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Racial Lessons in Place

By Kate Vanskike

Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham.

They’re places we know – individually or collectively – as landmarks in the U.S. civil rights fight of the 1960s. Places where Black Americans put their lives on the line to end segregation and to take small steps toward equality, something their ancestors had envisioned 100 years earlier.

They’re cities I visited in 2017 during a weeklong experience with college students. We walked across that now-famous Selma bridge. We saw the bus Rosa Parks rode. We sat at the kitchen table where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his midnight epiphany. But we stepped into the future as well. At organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Justice Initiative, we saw the powerful undertakings of lawyers and citizens and students to confront racial injustice in the U.S.

The March Continues, read the t-shirt I bought in the Civil Rights Memorial gift shop. After returning home, I wore it occasionally but soon lost it in a pile of t-shirts reminiscent of other times and places.

Montgomery, Alabama: The top portion of this image shows a mural reflecting the Selma-to-Montgomery march with Dr. King. The bottom portion shows an exhibit at the Equal Justice Initiative: Each jar contains soil gathered at the spot where a Black person was lynched. Those jars fill shelves that line a broad wall in the EJI’s headquarters. Today, a new lynching memorial publicly draws attention to the horrors of racial killings in America.

Spokane.

On a Sunday in May 2020, I found that t-shirt and wore it proudly. I intentionally determined what items to stuff in my jean pockets, prepared for the possibility of pepper spray, and carefully selected where I would park my car for an easy exit. My law-abiding husband reviewed the rights and rules of protesting with me, and then I was out the door to join a friend and a few thousand others protesting in Spokane, Washington, one of many cities where people gathered in response to the murder of George Floyd by a cop in Minneapolis.

We were an eclectic group, marching to the courthouse. I recognized former congress people in the crowd, university leaders, teachers. People wore their face coverings or kept safe from the threat of COVID in their cars, creating a parade through downtown. One feisty older white woman honked and pointed out her window to the sign duct-taped to the side of her car: “White Apathy = Racism.” There were young people and old people, white and Black and other people of color, making up the single most diverse group I have ever seen in Spokane.

We chanted and raised our hands in the air: “Hands up, don’t shoot.” And “I can’t breathe” – the famous last words of George Floyd before he died under the knee of a policeman. “Black Lives Matter” and “Our Lives Matter.” “When you can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” We knelt in wet grass, facing officers suited up in riot gear, some also kneeling in solidarity.

Black Lives Matter images, murals in Spokane and Montgomery, a roadside memorial for Michael Brown
Protests, marches, and educational gatherings took place in Spokane, Washington, several consecutive weeks in the summer of 2020. A beautiful Black Lives Matter mural – featuring the talents of 16 local artists of color – adorns a downtown building. It was promptly vandalized with red, white, and blue paint.

I’ve never been a protestor. I haven’t even participated in many marches. For someone who cares deeply about justice, the problem is, I haven’t done much to advocate for it. The extent of my care has been reading and learning more about racism and privilege, following local and national organizations working toward change, and trying to raise my teenager to pay attention and help lead the next generation. But to put myself out there in public, where there could be violence … that wasn’t so much my thing.

I admit it – I eventually moved to the sidelines. When people yelled obscenities at the police, I watched cautiously, looking for any clues that the air of the moment might change. Damage and looting would take place by white supremacists later in the evening, but I would watch that unfold on TV at home, in my unsoiled t-shirt.

Across the U.S. & Inside Myself

Through the summer of 2020, racial tensions still flare and demonstrations continue in cities across the nation – some with increased volatility and violence. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have resulted in more white activism than any of the previous racial incidents in the last decade or more. I mean, look at the Wall of Moms in Portland – women locking arms, practically demanding that they take a beating in place of yet another Black person.

There’s speculation as to why we are all of sudden angry enough to join the protest. Is it the impact of COVID-19 and months of quarantine? Is it the 8-minute video we watched of that cop with his knee on the neck of George Floyd until the breath of life was extinguished before our eyes? Is it the cumulative effect of the vitriol spewed from our current commander in chief? Maybe it’s none and all of those things.

Regardless, the top-selling books on national lists are about white privilege, white supremacy, anti-racism, and exposing a racial history many of us never learned. Organizations like the YWCA began hosting 14- or 21-day challenges to provide people with daily activities to engage more in the conversation and the learning. In Spokane, there were educational and informative rallies in public spaces over several consecutive weeks. The lessons of widespread racism inherent in our nation’s systems of economics, justice and education (among others) are louder and clearer than ever before. Even mainstream churches that typically steer clear of anything remotely political from the pulpit are now examining what their faith calls them to believe and do. White pastors are gathering with Black pastors and asking questions, sharing ideas, coming to terms with just how segregated the church has been.

I’ve been chewing on it all. The articles, documentaries, podcasts, conversations. I’ve also finally engaged with white friends and family who don’t have the same opinions, and this is admittedly hard. But I continually hear the admonishment of people I respect who are far more acquainted with these tough conversations, people like Raymond Reyes, an educator and champion of diversity, equity and inclusion, who calls this work “productive discomfort.” In talking about race, the discomfort is guaranteed: How we choose to deal with it determines whether it’s productive.

I want it to be productive. I want to ask questions and make comments that call others to share how they came to a certain understanding or why they believe what they posted or shared is true. I want to foster a healthy dialogue that pushes politics out of the way and gets at the heart.

Ah, the heart. It can be such a fickle thing sometimes. We must also tackle what’s in our heads. What has formed our thoughts and opinions? What did we once learn that now we have to unlearn?

This is where it gets personal for me. Wobbly and confusing and emotional and personal to the core.

Perry.

I have great stories of growing up in a small Missouri town during the 1970s and 80s. It was idyllic in a way – a place where kids played in the streets and parents never worried where they were, and we left our houses and our churches unlocked. When I speak of childhood memories, it has always been with fondness. But …

Me. Just a small-town girl.

