Updated: May 5
Part 2: Diversity
As mentioned in the previous blog entry: at a planning meeting in February, Poulsbo’s Mayor asked, “What are we missing?,” assuming that the city is in terrific shape as it plans for its next twenty years. We’re taking her rhetorical question to heart by reflecting on what’s missing. For Part 1, see our first blog on housing (https://www.poulsboforall.com/blog). Here is Part 2, on diversity.
Our aspirations are in the right place
This statement is read at the beginning of City Council meetings:
“Poulsbo is committed to being a welcoming, diverse, and equitable community where all people can access tools and opportunities to improve their quality of life, allowing them to reach their full potential. During its meetings the Poulsbo City Council will use this lens of inclusivity to view its discussions and actions.”
But they are unrealized
Let’s start with breakdowns of Poulsbo’s population and that of the US, according to the 2020 US Census:
As these numbers clearly indicate, we have a diversity problem. Poulsbo is far whiter than average. It’s jaw-droppingly lacking in Black or Native American residents, and its Hispanic and Asian communities are virtually invisible to “us” whites. How can this be? Perhaps these groups don’t feel very welcome except as a service population. Are they invited in to, or featured in, municipal events and celebrations? Parks and Recreation programs? Does City government hire them? Does Poulsbo’s Norwegian branding marginalize people of color and different cultures? (Note: the same goes for people with disabilities and LGBTQ people, but in this post we’re focusing on ethnic and racial concerns.) In our experience, the “lens of inclusivity” the City Council professes to apply to its work is rarely if ever activated in meetings. Obviously not everyone is actively racist, but an insidious passivity can add up to about the same thing. Our conditioning stops us from seeing/attacking racism with open eyes and hearts; we convince ourselves that we are not racist since we’d “welcome a diverse and equitable community.”
The Council’s efforts are falling short
This is where GARE can come in. In 2021, in response to the urging of some residents, the city joined GARE, the Government Alliance on Race and Equity—a network of more than 400 US city, county, and state governments working to advance racial equity and opportunities for all. Recognizing that many jurisdictions lack the leadership and/or infrastructure to address racial inequity, GARE creates pathways to change by sharing best practices, tools, and resources.
“Many current inequities are sustained by historical legacies, structures and systems that repeat patterns of exclusion. Government has the ability to implement policy … to drive larger systemic change…. GARE’s focus is on normalizing conversations about race, operationalizing new policies, practices and organizational cultures, and organizing to achieve racial equity.” (GARE website) It offers training in racial sensitivity, ideas for implementing change, tools to assess who can access resources, and so forth.
So what has happened since we joined GARE—has Poulsbo engaged in training in racial sensitivity and equity, or embarked on strikingly new and different ways to address its missing diversity? Nope. One council member, Britt Livdahl, has been designated “the GARE person.” Handing this work off to one individual won’t bring systemic change to a systemic problem. The beauty of GARE is that it promotes collective change. We’re hoping that when councilor Livdahl returns from this spring’s GARE conference, she will come equipped with ways to engage the entirety of the city’s leadership.
[Note added May 4: Councilor Livdahl, fresh from the statewide GARE conference reported that Gare recommends beginning with an "equity audit" of our city government. This was met with silence, and Mayor Erickson moved on to the next agenda issue.]
How can Poulsbo move beyond lip service to increase diversity and inclusion?
The Council should appoint a Race Equity Advisory Committee
Another idea that has been repeatedly floated to city government is a Race Equity Advisory Committee (REAC). Such a group would feed concerns and ideas to the Mayor and Council and help with decision-making on issues touched by race (which is to say most issues). The REAC would consist of citizens from varied ethnicities and walks of life. Bainbridge Island and Bremerton each have REACs, which recently held a richly productive joint meeting, and the insights they gained can prove valuable for Poulsbo.
Poulsbo indeed had a citizens’ advisory board (not confined to race) for 23 years—from 1991 to 2015—conceived as an avenue of communication between the police department and the public. But then-police chief Townsend told the Mayor it wasn’t needed, so she dissolved it. The Kitsap Daily News commented that its lack of focus “was not the fault of the board, but of the chief and mayor.”
