With the birth of “For the Love of Coffee” in Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living magazine, I and Editor Megan Rowe have one central aim: To inspire Inland Northwest residents to celebrate boldly the name Spokane can make for itself with coffee. Seattle thinks it’s the coffee capital because Starbucks started there? Come on. The humble home of the Hoopfest and Bloomsday doesn’t play that way.
Within a 5-mile radius in Spokane, a coffee lover can easily locate, walk to or park near, and enjoy half a dozen quality local roasters, and never have to rely on a corporate chain. Our small community’s wealth of locally owned coffee deserves the same billing as our wineries, breweries, bike paths, and parks.
Every journey I’ve taken outside our region in the last few years has fostered this truth. Last year, just before COVID hit, I spent several days in Napa Valley on a work trip. I’m not a wine connoisseur, and while I did enjoy the experience of wine tasting, I still wanted my coffee. The cute burg where I stayed had ONE option. Every morning, I wondered: How can a place that invests so much in marketing the fine art of a good drink somehow overlook the need for equally noteworthy coffee?
This spring, on a road trip with my daughter to visit colleges along the West Coast, I found local roasters who put heart into their gig. Urth Caffe in L.A. had a good drink, fine pastry, and a strong sense of purpose: Only organic, heirloom, shade-grown beans. San Fran? Intelligentcia (also in other major metro areas like NYC and Chicago) wants to “elevate a daily ritual into a culinary experience” as well as to be “stewards of the earth and advocates for values of diversity, inclusion and equity.” Portland? Coava, which invests in “long-term relationships with coffee producers” also prides itself in featuring mostly single-origin brews instead of creating blends.
When I find those businesses, I support them by buying a bag to bring home, and by letting them show off their expertise a bit. “What do you have that’s medium-dark and not fruity, good for pour-over and French press?” I’ll ask. The barista at Coava (an alternative to Portland’s more widely marketed Stumptown) answered, “I think you need Nayo.” I picked up a bag and discovered its beans hail from Guatemala – always a safe bet for me, so her hunch was right.
So, other cities have great coffee … what’s my point? In one word: Convenience. In two words: Bragging rights. I happened to be lucky that Urth Caffe in Santa Monica was an 8-minute walk from my hotel, that Intelligentcia was around the corner from Haight-Ashbury where I wanted a glimpse of hippie lore, and Coava was a 5-minute drive from another destination on my Portland list. But this isn’t the norm for major metro areas. When my husband and I traveled to New York City, I had to put a good coffee shop on our itinerary, the same as the bookstore he wanted to visit, because if you don’t plan for those stops, they won’t happen. And even when you do plan, you also have to negotiate the transportation. Are we renting bikes, scheduling an Uber, risking mayhem to park our own vehicle?
Here in the Inland Northwest, treating a guest – or yourself! – to great coffee just doesn’t take that kind of effort, nor does it require good luck.
The next time you find yourself coaxing a friend to visit Spokane, or you’re sharing on Facebook what’s great about our region, be sure good coffee is one of your talking points.
For next month’s column, I’ll share about Bobby Enslow, owner of Indaba, and what I learn while doing some cupping on roasting day with him. But in the meantime, I want to hear from you. Specifically, I want to learn how churches, schools and community centers are using coffee bars to facilitate their mission. Drop me a line below.
The signature brew of Roast House Coffee – F-Bomb – came by its name honestly, regardless of how you feel about cursing.
Owner Deborah Di Bernardo was giving up sugar and chocolate, and when her team roasted the Mexican bean for this brew, its aroma wafting through the warehouse-style facility, she swore someone was tempting her. “Who’s making f***ing brownies?” she yelled.
Deb’s favorite word and her deep love for this consistently rich, chocolatey coffee sealed its fate: It would be called F-Bomb.
The name alone has been magic for Roast House. “Many people in Spokane still haven’t heard of Roast House, but they know F-Bomb,” Di Bernardo says. It sells on its own and is also a key element in half a dozen blends at the shop, including the popular Café Americas, which is a mix of F-Bomb and Rio Cocoa from Nicaragua.
But the real propeller of Roast House’s trajectory is something else entirely: A fierce commitment to sustainable coffee growing and fair trade practices.
That has been Di Bernardo’s mainstay since she began her passion project 11 years ago. Where other roasters label products as “ecofriendly” or sustainable because they’ve used a small amount of organic beans, Roast House’s supply is 100% organic.