I had been oblivious to the inherent racism. I had no understanding that Black students generally were expected (or at least assumed) to be good athletes, and I wonder now: Was that because it may have been considered their primary opportunity to excel, despite also doing well academically? In our friendly town, neighborliness was a staple, but clearly meant for whites only. There were no Blacks from Perry in my county-wide high school; they lived in one of the other two towns, and they knew that Perry once had an ordinance forbidding “colored people” from staying after dark – what we refer to today as a Sundown Town. One of my brothers recalls how a Black friend was scared to come to our home for fear of staying too late, because that old ordinance* had never been forgotten. During the development of the local lake, several St. Louis families purchased homes in this cute little rural setting as a get-away from the city. I distinctly recall hearing someone say that the lone Black urban couple wouldn’t last one year in Perry. That proved to be true.

St. Louis, Compton Heights

From Perry with its 710 white people and one adopted Hawaiian, I spent the summer of 1991 in an inner-city section of St. Louis where, one block away from a perfectly manicured boulevard of stately old homes was “the hood.” In Compton Heights, there were rows of brick apartment buildings, every-other one with boarded up windows and spray-painted graffiti. The residents were 100% Black and 100% poor. Mothers sat on the concrete porches and their children kept cool playing in the spray of a fire hydrant. We offered to take their children to the church to play and have snacks, and they gladly let us walk away with their kids. Sometimes we visited with mothers inside their hot apartments, and choked back the sights and smells of abject poverty. This was my first up-close and in-depth encounter with a Black community, and now I ask myself:

How did that shape my racial views as a teenager and into adulthood?

A couple of years later, I had the fortunate experience of living for a summer in the Philippines, in a remote barrio where I was the only white person present and the only white many of the local residents had ever seen. The following summer, I lived in Chad, West Africa, and while I was by no means the only or first white to be seen, there was a distinct mistrust of whites (specifically, anyone who could be mistaken as French). These were fortuitous experiences that helped me – without me even recognizing it – to reshape race in my head.

North Idaho.

After moving across the country to the Inland Northwest in 1998, I married a proud redneck (his term) and relocated with him to North Idaho. I had no understanding the history of Aryan Nations prevalence there; the name Richard Butler meant nothing to me. But there I was, living again in a predominantly – and proudly – white community, one year after Butler’s final white supremacy parade took place and his compound shut down.

The family I married into had relocated to North Idaho from Southern California, in part because of racial mixing that occurred when schools began bussing in members of communities that had been segregated. I was in the car when my father-in-law pulled into a turning lane to get out of traffic for the express purpose of demoralizing a person of color very publicly. I was horrified. That traffic incident still haunts me today, not only because of what I witnessed but because I never felt safe enough to speak up or to question this behavior. It further reviles me to know how racism seeped into (or out of?) me; on one occasion in my professional setting, I uttered a slur related to people of the Jewish faith. Gratefully, a colleague called me out on it.

As soon as I divorced and returned to Washington, I felt as though I needed a cleansing – not just from the influences of North Idaho, but, I realized over time, a mental, social and spiritual purification from ALL experiences that contributed toward my implicit biases.

Inside.

The greatest work to take place in me along those lines has been fostered by intelligent and thoughtful people who are educators by trade and by practice. They challenge and push and inspire, they offer guidance, and they demand personal accountability, which is admittedly painful.

As an editor of a publication that represents an institution of higher education, I have the great joy of telling stories of such educators and those they teach. It never occurred to me, however, that this role would be considered by some as a position of “power.” Me, a lowly writer, in a position of authority? This was incredulous to me, but not to the person of color who called me out for abusing that power to tell a story that was not mine.

Being the named party in a bias report was the most devastating experience in my 20-year career as a writer and editor. But … as I am still exploring the various manifestations of white privilege, I’m learning to accept the fact that I am white and that I publish a publication reaching 50,000 homes indeed carries an influence others may never have.

And who am I, anyway, that I should deserve to have more influence than them?

Also – true confession – I rewrote this section after realizing that my original version had cast me as the victim of the bias report. Some lessons take more time than I’d like to admit.

Everywhere.

On March 31, 2020, thousands of Spokane area residents joined together in a peaceful march to bring light to recent hate crimes and to demand change in law enforcement policies and systems. That’s me in gray; what doesn’t show is my t-shirt reading The March Continues.

And so, whether I deserve it (I do not) and whether it is easy (it is not), I must stand with and for Black lives and Latinx and Native Americans and others.

Amid the riots and demonstrations – even the looting and destruction – more white voices must speak up in solidarity with those whose skin tone is darker, more white fists must be raised alongside others. We should shout until our voices are gone, until people of color are free of being targeted, free of danger in traffic stops, free of unnecessary retaliation, free of the obligation to teach their children how to protect themselves from white people in positions of authority and influence.

For many of us, that requires a willingness to deal with the uncomfortable realities of bias in our own hearts. It may unfold through more uncomfortable conversations, or giving up long-held beliefs that simply don’t stand the test of truth anymore. It necessitates asking why our history lacked the richness of diversity in places of power and authority. For us to be the kind people many of us believe ourselves to be, it’s time to dismantle the stronghold of prejudices that stand in the way of justice. Or if justice is too hard a fight, then for the love of all that is good, let’s start with simple dignity for all people.

It’s time for more productive discomfort. Because The March Continues.


Kate Vanskike is an occasional blogger and full-time university magazine editor in Spokane, Washington. All views expressed here are hers alone and don't represent any named or unnamed organizations involved in her story. She has future hopes of running a coffee shop that only serves fair-trade, sustainably made java, and maybe a limited selection of ice cream for making cafe affogato. Or maybe she'll be a "jammer," driving old-timey shuttle busses full of tourists gawking at mountains inside Glacier National Park. Or maybe she'll be an old hippie woman chaining herself to trees and city hall doors, protesting for positive change.  

