Music pounded through a speaker on Fort Vancouver Way on Wednesday, as about 20 demonstrators gathered in front of Clark College to support Black lives and the dismantling of systemic racism in the country’s education system.
It was the latest in a series of demonstrations by grassroots organization Southwest Washington Communities United for Change, a nonprofit working to promote equity for communities of color in the region.
The organization, like many others, has been mobilized in recent weeks by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. (Minneapolis prosecutors said Wednesday that the time of the incident was actually 7 minutes, 46 seconds, not 8 minutes, 46 seconds, as had been previously reported.)
But organizers are also spotlighting broader issues of racial inequities in Clark County, including in the educational system. Clark College in particular has been at the center of questions about how Black and brown communities in Vancouver are treated. The college’s former president, Bob Knight, was found to have discriminated against women and people of color in treatment and hiring.
Lexi Bongiorno, a co-founder and president of the organization, said she has started at Clark College in fits and starts over the years, but said her own work to advocate for people of color left her unable to complete her degree.
“I end up coming here to make this space safe and end up being burnt out and exhausted,” Bongiorno said.
Kaitlyn Bruneau, who does administrative work with the organization, recalled growing up in Yamhill, Ore., as one of few people of color in her school. The first time she had a racial slur flung at her was in kindergarten, she said.
“I started to have self-identity issues,” she said.
Bruneau hopes to see shifts in the ways students’ heritage and culture are taught and valued in classrooms, so that students don’t experience the same self-doubt she did as a child.
Alyce Noble, another co-founder of the organization, is a Black mother herself, and worries about the children her world will grow up in. She recalled how, shortly after Floyd’s killing, she told her grandmother she was planning to protest, and encouraged her to join.
But her grandmother, who is in her 60s, declined, telling Noble, “It was already my time. Now it’s yours.”
Watching her 3-year-old son, Tsekani, playing with toy dump trucks nearby, Noble said she hopes it never has to be her son’s time.