Love brings us together, but love is not always easy, as a group of Black female leaders in Spokane discussed at one of Kiantha Duncan’s dinner parties this weekend.
Duncan is a community activist and a former program officer at Empire Health Foundation, who is now writing a book on leadership with her wife, Sylvia Brown. She is a columnist for the Black Lens newspaper and frequent speaker in Spokane, including a TED Talk earlier this year.
Duncan and Brown, are a dynamic duo when it comes to hosting a dinner party.
Duncan decorated their home, which is full of Black art, welcoming touches and textures and beautiful plants, thanks to Brown’s green thumb.
Miss Brown, as her wife affectionately calls her, is also the chef in the family.
Saturday’s menu was soul food, including yams, red beans, potato salad, Malawi greens and both fried and baked chicken, with peach cobbler and ice cream for dessert.
These “Conversations with Kiantha,” as Duncan calls them, are held about twice a month and seek to provide a safe and loving space for community members to discuss politics, policy, world events, or what is going on in their individual lives.
This month, with marches and riots across the country after the killing of George Floyd in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was a lot to discuss.
The party included Latrice Williams, an activist and Realtor; Christina Kamkosi, a community activist and health-care professional; Natasha Hill, a local attorney; Inga Laurent, a professor of law at Gonzaga University; and Ginger Ewing, executive director of Terrain.
With jazz playing in the background and the women gathering around the table, Duncan threw out a theme for the evening.
“What I want us to do tonight – because so much is going on in the world right now – I want us to fix the problems,” Duncan said.
“Wait, the problems in the world or the problems in Spokane?” Laurent asked.
“Well, we’re going to do both,” Duncan said with a laugh, contagious enough to draw exclamations from the rest of the women.
Throughout the night there was anger, fear, struggle and disagreement expressed, but the core tenet was love, something the women all agreed on.
“When you really love somebody, like looking at your friend, you call them out,” Hill said. “If you really love, you can’t hate somebody.”
Calling out the systemic racism and inequality in America shows love, Laurent said.
“That’s why Black people love this country more than anybody,” she added.
Laurent used the example of parenting to further illustrate this point.
“If you love a child, you do not let it run amok. You rear that child. You correct that child,” she said. “That is true love.”
That love comes in the form of relationships, Duncan said. When there is a relationship between two people, the respect and love creates a space for not only correction and discussion, but for caring about them experiencing the world equitably, she added.
“Relationship is what’s at the core of keeping equity,” Duncan said.
Relationship building, and by extension community building, is not easy, especially in an individualistic society, Laurent said.
Ewing used the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. Wearing a mask is an easy way to protect others during this time, but people don’t care about those they come into contact with, they care about their personal freedoms, Ewing said.
As an immigrant from Malawi, Kamkosi said the lack of community in America was shocking at first.
She grew up in a place where neighbors would take care of each other in such a literal sense that, when her mother would have to go out of town, their neighbors would feed and bathe the children.
“How can we even solve community problems when everybody is living these very individualistic lives?” Kamkosi said.
Laurent made a connection to the “Make America Great Again” slogan used by President Donald Trump and his supporters.
“MAGA is trying to express what you all are talking about, that there is this loss of community,” Laurent said. “That, back in the day, back in the ’50s, I grew up and my neighbors looked out for me, and my kids played outside.”
But many people were left out of that world, Hill added. People romanticize the past where they lived in the “white bubble that allows you not to have to see or hear or feel everybody else’s oppression or pain,” she said.
“We’re tolerant of just being used to the fact that this is how white people are, or how this has always been,” Hill said.
“We’re tolerant of oppression,” Duncan added.
“I think that means change the systems we have built,” Hill said.
“I want an acknowledgment that our country has been built with racial injustice intentionally.”
Duncan and Brown moved into a gated community in Spokane Valley not long ago. The majority of their neighbors are white and Republican, Duncan said.
A few weeks ago, Duncan was sitting on her back porch when she saw a plume of smoke a few blocks over, so she went to check it out and see if she could help. When she got there a house was on fire and the Fire Department had just arrived.
“The house is literally burning,” Duncan said.
About 50 people had gathered outside when Duncan asked a woman standing near by “Do you know what happened?”
The woman ignored Duncan.
‘She just stared at me,” Duncan said.
So she thought in her head, “OK, maybe that was me.” To which Laurent said, “That’s the checklist,” look at yourself first before accepting it was how they chose to treat you.