Ferguson, Missouri. In 2014, Michael Brown was shot by police and left dying in the street in a St. Louis suburb called Ferguson. During a 2019 trip to my home state of Missouri, my husband and I visited the site. Just past the market from which he fled, there was a beautiful, shiny, modern Boys & Girls Club to serve the local population. We were impressed: This, we thought, heralded positive change and growth. Then we turned on to Canfield Avenue through a set of apartments and saw the makeshift memorial on the sidewalk. Teddy bears and stuffed animals and artificial flowers, all faded and dirty. Why wasn’t there a proper, “official” memorial? A plaque with Michael’s name and a brief story or a mention of his death as another unnecessary incident of lethal police response?

Pins in the Map

Annice Parrish was in her 70s and I was 13. She and my grandmother lived in the same nursing home, which I visited every day after school, but they were in different rooms and in different places in their lives. My grandmother was gravely ill and conversation was sparse. Annice was spry and spunky, and full of great stories. When grandma was sleeping or receiving care, I would see if Annice was up for a visit. 

Annice’s room had something no other room possessed: An old, brown map of the world, hung by a simple wooden frame. Stickpins with colored heads marked where she’d been and how many times. Lying atop the blankets on her twin-sized bed, she propped one leg over the other knee and bounced her foot energetically as she smacked her lips between sentences. 

Her memory was as sharp as her body was nimble. I was as mesmerized by the places she’d explored as I was her recollection of detail. She remembered what she had paid for a Coke on an Alaskan cruise in the 1960s, and why she returned to Australia twice. (Koalas.) 

I don’t know how many times I looked at that worn map on the wall, checking her legend to see what the yellow pin meant versus the red one. But I do know that meeting its owner in my youth would shape my own expeditions. 

At age 18, I traveled alone to the Philippines for a six-week encounter in a remote barrio. The family I lived with and the encounters they provided are etched deeply in my soul. At 19, I spent two summer months in west Africa, a truly miserable experience for a multitude of reasons, but one I would not exchange for the world. The combination of dysentery and malaria nearly claimed my life, but it never stole my passion for travel to remote areas of the world.

Those two early international immersions built in me a craving for seeing what life is like for people living in underdeveloped nations – and removing myself from the comforts and distractions of the “first world.” 

Later into adulthood, I again sought exposure to different foreign lands. In El Salvador, I accompanied an American nun to the local hospital with a man suffering agonizing pain, and watched her advocate for his care despite his ability to pay for it. In the remote Guatemalan highlands where Mayans still live in distant history, I witnessed the care of and support of neighbors for one another, celebrating new possibilities as homes received clean-burning cook-stoves that they’d learned would improve their children’s health. In the Dominican Republic, a woman farmer in her 70s led my group in a hike to the top of her mountain to show us how well her crops were doing with the new techniques she had implemented that are better for the sustainability of the land and better for the economy of her community. At the U.S.-Mexico border, I walked through the desert and saw where hundreds of migrants die every year, and witnessed the compassionate work of a Jesuit priest who serves migrants who’ve returned to the Mexican side after denied entrance to the States. 

I never weary of these opportunities to meet such incredible people and hear their stories. I never tire of putting pins in my map, so to speak, just as Annice had done 30 years ago. 

Mississippi river near train tracks in Hannibal Missouri

Thirty Years Later On the Banks of the Mississippi

Here on the banks of the Mississippi, in Hannibal where I lived two decades ago, I wonder:

How much time has really passed? Have I grown up enough? Too much?

This river, these tracks, all the trees along the winding path to get here – they know me.  They remember watching me weep, laugh, pray, sing.

Those tracks – even after a million train cars have squealed by, they sense me and draw back to the time a thoughtless (soulless?) boy ripped the pantyhose off a 17-year-old girl in a black skirt with pink flowers.

The river – down the way by the old ice factory – remembers its heavy ice blanket in the winter of ’96 or so, holding up a recent college grad as she tested the frozen bay and traversed to the opposite shore.

These mighty oaks and maples, they remember my love – how I adored them, especially in fall when they showed off their talents, and a few weeks later, showered me with floating leaves they’d discarded, and a few weeks after that, listened as I crunched over those lifeless leaves blanketing the pathway.

They all – the river, the tracks, the trees – watched with delight as my dog ran free, and chuckled to discover I had no control over my furry friend when it was time to go back up the bluff toward a truck that would take her home.

journal on a stone ledge above the Mississippi RiverUp above at the stone wall overlook, I would sit for hours, days, months, years – the river, tracks and trees still collecting my thoughts. From there, they would see me scratch out bad poems in journals, watch over my arguments with a guy – a different one, one who definitely had a soul – who would push me to discover more of the world, of myself, of truth. They would nod in recognition that this was good, even as I drove away from a heated discussion, crunching new glasses beneath the tires of a little blue car.

Even Mark Twain himself, made of granite, towering over the river he loved (and maybe hated, too), observed as friends gathered beneath his gaze, taking stupid photos that one day would be prized possessions. Did the river know, or the tracks, or the trees, that one of those giggling friends would die too soon, would crush our spirits, and yet, even in death, make us laugh again?

What did the river, the tracks, the trees think when I visited for the last time before a journey 2,000 miles west, to take photos of my dog and my truck? What did they think of my urge to leave this place behind and to find myself somewhere else? Did they know I would settle along another river, other tracks, among other trees, ones that would never shower me with falling leaves? Did they send wishes through the wind to their distant friends the pines, to be gentle with me, to allow me to continue my journey of discovery? Did the Mighty Mississippi send currents of encouragement through tributaries that would find their way to the Pacific Northwest to say, “Watch this girl. Support her when she walks on your thin veneer in winter”? The iron tracks, did they reverberate codes along rails that traverse the Rockies, and say, “Be steady for her. Be still when she navigates the paths of loneliness, and failed marriage, and parenting alone”?

