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2023: The Year in Review




Prologue

We at Poulsbo for All see 2023 as an eventful year. Here’s a summary of some of our city’s high points, low points, points of contention, and points of interest. This review focuses on social issues rather than budgeting, infrastructure, parking, and other major matters of city government—though we should always remember that a budget is a reflection of one’s values.


First, our gratitude goes to Reba Harris, Zach Ellis, Terri Schumacher, Stacy Mills, and Natasha Fecteau-Minger for stepping up to run for seats on the Poulsbo city council and North Kitsap school board. For over six months, they made enormous personal sacrifice, while working full-time jobs and juggling family needs, for the chance to bring strong voices for equity and security to local government. None had run for office before, so they learned as they campaigned, devoting long hours to researching current issues and listening to voters’ concerns.

Terri, Reba, and Zach each came within 87 votes or less of winning. This is a remarkable accomplishment considering that each faced an opponent with established name recognition and existing positions in local government.

Congratulations to newly elected NKSD Board Director 5, Stacy Mills. In a first, Stacy’s oath of office was administered by Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribal Chair Amber Caldera. Thank you for that honor, Chair Caldera. Congratulations also to Pam Crowe (unopposed candidate) who joins Poulsbo City Council in Position 2.

Thank you, candidates, for your willingness and hard work. You have made a difference.


Positive change

Since the killing of an Indigenous man, Stonechild Chiefstick, in 2019 by a Poulsbo police officer, our city’s residents have constantly advocated for justice, diversity, and inclusivity. They’ve shown up at city council meetings, written letters and articles in local papers and on social media, and engaged with multiple civic and social justice groups. Change takes time, and thanks to your efforts, Poulsbo is indeed changing.


In another first, Poulsbo celebrated its inaugural Pride Month last June with a city-backed display of rainbow flags along Front Street. Conservative voices objected fiercely, but City Hall, led by Councilmember Britt Livdahl, stood by its commitment, and 90% of Front Street businesses heartily welcomed the celebration. Enthusiasm for Pride spawned two new groups, Poulsbo Pride and Trans Alliance North Kitsap (under the non-profit umbrella of North Kitsap Pride). In addition to ongoing weekly social events, Heather McLain and a crew of NKP volunteers and allies organized “Pride in the Park” in September, a “Friendsgiving” community Thanksgiving dinner at Poulsbo First Lutheran Church in November, and a successful winter Holiday Toy and Gift Drive. Pastor Kent Shane and members of Poulsbo First Lutheran’s congregation, as well as faith leaders of other local churches, have warmly welcomed North Kitsap’s rainbow community, and we thank them for their ongoing support.


The City of Poulsbo and local partners kicked off a community book reading project that culminated in October in a deeply thoughtful conversation held in the city council chambers. Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents takes a laser-sharp look at the social hierarchies and power dynamics of race, class, and gender that have shaped American lives from colonial times to the present day. Eighty people came together to discuss the book and their personal responses to it, under the expert guidance of facilitator Lucretia Robertson and Spanish language translator Patty Velez. The City’s book project committee, chaired by Councilman Gary McVey, hopes to continue community gatherings on social-issue topics, planning a followup conversation on Caste as well as community screenings of films that challenge assumptions and provoke discussion.


Upheaval and action

Two serious issues arose in Poulsbo in May: a crisis of racism and bullying in North Kitsap public schools and the threat of evictions at Poulsbo Mobile Home Park (one of the city’s few low-income housing options and home to several Hispanic immigrant families).

In the schools, some students were maliciously harassing and threatening others, and tragically, there were reports of student suicides and suicide attempts. This “outbreak” of racist and homophobic hate—which really goes back many years--brought families and friends of people of color, Jewish, and LGBTQI children to NK school board meetings to voice their fears and frustrations to Superintendent Lauren Evans and the board. Community meetings and demonstrations followed. Investigations were conducted. Reports were filed. The unions for NKSD teachers and staff took nearly unanimous votes of no confidence in Evans and the board. Sad to say, little change has resulted from all the community activity, and the tension endures.

