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Black Lens monthly newspaper celebrates 5 years of sharpening Spokane’s perception of racism in the community

Sandy Williams, photographed in front of the future Carl Maxey Center in September 2019, is a community organizer and publisher of the Black Lens newspaper since 2015. Williams’ newspaper turns five this month, and members of Spokane’s African American community say that it is an important, legitimizing voice in the city. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Sandy Williams, photographed in front of the future Carl Maxey Center in September 2019, is a community organizer and publisher of the Black Lens newspaper since 2015. Williams’ newspaper turns five this month, and members of Spokane’s African American community say that it is an important, legitimizing voice in the city. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

As the print deadline approaches for the Black Lens at the end of each month, its editor Sandy Williams contemplates giving up.

When she started experimenting with design software a little over five years ago at the bedside of her ailing father – a longtime Gonzaga ROTC instructor – her only intention was to write positive stories highlighting Spokane’s African American community. She had experience in radio, theater and other communication mediums, but this was her first experience laying out a newspaper.

Then the Department of Justice released a report showing a disproportionate number of African American people were involved in use-of-force incidents with the Spokane Police Department.

The data struck a nerve for Williams, a longtime community activist who had already been hearing frustration from Spokane’s African American community that they were unable to connect with each other and move the dial on important issues. The DOJ report authors also said they did not find a pattern of biased use-of-force applications, but they did not examine potential bias in other police actions.

At this point, Williams realized her paper couldn’t just be good news that would connect community members. It needed to be a voice that would contrast the biases of local institutions and other media outlets — and she knew it was going to be hard to be the voice for a community that some described as invisible.

The top headline in the first Black Lens issue from January 2015 read, “Justice Department report says: Use of force by Spokane police ‘Not racially biased.’ But Blacks 2% of Spokane population; 10% use of force incidents.”

Williams thought the Black Lens might last a few months, and then she could say she tried to make a difference.

As a one-person operation, Williams faces difficulties with time management and trying to cover an entire city. But the financial challenges are the biggest roadblock — Williams doesn’t generate a regular salary for herself from the paper, which also prohibits her from expanding operations. And Williams struggles with how to get people to read a print paper in a digital world.

But she can always count on a call from her daughter in New York to help her persevere and publish another paper.

“I want to quit, I hate it,” Williams said she tells her daughter with her deadline looming.

Then her daughter replies, “That’s what you said last month.”

Statistics show editors like Williams have long grappled with the decision whether to keep publishing.

Nearly 500 Black newspapers were printed around the country in the early 1920s, according to PBS. Now about 200 Black newspapers remain in print in around 150 different cities across the United States, according to BlackNews.com.

The Black Lens will celebrate five years in business with an anniversary party at The Gathering House at 733 W. Garland Ave. from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.

“I’m surprised as anybody that I’m still standing five years later,” Williams said. “It really has filled a need, perhaps bigger than I even thought it was.”

‘Same struggles, just different faces’

Sgt. Maj. Thomas Williams moved to Spokane in 1973 for his final assignment as the senior enlisted instructor for Gonzaga University’s military science and Army ROTC programs, bringing his wife and two kids with him.

About 1.3% of Spokane’s population was African American at the time, according to census data published by HistoryLink.org. Current census data shows a Black population of about 2% in Spokane.

Sandy Williams, who was 12 when her father moved to town, attended Fisher Junior High School and Cheney High School during a time when the Aryan Nations was operating just across the Idaho border.

“That was really impactful for a teenager; it was fairly scary,” said Williams, though she felt welcome in Spokane and Cheney. “I still have that in the back of my head, so I was very happy to leave.”

Williams, like her brother, left the Inland Northwest after graduating from Washington State University in 1983, bouncing back and forth between California and Spokane while pursuing filmmaking and working at social justice-oriented nonprofits.

“Young people of color typically leave,” Williams said. “People are really friendly. But it’s a frustrating place because Spokane folk don’t want to recognize that there’s an issue here with race. … So that can be really isolating.”

She landed back in Spokane for good in 2006 because her daughter went off to college and she wanted to be closer to her aging parents. She had stints as the director of the Pride Center at Eastern Washington University, executive director for the Odyssey Youth Center and other jobs dealing with social justice.

“That’s been sort of my theme,” Williams said.

Her father had retired from Gonzaga about eight years earlier, some 50 years after enlisting in the Army at age 15 and later joining one of the service’s first integrated units. Gonzaga established the CSM Thomas E. Williams Leadership Excellence Award in his honor. He died in February 2015.

“Spokane was really good to my dad. He absolutely loved this place, and that’s why he retired here,” Williams said.

But, Williams said, “I feel like I need to drag us into an awareness of what the real issues are.”

And when she moved here permanently in 2006, she realized people were talking about many of the same issues they’d been discussing for decades.

“You just walk right back into the same struggles, just different faces,” Williams said.

Williams said she’s observed Spokane’s racism become less overt than in the ’70s, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone anywhere. Systemic issues in areas like education, economics and criminal justice just tend to be more “sophisticated and underground,” she said.