Did these old friends from Missouri – the river, the tracks, the trees – send me off with well wishes that I didn’t hear? Did they know that someday almost 30 years later, I’d return to feel their presence again? Did they sense – or at least hope – that this time I’d come with a soul mate who would never threaten my trust, who would support me in continuing to grow and learn and search and be myself? And that he would love this river, too – for different reasons, but nonetheless would honor all that my friends, the river, the tracks, and the trees had meant to me?

They may not have known. They may not have planned it or even guided the journey, nor sent good intentions. But it seems they rejoice, today, that all this has come to be.

 

What I’ve Learned: 4 Years at Gonzaga U

On November 17, I hit my four-year anniversary at Gonzaga University, a place I had my eye on for a few years before the perfect job opened for me. I remember going to campus with my mom and having her take a photo of me in front of the iconic statue of St. Ignatius by College Hall, and claiming that the job was mine before it was actually offered to me. I remember the two goofs hanging out in my office when I moved in, who instantly made me feel it was the right move. I’d always known I wanted to return to higher education, and being at Gonzaga has confirmed why.

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#1. College students are optimistic, not yet so jaded by “the real world.” And when they do see a depressing reality, they respond with, “What can we do to change this?”

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#2. There is positive energy on a college campus … all the time. At Gonzaga, music blares from dorm windows on Friday afternoons, students hang from trees in hammocks, they come up with creative inside jokes to just about everything.

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#3. College basketball is fun. Who knew? Sports in general aren’t my thing, but the Kennel during basketball season is a ball (get it?) to watch.

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#4. Jesuit students are impressive young people who naturally want to serve the greater good and not focus so much on what they will achieve for their own personal benefit. Learning and contemplating among them is a gift.

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#5. Lifelong learning is never in question. When you’re surrounded by so many incredibly intelligent people, how can you not be learning constantly?

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#6. A campus is a mixing bowl of art and music and meaning and growth that never ceases to produce a craving for more. #magis

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#7. Jesuits are cool, thoughtful people. And their tradition of self-examination makes a significant difference in the life of a workplace.

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#8. Creating a magazine chock full of examples of all these things is the best job ever.

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#9. Doing that with an amazing team that has fun doing the work is icing on the cake.

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#10. I’m blessed to be here.

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Talking About Racism

Seven hundred. That was the population of Perry, Missouri, the town I lived in from age 3 to 20. It had one blinking stoplight and one non-white family, a couple that didn’t stay long. Legend says that a century-old city ordinance forbade blacks from being in town after dark, and we knew people of neighboring communities who still heeded the warning even in the 1980s.

What impact may that have had on my implicit bias, even within a home that was loving and kind toward people regardless of skin tone? What notions lingered in my mind after seeing every black student in our county-wide school succeed as an athlete, perpetuating the notion that sports are the only way for them to achieve?

The first summer I escaped the small town for the metropolis of St. Louis to serve inner-city ministries, I was surrounded by children of color who came from homes of addiction and poverty. How did that influence my notion of race?

These are questions I pondered while gathering with 10 Gonzaga University students in Montgomery, Alabama. Our spring break Mission:Possible immersion experience placed us in the nation’s most historical sites of the civil rights movement, and after long days in museums and lectures, we gathered for even longer evenings of reflection and conversation. These were tough talks where the mostly white participants challenged themselves to face their implicit biases, and where the one black student opened our eyes to her world.

Kate Vanskike sits in the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

“It sucks to be honest with yourself, doesn’t it?” she said. It wasn’t a question.

In a world where people often approach tough topics in the shadows of online environments, we find face-to-face discussion to be uncomfortable. As a result, the divisive nature of online dialogue has led many of us to stop discussing our views on these social matters.

And yet, we know that the ugliness of racism – in the past as well as the present – must be addressed.

We must be willing to have meaningful conversations that seek understanding and reconciliation. I liken this process to forcing myself to the gym after months of laziness. Setting the alarm extra early. Pulling on exercise clothes. Setting the treadmill at the slowest-possible speed on a zero incline. Eventually, the routine gets easier and I feel better, even craving it.

I hope you’ll read Gonzaga Magazine’s coverage of racism and diversity with the goal of enjoying that kind of mental and emotional exercise. Because as we open ourselves to the sometimes arduous exercise of getting honest with ourselves, we discover a greater hunger for truth and equity.

Story here: “Raising Our Voices”

 

basalt rock formations over the Spokane River, Riverside State Park

20-Year Spokanniversary: Adventures Along the Way

I arrived in Spokane, Washington, on Mother’s Day 1998. It was a beautiful day with blue skies, warm enough for me to wear light pants and a short-sleeved shirt as I roamed around the downtown of a city that would eventually feel like home. My first stop was the visitors center, a small brick building on Main and Browne, for maps and information. I wandered Spokane Falls Boulevard to see Riverfront Park and then Howard, where I found an interesting little hippie shop that seemed like a place where I might connect with other young 20-somethings.

But that isn’t where the adventure starts.

1998 1 - journey to MT
Heading west on an Amtrak “Empire Builder” (March 1998)

Empire Builder

It began on an Amtrak two months earlier, trudging north from St. Louis and then branching off to the Empire Builder across the flat, snowy plains of North Dakota and eastern Montana. I journaled, I slept, I snacked. I disembarked in towns where that was allowed, to stretch and inhale fresh air. I sat in the windowed car where seats face out the walls of glass, and took in an unobstructed view of the landscape – a landscape that never seemed to change after 10 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles.

As my luck and Amtrak’s schedule would have it, the short March day would wind up for nightfall just as the terrain swelled and rolled, where brown, barren trees morphed into green conifers that trekked up hills and alongside rivers. The train meandered through mountains on high trestles over frozen creek beds, hugged the hillsides, swooped through tunnels. The sky grew darker and the engine chugged ever higher until the Whitefish train station appeared and there were aunts and uncles waiting to greet me.

