Q & A With Sandra Williams, Editor & Publisher Of The Black Lens
A few years ago, Sandy and I worked down the hall from one another; she at Eastern Washington University’s Pride Center, and me in their Career Services department. We, quite literally, would often cross paths in the hallway of our building. When I learned that she’d launched The Black Lens, I was intrigued, but as I’ve learned more about it, and seen signs of its impact on the Spokane community, I’m in awe. Spokane is lucky to have Sandy. — Dena
Name: Sandra Williams
Where did you grow up?: My dad was in the army, so I grew up in a number of places. I was born in Columbia, South Carolina, but my dad was stationed in Germany, California, Hawaii, South Carolina, and finally at Gonzaga University, which brought us to Spokane in 1973. My brother and I went to Cheney junior high school, Cheney high school and Washington State University.
Where do you live now?: In Spokane.
Tell us about your career path: I don’t know if I’ve had a career path exactly. I graduated from Washington State University in 1983 with a degree in Psychology and like many young people of color, I left Spokane as quickly as I could. I tell people that I was packing with one hand as I was
getting my tassel with the other. After that, my career journey was an eclectic one, taking me from Spokane to Colorado to California to Spokane and back to California again. I was always passionate about social justice and community activism, so growing up, I gravitated to jobs that addressed issues like racism, sexism, classism, discrimination, etc. But my dream had always been to become a filmmaker like Spike Lee, so when I was accepted into USC Film School in 1995, I sold my house and moved myself and my seven year old daughter to Los Angeles. That chapter of my life lasted for about ten years. I graduated from USC with a Master’s Degree in Film/Video Production and then worked for an Academy Award nominated, African American director for several years. When my daughter left for New York to attend school at the Fashion Institute of Technology to pursue her dream of becoming a Fashion Designer, I moved back to Spokane to be closer to my parents. My intention was to relax for a year, live off of my savings and do some writing. But life stepped in. I stumbled upon a job doing Suicide Prevention with teenagers and couldn’t resist. That job led me to become the Executive Director for Odyssey Youth Center, Spokane’s LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) Youth Center, and that job led me to Eastern Washington University (EWU) to help them get their Pride Center up and running as the Coordinator. I enjoyed each job, but missed the creativity that I had found in California. So, in my spare time I hosted a radio program on KYRS radio for several years and eventually started The Black Lens newspaper to fill a void in Spokane’s Black community. I left EWU in 2015 after my father passed away to work on the newspaper full time.
What’s a normal day like for you? (if that exists!): There is no such thing as a normal day for me. I start my day out by wading through e-mails and returning phone calls, if I don’t have a meeting to attend or an interview to conduct. After that, my days are filled with writing, transcribing interviews, conducting interviews, attending events, sitting through meetings, delivering newspapers, planning community events
Where can others find you/your work online?: Blacklensnews.com
Favorite thing about the PNW?: The seasons.
Favorite season in the PNW?: Fall.
How do you take your coffee (or other preferred morning beverage)?: I’m not a coffee drinker, so my preferred morning beverage is orange juice, but as far as hot beverages go, I enjoy tea with extra, extra honey, hot chocolate, hot apple cider and my favorite is an almond steamer with an
overdose of almond.
When you’re out, how do you protect yourself from the rain?: I love flannel and I love layers, so you will see me bundled up and wearing flannel, even when others are not.
Tell us what led up to your decision to launch The Black Lens, and what those early days were like: I have lived in the Spokane community off and on since 1973, so I am very connected to it and familiar with the people here. There was a Black newspaper in the 1990s called The African American Voice. That paper lasted 4–5 years and there has been nothing since. The Black population in Spokane is around 2%, so it is challenging to connect with people, discuss issues and find out what is going on within the community. There had been a lot of conversation about the need for a paper, but nobody in the community was willing or able to take the leap. My father was sick in 2014 and I took time off of work to be with him. I was spending a lot of time sitting by his bedside and he wasn’t much of a talker, so I decide to teach myself how to use the program In-Design while I was hanging out with my dad. Then I decided to see if I could put an issue of the paper together while we were hanging out. I knew a lot about the Spokane community because of my community organizing and activism work, so began pulling stories together, and before long I had the first issue finished. I feel like my dad and I did it together and he was able to see the first two issues before he passed away. After my dad died, on February 7, 2015, I really didn’t want to continue working on the paper, and the March 2015 issue was the hardest one for me, but eventually I felt like keeping the paper going would have been what my dad would have wanted, so I did.
