Kennewick’s new Diversity Commission tackles complex issue

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By Michelle Dupler

After a year of discussion, the Kennewick Diversity Commission has an eye on making a report to the city council this fall on the state of diversity in the city and its recommendations for promoting inclusiveness.

Commission Chairwoman Zelma Maine Jackson said the group recently concluded a citizen survey and is in the process of evaluating and interpreting results. Once that process is complete, the commission plans to meet with the council and present its findings.

Jackson said the survey results were mostly positive about the idea that the city should promote diversity and inclusiveness, although some residents also indicated they were comfortable with the community as it is.

Initially, commission members were concerned they might receive feedback from ethnic groups angry about the state of diversity and acceptance in Kennewick.

“I don’t think that’s what we heard,” Jackson said. “People are appreciative of living in the city of Kennewick. They chose to live in Kennewick. There are three other cities.”

The commission was created at the recommendation of Mayor Steve Young in April 2016 in the wake of a social media storm sparked by an online comment made by Councilman Bob Parks.

Parks shared a meme with an image of Bernie Sanders and the text, “I went to Yakima today. Now I know why Donald Trump wants to build a wall,” and added his own comment: “Wait until he sees Pasco.”

The comment was the subject of backlash by some community members, who circulated their own memes showing images of Pasco’s natural beauty with the text, “Wait until you see Pasco.” Some community members also called out Parks and said his comment was racist and anti-Latino. Some even suggested Parks resign his position as a city councilman.

Media reports show that Parks later said his intention was to comment on immigration, not Latinos as a group.

Jordan Chaney, a poet and speaker who lives in Kennewick, was among the residents who went to the city council to speak about experiences with racism in the city and to ask the council to take action.

He said he was heartened Young was willing to listen to what people had to say and explore whether Kennewick was an inclusive community.

“I do think when the mayor decided on that, that it was the right step. It was a great answer, whether it was a PR move or genuine, because it sent a broader message to the community for what the community stands for,” Chaney said. “I’m glad the commission is created and the intention is there.”

Young said he knew when the commission was created that it would have a challenging and complex job.

“It’s a slow process and we knew it would be,” he said.

First, the commission had to dig into the terms “racism” and “diversity” and figure out what those meant — and what they meant for Kennewick. They’re terms not easily defined and that can have different meanings for different people.

“There’s racism everywhere, but how bad is it? How can we deal with it?” Young said.

Jackson said the committee wasn’t without friction as it got up and running. The group spent about four months just getting to know each other, and learning about each other’s cultures and backgrounds and how to work together. It’s a process she described as “storming and forming.”

The group is made up of people with varied backgrounds, including Native American, African American, Hispanic, white, men, women, Kennewick natives and transplants. They’re also varied in age and socioeconomic background. Some come from a multi-ethnic heritage and bring the perspective of straddling and reconciling different cultures, Jackson said.

Each of the members made a presentation to the group about his or her own personal and ethnic background to enlighten and educate each other. Jackson, a black woman, noted that she was educated in Germany and made her own presentation in African garb while speaking in German. Many of the other presentations blended cultures in a similar way unique to each commission member.

Members include Nichole Banegas, Uby Creek, Ed Frost, Clarence Hill III, and Brenda Still. James Hempstead serves as the facilitator.

Once the commission jelled as a group and had a deeper understanding of members’ own perspectives, they could start to extrapolate more broadly and think about the demographics that make up Kennewick, Jackson said.

They also looked at how other cities in Washington had tackled similar work and found a model to build upon in Bellevue, which has had a city commission that considers diversity issues for decades.

Ultimately, the goal for Kennewick is to have a thriving, prosperous community — and diversity and inclusiveness are a foundation for that, Jackson said. She noted many economic studies have shown businesses are attracted to cities with a diverse population and inclusive attitude.

“When you look at the economic point of view of ethnic diversity, that whole mix brings to any community a variety of abilities, experiences and culture, and in it is a level of productivity and innovation and creativity,” Jackson said. “I am almost positive and feel very confident the city of Kennewick is going to embrace having diversity addressed as a part of city government and inclusion in what they do in the city.”

Chaney, who has participated in forums and given talks on racism in various venues in and around the Tri-Cities, said he believes the public conversations about racial and ethnic diversity in the Tri-Cities have brought some change over the past year. For example, the recent primary election saw several diverse candidates running for city council positions.

“We have seen more people of color running for those positions,” he said. “I think there is definitely more motivation and people wanting to take on leadership roles themselves, because we’re seeing the importance of getting involved in our local governments because otherwise we become a victim of it.”

But he’s also seeing some changing attitudes in general as the Tri-City area grows and the population changes.

“(Kennewick) is definitely changing. It is definitely a different place to live. It is a little more comfortable,” Chaney said. “But we can’t sit down. We have to keep moving, have to keep going, have to keep having these conversations.”