It is certainly time to bring citizen advisors back to city government, and we strongly support the idea of forming a renewed and focused REAC.
It’s not too late to address prior omissions
Stonechild Chiefstick, an indigenous man, was shot and killed by the police at Poulsbo’s fireworks celebration on July 3, 2019. Outraged and traumatized residents packed City Council meetings for months afterwards, asking for justice—and also a gesture, any sign that the city’s leaders cared. For over a year, the Mayor and Council used the ongoing investigation of the tragedy (conducted by more Kitsap policemen) as the excuse for their silence, saying they couldn’t comment. But they haven’t really commented since. This tragedy could have gained as much national notoriety as the high-profile police killings of Black people such as George Floyd, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice. But the media routinely pay far less attention to Native victims of violence and murder. Stoney’s death remains just another in the long procession of unnecessary police killings of people of color.
For three years, Stoney’s family and supporters maintained a memorial to him in Waterfront Park: flowers, cedar boughs, messages. They persistently asked the City to allow a permanent memorial there, and the City indicated it would decide. In March this year, the family’s lawsuit against the City reached a settlement—and the next thing Stoney’s family knew, their memorial boughs and flowers had been dismantled.
What would a city’s leaders do if they were a truly “welcoming, diverse, and equitable community”? It seems to us that a permanent memorial would give respect and show sorrow for our Tribal neighbors and what they have endured.
We have a long way to go to address racism in Poulsbo
A couple more notes on race and racism:
We thought we’d honor our local farmers at the Poulsbo Farmers’ Market by celebrating the great Chicano farmer and labor hero Cesar Chavez on the occasion of Cesar Chavez Day (a national holiday). But the market board, possibly fearing the censorship of Gateway Church whose property hosts the market, considered this celebration (of a national holiday!) inappropriate. The City depends on the church for a number of services, and this relationship is especially fraught when political divisions are so pronounced. We hope that the city and the market can find another equally central location to move to by next year.
Poulsbo is beset by more overt forms of racism, to which city government has not responded. A few months ago, signs (we guess they were anti-vaccine) appeared around town that featured a graphic of hypodermic needles arranged in the form of a swastika. And just a week ago, 50 students at North Kitsap High School protested the school administration’s handling of the racism they experience there. If we “welcome diversity,” our leaders must address these disturbing acts with a surer hand.
How can Poulsbo move beyond lip service to increase diversity and inclusion?
Activate the resources offered by membership in GARE, beginning with the hiring of an outside specialist to conduct the equity audit as soon as possible. Once it is completed, share the audit results and plans for next steps at a public meeting dedicated solely to this issue .
Establish a REAC as a standing and funded committee, giving it a true place at the table. Ensure that citizens from groups other than business are in the majority.
Move the Farmers’ Market by next year, and support it with city funding.
Apply the equity lens to city hiring. Many organizations can serve as models, including Central Market. Encourage Black, indigenous, and people of color to apply/run for office in city government.
Housing. As discussed in last month’s blog, policy should shift from building single-family homes to zoning and building for substantially more medium & low income housing. This will permit Poulsbo’s workers to live in Poulsbo and contribute to its culture, and will also allow older homeowners to downsize and still be able to stay in the town they love.
Poulsbo has taken a welcome step by eliminating the Viking theme originally planned for the new Johnson Road roundabout on Highway 305, and instead giving the roundabout’s art a Salish theme and commissioning a Suquamish artist. Watch out, though: the Mayor seems to see this change as compensation for the CIty’s insensitive bungling in connection with the killing of Stonechild Chiefstick. It is not.
Parks & Rec offers classes of many kinds, but they could use some cultural diversity. Increase the cross-cultural fun and learning. This means seeking instructors out, not waiting for them to appear. Marginalized groups need to know they have a place.
Poulsbo can keep its unique Norwegian identity AND celebrate its robust Hispanic, Asian, and other communities. How to rethink civic events?
Commitment to diversity means committing, on a human level, to respect and deeper understanding. Poulsbo has a lot more work to do.
What else are WE missing? Join the conversation with your comments and ideas.