It was Montana, and I loved it. A week there, with my dad’s sisters and their husbands showing me the local lakes and ski resorts, driving me as far as winter roads would allow into the outer reaches of Glacier National Park, and I was hooked. I didn’t know the grandeur that was hiding behind the fog and clouds, but it didn’t matter. Montana felt right to me. My grandmother, years after moving from Montana to Missouri, had said she could still sense the mountains calling her. I thought they were calling me, too.

But alas, that is not the big adventure either.

Me and My Ranger

After the train ride back through the mountains and across the prairies and down alongisde the mighty Mississippi, I returned to my job and put in a notice: I’d be moving. Starting a new life. Having an adventure. Recreating myself. And I’d be doing that out West.

In 1998, the great World Wide Web was still in its infancy. Google Maps didn’t exist; nor did LinkedIn or even Monster.com. Job hunting was more manual, even a little old fashioned. It didn’t take long for me to realize that finding a job in the Flathead Lake area of Montana would be next to impossible — that place was chock full of writers who were successful as freelancers and wealthy enough to live there without concern for regular work. That wouldn’t do for a young professional just two years out of college.

I spread out a large U.S. map on the family dining room table and announced to my dad, “I’m moving to Spo-KANE.” He replied, “Well, then you ought to learn how to say it: Spo-CAN.”

That was about the extent of the conversation as I remember it. My parents weren’t overly worried about me moving across the country or resettling on my own. I would box up my belongings in the house I rented from them, pack only the essentials necessary for settling once I found an apartment; the rest of it — and my dog — my folks would load into a U-Haul and drive out to me a couple weeks afterward.

The first of May came and, having said all goodbyes, I left my little white house in Hannibal, Missouri, and pulled out onto Highway 36 heading west in my 1996 Ford Ranger. It was turquoise green, a dogged 5-speed stick-shift that had never traversed mountains. It had an extended cab, which allowed me to lean back my seat when I needed to pull over for a snooze. My belongings, packed in Rubbermaid totes, were secured in the bed and covered with a blue tarp that would flap incessantly until it eventually ripped to shreds.

I had been on that familiar stretch of Highway 36 for less than 10 miles when I found myself daydreaming. What would it be like to just hit the road for an adventure and not go back to Hannibal to my daily routine? The thoughts lingered and rolled around in a familiar pattern before the neurons fired and I realized that I was hitting the road for an adventure and not returning to a normal routine.

A burst of energy and excitement shot through me — I felt it in my bones as much as in my heart. I screamed with joy and laughed aloud, rolled down my window and waved my arm back at Mark Twain’s boyhood hometown, far in the rear view mirror.

If I had kept a journal of what I ate and drank along the way, the record would likely show my penchant for Barq’s root beer, Pringles, M&Ms, peanut butter sandwiches, and an occasional burger or taco from a fast-food joint.  I’ll bet mom sent me with chocolate chip cookies, too. My Sony Walkman was plugged into my truck radio with a cassette tape so I could listen to essential CDs: Lynyard Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, The Wallfowers, U2, Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty, Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls. There may have been more, but these I know for sure.

mountains in Rocky Mountain Park, Estes, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park (May 1998)

Scariest Night of My Life

There would be plenty of less exciting moments in that six-day trek. Kansas, for example. Plus the hail storm and pouring rain that prevented visibility, then blinding snow in Colorado and the Ranger’s struggles to muster the strength for slippery surfaces on winding, elevating mountain roads.

Each night I stayed in a different type of accommodation. In Kansas, it was a cheap chain hotel along Interstate 70. In Colorado, a lovely little cabin on a creek near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. In Wyoming, I pitched a tent in Yellowstone, and that became a night to remember.

In early May, campgrounds in Yellowstone are nearly vacant; the one I chose had maybe two other campers, one of whom helped me put up a tent that was far too large for one person. I hadn’t camped enough to know the value of small tents, and I had never camped outside Missouri, which means I knew nothing of bear country precautions. I was bewildered by the sight of “bear proof” garbage cans and signs about keeping food inside vehicles. Every warning I saw sent shivers through my body, and each of them reverberated in my mind for several hours as I tossed and turned inside a tent large enough for three of the feared mountain mammals to come join me.

It sounded like that was about to happen. There were scuffling sounds in the campground, near my truck, closer and closer until at last I swore that claws would come ripping through the thin nylon that served as a wall between me and the wild. I had nothing to offer as a deterrent or a defense. I only had my vivid imagination and fear, which I was sure the bears could smell just as well as the package of lunchmeat in the cooler inside my truck.

After an exhausting period (an hour? Three hours?) of envisioning my pending death, I told myself it was ridiculous to assume there were bears out there. The scritch-scratching was probably the movement of bare limbs on nearby bushes. Just as my heart rate slowed by and imagination shut down for a bit a sleep, one of the two other campers down the path fired off a single shot from his rifle. A warning shot to scare the bears away, I was sure of it. Sleep would never come. I would simply wait for morning light, pack up my belongings and hit the road. At the Gardiner, Montana entrance to the park, I’d comfort myself inside a rustic restaurant with biscuits and gravy, eggs and toast, and then push north toward Livingston.

writer Kate Vanskike atop a mountain looking over the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park
Me, enjoying views in “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” after surviving a night with bears (May 1998)

I was back in the land of enchantment, the backdrop of mountains among the wide-open ranches where the deer and buffalo roamed. Heading to Kalispell for a visit with my aunts, I knew that while I was making a home in Spokane, Montana would continue calling me back.

After a couple of days to recuperate from driving, I hit the stretch of I-90 that was then and remains today my favorite section of any interstate in the U.S. Lookout Pass, a stream running alongside the curving highway, the marshy meadows near St. Regis, the basalt walls of Fourth of July Pass, the elevated views above Lake Coeur d’Alene; the scenery is almost distracting, particularly for a flatlander unfamiliar with mountain passes.