You can bet that makes it more expensive. Her costs are 40% higher because she pays the coffee farmers a living wage to hand-sort and hand-wash the beans – all of which are shade-grown. These practices ensure that the coffee coming to her Spokane warehouse is free of the defects present in other coffees. And because she doesn’t want to impact costs more by traveling to the coffee farms herself, she partners with trusted and certified importers, like Sustainable Harvest from Portland, to be her eyes and ears around the world.
“Staying committed to sustainable coffee is more important today than when I started,” says Di Bernardo, “because our eyes have been opened to the threat of coffee extinction.”
Coffee extinction? Is that possible?
In the next 20 years, 50% of the high-end Arabicas will be gone, she says, due to do the microclimate created by deforestation in countries producing coffee. The nationally and internationally known mega-producers of coffee strip the hillsides so they can produce higher quantities, but not higher quality, java. The result, says Di Bernardo, is “crap, sun-grown coffee,” and a major hazard to the physical and economic health of the developing countries whose food supply is already a precious commodity.
“The apathy toward our food sources is a real threat,” she adds, noting that pure vanilla is almost nonexistent for the same reason coffee is in danger.
Di Bernardo’s commitment to sustainable practices extends from the farming to the packaging. When she decided F-Bomb (and other seasonal selections) needed to be available in single-serve packets for camping and traveling, her team selected a Santa Cruz, California, company that makes every piece of packaging from eco-friendly sources so there is no waste. While the coffee maven doesn’t travel much, F-Bomb is her companion when she does.
If you stop by the tasting room (423 E. Cleveland), don’t expect a trendy, hipster joint with retro couches and people sipping coffee with their earbuds in and laptops open. Instead, expect a simple storefront coffee counter with the roastery in the background, and amazingly friendly team members who will help you select a brew to take home, and whip up a unique drink with their homemade simple syrups. Come back another time and don’t be surprised if they’ve remembered your name and your likings.
Author’s Choice: I’m in a committed relationship with F-Bomb and 423. But when summer comes, it’s all about the ice-cold Cocoa Fuego, which is sunny-Friday-afternoon-hammock-time-with-Pink-Floyd-queued-up in a bottle.
Sticker Message: Damn Fine Coffee. (Also at the bottom their RH branded mugs.)
Notoriety: While Roast House isn’t yet a household name in the Inland Northwest, national coffee experts have taken note of the small company from the Lilac City, offering 1st– 2nd– and 3rd-place awards among North American competitors 20 times.
Sample Review: Nathan writes: Amazing variety and expert brewers. As an experience and as a product, I believe it gets no better.
[The Boss of F-Bomb: Deb Di Bernardo]
Daily Dose: French press at home, Americano at the shop
Partner in Crime: Jim. (Saint Jim, really, I mean, if you know Deb…)
Best Buddy: Lucy, a labradoodle now trained as a service animal
Personal Passion: Bringing attention to the need to be more intentional about our foods and resources.
What Staff Say: Jon says: “She’s the most honest, best boss I’ve ever had.”
[Where to Buy: Spokane]
Roastery/Showroom: 423 E. Cleveland Ave, off Foothills Drive
Coffee House: First Avenue Coffee, 1011 W. 1st Ave, Downtown
Grocery Stories: Huckleberry’s, Natural Grocers, My Fresh Basket, and some Rosauer’s and Super One locations
(Rosemary Hunter, Ph.D. led a group discussion with my colleagues wherein participants read “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon and then crafted their own personal renditions using a similar format. The result is a poetic expression of heritage, traditions and tragedies in a way that engages all the senses. Here is mine.)
I am from trees, from Midwestern Maples and Northwest Pines.
I am from the brick rancher, the Baptist church parsonage impeccably clean, doors open, every space a room for extra kids.
I am from paper. Loose-leaf and lined for lead, blank for rolling through the manual maroon Olympia.
I am from Scrabble and laughter, from Toni Jean and Ferrel Naomi.
I’m from “relax, don’t worry,” and life’s short so eat dessert. I am from make your bed and please sing this song for me.
I’m from church-every-Sunday-and-Wednesday-night Southern Baptists, from whom I rebelled early and often.
I’m from the Netherlands, which are Holland, which is Dutch, cheese and tulips and weed, lots of weed.
I’m from the head-on car-accident mother left in a body cast and a lifetime of pain And the patient father-servant who puts on her socks.
I’m from the bins and totes in closets, love letters from 1923, WWII ration cards, farm plots, coins and stamps, poems and clippings, road trip memories.
I am the one who found the farmhouse burned to the ground and will write this story: V is for Vanskike.
I come to campus, not to work – I can do that at home.