About 20 minutes later she asked another woman, “Do you know what happened?” That woman just smiled and blatantly ignored her, Duncan said.
“When I got home as I was driving, just literally two blocks over, I said, ‘What if my house catches on fire?’ “You won’t even speak to me and tell me their house is on fire,” Duncan said.
“That’s what it’s like living here,” Duncan said of the affluent neighborhood. “I don’t think they feel like they need to speak (to me).”
“It’s so difficult to explain the subtleties of how race exists in the world,” Laurent said.
Ewing gave another example of subtle racism that she experiences frequently.
“Almost on a weekly basis, as I guess maybe a leader in Spokane, someone will say, ‘Oh you’re so articulate,’” Ewing said, drawing vocal agreement from the other women. The implication being, ‘Oh, you’re so articulate’ for a Black person.
Hill said she frequently experiences something similar as an attorney with people often assuming she is a paralegal rather than the attorney in charge of the case.
“I’ve gotten really short in my tolerance, I guess, for even wanting to have conversations with anybody who can’t get it in their mind that this can look like an attorney,” Hill said.
Not only do women of color not get the initial recognition they deserve but they have to jump through more hoops, Duncan said.
“As people of color, we have – this is unfortunate but it’s not debatable, it is point-blank true – if you have to jump through two hoops to get a position, I have to jump through five,” Duncan said.
“And we’re raised that way,” Brown added. “You have to do twice or maybe three times as much.”
Even when being recognized her accomplishments, Ewing still faced harassment. Last year, Ewing was given the YWCA Women of Achievement award, for her work in art and culture in Spokane.
It wasn’t the first time Ewing had attended the awards dinner, the year before she went as Lisa Brown’s guest. It was just a few weeks before Terrain and Ewing was running late.
“As I was going into the Grand Hotel I was literally spit on,” Ewing said. “And it was very clear why I was getting spit on.”
“No matter how much grace I show, no matter how much soulful leadership I show, no matter how much dignity and humanity I show, there is still that person that is going to spit on me,” Ewing said. “And I don’t know how much my soul can take.”
With such a widespread uprising against police brutality and for equality, the movement has become decentralized without a central goal other than ending racial injustice, Laurent said.
When it came to policing and police brutality the group took a “nuanced” approach in supporting the defund the police movement that has become prominent in recent weeks.
“Please don’t get rid of all of them because sometimes I need to call them,” Duncan said of police.
Laurent agreed but added that police are over-extended in being asked to deal with crises like mental health and homelessness. They are being scapegoated by politicians and policies, she added.
It has been an either-or-conversation, either you support the police or you support Black people and “we have to change the narrative,” Laurent said.
“We have to empathize with what’s happening (to police), but how do I empathize with you when you will not relent,” Laurent said.
Police officers in Atlanta recently called out of work after the officer who killed Rayshard Brooks faced criminal charges. He’s just starting the process of being held accountable and his fellow officers are walking out because of that process, Laurent said.
“I want to have empathy for you. I want to express that I want to have a more nuanced conversation,” Laurent said. “But how do I do that and hold true to a community that you are brutalizing, that you are killing.”
“We have to go back to everybody is valued equally,” Duncan said.
The defund the police platform, Laurent said, is recognizing the police have been asked to do too much.
“Your (police) responsibility needs to be on solving and addressing violent crime,” Laurent said, receiving agreement from the group.
When it comes to moving forward, the group agreed that an acknowledgement of the racial injustice America was built on is important.
“I want acknowledgment that our country has been built with racial injustice, intentionally,” Hill said.
It is also important for white people to have these conversations with each other, Kamkosi said.
“So much of life is just doing the status quo instead of thinking about how this impacts people,” Laurent said.
Laurent also included that the United States is a land stripped Native peoples.
Having these tough conversations about race, inequity and systemic change is nearly impossible without relying on a relationships with the people you’re engaging with, the women agreed.
Duncan hopes to create that bridge for people by expanding her “sharing experiences” to be a series at local restaurants with different guests and a new theme each time. One thing that will always be the same, Duncan said, is the conversation will start and end with love.
Editor’s note: Because of a technical issue, the original version of this story was shortened when it first appeared online and print. This version is the full article.
This story was changed on June 22, 2020 to correct Kiantha Duncan’s title related to the Empire Health Foundation. She is a former program officer at the foundation.