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The Black Lens is coming back

Do we understand how extraordinary it was that Sandy Williams established a beloved Black newspaper, the Black Lens, in Spokane? It started in 2015 and while the independent Black press goes back to pre-Civil War America, most of the notable Black papers today are in cities like Memphis, Baltimore and Chicago. But Sandy decided the Black community in and around Spokane needed a place for stories that gave inspiration, knowledge and pride along with a thoughtful discussion of issues important to Black people.

So the Black Lens followed in the tradition of Ida B. Wells’ the Free Speech and Frederick Douglass’ the North Star. It took a position. It advocated for change. And along the way, it became a must-read newspaper for many in Spokane’s Black community, a free paper picked up at barbershops, beauty salons, churches and community centers once a month. Its articles about shared experiences and advertisements with practical information on Black-owned businesses ensured that it was carried in pursues and backpacks so it could be read over days and weeks, cover to cover.

And then Williams died in a plane crash in September 2022 along with her partner, Patricia Hicks. Along with the shock and grief that rippled through the community, another extraordinary thing happened. A wide-ranging group of local families, organizations, businesses and institutions banded together to restart the publication of Williams’ Black Lens.

“The Williams family – working with Rob Curley, the Inatai Foundation, Elsa Distelhorst, the Innovia Foundation and so many others across this community – is committed to relaunching the Black Lens to give the African American community and other communities of color their voice back,” said Sandy’s brother Rick Williams on behalf of the family. “Bringing the Black Lens back will enable us to continue Sandy’s desire of showcasing the businesses, the leadership, the passion and the successes of our community.”

One of the first big successes along the path of relaunch was the formation of the Sandy Williams Black Lens Fund, hosted at the Innovia Foundation, in May 2023. The fund’s founding donors include Sandy Williams’ family, the Inatai Foundation, Elsa and Dan Distelhorst, Premera Blue Cross and the Innovia Foundation.

Organizers said the reborn Black Lens news organization would continue the mission of Williams’ publication and also would expand upon it by adding substantially increased print circulation; a constantly updated website with an emphasis on mobile and email capabilities; a new syndication system that will provide the organization’s news content and columns to other news organizations across the Pacific Northwest and nation at no charge; mentors for young journalists at the high school and collegiate levels; and annual public events across the region.

This fall, Gonzaga University and a startup team lead by Spokesman-Review Editor Rob Curley have been working out the nuts and bolts of how Gonzaga will become the new home for Black Lens’ reporters and editors. Past and current members of The Spokesman-Review newsroom will provide editing and production services for the print and digital versions, and the Northwest Passages event series will provide the infrastructure and marketing for the publication’s public forums and events.

While the relaunched Black Lens will have a new home, a new website and new methods of distribution, Sandy’s brother Rick Williams said it will stay true to the spirit of his sister’s vision.

“The Black Lens shared a point of view and a perspective on living in Spokane as an African American,” Williams said. “Through the pages of the Black Lens, Sandy shared her voice, wisdom and frustration in the hopes of making Spokane the place it could be – a place that cares for all of its citizens, a place where inequalities in health, wealth, education, food access, legal services and opportunities are acknowledged and confronted.”

Grounded in that history, the new mission statement of the Black Lens is to serve as a voice and agent of change for the Black community using stories, information and shared experiences to expand awareness and build bridges for everyone to thrive.

The person recruited to make sure the relaunched Black Lens stays true to that mission is Spokane lawyer and activist Natasha Hill. Hill agreed to work with the startup team as the interim editor of the Black Lens and steer it through preparation for full launch during Black History Month in February 2024. Hill will lead the search and hiring of the racial and social-equity reporter position that was previously funded through donations from the Michael Conley Charitable Fund and the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund.

“We are also excited to relaunch the Black Lens because of our belief in and support for local journalism and the role local papers play in helping a community thrive,” Rick Williams said.

Curley said because of that particular emphasis, the Black Lens will play a larger role in the region’s journalism landscape than anyone could imagine.

“The Black Lens is about to become one of the cornerstones of one of the most ambitious efforts in the nation to help local journalism not only survive, but thrive,” Curley said. “A community should own its stories in the same way that communities own their parks, libraries, schools, roads and all of the other things that make a city all that it is.

“A massive effort is underway to help Spokane create one of the first large-scale, community-funded and community-owned news organizations of this type in the nation. That the Black Lens would be so integral to making that happen is a testament to the power and importance of Sandy’s vision and mission.”

Nichole June Maher, president and CEO of the Inatai Foundation said Sandy Williams was a “fierce and unapologetic truth-teller who stepped up when those with far more institutional power and resources fell short.”

“She once told us: ‘I love Black people. And so my life’s work is to use whatever privilege I have, whatever knowledge I have, whatever access to power I have to provide opportunities that will uplift and support Black people,’ ” Maher said.

The Black Lens’ relaunch effort, under the leadership of Natasha Hill is posed to bring back the spirit of that truth-teller, and contribute a sorely missed vehicle for connecting and supporting Black people in the Spokane area.

To make a tax-deductible donation, visit or call Innovia directly at (509) 624-2606.

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