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Rachel Dolezal (left) speaks at a SpokaneFAVS Coffee Talk in October/Contributed

An interview with Rachel Dolezal, the new Spokane NAACP president

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Rachel Dolezal outlines bodies at a protest in downtown Spokane after the Ferguson grand jury decision/Tracy Simmons – SpokaneFAVS

By Kelly Mathews

Rachel Dolezal agreed to an interview for Spokane Faith and Values since her election as president of the Spokane NAACP

Kelly: When did you first decide to run for president?

Rachel: A few months ago, members asked me to consider running. I was thinking about it, but I hadn’t decided yet. Then, I was nominated and found out my name was on the ballot with fewer than 30 days before the election. I remember it well because the Office of Police Ombudsman meeting and the NAACP meeting were both on Monday, October 20th.

My candidacy was really a response to requests for me to run for the position of president. My candidacy was not originally my idea, but a request from officers and members in the branch frustrated with current leadership.

The former president would have been running uncontested if I hadn’t been nominated.

Nobody else contested him. 

When James Wilburn (former NAACP president) announced he was running for re-election, the treasurer said she would run, but later decided she wouldn’t run. At the election, the presidency was the only office on the ballot, with a few members at-large also being confirmed.

The officers didn’t want to serve additional terms under the former leadership, but they have expressed interest in helping with the transition to new leadership in support of my incoming presidency.

People had lost interest in involvement with the Spokane branch of the NAACP in the past couple of years; they were discouraged and disillusioned, and many members have left.

At one time the local Spokane NAACP had 325 members, now we’re down to under 50 active members.

Thirty members were actually present to vote at the election on Monday, November 17, including me, James, and other officers who voted. Many of the people voting hadn’t shown up in a long time. Think about that. It means membership dwindled under the former president’s leadership and there were no active committees as of Monday.

NAACP branches are supposed to have a minimum of five committees to be in compliance as a branch. This has really gotten down to being a bare bones thing, so I’m seeking to revitalize the Spokane NAACP. I have been talking to individuals and families who said they’d become members if I was elected, and the memberships are being mailed in daily. I’ve been busy passing out and mailing membership forms.

Kelly: What are some of your objectives now that you’ve been elected president?

Rachel: That’s my first goal. My first act of leadership is already starting to lead in terms of this membership campaign. I’m not formally in office until January.

I see this current boost in membership strategy as the first step toward activating and recruiting for our committees. This is my first push. My goal is to double our membership by December 1.

I want to have a large support base that is inclusive of people of color and allies. Historically the NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in America.

From the very beginning there was a multicultural membership team at the helm.

Most people know about W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, but not everyone knows about white founders like Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard. The civil rights struggle is one that includes advocacy for historically oppressed groups such as people of color, women, and people living with disabilities; racial justice is not disconnected from other avenues of civil rights and social justice.

Kelly: What are some of the offices at the NAACP?

Rachel: Secretary, assistant secretary, treasurer, vice president, assistant vice president and members at large.

There’s kind of an expectation or profile of what a NAACP member or officer looks like, and people may not know that historically, in Spokane, people from all backgrounds have been officers.

We have Chicana members, white members, younger members, older members, members from the LGBT community, and members with disabilities.

There was a lot of tension around the election — there was a paradigm shift towards younger leadership for sure. Dynamics surrounding the election were tense. People were expressing feelings of that tension, along with hope to reach across that divide.

While we waited for the election committee to finish counting the votes, Kitara McClure exhorted both candidates to prepare themselves to extend a hand toward the other. If James won, she encouraged him to reach out to younger families and work with me. If I won, she encouraged me to reach out to James and the old guard in the community to support the organization.

What I see in that group is possible wisdom and mentoring from the older to the younger generation.

We need someone connecting those dots, and I feel I am that bridge between younger students, families, and the senior population. By taking the baton, I am not walking away from everything before me. I want to bring some fresh energy and faces to the scene.

Processes of critical transformation and understanding racial and social justice in Spokane are really important to involvement, not just token involvement, but active involvement.

That’s what I want: to bring the younger group to the older group and be a bridge that connects legacy with vision and new growth.

Bringing this to next level, that’s how I envision to really make and see the change, and really be a part of it.

Kelly: What are the costs of membership?

Rachel: Annual youth membership, for those under 17, is $10 without “The Crisis” magazine. An annual $15 membership comes with the NAACP magazine.

Annual adult memberships are $30 and come with the magazine. Adult membership means anyone 21 and older.

There are also annual corporate memberships for $5,000, and lifetime memberships at various prices and levels as well.

The annual memberships are really affordable and hopefully doable for everyone; it is a small price to pay to give appreciation for the opportunities we enjoy today, opportunities that were not always available to our ancestors.

I’m excited that college students really want to participate.

I love that energy, that’s what inspires me to do this. To facilitate new leadership and empower the next generation: that makes me excited.