The Lilac City

writer Kate Vanskike with her Ford Ranger, trekking to Spokane
Mother’s Day 1998, leaving Kalispell for Spokane

It was Mother’s Day when I drove into the city named for a flower that smells of nostalgia, memories of my grandmother who said the mountains called her. I was only downtown a short time when the area map I now held pointed me to Riverside State Park. That was more important to me than learning the pesky one-way streets or even finding the right place to stay the night.

In retrospect, I could have made accommodations a higher priority. I spent my first night in a very seedy hotel at the corner of Government Way and the Sunset Highway. The activities at such a location scared me nearly as much as the night in Yellowstone, and I spent my nervous moments searching the yellow pages of the three-inch thick phone directory for a hostel.

Spokane’s only (and no longer operating) hostel — The Brown Squirrel — became my first “home” in the Inland Northwest. I sheltered there with a couple of others who were long-term visitors and two girls from Seattle who were just in town for a few days. It was at The Brown Squirrel that I joined the throngs of Seinfeld fans along with fellow hostelers, to unwind in front of the tube after a day of driving around, learning the lay of the land, scouring newspapers for job openings, applying for jobs and searching for a suitable location to apartment hunt.

Within a week, I received a call at The Brown Squirrel from my first employer, and with a job, I could tell a prospective landlord I would actually have income. I became the first occupant of a corner unit with vaulted ceilings, an open floor plan, two sets of sliders linked to different patios in a brand new Bavarian-looking apartment complex that was still half empty. It had only a small stretch of grass, but my dog would be allowed, and the rent was only $495. I quickly came to know my next door neighbors: they were members of what I would soon learn to be a notorious family of gypsies in Spokane. (Does the name Johnny Marks ring a bell?) The matriarch would ask me to drive her to Tidyman’s, which was literally straight across the street, and I obliged the first time or two, trying to be neighborly. Hans, our German landlord, booted them after two months.

writer Kate Vanskike with her dog on a rock overlooking Spokane Washington
Me and my faithful companion, McKenzie, at the Cliff Drive overlook on Spokane’s South Hill

Claiming Spokane

Over the last 20 years, I have lived in one apartment on Sprague (not the redlight district of the 90s), one super crappy duplex on 16th (it had a big yard for my hole-digging dog), one much nicer duplex on Best (a place of wonderful memories), a newer home on the South Hill (with the best kitchen ever), and now a more permanent residence off Upriver Drive. There were five years that I lived in North Idaho during my first marriage, but that’s a different story.

Over the years, I have remained unsure how to answer when people ask, “Where are you from?” Can I call myself a Spokanite? What length of time is required to claim the city and have it claim me?

I’ve decided: I cheer on the Zags, know all the great local coffee joints, support local independent bookstores, have ridden or walked all 40 miles of Centennial Trail, completed Bloomsday, watched a Lilac Parade, marched on MLK Day, planted trees with The Lands Council, read Doug Clark’s column, complete “the Best of” polls with The Inlander, and attend the Trees of Elegance every Christmas season without fail. At this, my 20-year Spokanniversary, I’m claiming it: I am “from” here.

sunset on the Spokane River in Spokane Valley Washington
The Spokane River, near Upriver Dam (2017)

Kate Vanskike-Bunch and her family make regular trips to the Montana mountains that call her, but they definitely feel at home in Spokane. She and husband Jeff have a daughter entering high school, three elementary-aged kids, a dog and two house rabbits. They live near Millwood, love the arts community, and contribute to the financial success of local coffee roasters.  Follow Kate on Twitter. 

The Immigration Deadline: A letter to Congress

[The following letter was sent to Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents Eastern Washington in the House of Representatives. It was sent following a visit to her office by a group of Gonzaga University students which I was proud to accompany. In light of the approaching deadline for Congress to reach a bipartisan response to immigration reform and the path to citizenship for “Dreamers” under DACA, I wanted to share this more broadly. Please reach out to YOUR representatives and plead for reform that is centered on human dignity.]

Dear Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers:

Thank you so much for making time in your hectic schedule to visit with students from Gonzaga University and to hear their stories about a recent trip to the Mexico border to learn more about immigration. One central theme we heard during the many facets of our time there – visiting with both government officials such as Border Patrol, as well as humanitarian agencies and migrants themselves – was just how complicated this system is. We understand there is no easy fix that will alleviate all the concerns from all the involved parties and from the broader public.

We want to thank you for listening to our students’ personal perspectives from their families’ experiences as well. You may recall Lydia sharing about the misconceptions of “chain migration” and her family trying to bring an aunt here multiple times through proper legal channels. Rani also shared about her mother’s joy in being able to see a child graduate from college for the first time in her family’s experience, as well as the poignant question Rani raised about the parents of DACA students: it’s awesome to open a channel for those students to work toward citizenship, but what of their parents who sacrificed so much to bring them here?

Our students shared many other perspectives based on the things we witnessed at the border. Francesca mentioned the opportunities we had to see the real struggles with human dignity, and Cameron shared his concern for the environmental impact of expanding a physical wall at the borderlands. Participants in Gonzaga’s Justice in January program have written a number of short blogs to capture these sentiments, and we hope that you might be able to take a few moments to read these stories and to reflect on how they might inform the common sense immigration reform you and your colleagues in Congress are seeking to achieve during these last few days before the President’s deadline.  You can find those here.

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We remain hopeful that Congress will achieve a bipartisan resolution to immigration reform that:

  • protects all people from the dangers of gang and drug activity;
  • allows for DACA dreamers to achieve citizenship;
  • supports a simplified process for immigrants trying to come to the U.S. legally – including “family reunification” as an alternative to “chain migration”; and
  • advocates for the type of infrastructure our Border Patrol agents have indicated they need, which is for properly trained agents and technology rather than additional physical Wall extensions that not only endanger ecosystems but actually do little to achieve the goals of protecting our border.