And the city’s growing progressive movement can sometimes have a frustrating surface-level, “declared understanding that doesn’t have any substance or history behind it,” Williams said. Sometimes progressives are the ones who are least willing to acknowledge their implicit racial biases.

“Those are the folks that are supposed to be your allies. … So you end up having to fight the folks that are overtly racist while at the same time you’re having to fight the folks that are covertly racist,” Williams said.

“I believe there’s been some progress, but (racism has) been buried deeper,” Williams said. “And some folks have a hard time hearing that.”

Providing a Black lens

Williams begins each month delivering the new issue of the paper to local businesses, churches, community centers, libraries and other public places.

“It’s always good to be able to pick up a newspaper that pertains to us particularly,” said Larry’s Barbershop owner and Black Lens advertiser Larry Roseman, who noted the absence of news about the Black community after the African-American Voice, a previous Black newspaper that ceased publication 20 years ago, shut down. “The paper is a great service.”

Circulation for the Black Lens paper has grown from 500 copies a month to 1,300, with 225 customers paying for a mailed subscription. And the size of the paper itself has doubled, from 12 pages to 24.

People have offered to take over delivery duties from Williams, but she said it’s part of her marketing and a way to connect with her community.

“Every place I go people want to talk,” said Williams, recalling how Chicken-n-More owner Bob Hemphill will tap a chair and tell her to sit down. “That, too, is a part of what makes it a community.”

Shania Wright, owner of WrightWay Beauty Supply, said Williams always comes to her store last on her route so they can chat and share business ideas. Wright said she’s felt “forever grateful” to the Black Lens since Williams published an announcement about her store before it opened in 2017.

“What she did for us in the community before we were even established was amazing,” said Wright, noting her first customer was someone who read about her in the Black Lens.

Wright started carrying about 30 papers in 2017 and has increased to receiving nearly 75 each month because of the demand.

Some people time their shopping in the area to pick up a new copy of the Black Lens, Wright said. If the store runs out, Wright calls up Williams for more copies and customers tell her they’ll be back to check the store’s stock later.

“For me and the customers that come in, what we like about it is Sandy doesn’t cover just what’s happening in Spokane,” Wright said. And the coverage of local issues, “makes us so we as a community can come together and not feel so isolated in Spokane.”

After delivering the Black Lens, Williams quickly turns her attention toward scouring for information.

She does the vast majority of the local reporting on people, issues and events herself, sometimes with the help of the occasional intern, while photographer Bob Lloyd, the publisher of Spokane’s African-American Voice newspaper until 2000, takes pictures.

“We tried to do similar things to what the Black Lens is doing now — tried to give our perspective on Black issues and allow our community to have a dialogue,” Lloyd said. Williams has “carried on the agenda that I wish I could have continued.”

The African-American Voice shuttered in 2000, about six months short of five years of connecting the “invisible community” of about 3,000 African American readers. Lloyd said at the time advertising revenue covered the cost of printing several thousand copies each month, but he was running out of people who would volunteer at the paper.

Lloyd said he initially tried to talk Williams out of starting the Black Lens because he knew the pressure it would put on one person, “but she rallied.”

‘It’s everyone’s newspaper’

Some of the Black Lens’ content comes from national wire services that cover issues affecting African American communities nationwide. Williams also has a number of regular columnists, including representatives from the NAACP, churches and the Black Prisoners Caucus at Airway Heights Corrections Center, in addition to poetry and opinion submissions.

“It’s been an amazing experience for me personally, just being able to have a space to be able to address some of the things that are important to our community,” said columnist Kiantha Duncan, second vice president of the Spokane NAACP. “I think those are conversations you can’t have in a traditional newspaper or another media source.”

Duncan said people of all races and backgrounds approach her in person about her columns, which have touched on death, mental illness and being your best self under the larger theme of making the world a better place.

“It’s everyone’s newspaper,” Duncan said.

Duncan once wrote a column about approaching management at Churchill’s Steakhouse regarding a piece of artwork depicting a man carrying a noose.

“There are patrons that come to this restaurant like myself,” Duncan remembers saying, “and a noose means something completely different to us.”

The manager spoke with the owner and the art was replaced within a few days, Duncan said.

“And I was able to write about the experience in the Black Lens and about how positive it was,” Duncan said.

Williams told the Rev. Otis Manning of Word of Faith Christian Center that her paper felt legitimate after the church placed the first paid advertisement in the Black Lens in 2015, according to the pastor. Williams told Manning she was going to frame his check and hang it in her office.

“You could see her face just light up,” Manning said. “When she mentioned she was going to do this newspaper it was a breath of fresh air.”

And within a year, the Black Lens announced to its growing audience that Word of Faith Christian Center would move into a new building with another full-page ad.

“Sandy was instrumental in helping us celebrate moving into our new building,” Manning said.

Williams said she is most proud of her coverage issues in politics and education related to Spokane’s African American community, as well as an entire issue about racial disparities. Since starting the paper, her annual questionnaire of local political candidates went from few responses to getting the attention of Lisa Brown and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in 2018.

