Anti-racist scholar and activist Tim Wise came to Olympia for a two-part lecture series on February 26th, 2020. Wise’s arrival was part of a speaker series organized by Shawna Hawk of the Women of Color in Leadership Movement. It began two years prior with Dr. Joy Degruy, author of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, and continued the following year with leading Afro-Latina activist and scholar Rosa Clemente.
Hawk consulted longtime friend Luke Burns to requisition support from the City of Olympia. Burns serves as the co-chair of the City of Olympia’s Committee on Diversity and Equity and assisted with the Clemente event the prior year. He became co-chair of the committee in late 2019 after two years with the group and saw his role in the Wise event as a conduit to provide institutional backing at the city level while Hawk organized the fundraising efforts, promotion, settlement of event days/times, and delegation of tasks to volunteers before and during the event, creating a multi-institutional coalition to maximize success.
Burns believes there is much anti-racism work to be done everywhere, but especially in Olympia. He found Hawk’s leadership, organizing skills and genuine passion inspiring ever since meeting her five years ago and working together on youth organizing in the region. He expressed gratitude at the opportunity to learn and grow in their collaborations.
The City of Olympia contributed to Wise’s speaking fee and towards the design and printing of promotional material, plus its connections to the The Washington Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Olympia allowed the second portion of the talk to take place there. Washington Center staff who volunteered for the event expressed appreciation for the opportunity to work the house.
Several local businesses threw cash on the pile as well, recognizing the need for someone of Wise’s stature to come to the city. Support from members of The Evergreen State College (TESC) staff and faculty followed, and nearby Saint Martin’s University (SMU) also pitched in as some groups of students were studying Wise’s work at the time. Dr. Dustin Zemel of SMU assisted in Media Island’s interviews with both Clemente and Wise. “These two events deepened my appreciation for the sheer amount of hard work Shawna dedicates towards raising awareness of issues related to race and social justice.” Zemel wrote in an email. “I’ve learned so much from Shawna and have a deep respect for everything she does for the community.”
Zemel first met Hawk through a colleague at SMU. He recalled seeing her at a speaker’s event when author Vikki Tobak discussed her book Contact High. Hawk had a passionate exchange with Tobak in which she questioned the erasure of black women in the author’s documentation of hip-hop history and the way the author made money on black culture without giving back to the black community. Zemel appreciated the effects of witnessing the interaction. “I remember as I sat in the audience wrestling with [the points Hawk made]. It was an important moment of growth for me for this reason.” He said.
Dr. Carolyn Prouty, professor of biological sciences at TESC, expressed similar sentiments, citing Hawk’s commitment to everything she does as a notable trait. Prouty engaged her academic programs in the Wise event and was an early TESC faculty supporter of the whole speaker series beginning with Dr. Degruy. Her courses at the college often cover intersections between race and healthcare in the United States, including an upcoming multi-quarter program on the ways race, gender and power influence reproductive health.
Attendance for the event exceeded expectations and was well-received by the community. Hawk spoke of the glowing feedback she received from white attendees who expressed willingness to become involved in racial justice work in Olympia and sees this success as a tremendous moment for the WCLM and Media Island International, the education and cultural center that, among other things, houses the local low-power radio station KOWA 106.5 FM.
The speaker series will continue next year and Hawk believes the increased visibility and momentum can bring greater financial support for the organization to continue to stage these events and provide education to the community.
Some circles expressed mixed reception when Wise’s arrival was first announced. The usual suspects brought the knives out, but even some pockets of so-called anti-racist whites in Olympia showed lukewarm enthusiasm about the event. Most members of the local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) did not know Wise, and the one member who did opposed bringing a white man to Olympia to talk about race.
“Why can’t we put these resources into bringing out somebody of color?” They asked. But the speaker series had already done so with Clemente and Degruy the previous two years.
“We need everyone here at the table. It’s going to take white people, especially white men, to end racism.” Hawk said. Olympia SURJ only provided support after an exhaustive presentation and repeated follow-ups by Hawk. Similar pushback came from some faculty members at Evergreen, who questioned the necessity of Wise’s talk.
All this seemed odd given Wise’s status as one of the foremost anti-racist voices in the United States, but it fits a troubling pattern of ambivalence to the foundations of racism in the Olympia community. The reaction to Wise’s talk is one of the tamer examples.
On December 6th-7th, 2019, an anonymous letter was found in the mailbox of 816 Adams St., the home of cultural education center Media Island International. The note contained nonsensical writings with threatening language, including the word “nigger” smeared in red marker and the quote “I coulda dicked you so much harder. Where we at?” The writings are troublesome on their own, but the fact this appeared in a cultural organization headed by a black woman’s mailbox compounded the ominous tone.
The identity of the person who left the note was unknown as the front yard camera on the house was down at the time the person approached. They were later identified as a man named Walter Hutchinson when he admitted to a friend in Olympia that he may have done something that could be interpreted as threatening.
Hawk immediately notified several community members, including members of Olympia SURJ. Most of the members did not know who Hutchinson was, although the acting leader of the organization was aware of him. Hawk’s concerns were later dismissed by those few members familiar with Hutchinson, citing their relationship with him and how they were confident he did not intend to act on the threats described in the note, although she admitted only knowing him for two months.
Hawk was told that Hutchinson returned to his family on the east coast and received treatment. That was the last anyone in Olympia claimed to hear about him for a while.
However, in early January, 2020, another note appeared at Media Island expressing remorse for the Hutchinson letter with an offer to volunteer with the organization. This confirmed Hutchinson either remained in Olympia or had the means to return. Hawk informed Olympia SURJ about the second letter and said it may be necessary to involve law enforcement. It was in this conversation that a SURJ leader explicitly said she would advocate for Hutchinson in the event the cops were called.
Hawk expressed dismay that the leader of a prominent anti-racist organization was ready to go to war for a man who left threatening messages to a black female community leader despite his rap sheet of terrorizing other individuals in Olympia.
Olympia SURJ has also been criticized by activists of color for not emphasizing local causes where they could make the most impact. Most of the posts involving anything Olympia-related on the Oly SURJ Facebook page are fundraisers for legal defense funds or temporary relief for black families struggling with rent payments. The lack of support paid to bring black-owned and operated organizations to a sustainable existence reinforces a paternalistic order that many blacks, especially black women, feel when interacting with so-called accomplices.
Some groups of Olympia anti-racist whites seem more concerned with finding props to boost their own image than transferring any real power to black-led organizations. The legal defense and rent coverage fundraisers are noble, but absent are the fundraisers for building sustainable organizations that encourage and build black leaders. The choice to defend a white man who used active threatening language against a black woman, whether intentional or not, raised concerns about SURJ’s understanding of this.
So when some local activists who style themselves “anti-racist” and some circles of Evergreen faculty question the need for someone like Tim Wise to address the Olympia community, this may be the answer they need to hear.
“Olympia has been dealing with black flight for a long time,” Hawk said. “We need to keep black and brown folks safe in hot political times. Olympia folks need to examine what social and racial justice look like and not just stick to topics that feel safe.”
The warm reception to Wise and the expressed willingness of community members to tackle these questions could be a sign that this tide is turning. Wise has inspired a new generation of Olympia activists to reevaluate the effectiveness of current anti-racist work.
Three speakers with more on the way, several fundraising events, a new social justice fire stirred in the streets of Oly, and a growing low-power radio station. The win streak is mounting for Shawna Hawk, the Women of Color in Leadership Movement, and the whole Olympia community.