I come to campus to feel alive. to see the energy of students, to remember being one at that age. to recall moments of the supernatural and the existential and pain and sadness, too.
I come to walk the orderly patterns of brick pathways among the trees of leaves and of needles and to watch the squirrels – hyped up on junkfood remains, darting among trees and trashcans.
I come to campus for College Hall to see its many gables peaking into blue skies, the circular windows atop Magnuson Theatre, where once, guns fired from soldiers in training.
I come to enter the Ad Building to climb the granite steps and open those thick, wooden doors and to enter a sacred space of possibility. To stare at the stairs with their crimson velvet carpet and the ornately carved wooden posts and rails. To view the light subtly knocking on the stained glass windows at the landing, and to hear the hurried voices of students from yesteryear on their way to classes. I come to wonder with the thousands like them, what does the world hold in store for me and where do I belong. I come to feel at home in the questioning of it all.
I come to campus to see St. Al’s, to see the morning light reveal the rose patterns on the windows facing south, and steeples rising, holding high the crosses of hope and love.
I come to campus to embrace it all, to feel alive, refreshed.
I come to campus to wander back to my car and find — again — a parking ticket.
Reflections on the Lesser-quoted refrains of “I Have a Dream”
I’ve had the opportunity to hear the Rev. Happy Watkins (a Black Spokane pastor) deliver portions of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech a few times. Happy pounds and whispers and yells with such emotion, it makes you think for a moment you’re actually seeing Dr. King himself.
But given the length of the original speech, most public presentations of it today are shortened. The pieces we hear are the riveting, driving, passionate portions that swell at the end of King’s longer message. And you know what? We are missing some very important pieces.
Here are a few that caught my attention in listening to his famous speech today.
“This is not the time to cool off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism…”
“Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood – to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of this moment. … This summer of the Negroes legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
“Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”
That was 1963. Nearly SIXTY years have passed, and it is clear that our nation did exactly what he warned against: took the tranquilizing drug of gradualism (an ideology that suggested perhaps poverty should be address apart from racism, for example); overlooked the urgency of the moment; returned to business as usual.
This is why there is uproar over continued injustice in our country. This is why violence emerges after another story of death of Black person at the hands of a white person in power. We have ignored the warnings that cost King his own life.
We can’t be complacent any more, and we certainly can’t sit by while white supremacists receive empowerment to raise the ugly head of racism to new heights. If we do, we’re complicit in ensuring that the suffering and death of an icon like Dr. Martin Luther King was in vain.
COML 530 | Women, Communication and Leadership 2020 Fall | C. Cunningham | Kate Vanskike
(Image: counter-clockwise from top left. Screenshot of Zoom meeting from the author; the letter C by artist Amber Hoit in Spokane’s Black Lives Mural; an event advertisement by University of San Francisco)
Angela Davis was a member of the Communist party and a Black Panther in the 60s. She was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. She was arrested and incarcerated for crimes still debated today. She held a longstanding support of the Palestinian struggle in opposition of popular opinion. She was (and likely still is) considered a traitor by many.
Now that we have the obvious objections right up front, let’s move on.
Davis’ invitation to present at Gonzaga University in 2017 drew its own controversy; the university prepared for safety threats, knowing that many people in predominantly conservative communities see her only by the description in the first paragraph. This delighted her: “It’s been a while since I have encountered such controversies,” she exclaimed.
The very next statement out of her mouth was a sincere acknowledgement that the place where we gathered was indigenous land.
Such is the power of leadership. In her first breaths on stage, she made two things abundantly clear: She is comfortable with conflict, and she gives honor where honor is due.
In a crowded ballroom full of academics, Davis told the Gonzaga gathering, “I thought I would begin with a few words about the humanities and hopefully provoke some controversy there as well. In recent years because of obvious weaknesses in scientific education, we’ve developed a tendency to focus on STEM. But without the framework that the humanities can provide, knowledge can be generated in ways that are entirely disconnected from ideas and principles related to the human condition. …Dwindling support of the humanities has helped to create a crisis in democracy.”
Now 74 years old, Davis has been a political activist, philosopher, academic, and author for half a century. A stalwart feminist with an interdisciplinary interest, Davis has woven together many strands of oppression – not just women, but Black women, not just Black women, but poor Black women, not just poor Black women, but poor Black women raising men who are disproportionately incarcerated. Further, Davis acknowledges that her own ideas about addressing equality and rights for Black women focused entirely on those who were literate. “What about women who didn’t have the opportunity to learn?” she questioned. And thus began a study of the Blues as a way to “access the gender and race consciousness of poor women.”