Former Spokane NAACP president and Police Ombudsman Commission member James Wilburn said Williams makes it her mission to expose issues affecting Spokane’s Black community. She then encourages political engagement by posing important questions to candidates to let people “know what they’re voting for,” Wilburn said.

Newly-appointed Spokane City Council member Betsy Wilkerson, the first African American person to hold a council seat in about two decades, said the Black Lens was instrumental in introducing her to the Black community when she applied for a council seat.

“That communication tool was critical,” Wilkerson said. “The whole (application) process was unifying, and it’s been a while since the communities of color have come out unified for anything or anyone.”

The Black Lens also publishes articles about Spokane’s rich Black history, such as early Spokane police officer Walter Lawson, whom Williams said isn’t well known.

“The thing that makes me the happiest is when people tell me they read something that they wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t read the paper,” Williams said. “That makes me feel like I’m doing my job.

“Even if it’s an issue that’s in mainstream media, then I try to find a lens that’s specific to the Black community,” Williams said.

A greater impact than news

Williams’ work with the Black Lens has extended beyond the pages of the paper since the beginning with community events.

She remembered organizing a screening of the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” in Spokane after she realized no local theaters were going to show it. Then the first three showings sold out.

And she frequently reaches out to famous Black entertainers and leaders visiting Spokane, like Vanessa Williams in December, to see if they are available for meet-and-greets with African American youth.

“In a place like Spokane, you feel so removed from people who are iconic in the Black community,” Williams said at the time. Seeing them in person “makes you feel more empowered.”

Williams also does speaking engagements of her own, like presentations on media bias at schools, libraries and rotary clubs. She normally doesn’t have to speak much and relies on photos to show how people of color can be erased from mainstream news coverage.

One photo Williams shows is from a Spokesman-Review story about the identification of a Black Army veteran who was buried in an unmarked grave in the 1970s at Spokane-Cheney Memorial Gardens. Two white people were in the story’s main photo rather than the African American genealogist Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, who identified him and was not photographed.

“I think that takes a level of bravery that most media publications don’t always have,” said Duncan, the columnist.

Wilkerson said the Black Lens was also the impetus for planning the Carl Maxey Center, where the paper will have office space.

The more community leaders spoke about supporting the Black Lens and its community outreach in East Central, the more they realized the neighborhood needed a new gathering place. They found a building on Fifth Avenue close to the Fresh Soul eatery and Larry’s Barber Shop, both Black Lens advertisers.

Wilkerson said the Carl Maxey Center board plans to hire Williams as its part-time executive director at an upcoming meeting.

“We’re just looking for great things in East Central, and the Black Lens has been a big part of that,” Wilkerson said. Williams is “inspirational and people caught onto the vision,” she said.

Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson said Williams and the Black Lens are an inspiration to the entire Black community in Spokane.

“It has allowed us to view things through lenses that privilege has inhibited us from seeing before,” said Robinson, adding that people aren’t always privy to the challenges others face. “The Black Lens has been the champion of continuing to lift up issues facing the local and national Black community.”

The Black Lens has also been a factor in growing NAACP membership and engagement in Spokane, Robinson said.

“Sandy is our strongest moral support,” Robinson said. “Sandy has been working very diligently to help those of us who want to make a difference understand … what historical, national and local issues we need to keep at the forefront of our awareness.”

The future of the Black Lens

Community members expect the Black Lens to be around for decades to come, and Williams shows no signs of slowing down.

“She’s a star in our community,” said Chicken-n-More owner Hemphill. “It blesses our whole community, white and Black.”

Williams said she’s received requests in communities in Tri-Cities and Pullman to expand operations as a regional paper. And she wants to secure grant funding to hire a staff for the paper.

With the publication as is, Williams said she plans to publish stories related to the potential construction of a new Spokane County Jail and issues with Black people accessing the legal marijuana industry after being disproportionately punished under old laws.

Williams also hopes to incorporate more young voices in the paper, as well as those from Spokane’s African immigrant community.

“There’s still a lot of stuff to cover,” Williams said. “All of that is about capacity and figuring out how do you streamline this thing, and how do you offer content in a place that I’m not at.”

Leaders in Spokane say they look forward to supporting a more robust Black Lens.

Wilkerson said she is discussing how the city might advertise and do outreach in the Black Lens as a way of connecting with the Black community more directly.

“I think it’s a tool for us to hear and it’s a tool for us to communicate to reach the Black community,” Wilkerson said. “I would like Spokane to embrace it more, to use it to achieve its goals for everybody.”

Duncan said the Black Lens is so powerful because it’s more than just words: it’s a “living, breathing thing.”

“What I believe is that people who are exposed to this sort of grassroots, community-level journalism, they are able to connect with it a little bit better. They feel like it’s family,” said Duncan, comparing the Black Lens to looking through a family photo album. “Ten years, 15 years from now, the Black Lens will serve as a critical archive of the Black experience and the minority experience in this city.”

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