Even as a junior high student in Cheney, Sandy Williams had no trouble speaking up when she saw something wrong.
“Fairness was really important to me, and when I was in junior high school, girls weren’t allowed to take shop,” said Williams, now a 58-year-old community organizer and, for the past four years, publisher and editor of The Black Lens, a newspaper focusing on issues in Spokane’s black community. “They could take home economics, and I didn’t want to take home economics. I wanted to take shop.”
The preteen’s English teacher encouraged Williams to pen an essay pushing to change the policy, one that successfully persuaded the school to change its stance. From that experience, Williams said she learned that her voice could make a difference.
“A 12-year-old kid who discovers that she could take an action and you can change something, I think is a big thing,” Williams said.
That sense of fairness, and making sure the story of a community is told, has fueled Williams in her most recent endeavor, the community newspaper. She has also represented Eastern Washington as a member of Washington State’s Commission on African American Affairs, been the interim executive director at the Odyssey Youth Center, which serves the region’s young LGBT population, and helped establish a Pride Center for the community at Eastern Washington University.
Williams’ latest undertaking is establishing the Carl Maxey Center in Spokane’s East Central Neighborhood, historically the center of the city’s black community. Williams, who returned to Spokane for good in 2006 after moving back and forth from the area to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film and television production, sees the renovated auto-body shop on Fifth Avenue as a logical extension of the newspaper’s work to establish and tell the stories of a community typically overlooked in Spokane.
“I think the presence of this, just the mere presence of it, helps move Spokane in a direction that it says it wants to be in,” Williams said in an interview last week, placing her palm on the September edition of her newspaper. “I think all I’m doing is challenging Spokane to live up to what it claims. Otherwise, stop saying it.”
Renika Williams, Sandy Williams’ daughter who lives in New York, remembered her mother calling her after driving past the building and sharing a vision for its future.
“She knew that was it, she was going to do something huge in the community with this building,” said Renika Williams, who works as a fashion designer. “She showed it to me, and I think it kind of just looks like a building.”
Renika Williams said she and her mother share the trait of dreaming and talking big, but she’s seen a drive in her mom to establish the Carl Maxey Center that goes beyond that usual lofty thinking and talk.
“This has always been different for her,” said Renika Williams. “She’s been trying to figure out how to make that happen.”
In eight weeks last summer, Sandy Williams led a nonprofit called Friends of the Black Lens in raising $100,000 from the community to buy the building. An additional $350,000 was included in the state construction budget this year to fund initial conceptual work and the first phase of a remodel, which will begin this fall, Williams said.
The example was set by West Central’s NATIVE Project, a community gathering place and service center for the region’s native tribal population, Williams said. She cited Toni Lodge, chief executive officer of the project, as “my mentor” and an example of the city’s close-knit community of strong female leaders.
“I need to do that, ” Williams recalls telling Lodge. “I need to do what you did, for our community.”
The center will serve as a place for black Spokane residents to organize and push for long-talked-about racial and social justice initiatives that indicators show the city still lags behind on, Williams said.
It was an initial report about Spokane police stopping people of color more frequently that prompted Williams, who calls herself a storyteller and not a journalist, to begin publishing her newspaper. Williams suspects that progress on that issue, and the elimination of disproportionate disciplinary measures toward black students in the city’s public schools, remains elusive.
“We, meaning Spokane, have a real difficult time discussing difficult things,” Williams said. “I think that’s playing out right now in local politics, and we just want to bury it underground. That makes us more comfortable than just sort of putting it out there.”
Williams used the quite literal example of a recent proposal, floated in a video by businessman Larry Stone, to bury the Spokane Transit Authority’s downtown plaza as a means of solving the city’s urbanization problems, to show the city’s push-and-pull between growth and what she called “hanging on for dear life” to the city’s political and social past.
“I love Larry, so that’s no affront to him as a person,” Williams said. “That’s how we handle it here. We’d just as soon not see it and talk about it, and pretend that this is not 2019. You want to be an urban center, but you don’t really want to be an urban center. You want to be a white, little rural town. That’s what you want. Let’s have that conversation, and I don’t think we can do that.”
Mary Ann Murphy, the founding director of the group Partners with Families & Children in Spokane and a community advocate for children, nominated Williams for the newspaper’s list of women of the year. Murphy cited Williams’ skill at bringing communities together and advocating on behalf of the vulnerable as reasons she deserved the honor.
“She always tells the truth, and the truth will set you free,” Murphy said of Williams, whom she has known for decades. “I think that’s a large part of it.”
The Maxey Center will give office space to the Black Lens, a free publication that succeeded the African American Voice, a newspaper that artist and Eastern Washington professor Bob Lloyd ran in the late 1990s. Currently, Williams publishes the monthly newspaper out of her home.
The center is also intended to give the black community a place of its own, which Williams hopes will go a long way toward lending legitimacy to the issues they continue to face.
“Fundamentally, it’s about creating a place where the focus of the place is black people,” she said. “You have to say this in Spokane, because people freak out. It’s not that white people can’t come in. No one’s going to stand at the door and say you can’t come in. But it’s about having a place where the focus, and the attention, is on the black community.”
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