She laid the groundwork for what Kimberlé Crenshaw ultimately labeled intersectionality, now a critical foundation for academic studies of the human experience and society. Davis clarified that when Crenshaw coined the term, she was addressing law specifically, and its inability to recognize the multi-layered experiences of individuals.
Interdisciplinarity, said Davis, is “to look in unexpected places for insights about the problems of our world.” As an example, she never imaging she would engage in anti-prison work so voraciously in her earlier years, but later learned that the knowledge produced by prisoners themselves has been the catalyst for new academic fields.
“The prison itself is an apparatus of racism,” Davis said. “That led many of us to examine how the institution of the prison became a structure that allowed many historical forms of racism not only to survive but to flourish.”
The timing of Davis’ visit to Gonzaga was just under a year into the Trump presidency. Davis reflected on the national women’s march that took place after his inauguration, the development of the Black Lives Matter network, antisemitism efforts, and the accountability of the police. She may not have imagined that those would be same topics she would address three years later, in October 2020, with another Jesuit community of learners, this time hosted by University of San Francisco.
This time, a topic added to that mix was the discussion of abolishing current criminal justice frameworks. “Many of us would never have imagined abolition would become part of a larger discourse,” Davis said via webcast during the COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting on the collision of a deadly virus and the public response to racially motivated police violence. “We would not have been able to take advantage of this moment if people had not been organizing for decades.”
“Sometimes, there emerge historical moments that one would never predict, but if one has not done the work, one would not be able to seize the time.”
In one fell swoop, Davis collected all the lessons of her years researching the most threatening social issues in America – from racism and sexism to poverty and punishment: “There are people who finally want to create a better USA.” “This is about political imagination.” “Citizenship is about community and creating new possibility for freedom.” “We would not be where we are today without the struggles of those who came before us. And therefore, we have a responsibility to those who come after us.”
Davis’ examples of leadership and style of communication have power. She challenges people to examine their beliefs and motives. She inspires us to move from thinking to acting. She reminds us that controversy is critical to our development. She shows us how to face criticism and emerge stronger.
If that isn’t empowered leadership, I don’t know what is.
Good coffee shops matter as much as good coffee itself. And it’s about time that WordsnCoffee put down some words about coffee.
Here’s what comes to mind as I sip my espresso from my Bialetti moka pot, made with a dark roast sourced from Guatemala, roasted by Evans Bros.
At Home in Spokane
Some people (west-siders, I’m talking ’bout you) may scoff at the idea of Spokane being a great spot for coffee. But while you deal with traffic and parking, and eventually have your venti-skinny-PSL from Starbucks, the eastern residents and guests of the great coffee state of Washington have their choice from a couple dozen locally owned roasters who take great pride in fair trade practices to support the people actually growing the beans – and they exist in myriad styles of shops that are all easy to get to in just minutes from anywhere in the city. Take that, Seattle!
While Howard St. is more of the run-in-and-grab type of joint on a popular shopping block, sister locations on Broadway, Nettleton, and Riverside have distinct settings for specific vibes. Broadway: worker bees. Nettleton: retirees enjoying the morning sun on the patio off the trail, and parents taking kids to Hello, Sugar for donuts. My favorite: Riverside, which, COVID-aside, often has local musicians providing chill ambiance for evening outings. Also, owner Bobby Enslow is just a nice guy. (Almost forgot: There’s another Indaba/Hello Sugar partnership waaayyyy out in the Valley on Dishman-Mica. Pink décor is a nice new twist.)
The brick walls, the eclectic shop, the smell of books, the retro poster art from Vintage Prints and stacks of mugs with designs by the legendary Harold Balazs – Atticus just feels like a place you want to sit and stay a while.
Commute Stop-worthy: Arctos
Hamilton Street is no fun on workday mornings, and when you can’t avoid it, embrace it. Arctos is a hip place for local college students to study, and its claim to fame for my husband is the sipping-chocolate mocha.
Deb Di Bernardo is Italian, so … nuff said. I love her mostly for her passion about sustainable production. Roast House’s tasting room is an industrial setting with plenty of room for classes or other groups who want to know about best practices in environmentally sound coffee growing. Also, this is a great source for your home brew supply of what Deb proudly calls “damn good coffee.” The most important two words: Café Fuego. Bottled chocolate-spice cold brew. Oh-em-gee.
Loftspace: First Ave. Coffee
It’s Roast House coffee, but with a coffee-shop feel. Beautiful, long wood tables, a window into Deb’s bakery (keto-friendly), and a cool loft above the rafters.