Kelly: I remember you talking at the Spokane Faith and Values panel on racism and about how, when you first got to Spokane, you were surprised there were so many black churches. Does that illustrate some of the divide in the community, or more the diversity?

Rachel: I believe there are 13 black churches currently. When I first got here, there were 18, and I thought Spokane must be super diverse in comparison with North Idaho. But the black community is only 1.8 percent of the population in Spokane. So I thought, wait, how do we possibly have 18 black churches? It is an illustration on how our community is divided, which is not unique to Spokane. All of our communities have factions.

I see myself as a bridge builder. More unity is needed in Spokane, since the population of communities of color is small and isolated. We need the broadest support possible. I want to keep the NAACP mission and vision strong as far as advancing people of color and civil rights in the local and national scene.

I want the Spokane branch to be inclusive, not exclusive.

The NAACP has a history of working with churches and civil rights organizations. Churches are one of first facilities to host civil rights and social organization in the African American community.

Kelly: How do you want to organize the NAACP so it takes its rightful place in the community, then?

Rachel: Step out front as a leader in terms of racial and social justice.

I’m a commissioner with the Office of Police Ombudsman. I think this is the first time in history an NAACP president is in a position of civilian oversight of law enforcement. I think this is an awesome precedent not just for the region, but the nation.

If a NAACP president in Ferguson was in a position of police oversight, this could be powerful.

The NAACP national organization is connected powerfully with attorneys, many of whom have won class action lawsuits and all of whom are actively working to promote civil rights.

The excitement in my mind is not just what my presidency means for Spokane, but what it could mean for other cities in the nation.

I really want to make leadership of the Spokane branch increasingly visible. After the first wave of recruitment, we will select a team of officers, then form committees and get mobilized with action plans. My philosophy as a leader is to play a position as part of a team.

Kelly: What kind of committees do you want to see established?

Rachel: The interests and passions of the membership will determine which committees emerge. I expect a strong criminal justice committee, an education committee, a committee for fundraising, and a committee for health. I won’t be surprised if education and criminal justice are two of largest in terms of membership interests. It’s exciting to see who is joining and what interests they bring to the table.

My job is to facilitate and organize membership. Twenty-one committees can be mobilized in a branch, but at least five active committees are required for it to be in compliance. So, I am watching to see what people want to do.

I would love to see coordination of civil rights and social justice in the community.

I want there to be educational as well as criminal justice reform — I don’t want to duplicate without getting results, so we can measure our progress, creating action items that produce measurable results. For example, I want to measure progress on disproportionality in our schools, for how students of color are being treated, outcomes and so on.

After we host forums, we should implement programs, trainings, and other processes to move us in the direction of greater equity.

Kelly: So you want to make changes in the local NAACP organization?

Rachel: Yes, there will be some changes, but the work of the Spokane branch will always reflect the core vision and mission of the national NAACP.

Hopefully we can strategize a little more efficiently and effectively as we move forward. As an educator, one of my passions is educational justice. This is important to me especially with regards to our children in schools and in the juvenile justice system. Because I am a mother of two black sons, ages 13 and 20, the role of education is a core focus for my work.

It is within the vision of the NAACP to mobilize committees locally to implement effective strategies being utilized at other NAACP branches. There is online and in-person training available for officers and committees; this training guides leadership on how to run a branch in compliance with national NAACP standards.

I hope delegations raise enough funds to send local Spokane members to the regional and national conventions to cross-pollinate with other communities on civil rights actions that are effective.

Historically in Spokane, I’m in a very small minority of women presidents of the NAACP. I believe I’m the third or fourth female president since the Spokane NAACP’s inception.

I’d guess I’m also one of the youngest presidents. As a single mom who has lived on the poverty line and identifies as bisexual, perhaps some of my other demographics are also a first for Spokane. I know there is a strong majority of older straight men with strong church ties leading many of the branches nationally.

I’m a spiritual person, but not someone who belongs to any specific church in Spokane.

Nationally, as well locally, there have been very few presidents who are female throughout history.

My leadership is relevant to people who have lived experience in various historically oppressed groups, those who don’t have enough resources, those who have experienced a need for support emotionally and psychologically, and single parents and young leaders who have fought hard to gain respect.

Kelly: How does compliance training work, for various offices?

Rachel: It’s available through video conferencing, in person at the state area conference, and online.

The secretary position is very important, as is the treasurer. The VP is really there mostly to assume duties if something happens and the president can’t perform the required duties.

Kelly: I just want to say, I hope you know how good it is we have you here in Spokane to inspire us and be a voice for change. Do you think people who see your bravery and courage in the face of adversity will feel like they can speak up instead of being silenced?

Rachel: I know there are lives I’ve affected and transformed. Change and transformation, and affecting people’s lives — that’s my purpose. My calling, my destiny. To be in the center of that purpose is always fulfilling.

One student asked me today in African history class, “What do you do for fun?” I told her that for me, my work is fun, everything I do has a purpose and is fulfilling.

You do have to create ways of self-care, though, so you don’t burn out.