When a member of Poulsbo for All noticed a social-media request for help, the plight of the residents of Poulsbo Mobile Home Park came to light. The property had been purchased by a corporate investor in California; the new owner issued notices to residents requiring them to quickly make costly repairs or to face eviction.

Poulsbo for All informed the city of the residents’ predicament. City leaders and staff mobilized; community organizations joined in; and volunteers with tools in hand (led by the wonderful Bluebills, local retiree handymen) worked for months and made repairs. The City of Poulsbo and Fishline contributed significant funds for rent relief and construction materials. Folks brought lunches to the work crews. Volunteers and grateful residents celebrated together at St. Olaf’s church as winter set in. Repairs continue, and organizers remain in communication with the property owner in an effort to protect and keep the residents in their homes. What a great example of Poulsbo’s ability to come together in real community!


While we’ve seen progress in terms of “Poulsbo for All” as a living, breathing philosophy, recent troubling incidents show there remains a lot of work to be done, especially as our country faces a showdown of political and cultural identities. We see major issues as falling into three areas: bigotry, the City’s collusion with religious extremism, and policing.


Bigotry

Caste shows with painful insight that our nation was built on a foundation of racism and exclusion. While no one alive today participated in the original establishment of the hierarchy, we are its inheritors and beneficiaries; the system remains powerfully in force even if we’re often unaware of its workings on a conscious level. The 2019 Chiefstick killing struck a nerve that resonated with centuries of abuse and injustice. Poulsbo’s story did not begin with Norwegian settlers: our relationship with the Indigenous people continues to call for serious attention, education, and action.


We note that when the city’s organizing committee for the Caste discussion met to debrief a few weeks after the event, they neglected to invite the (Black) facilitator! Nor was either of the committee’s two women of color able to attend at the date and time selected. We hope this “oversight” (Caste goes on at length about such unconscious omissions that perpetuate racism) can be addressed when the committee reconvenes in early 2024. The City can still integrate lessons from Caste by remembering and applying them, and thus serve as a model to all who attended that beautifully honest October discussion.


Bias also reared its head during Poulsbo’s recent election campaigns. At a candidates’ forum held in city hall, a sitting councilmember’s husband sat in the audience wearing a red MAGA hat. A Black woman candidate (the only Black person in the room that night) did her best to speak while facing today’s equivalent of a white pointed hood. It must have been terrifying. Of course, everyone has a right to freedom of expression, but we expect better from our elected officials who were present--tolerance at least, shared humanity at best.

At recent school board meetings, many residents have commented on racism in North Kitsap. Black and brown grandmothers have recalled cross burnings in their yards, and other terrorism and abuse from neighbors. Decades later, their children and grandchildren continue to be targets of irrational bias and hate. LatinX, Jewish, and queer students are also singled out for ridicule and attacks: threats to “cut up all the beaners,” and Valentine’s Day cards with images of Holocaust atrocities. An armed student in Nazi regalia made online threats to shoot up the school; he was temporarily removed from school; there was talk of prosecution for a hate crime, but we are unaware of any further action.


School board elections urgently matter: the lives of kids, teachers, and school staff are literally in the hands of the school board.


Religious extremism and city government

Two summers ago, Gateway Church invited Joseph Backholm, an early promoter of anti-CRT (critical race theory) and anti-LGBTQI values, as a guest speaker. As we saw during Pride last summer, religious extremism has only increased in Poulsbo and NK since then. The mayor and city council received numerous letters of outrage, demanding on religious grounds that Poulsbo reject Pride. Pastors at Gateway Church, Coram Deo, and Liberty Bay Presbyterian were among the most adamant opponents of Pride, but other anti-inclusivity presences also emerged, including Moms for Liberty’s Kitsap chapter.


