When Sandy Williams, the founder of the Black Lens newspaper and the Carl Maxey Center, died in a plane crash last September, people across Washington mourned the loss of a fierce social justice advocate with strong ties to the community.
Her work has earned her a posthumous YWCA Women of Achievement Lifetime Achievement Award. Williams and the other award winners were recognized at a luncheon at the Davenport Grand Hotel earlier this month. She had previously been awarded the 2018 YWCA Women of Achievement Carl Maxey Racial and Social Justice Award.
Williams grew up in a military family, moving often. When she was 12, her father began working as an Army ROTC instructor at Gonzaga University. Her brother, Rick Williams, said their constant moves meant they were extremely close.
“We had each other,” he said. “We made up our own games and our own fun.”
He was her older brother by 11 months and 11 days, not that Sandy Williams was counting.
“Once a year, I became not her older brother for 11 days and she was very proud of that,” he said.
As the two siblings lived and worked in different areas of the country, they made it a point to see each other a few times a year and talk by phone often. “We stayed close,” he said. “That was very important to us.”
Sandy Williams earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then moved to Boulder, Colorado, for one year until the snow and cold weather drove her to sunny Los Angeles. She shifted back and forth between Spokane, where her parents remained, and Los Angeles for years.
She had always dreamed of being a filmmaker, and in the late 1980s was accepted into the University of Southern California to earn a master’s degree in film and television production.
She worked as an assistant for writer, director and producer Dianne Houston for six years before shifting to social justice work. She worked with the Gay Straight Alliance Network to set up GSA clubs at schools in Southern California for several years.
Williams moved back to Spokane in 2006, where she became the field coordinator for the Youth Suicide Prevention Program. After five years there, she was the interim executive director of the Odyssey Youth Center for 18 months, then took a job at Eastern Washington University to launch its Pride Center.
It was in 2015 that she quit her job to start the Black Lens, a monthly newspaper.
“It’s from the lens of the African American community, how do we see things,” she told The Spokesman-Review in 2018.
Her original plan was to tell happy stories about African Americans doing good in the community, but before the first issue even hit the stands, she was already working on stories about social justice and racial equity issues in the African American community.
Rick Williams said he wasn’t surprised that his sister started her own newspaper.
“The paper was a natural outgrowth of her trying to find an outlet to tell her story,” he said.
When she got the idea to create an African American community center, she brought her brother to the building in the East Central neighborhood that she had picked. She could clearly envision the center in her mind, Rick Williams said, but he confessed to her that he couldn’t see it happening at that location. She stuck to her plan and made it happen.
“She had the vision that could see something and the creativity to make it happen,” he said.
Walter Kendricks, who is vice president of the board of the Carl Maxey Center, said he met Sandy Williams nearly a decade ago and she would talk to him about her dream of an African American community center over coffee. She showed him the building and made her pitch.
“She pulled a group together and we went down the road,” Kendricks said. “We started out as the Friends of the Black Lens.”
Sandy Williams was a strong woman with a sharp wit, Kendricks said. “She was my sister, straight up,” he said. “We used to laugh at each other. We called ourselves the preacher and the radical. We just had a bond most people don’t understand. It was bigger than the Maxey Center.”
Rick Williams was in town spending time with his mother when his sister died. With their father gone years ago, Sandy Williams took care of her mother, and her brother always left his home in California and came to Spokane when his sister left town.
“We never left Mom alone,” he said.
In addition to her work as executive director of the Carl Maxey Center, she was also making plans to restart the Black Lens, which went on hiatus when the center opened. Rick Williams said he was surprised to be asked to fill in for his sister after her death.
“The community wanted me to do that,” he said. “That’s not the plan I had.”
A search has been launched for a new executive director, and Rick Williams said he has been working with Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley to relaunch his sister’s newspaper.
“These were very important things for Sandy,” he said. “What gives me strength to do this is that I believe she’s smiling down. I’d much rather be on the sidelines cheering her on.”
Kendricks said he’s also devoted to making sure her work continues .
“We’ll always love and honor her,” he said. “She always had my back. Always. And I told her I’d always have hers.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the name of Rick Williams.