Thank you from the Valley: Ladder
The flagship store resides in a former firehouse (hence the name) at the edge of Browne’s Addition, and this place is ridiculously cute. You can smell the fresh bread from the baker across the hall, which will put you in the mood for avo-toast. But this Valley girl is most excited about the new location on East Sprague inside the Canopy credit union. Totally different vibe, but a welcome reprieve in the Valley for times we really don’t want to go downtown.
Longtime Service: Rocket Bakery
Rocket falls into the category of coffee shops to note mainly because the bakeries have been a staple in Spokane for a lonnngtime, at locations in Millwood, South Hill and downtown. While the cinnamon rolls and quiches are “to die for” as my Aunt Sharon would say, I honestly don’t even know their coffee story. When I once asked where they source their coffee, a barista said, “I think downtown?” Anyway, I’m listing Rocket because they also have a drive-through option called Spaceship. (Get it?)
The great PNW has so much beauty, and so many coffee shops to visit while you’re out exploring. Here are just a few.
Moscow, Idaho: Bucers Coffee Pub
This is an iconic spot for a small, rural college town. The walls are lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and the seating is at oversized wooden tables, giving it the nostalgic feel of an old Carnegie library.
Sandpoint, Idaho: Evans Brothers
Charm? Space? Comfort? You can have all of those at the Sandpoint location. The oversized shop has ample room for guests to spread out – none of those tiny tables crammed so close you might as well share your snacks with the patrons around you. There’s a fireplace, and a table always set for chess, and the walls proudly display art by local high school students and teachers. Lemme go make my second cup of espresso with my EB brew …
MCT has locations around the Flathead Valley, including Whitefish’s large shop nestled downtown, and the Columbia Falls shop on your way to or back from Glacier National Park. On a Saturday morning, expect to wait. The Columbia Falls location is the only good coffee around for all the campers and adventurers in their hiking boots, and they will gladly wait in their Northface coats and wool socks to get inside for a tasty (and healthy) breakfast with their joe. Thank you, online ordering service, for those of us leaving our KOA cabin and hitting the road for Spokane!
Missoula: Liquid Planet
My first foray with Liquid Planet was inside the doctors building at Sacred Heart Medical Center here in Spokane, but this brand actually hails from Missoula, where a University of Montana professor dreamed of “raising the culture of beverage to a wholesome new level and to do so in a way that is good for the body, mind, and planet,” according to the website. The quirky college town has multiple locations and they all sport some creative concoctions alongside the best avo-toast I’ve ever had.
After navigating the crowded, narrow main drag of this charming town in summertime, stopping in at Mela is a real treat. A spacious setting in an old brick-walled building provides an abundance of good food options, along with their own locally roasted beans.
Further Away from Home
Any travel – whether a day-trip for work or a longer vacation – requires investigating the local coffee shops. Here are a few notables.
Arivaca, Arizona: Café Aribac, in the middle of the desert, boasting shade-grown coffee because “migratory birds love it.” I never did learn where the shade-grown beans actually come from, but it clearly ain’t Arizona.
Philadelphia: Le Pain Quotidien. Not specifically a coffee shop, but I can’t forget a place that brings you a ceramic coffee pot and matching creamer cup so you can serve yourself an endless supply.
Portland: Stumptown. This popular brand is now hitting the shelves in grocery stores throughout the West, which drops it down a notch in my book, where small batches are king. Still, while in PDX (the only city I know that calls itself by its airport code), Stumptown visits are a must, along with visiting Powell’s for endless book shopping.
Seaside, Oregon: Seaside Coffee House. Hippie vibe and cool art.
St. Charles: Picasso’s. Art and java: the perfect combo, on a cobblestone street.
St. Louis: Second Breakfast. Cute corner shop in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
Tulsa: Topeca Coffee. Worth bringing home a bag.
Venice Beach, California: Intelligensia. Kick-the-sand-off-your-feet, grab your joe and go.
But here’s the drip about traveling: I often have to search high and low, near and far, to find a great coffee option, and it usually requires actual plans in my itinerary to make it possible. That just isn’t the case at home in Spokane. I can visit a great shop on any day, regardless of which direction I’m headed and how much time I have. I think it’s time we boost the Lilac City’s reputation and give the boot to Seattle as the coffee capital.
Here’s a very generic shout-out to the many other Inland Northwest roasters and shops I didn’t name: I’ll come visit soon!
And here’s a very specific shout-out to my co-coffee-loving husband, Jeff, who has introduced me to a number of these great spots. Decades of great joe, coming up.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Up 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.