In September, the Kitsap County community development officer for Coffee Oasis encouraged Christians throughout the county to protest “Pride in the Park” with daily group prayer walks at Raab Park in advance of the festival. City officials waved away any concerns and told Poulsbo for All that the promoter (who continues in his position with Coffee Oasis) “had been spoken to.” In spite of the Coffee Oasis staff person’s campaign, “Pride in the Park” was a remarkable success with wide support from well-established community organizations and vendors.


Soon afterward, the City and its police department arranged for a meeting of PACTPolice and Community Together, a program that’s been operating in Bremerton for several years—and this meeting was held at Coffee Oasis! PACT is normally an open forum for all, but this gathering was not promoted widely; the “dialogue” was dominated by the mayor, Pastor Richmond Johnson, and people in law enforcement. There was little sense of “community together.”


When push comes to shove, it seems that the mayor and police tend to manage the people of Poulsbo, rather than protect and partner with them.

Why does the city keep making deals with religious organizations that promote bigotry?


Policing: abuse of power?

Events in 2023 led us to question decisions and actions of our city police force.

Early in the year, the City Prosecutor, Alexis Foster, was driven out of her position for adhering to the legal and ethical requirements of her job. A Poulsbo police officer had filed a report that contained false information which could potentially impact a judge’s decision. Despite pressure from the mayor, police chief, and police union to let it slide, Foster was duty-bound to report the officer’s error, and did so. (Her actions were affirmed by county prosecutors.) In a conversation with the mayor, Foster, who is Black, “raised the issue of racism, which angered Erickson, who yelled at her, “I’m not racist. I hired you before BLM [Black Lives Matter] was even a thing.’” (Kitsap Sun, 1/17/23.) Imagine being the recipient of this racist profession of non-racism! The city work environment crippled Foster’s ability to do her job and she resigned.


Poulsbo for All is particularly concerned with a growing pattern of intimidation and abuse of power by some of our local officials. During school board meetings last spring, NKSD Superintendent Lauren Evans and board directors warned families and members of the public that they would call police if anyone got out of line. Some folks do speak passionately at times during public comments at the meetings, but no one has even distantly approached the threshold of physical action. Even so, the board’s “welcome to the meeting” greeting continues to include the threat of police involvement. 



Earlier in 2023, police chief Harding lodged a formal complaint to the State Board of Licensing against a community member who’s a health professional and trusted spokesperson for NKSD’s BIPOC and vulnerable families. Thankfully, the licensing board swiftly dismissed Harding's complaint as inappropriate. A police chief obviously shouldn’t be targeting a citizen in this underhanded way.

More recently, a group of teachers in conflict with administration over a curriculum issue were targeted by NKSD officials who requested a police investigation of the teachers. The teachers had sent a letter to the superintendent and curriculum director that summarized the teachers’ concerns and frustrations. Even though the teachers made no threats, administration officials sought support from police. That request was curtailed, but we are alarmed by the inclinations to threaten or actually derail the livelihood of professionals and criminalize dissent. (Note: newspaper articles and public records provide ample background and confirmation of these stories.)


Looking ahead

The social landscape of 2024 portends civil unrest and even violence. Not by grandmas, teachers, and gay and trans people, but by other ordinary people influenced by political opportunists who exploit their fears and nurture prejudice. Divisiveness on the national level clearly operates at our local level too. We need to know that our leaders are honest and stand up for democratic values. Their job is to serve, and they need to represent all of us.


Many urgent issues fill the city’s plate. For example, we haven’t even touched on the overwhelming need for affordable housing (as unaffordable developments swallow up North Kitsap forests and green space); and Poulsbo’s burgeoning population of elders needs a real senior center. Poulsbo for All hopes to partner in the near future with Poulsbo First Lutheran Church for a series of community conversations that will allow residents to explore our past, present, and future together in more depth. We hope you can join us, in the spirit of helping to create more positive change in our community.


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