This, as you know, is a critical moment for the current Congress and we think it’s one of the most important issues of our day. You have our prayers for meaningful dialogue not only with fellow Congress members but also with your constituent base here in Eastern Washington.

Thank you again for your time.

Kate Vanskike
On behalf of these four fine Gonzaga students, pictured left to right:
Cameron Marsh, Francesca Nevil, Amayrani Chavez and Lydia Lopez,
as well as other members of the 2018 Justice in January cohort of Gonzaga’s Center for Community Engagement.

CMR office

The border wall separating Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Mexico

How Do You Plead?

viewing through slats in the wall, children are playing
From the U.S. side of The Wall at Nogales, we see children playing at a Mexican school.

Author’s Note: In a Tucson, Arizona, courtroom, a dozen students and two advisers from Gonzaga University witnessed Operation Streamline – a controversial system of justice for migrants accused of entering the U.S. illegally. In less than three hours, we would see 72 individuals processed. Seventy-two times we would hear the judge repeat the same questions to people who did not speak English as a first language (some did not even understand the Spanish translation), and all but a few times, individuals were sentenced to time served and deported back to their homelands. Hearing the legal questioning and the confused answers became the cornerstone of my entire experience learning about the U.S. immigration and deportation system.

Candles are painted on slats of The Wall .
On the Mexico side of the wall in Nogales, candles are painted on bars – a sign of loss and a petition for awareness.


How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?

Yes.

An attorney sat with arms outstretched behind him on the bench, arrogance wafting off his puffed up chest. “I volunteer,” he says. Well so does the elderly woman in red — she knows the names of every person on the docket and what their conviction is and what might be done to help them when the attorneys and judges have gone home.

Inside the courtroom, a young girl’s age is argued by people who don’t know her in a language she doesn’t speak. She shrinks away in the presence of the two bulky white marshals who take her back to a stark room where they return her to shackles, and – who knows – maybe strip-search her for the third time that day.

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?
Yes.

We visit a Border Patrol facility where an armed, green “guardian of the borders, America’s frontline” talks of “bad guys” – “unwanted visitors” – “a bunch a creeps” – “a pregnant chick” and the “community crap” his agency does.

Lizbet crossed the border at age 15. Sixteen years and two American-born children later, she is deported. Stuck. Separated from her sons who remain in Delaware while she sits in a cold 4th-floor room in a concrete building, spilling her heart to a bunch of Americans who aren’t sure what to do with her story.

Bullcrap. That’s what Nayelli did with her life in the States. She shoveled bullcrap. Took a job no U.S. citizen wanted – 12-hour days, 6-day weeks doing the disgusting jobs white people couldn’t handle, making more in one day than she’d make in a month back home. Having returned to Mexico voluntarily to care for a dying grandmother, she’s unable to get back to the States where her two young daughters wait.

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? 
Yes. 

Getting to the states legally is a mound of paperwork, money, too many people in power, money, so much at stake, so much ambiguity. But not for me. I can walk across the border on a drizzling gray morning without fear, then get in a car and have a great lunch at a taco truck and go on about my day.

Inside a warehouse stuffed with clothing and shoes and diapers and bandages, we pretend to be real people in that maze of immigration. A border patrol officer on a power kick. A twisted attorney. An employer looking for workers to make him money. A desperate mom, a fumbling dad, people offering their fate to others.

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?
Yes. 

A fence of steel, rising up the hills and back down again. Space between slats where life in a community buzzes. It’s recess and children chase one another in a school yard while the late-morning shadows chase them, too. Unaware – perhaps – of what that metal monstrosity represents.

The wall – 654 miles of steel. A hearty person with a dream can go around or over or under, but only at great risk: being caught drug smugglers, turned in by citizen militia, or detained by Border Patrol, resulting in weeks to months in jail, and the stamp of “ILLEGAL.”

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? 
Yes.

 

The border wall separating Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Mexico
The Border Wall at Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. A new addition is the layer of steel mesh, intended to prevent the passing of items through from one country to the other. While an original goal was likely the prevention of drug traffic, an unfortunate consequence is the prevention of family members sharing meals together, which was previously a common practice for loved ones separated from one another.

Liberty and Dignity are painted on The Wall - border in Nogales, Mexico
On the Mexico side of The Wall in Nogales, people leave hopes for justice, liberty and dignity.

 

More to come at wordsncoffee.com as well as blogs from the students at gonzaga.edu

 

True Confession: I was ignorant (or, The Truth about Blacks’ journey to Civil Rights)

by Kate Vanskike

Let me be honest: Until the last decade or so of my life, I haven’t been incredibly interested in history. In high school and in college, it was simply a required class. In the latter, I’m embarrassed to say, history was the one course I nearly failed because I was taking way too many credit hours, working, participating in a musical and volunteering, and that was the class to take the fall. (My French class would have taken a fall too, if it weren’t for my mom doing my homework for me. Better put an ‘s’ on that confession in the headline.)

What’s my point? At age 43, I finally learned about the deep and twisted history of racism in our country. I learned that lynchings didn’t just happen “way back when” – they still occurred in MY lifetime. I learned that the civil rights movement didn’t end in the ‘60s when Lyndon Johnson finally signed the civil rights act a week after Martin Luther King, Jr. died for the cause. I learned that whites in America have continued to mold our history and frame the facts in such a way that they can feel better about themselves while slavery and racism still exist, just under softer terminology. OK, so we aren’t still “owning” people but our supremacy still flourishes while black families continue to teach their children to be cautious around whites.

