Clark County residents share experiences at second listening session on systemic racism

A third closed door listening session is scheduled for Aug. 26

CLARK COUNTY — The Clark County Council held their second of three events intended to allow members of the public to share their experiences with systemic racism last night.

Nearly 20 community members spent 90 minutes answering the question, “how has systemic racism in Clark County affected you.”

Only one person said they believe systemic racism is a myth, perpetuated to keep communities of color from taking responsibility for their own actions.

Others shared stories about a lack of diversity in Clark County schools, frequent interactions with local law enforcement, and incidents of racism in their community, or through their HOA.

Carmela Lemon said she was the only black educator in her school until three years ago, a fact that left her feeling “unsettled.”

Colleagues and others, she said, would frequently assume she must be a teacher’s aide, rather than an educator herself with two master’s degrees.

“I find myself walking away frustrated,” she said, “but not giving myself permission to defend myself.”

Lemon said she frequently is approached by parents of black and other minority students, sharing their own experiences with racism, but feels that she can’t advocate for them because the majority of the school’s top administrators are white.

Shanel Jones said her third-grade son was called the N-word by a neighbor boy, including at school, and teachers excused the language by saying the student had “behavioral issues.”

Jones said the school principal also accused her son of lying about the incidents.

“I had to tell him that he’s never been called that word before,” said Jones. “It does something to your whole body when you are called that.”

The principal, Jones added, said her son’s older brother should “take care of it, just not on school property.”

Melissa Williams, who works at Clark College’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, spoke to the difficulty of convincing and educating people to the existence and reality of systemic racism, and the impact it has on people of color.

“One of the most important things to know about systemic racism is that it operates on its own. It feeds itself,” said Williams, adding that she does not believe the current council is actively working to implement policies intentionally meant to harm black people. 

“But because we live in a society that was structured to disadvantage people of color, that’s just how things play out,” she said. “And if we refuse or fail to address them, that is racism. It is allowing the system to perpetuate itself.”

Edward Esparza said he had experienced racism coming from a mixed-race family, and felt that leadership on most local governing boards fails to represent the community at large, especially minorities.

“We’re not asking for a token place at the table,” said Esparza, “but more for a place of understanding.”

Esparza said he didn’t feel comfortable sharing many of his experiences with racism in a public setting, but invited members of the council to meet with him and walk along Fourth Plain. 

Councilor Gary Medvigy piped in that he would welcome a conversation with Esparza, and invited him to set up a meeting.

Shareefa Hoover, who chairs the Vancouver NAACP Legal Redress Committee, pointed to the Clark County Fair as an example of racism. 

Each year, she said, an over-sized confederate flag is raised near the fair entrance, and marketing efforts appear to be aimed almost exclusively at white residents.

“Black folks patronize the fair, but you’d be hard pressed to find any of us employed by this major attraction,” said Hoover. “My green money pays for this flagship county event, but my brown face is rendered invisible.”

Lili Salazar told a story about a family member who was confronted by a group of white men who overheard him speaking Spanish in a restaurant and falsely assumed he was speaking about them. Rather than calling the police, she said, he left the scene fearing deportation because of his immigration status.

“Law enforcement should be making sure that our community, regardless of legal status, should be protected and heard,” said Salazar, who also noted that police snipers guarded the Clark County Courthouse during a June 5 Black Lives Matter protest in Vancouver, but were nowhere to be seen during a later rally by groups protesting Gov. Jay Inslee’s mask mandate, despite people openly carrying weapons at that event.

Following the forum, Clark County councilors were given the chance to respond to what they had heard. 

Medvigy said he had taken several pages of notes, and looked forward to hearing more from people about their experiences.

“I’m very grateful for those that took time out of their day to spend the time with us,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

“We do have a lot of work to do,” agreed Councilor Julie Olson. “ I hope that any and all of you would feel free and willing to reach out to any and all of us as we continue these conversations going forward.”

Councilor John Blom said he had found the two listening sessions so far to be informative and helpful.

“It was powerful to hear how those structures play out and impact people’s lives,” he said.

Councilor Temple Lentz added that she was grateful so many people agreed to share such deeply personal stories.

“I know that isn’t easy,” she said, “and you’ve been traumatized. And there’s the potential for retraumatization. And thank you, thank you for stepping forward, sharing your stories and making yourself vulnerable to us.”

Clark County Chair Eileen Quiring, who sparked demands for her resignation following comments at a June 24 council meeting that “I do not agree that we have systemic racism in our county. Period,” did not comment following the listening session.

A third listening session is scheduled for Aug. 26, from 6-8 p.m.. That one will not be recorded or broadcast publicly, though notes will be taken without the names of speakers and put into the public record.

Anyone wishing to sign up to speak during that third session can do so here.

Because the meeting is not public, councilors will need to take turns, with no more than two at a time listening in during the session. The final schedule for that has not been finalized.