To be honest, I was not convinced that the paper would still be here after the first year. It was an experiment and a tremendous about of work, much more than I ever expected. My learning curve has been almost vertical. There is so much that goes into putting each issue together and in keeping the business going. I didn’t know that. And don’t get me started with trying to figure out how to pay for everything each month. I remember after I picked up the first issue from the printer, sitting in my car, not knowing what to do, so I called my daughter. I said, “I’m sitting here with a car full of papers, what do I do?” She said, “mom, go hand them out.” But I was afraid. It’s one thing to think about doing something. It’s another thing to actually put your neck out and do it. I was worried about how the paper would be received. I felt a bit arrogant to presume that I could represent the Black community. And what if they see all of the typos? But the reception from the beginning has been almost completely positive. Three years later, I’m still standing, and more and more people from the Black community are stepping up, writing columns and taking photos, doing interviews, even raising money to keep the paper going. That part has been very exciting.
You’re active in the social justice community here in Eastern Washington — how do you balance your energy and time so you can contribute to everything (or most things?) that are important to you?: I don’t really do a very good job at all of balancing my time and energy. I can’t tell you how many invitations I get every week to serve on boards, commissions, task forces, advisory committees, etc, to attend meetings, to speak to groups, to represent the African American community specifically, and people of color in general, at this or that event, and all of that is on top of the work that I am already doing on the newspaper. It’s exhausting and overwhelming. Every day I say I’m going to stop, but the problem is that if I am not in the room, or someone like me is not in the room, then the issues that are important to me and to our community rarely get addressed. So, I keep going and doing. I am hopeful to see young people start stepping up and finding their voice. I am also hopeful to see non-Black allies start speaking up on issues of racial equity and discrimination without needing a person of color to be in the room. That helps.
What advice or insight would you offer to women who are interested in social justice, organizing, or advocacy, but who don’t necessarily know where to start?: I never set out to be involved in Social Justice Work. It started because I had to fight against an injustice at a young age. I think that’s the case for a lot of people involved in this work. It’s personal. What I have noticed over the years is that people like to be comfortable and they avoid discomfort at all costs. Social justice work, advocacy and community organizing all require being uncomfortable and for the most part, I’ve noticed that people only get involved in social justice work when it impacts them directly. For women that are not impacted directly, I think one place to start is to take an action that makes them uncomfortable. Attend a meeting that they wouldn’t ordinarily go to. Read a book that they wouldn’t ordinarily read (or the Black Lens). Attend a workshop or lecture or conference with a topic that they wouldn’t ordinarily participate in. Watch a program or documentary about an issue that they don’t know anything about. Do something, even if it’s a small something, that moves them out of their comfort zone. That’s a good start. It will open their eyes and broaden their perspective, and that will lead to other actions.
Has any specific woman or women in your life made a significant impact on you?: This is from an article that I published in The Black Lens, March 2015: I was born a feminist, I believe. If it was possible to see me in my mother’s womb, you probably would have seen a fierce and determined embryo with my fist raised high in protest about some gender-based injustice that was being visited upon me in utero, even before I had any understanding of what it meant to be a woman.
I started at a young age fighting for equality. Challenging my junior high school when I was forced to take Home Economics instead of shop class because “girls needed to learn how to cook and sew for their husbands.” Challenging the pressure to use Miss or Mrs to identify myself, long before Ms was considered acceptable. Challenging the hospital that would not submit my daughter’s birth announcement to the newspaper because I was not married to her father and I “needed to get his permission first.”
