Sandy Williams has worked on social justice issues nearly her entire life and now focuses on shining a light on issues affecting Spokane’s African American community as the publisher, editor and writer of The Black Lens newspaper.
“It’s from the lens of the African American community, how do we see things,” she said.
Her advocacy has earned her a YWCA Women of Achievement Carl Maxey Racial and Social Justice award. She’ll receive the award at a luncheon at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 4 at the Davenport Grand Hotel, 333 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. Tickets are $125 and can by purchased by calling (509) 789-9312.
Williams first arrived in Spokane as a 12-year-old, following her father when he took a job as an Army ROTC instructor at Gonzaga University. She graduated from Cheney High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Washington State University before moving to Boulder, Colorado.
It took only one cold, snowy winter to send her to Los Angeles, and she’s been bouncing back and forth between Spokane and L.A. ever since. She always found herself doing social justice work at nonprofit organizations. “It’s sort of where I kept landing,” she said.
She came back to Spokane in the late 1980s, but her dream of wanting to be a filmmaker kept gnawing at her. “On a whim I applied to USC and damn if I didn’t get in,” she said. “I packed up my kid and sold my house and moved to L.A. to go to film school as a single parent. I did it. It was amazing.”
She had an internship with African American writer, director and producer Dianne Houston, and after she earned a master’s degree in film and television production she took what was supposed to be a two-week research job with Houston. Instead she ended up staying on for nearly six years as Houston’s assistant.
“I worked on films,” she said. “I helped with scripts. She was good people. She really was a teacher boss.”
But Williams discovered that she hated the film business. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz,” she said. “Once you see behind the curtain you see what it’s really like.”
She took a job with the Gay Straight Alliance Network and helped set up GSA clubs at schools in Southern California. After her daughter graduated from high school Williams moved back to Spokane in 2006 to be closer to her parents.
“I had saved some money,” she said. “I was going to kick back and do nothing and figure my life out.”
Life, however, had other plans. She took a job as the Spokane field coordinator for the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, which she did for close to five years. She was the interim executive director of the Odyssey Youth Center for nearly 18 months then took a job with Eastern Washington University to launch its Pride Center.
“While I was out there I started the newspaper,” Williams said. “I did both for six months, and it was too much.”
She quit her job in June 2015 to focus on The Black Lens. She writes most of the stories in the monthly newspaper, but uses stories from wire services and occasional columns from local community members. She started off printing 500 papers a month and now prints 1,300. She drops copies off at some local businesses and has about 250 subscribers. Advertising helps pay the bills.
“I cover the cost of printing it, but it doesn’t pay for me,” she said.
Williams does consulting to pay her own bills, including conducting diversity training and leading equity workshops. “It’s really hard to balance,” she said. “It’s so all consuming.”
When she first started, Williams wanted to tell happy stories about African Americans in the community who were doing good. Too often black people only make the news if they are criminals, entertainers or athletes, Williams said. Having an African American newspaper would also give members of the community a way to communicate with each other, she said.
But the Spokane Police Department came out with a use of force report that indicated there were racial equity problems, and Williams was fired up. “That was my decision point,” she said. “That became my very first article in the very first issue.”
Williams describes her work as truth telling and showing an alternate perspective “that I thought wouldn’t get told if I didn’t tell it,” she said. Sometimes the paper comes out “more angry than I thought it would be,” she said. “For me it’s about trying to raise consciousness.”
She’s proud of the work she’s done, particularly the entire issue she did on racial inequality in Spokane Public Schools. She’s also proud of the election issue she puts out every October. She said she has no problem filling the pages.
“I used to hunt, hunt, hunt, but now people call me,” she said. “It’s mostly limited by how much time and energy I have in a given week.”
But despite often being fired up, the work can be a hard. In the end it’s the response from the community that keeps her going, she said.
“I have people who stop me and say they read it cover to cover,” she said. “I really feel like I’m accomplishing something.”