Kelly: Rachel, I want people to understand all the work you do so they understand the extent as to how much you do for the community. Can you please tell us all about your life and all that you do so people understand your level of commitment and passion?

Rachel: My roles include being a professor of Africana Studies at EWU.

I also support and advise the Black Student Union at EWU. I teach a Race and Ethnicity class at Whitworth and write for “The Inlander” weekly. My columns can be seen online and in the second-print edition of every month. My platform and voice for advocacy are an important part of my community participation.

I’m a commissioner for the Office of Police Ombudsman as well. It’s a dance between all these bodies of work. When I take on a new task, I subordinate another item on my agenda. What’s gonna give now that I’m stepping up as the NAACP President is my teaching at Whitworth.

I was looking forward to teaching early African American history in Jan Term, but I am going to cross that off my list.  

Kelly: So you’re sacrificing money and income for yourself, to take on more unpaid leadership in the community?

Rachel: Yes. I’m still an educator, and I’ll have four classes at EWU in winter quarter, so I’ll be teaching plenty. I see being an educator as one body of work, but it will save time if I don’t have to juggle driving to two campuses. I’ll also be cutting back on my hair clients. Being an ethnic hair stylist is really a community service, as well as bread and butter for me. I can fall back on doing hair when I need to make an extra buck.

Doing hair is like a social outreach sometimes and many of my hair clients are my friends or younger girls I mentor. We get to know each other well, especially when I’m doing a six-to-eight-hour braid job. (She laughs.)

I do other community outreach and development as well. I currently have three private art students I teach at their homes.

I also just finished filming our trailers for a new “Diversity Matters” TV show, which will air on Channel 14, CMTV. We’ll be going into the community with cameras to show a day in the life of diverse families, such as a refugee family who just arrived, a Native family that has ties to pre-white-settlement, or a black family who has been here for several decades. This will be a really positive show, exploring experiences people won’t see without this sort of true reality TV series.

The “Diversity Matters” team includes Raymond Reyes and me as the co-hosts and Ben Cabildo and Dean Ellerbusch as the co-producers, as well as a vast array of Advisory Council members.

The show will also address the history of diversity in Spokane.

We’ll be doing a lot of research, working with the MAC and Gonzaga’s library to find historical footage and images from when Spokane was first colonized. We’ll honor Native populations who were here before white settlement, look at when white immigrants came, and explore the other populations that arrived afterward. What did early diversity in Spokane look like? We’ll highlight achievements such as our black mayor in the ’70s and frightful situations such as the MLK march backpack bomb, and look at daily life for affected populations in Spokane.

Each show will be an hour long.

Other things I do that aren’t at the forefront right now are: I’m an artist as well as a licensed intercultural competency trainer. I have offered consulting to K-12 schools on that basis, but currently there doesn’t seem to be an interest, so I’m not providing those services at the moment. I’m not currently holding many art shows, but I look forward to resuming this work in another season.

Some people are focused on one thing and that works for them. I see everything I do as being part of the same energy, the same purpose. No matter what comes to the front of my work at the time, I am engaged in racial and social justice, education and enhancing the human experience.

To some people it doesn’t make sense, combining art and roles like the OPO police commission. I guess I’m a renaissance woman, in the sense of doing everything I can to the best of my abilities.

I have to thank my sons for their patience with all my activities.

Being a mother is another hat I wear.

It does take no small amount of energy and devotion to parent, but they’re (my children) woven into the things I do.

Kelly: Thanks so much for the interview, Rachel. So many times people will say, well you can’t do this and that, such as community work, filming, social change, but you’re proving you can do it.

Rachel: Thank you!

Kelly Rae Mathews

About Kelly Rae Mathews

Kelly Rae Mathews grew up in culturally and faith diverse San Diego, Calif. during the 70s and 80s before moving to Spokane in 2004. Growing up in a such a diverse environment with amazing people, led Mathews to be very empathetic and open to the insights of many different faiths, she said. She loves science fiction and this also significantly contributed to and influenced her own journey and understanding of faith and values. She agrees with and takes seriously the Vulcan motto, when it comes to faith and life, "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations." Therefore, it is no surprise she has a degree in anthropology as well as English. She has studied the anthropology of religion and is knowledgeable about many faiths.

She completed an anthropological research project on poets of the Inland Northwest, interviewing over two dozen poets, their audiences, friends, family members, and local business community who supported the poetry performances. Mathews gave a presentation on How Poets Build Community: Reclaiming Intimacy from the Modern World at the Northwest Anthropological Conference, at the Eastern Washington University Creative Symposium, the Eastern Washington University Women's Center and the Literary Lunch Symposium put on by Reference Librarian and Poet Jonathan Potter at the Riverfront Campus.

She was a volunteer minister in San Diego for about 10 years while attending college and working in various editorial positions.

Her articles, poems and short stories have appeared in Fickle Muse, The Kolob Canyon Review, Falling Star Magazine, Acorn, The Coyote Express, The Outpost and Southern Utah University News.

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