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Cultural Rainbow City Employees Share Their Diverse Backgrounds In An Art Exhibit Titled ‘Celebrating Our Heritage’

There’s always a lesson to be learned about perception.

For example, the average observer might say that Spokane boasts about as much ethnic diversity as your average vanilla ice cream cone does variations of color.

And who among us is going to argue?

Well, among others, Spokane’s Department of Water and Hydroelectric Services could.

Consider, after all, the employees who work in that city office. Far from being solely of northern European heritage, they represent a virtual rainbow of cultures.

Let us count them now: Africa, India, Italy, Holland, China, Scotland, Puerto Rico, Norway, Germany, Vietnam, Ireland, England, Mexico, Sicily, the Philippines and Colombia - and that doesn’t include the employees of Native American heritage.

You may not have known this. Few of us likely do.

But you can learn this and more if you take the time to view a unique little art exhibit now on display at the Chase Gallery, inside City Hall. Titled “Celebrating Our Heritage,” it is a collection of photographs, cultural artifacts and biographies of Spokane city employees.

One of the photographs is of the Water and Hydroelectric crew, in all its ethnic multiplicity.

Running through Oct. 11, the 39-piece display is part of an ongoing attempt for Spokane “to recognize, celebrate and discover the diversity that we have among employees,” says Gita Hatcher, a city affirmative action specialist.

Spokane began that process in October by polling city employees about their individual family histories.

“And we found from that survey,” Hatcher says, “that we have about 16 different languages that city employees speak in their homes in addition to English, ranging from Russian to Ukrainian to Spanish, Tagalog, to Hindi and you name it.”

Shortly after the survey was complete, interested employees began meeting to discuss the results. And that led to the establishment of the Employee Diversity Committee, of which Hatcher is co-chair with Ralph Busch of the city Arts Department.

With the Arts Department involved, it wasn’t long before the idea of an art exhibit was raised. The idea involved filling Chase Gallery with an exhibit featuring the backgrounds of various city employees.

And, as Hatcher says, “We were pleasantly surprised at the response we received.”

Aside from a photograph of the entire Department of Water and Hydroelectric Services, those responses included clothing and a doll from Slovakia (Katy Konek), a photo of a Norwegian family (Leonard Strom), a photo of a Native American family (Leroy Eadie), a Vietnamese hat and purse (Oanh Nguyen) and a down-home photo of a Kentucky couple (Joan Poirier).

There is much more besides, including perhaps the most curious artifact, Steve Franks’ photograph of a dog “whose name, unfortunately, has been lost to history.”

But even that photo illustrates something of Franks’ family history: “Why this picture?” he writes.

“Because it’s a great picture, showing how important animals can be to people (if only humans were as faithful and supportive!) and reflect the Franks family motto: ‘The more we’re around people, the more we like dogs.”’

Clearly, all types of people work both in and for Spokane, which is one of the exhibit’s main points.

“This was our way to say, ‘We are diverse and we have strengths because of our diversity and our very backgrounds,”’ says Hatcher.

But “Celebrating Our Diversity” says something else, too, something that involves perception every bit as much as does the notion of a vanilla-colored Spokane.

“A lot of time when people view any government agency, they look at it as a bureaucracy,” Hatcher says. “But this is our way of putting a face on government.”

To know your local government, the feeling goes, is to know yourself.

Hatcher’s face is particularly interesting. A native of India, the 39-year-old city employee first visited Spokane in 1975. Three years later she came to attend now-defunct Fort Wright College on a full scholarship, and she went on to earn a master’s in public administration at Eastern Washington University.

Along with the family photographs in her section of the collection, Hatcher shares both family information and historical facts. Her grandmother’s “distended earlobes,” she wrote, was a fashion of India in the late 1940s. And the traditional clothes worn in the photo by her great aunt and greatgrandmother were trendy among Orthodox Christians in her home state of Kerala.

Interesting, too, is the face provided by Arts Department employee Busch: It is a photo of his father, Ralph Lyndon Busch, who died in May.

Being able to share information about his father - born May 24, 1918 in upstate New York - allowed Busch, 48, to deal with the “mourning process constructively.”

And it is Busch who, speaking about the exhibit, leaves us with the final and fitting word.

“For me,” he says, “this exhibit makes a statement in saying that, ‘Hey, the people who work here in government, doing work day to day, we’re just like you. We’re just regular folks.”’

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos