.
With three panels featuring high school students, BI leaders and community elders, Woodward history teacher Brandi Bishamp and Multicultural Advisory Council co-chair Chasity Malatesta led a thought-provoking discussion with key members from schools, government, business, nonprofit and environment sectors.
Gigi Hendrickson of Bainbridge Island Youth, a group that tries to expand healthcare outcomes across the world, talks about health a lot. Specifically, all the things that determine people’s health outcomes. And race is an enormous one. Not only do they discuss specific prejudices and stereotypes, but also the legacies of colonialism, the impacts of capitalism and how poor countries with majority black populations are treated.
“Talking about race is important, so we can treat our community members as best as possible,” Hendrickson said, adding that we need to understand why some people have really good access to health care and why some don’t believe health care is a human right. ”I think we need to talk about race, so we can understand how to actually expand that right.”
Another topic impacted by racism is homelessness. “We built an economy on the backs of all kinds of people who were uncompensated for their labor,” said Peter Drury, chief strategy officer for Wellspring, which works to end homelessness. He said there’s generational trauma in inequity that has been compounded for hundreds of years.
“It is not by some random accident that 90 percent of families we’re serving are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) who are facing homelessness. Guess what? We’ve created that. When we don’t normalize the conversation about race, then people get to pretend that somebody did something wrong to wind up in that position,” Drury said.
He continued: “I’m just stunned and feel that at the core of our work, what leads to family homelessness, is racism. It’s land policy, housing policy, home ownership, redlining. It’s all there, and you can map this stuff back very, very clearly. So, if we don’t talk about it, then we frankly whitewashed history. We pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Normalizing conversations around racism is messy, said Malatesta, but having conversations weaves together the fabric of community by creating openness for difficult conversations to happen. “I can’t imagine living separate from one another in our heart, when we live on an island that has so many families’ stories that built the fabric of the island.”
Malatesta wants to build a connected community that can talk about tough topics like mental health, suicide and affordable housing. “We can talk about hard subjects because as a community, we have normalized having hard conversations without it triggering someone. When people get triggered, they separate themselves from the community,” and she hopes these conversations lead people to ask questions and learn more without feeling shamed.
“I hope you’re messy. I hope you’re making mistakes, and it makes you curious about what you’re triggered by,” Malatesta said. “If you get a new curiosity about that thing inside of you that seems sensitive, then maybe you’ll ask the questions, and maybe you’ll learn more about it … Not everybody needs to be on the same level and talk about race, but wouldn’t it be great if we were all on the same level when it came to empathy?”