Throughout my life I have proudly held up high the title of feminist, even as it seems to have lost popularity with much of the younger generation in recent years, and is used almost as a slur in some circles. I have worn the banner proudly, defining what a woman is supposed to be by how clearly she articulates her support for what I consider feminist principles. Women are strong and assertive. Women are leaders. Women are change makers and change agents. Women are powerful, intelligent and articulate. Women are the foundation and the bedrock upon which so many of the institutions that make up this country have been built. I am woman, hear me roar! Sure, there are women that do not fall into those categories, and in the spirit of inclusivity, I accept them and value them, but to be honest, for me, I felt that a REAL woman, a REAL feminist, had to encompass these categories… and more. And then I spent that past few months at my mother’s side as we cared for my father who passed away on February 7. My mother- a nurse and a military wife, spent her entire married life supporting my father. Moving when he moved. Living where he lived. Raising his children. Keeping his house. Dutifully cooking and cleaning and ironing and washing clothes. Never protesting for equal wages, never marching for equal rights, never challenging systems of patriarchy, or systemic and institutionalized oppression. Instead, my mother spent day after day and night after night dedicated and devoted to the man that she had lived with and loved for over half a century. I remember looking at my mom one night as she held my dad in her arms, cradling him and telling him to “let go and let God, if that was what he needed to do.” and I thought to myself, “Sandy Williams, you have absolutely no idea at all what real power is. Real strength. Real feminism.” It is that kind of power and that kind of strength, my mom’s kind, that has held back the forces that are determined to drive Black people into extinction. And because of women like my mother, feminists like me, are still here to fight another day.
Your bio as editor/publisher of The Black Lens notes that you’ve been involved with anti-oppression, anti-discrimination work for over thirty years. What have you learned along the way? What are some of the things you’re most proud of?: What I’ve learned along the way is that I have the power to change things through my words and through my actions, things that other people had believed could not be changed. That’s a pretty extraordinary thing to learn. I also learned that when everybody else is looking left, look right, when everybody else is looking up, look down, because that is usually where the truth lies. I am proud of my family. My parents came from segregated, impoverished, rural South Carolina, and both achieved success despite that and made it possible for both of their children to achieve success as well. I am proud that because of my family, I have discovered the courage to stand proud and speak my truth, no matter how difficult and challenging that has been over the years. But what I’m most proud of is that I have been able to raise a strong, successful, intelligent, creative and independent Black daughter in a society that has stacked everything possible against me being able to accomplish that.
What are you most encouraged about when it comes to the future of Spokane, and the Pacific Northwest in general? What do you remain concerned about?: I’m encouraged by the young people that I see speaking up, making their presence known, challenging the status quo, and not being willing to accept hypocrisy or to be placated by empty promises. They have a vision of a future that is inclusive and equitable, and they have the collective potential to move Spokane and the Pacific Northwest in that direction. What I remain concerned about is the commitment by many of the people here who are considered leaders to not seeing or noticing the racial issues that are impacting this community. People like to point to how different things are now than how they were in the sixties, as if people of color should stop complaining and just be grateful. I tell people that what I like about the south is that people are straight forward with their biases and prejudices. The racism is overt. You don’t have to wonder about it. In the Pacific Northwest, however, the racism is covert, it’s subtle, it’s polite, and it takes place in whispers and behind closed doors. That makes it more difficult to fight. I don’t see that getting any better. Unfortunately, I actually see it becoming more entrenched.
What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?: My daughter had moved to Harlem, New York and I was there for a visit. She was at work and I needed to go to the grocery story, so I headed down the street. As I was walking back home, there was an old man, I would say in his late 80s, sitting on the steps in front of his apartment. I had seen him before when I was walking by with my daughter and we had stopped to say hi to him. He called me over. “I want you to know that you raised a good daughter,” he said. He went on to tell me that she was kind and helpful, always had a smile on her face, and he looked forward to seeing here every time she walked down the street. In that moment, I felt like I had done my job as a mom.
Any big wish list or bucket list items you’re focused on/looking forward to accomplishing?: When I was a little girl, I told my dad that I wanted to make my own movie, a movie that would be shown on the big screen in a movie theater. I even wrote my Academy Award acceptance speech. Before my dad passed away, he asked me when I was going to make my movie. I didn’t have an answer for him. That is the biggest item on my bucket list.
What other passions do you have?: I’m most passionate about my daughter and grateful to have her in my life. I’m passionate about addressing issues of injustice and oppression, especially as it relates to the African American community. I’m passionate about discovering creative ways to help people think and see the world from a different perspective. And right now, I’m extremely passionate about helping young people understand the power of the press, the importance of reading something other than social media, and the need to become creators vs consumers.