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Women of the Year: Elsa Distelhorst honored for ‘intoxicating, incredible energy’ on social justice issues

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 2, 2021

It is the early 1990s.

Elsa Distelhorst and company are preparing for Japan Week, a celebration of Japanese culture through dance, food and other events.

Administrators don’t think one of the young Japanese American students looks Japanese. Distelhorst echoes a chuckle from one of the other Japanese women, but the student is offended.

“She got really bristly with me, so I asked, ‘Whoa, what did I do wrong? How can I fix it?’ ” Distelhorst recalled. “She took a deep breath and said ‘Elsa, because you asked, “What did I do wrong? And how can I fix it?” I’ll talk to you about it.’ This was such a big lesson to me, that you have to care about what harm you’ve done, no matter the intention.”

For her time dedicated to communities of color, centering their narratives and doing the decades-long work to dismantle discriminatory systems, Distelhorst is a recipient of the Woman of the Year 2021 Award.

Distelhorst’s work started early.

Her family was involved in activism before her arrival on Sept. 5, 1943, in Boston, Massachusetts. With family roots in the Boston area since 1635, Distelhorst’s earliest memories are of her grandfather, Vincent Vintont Getchell, the leading preacher at Roxbury Memorial Church. Due to World War II, she, her mother and additional family lived with her grandparents until she was 5.

“The church congregation was half black, half white, because of the neighborhood we lived in,” she said. “He started the first program to tutor all children after school and integrated the first Sunday school in Boston. Why? He said they were no longer going to be white children or Black children, just children.”

With the leading patriarch committed to enriching the community, Distelhorst’s family often spent her pot roast and hamburger casserole dinners talking politics, race relations and community engagement.

“I remember, in my family, community was a responsibility we all had,” she said. “That’s what I come from.”

Upon her father’s return from the Navy, her immediate family moved to the Boston suburbs, where her neighbors were Black, Czech and Italian. Her neighbor, who spoke ‘not a stitch of English,’ opened her eyes to the experience immigrants faced. With her town predominately identifying as Jewish, her mother fought against antisemitism.

“With everything going on, my mother and grandpa were both very grounded in the fact that we were Judeo-Christians,” Distelhorst said. “We aren’t just Christians, and that was always very important to them.”

Distelhorst left Boston in 1966, still rooted in advocacy. She graduated from Wheelock College with a bachelor’s degree in education.

“My mother said I have the responsibility to give back because the only reason I was even able to go (to college) was because those who had gone before are now giving back,” Distelhorst said. “You always have a responsibility to give to education.”

Distelhorst became a first-grade teacher at Horace Mann High School in Newton, Massachusetts, where she taught Irish, Catholic and Jewish children. She then made the move to Hawaii to teach children in Kamehameha Schools in a head start program in fall 1967.

“(While) teaching at these Hawaiian schools, the point was to give these children their indigenous identities back because the islands had stripped them,” she said. “Me being just the nice white Christian lady, I was not teaching, so we had Yana teachers come in for an hour or two every day. I’d sit back and had these fully immersed experiences while these kids learned how to read (in their native languages) Hawaiian music and (folk) legends.”

These experiences of assimilation and cultural preservation stuck after Distelhorst moved to Spokane with her husband and newborn son in the 1980s.

She served as the parent resource and support coordinator for Dr. Hrair Garabedian Pediatrics & Associates for five years. Distelhorst then slipped back into education at Whitworth University where, for 25 years, she led advocacy events like community relations and fundraising to uplift diversity, equity and inclusion around campus and in Spokane.

Outside of Whitworth’s initiatives, she was an avid volunteer for March of Dimes, was a founding member of the Japan Week and Churches Against Racism in 1998. Her decadeslong advocacy has always been rooted in what she labels “intercultural communications” while looking to promote healing from trauma and oppression.

“I shifted from an integrated system to intercultural work, really,” Distelhorst said. “As a white ally, still understanding oppression, the culture of repression, the seriousness of oppression, I center the need for trauma healing.”

Distelhorst served on the board of directors of the Center for Justice for several years. In that position, she worked closely with Rick Eichstaedt, the executive director, who called Distelhorst an “amazing, supportive directing chair.”

“Elsa had great ideas as far as fundraising; she’s incredibly dedicated to issues of social justice,” he said. “She was really interested in the center and continued to focus on issues like police accountability and addressing the basics of environmental and social justice law firms,” he said. “She brought this intoxicating, incredible energy that was so goal-oriented and pushed us to do more work.”

Eichstaedt recalled Distelhorst being incredibly active, working on the ground for programs that directly impacted Spokane’s vulnerable communities.

Distelhorst retired in 2009, and her work shifted to philanthropy. She has supported scholarships, such as the Hawaii Aloha Endowed Scholarship, and donated work for the Spokane Riverkeeper, Story Theatre Spokane and Spokane Public Radio.

“We were a run-of-the-mill, middle class family until my aunt died,” she said. “She had no kids and she left me her estate. So that’s how I’m able to do philanthropy. I told my husband I want more art, traveling, but I want to do tithing. My family always gave to churches and causes in the city.”

Now as a member of the Rockwood Retirement Community, Elsa looks to keep inspiring the younger generations to continue the work.

“Now, with my granddaughter, I’m teaching her about philanthropy,” she said. “We have to keep passing down that this work is important, especially those in power to change things who need it.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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