I had to own up to all of these facts – and more – while spending a week this spring with college students on a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where we were immersed in the history of our nation’s civil rights movement. Museum after museum after bloody museum called to my attention the horrible realities I missed in those history classes, whether due to my lack of interest or the lack of truth in our written records. In the evenings, the 10 students and two staff members in our group debriefed together – sometimes for two hours or more – processing what we’d seen and sharing our discoveries. Our discussions were academic and intellectual, but mainly painfully personal and vulnerable as we reflected on the natural biases we’ve carried, and ill-informed assumptions we’ve made.

As one student said, “It sucks to be honest with yourself.”

Indeed.

I grew up in a Missouri town, population 711, which had no black families. (Well, there was a black family once in the 20 years I lived there, but they didn’t stay long.) I went to a college that had approximately 10 black students. I moved to Spokane and lived in white neighborhoods and attended white churches. All the while, I learned from our (mostly-white) media about crime rates among blacks, little of it placed into context of the continuing harsh realities for blacks in America. (Consider the criticism of blacks taking to the streets following the deaths of Freddie Gray or Michael Brown.)

I don’t believe I’ve ever knowingly acted racist, but there is no excuse for my ignorance and the ways it has undoubtedly played a part in my thoughts and actions over the years.

And now … I have no excuses.

I have poignant encounters etched into my memory that won’t allow me to continue in ignorance. I have shared the dinner table with a professor who, at the age of 17, was a driver for blacks during the Montgomery bus boycott of the ‘60s. I have linked arms to sing “We Shall Overcome” with men who marched side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr.  – men who, by the way, feel our nation’s current situation is worse than it was during that era. I have listened to the barber who cut Dr. King’s hair share stories never recorded in our history books. I have looked deeply into the old, brown eyes of a black man who recalled not having been able to look a white woman in the eye. I have stood inside the home of Dr. King with a black woman who passionately impressed on all us that Dr. King’s greatest legacy was love, even when he answered 20-30 hateful, threatening phone calls daily. I have discovered more about Bloody Sunday and decades of violence against blacks than I wish was necessary, and I have stood by monuments erected for children who were victims of white pride and stupidity. I have also witnessed the fervent hope and faith of the black community intent on trusting the same God who abusive whites claimed to follow (which in and of itself begs further reflection).

I am ignorant no more. And that means I can no longer allow instinctive unjust thoughts to take root in my head. I can no longer assume that the mass incarceration of blacks is legitimate, or that African Americans have the same opportunities as whites, or that the slavery and racism and cruelty of the past has not continued to inflict pain on people today.

What I can and must do now is to continue the education, the discussion, and yes, the vulnerability, that 12 of us experienced during a life-changing week in Montgomery, Alabama. Because the question Dr. King asked more than 50 years ago still needs to be asked today: “Where do we go from here?”

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Go ahead, read the plaque. Michael Donald was lynched in 1981. Then learn about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center

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Nelson Malden, Dr. King’s barber, who remembers when white men in cars began following Dr. King to and from his personal activities, such as coming to the Malden Brothers Barbershop. 

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The bridge at Selma where “Bloody Sunday” took place. Details at the National Voting Rights Museum

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Jars containing dirt from the sites of hundreds of lynchings – an awareness project of the Equal Justice Initiative

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Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored, preached and empowered people to take a stand.

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Shirley Cherry, tour director at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Parsonage, where Dr. King and Coretta lived during the era of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. And quite possibly the most powerful tour guide you’ll ever meet.

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This is me. Sitting at the table where Dr. King had his “Midnight Epiphany” – a confirmation that his leadership in the civil rights movement, no matter how costly, was right. 

DR398   (Our Dominican Vision Trip in 398 words)

a toddler peers through slats in a window to see visitors to her rural Dominican Republic home

Day 1
On the plane, drifting over clouds
And so it begins. We will play in unfamiliar settings and take in all the smells and textures that make up the tiny portion of the Dominican Republic which awaits us.

Day 2
On my bed, beneath a creaky ceiling fan
Sweat. Drips. Sopping wet. H-U-M-I-D is how you spell Dominican Republic.

Day 3
On the bus, heading to our first community
The intern announces, “It’s Terrible Joke Tuesday!”
Later, he says our gang of 6 participated more than last week’s group of 18. We attribute that to Senor Tim.

In a school room where the Village Savings & Loan members meet
A woman says, “We are grateful a thousand times a thousand – grateful for so many things. If we were to share them all, it would take days.”

Merengue musicians, with guitar and drum and guida.Day 4
On a balcony, surrounded by Dominican people, food and music
The Merengue starts, with guitar and drum and guida. They sing about the hard work of coffee growers. We clap and dance.

In a one-room church building, where children line the walls, eager to engage
The teacher leads a lesson on a familiar story: the birth of Jesus. Her emphasis is on a detail maybe we’ve missed before: “Jesus was born into nothing.”

Day 5
On the patio, while roosters call and shoo away the morning gray
Doves embark on playful races and the chants of a dozen birds are muted by the scuffing of tired feet. Morning has broken.

On a thickly forested mountaintop
A young boy and his father drive the oxen to haul logs – carefully selected trees removed for the health of the forest. 

Rosa, a most impressive farmer, shows the diversity of plants she has tended. Watching the chatter between gringos and her neighbors, she wraps her arms around a tree and smiles.

lush green farmed hills in Dominican RepublicDay 6
On a restaurant deck, over the lapping waves of the Caribbean Sea
We eat breakfast: four weary Americans and a cheerful Dominican named Chico.

How quickly bonds are made. With or without a common language, there is joy and understanding.

Day 7
On a bench outside Denver’s Union Station
Three new friends reflect on their good fortune: they have seen poverty and richness redefined by Dominicans. And they forge ahead as apostles of a gospel that blends care of the earth with care of those who inhabit it.


Written by Kate Vanskike, 
who journeyed to the Dominican Republic
with Amber Smith and Tim Busse to experience the work of Plant With Purpose, August 2016.
For more on how planting trees has helped diminish poverty, visit
www.plantwithpurpose.org.