‘There’s a reckoning that feels new’

Sandy Williams speaking during an organized protest in Spokane.
Sandy Williams, a 1983 WSU grad, publishes The Black Lens in Spokane and has seen interest in the monthly newspaper and its coverage grow in much the same way as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Sandy Williams did a double-take. She was on vacation, driving recently through some “itty-bitty Oregon coastal town,” when she happened on to something unexpected.

“Two teenage white girls were standing on a corner, doing their own Black Lives Matter protest right there in their little town, and I was like, ‘Look at that.’ If there were any people of color, I didn’t see them. There was nobody else with them. And it was just really cool to see that,” Williams says. “I’m going to write about it for my column next month.”

Williams, a 1983 WSU Pullman grad, is the editor and publisher of The Black Lens, a monthly Spokane newspaper she created to help share the stories and perspectives of—and advocate for—Black people in her community. With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining broader momentum and support, she’s been busier than ever, attending protests, speaking on behalf of Spokane’s Black community, starting a new collaboration with The Spokesman-Review newspaper, and, of course, continuing to keep putting out a paper, which—like the movement—is growing.

“It was already busy because of COVID-19 and trying to deal with the impact it was having on our community, especially Black businesses and how folks were or were not able to address the need for students to be at home,” Williams says. “When George Floyd’s murder happened, it just sort of took everything to new heights.”

The movement made international headlines following release of video footage showing Floyd’s fatal arrest by a Minneapolis police officer. Millions of people throughout the world protested in thousands of cities—from Seattle and Portland to Spokane and Pullman as well as London, Rome, Paris, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and more. In many cities, the protests continue.

“People are starting to internalize what happened and examine their own privilege in ways that haven’t happened before,” Williams says. “There’s a reckoning that feels new. I’m not ready to say that shifts are happening, but I’m hopeful. I’m both skeptical and hopeful. It feels like people in positions of power are starting to be a little more introspective than they have been in the past. It isn’t just ticking boxes and writing form letters of support; there’s been some real reflection. And that really needs to happen.”

One of the most striking moments for her during the recent Black Lives Matter events in Spokane took place during a vehicle protest in June. She was expecting “30, 40, maybe 50 cars,” and about 200 turned out. The procession wound its way through upper-class areas of Spokane’s South Hill neighborhood, “and it was just amazing to see how many people from that area of town—which is the part of town that I never would’ve have expected to see engaged in this movement—come out of their homes. They stood in the streets, and I saw this little boy with a cardboard sign. It was a little white boy holding this hand-drawn Black Lives Matter sign. That really stuck with me.”

Williams writes most of the stories in The Black Lens but doesn’t self-identify as a journalist. “Journalists have a particular role to play, which is neutral,” Williams says. “The Black Lens is certainly not neutral. It’s never been neutral. It never was intended to be neutral. Even from the title, you can tell it’s written from a certain perspective. I try my best to be fair and balanced, but the intention is to give an alternative view. It’s my job to speak for the Black community and advocate for the Black community and cover things for the Black community. It can be a challenging role to play. There have been times when I’m speaking at an event that I’m supposed to be covering.”

But, she says, “As long as you’re honest about what you’re doing, it’s OK.”

Subscriptions have jumped from about 250 to nearly 600 in recent months, a bump Williams attributes to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Right now, people are really struggling to want to do something,” she says. “Subscribing to The Black Lens gives them something tangible to support both the local Black community and Black Lives Matter.”

Williams was planning to increase production before the global novel coronavirus pandemic hit, impacting distribution and advertising. Copies are typically found at local churches, libraries, colleges, community centers and Black-owned as well as ally businesses. “If COVID-19 hadn’t happened, I think we’d be at 1,500 copies now,” says Williams, who began in 2015 by printing just 500 copies. Gradually, she bumped the number to 750, then 1,000, and 1,200. Today, she prints 1,300 per month.

“I pumped my savings into it in the beginning,” she says. “There was no money. I mean zero. I was living off my savings. There were months where I was down to the last dollar, and I was ready to pack it up, then a check would come and it was just enough to pay the bill—just enough. For a really long time, it was like that. You piecemeal it together, and you just keep going.”

In June, for the first time, The Black Lens worked with Spokane’s longtime traditional daily newspaper The Spokesman-Review on a special two-page Sunday insert featuring articles, essays, poetry, and photos contributed by the local Black community. “Everybody was writing about the protests in one way or another,” Williams says, noting the collaboration worked so well “we’re actually going to be doing it quarterly.”

Around the same time she was planning the special section, she was also working on addressing concerns about a new Spokane Police Guild contract as well as helping a student group at Eastern Washington University make their voices heard over plans to eliminate its Office of Diversity. Williams wrote about both issues in her paper. Ultimately, EWU opted to retain the department, and the Spokane City Council rejected the police guild contract.

“I love the history of the Black press, the role of the Black press in the Black community, and the impact that it has to galvanize our community,” says Williams, who after graduating from WSU went on to earn a master’s degree in film and television production from the University of Southern California.

At WSU, she played intramural sports—volleyball, flag football—with her brother, Rick Williams, a 1982 WSU Pullman grad. She remains in touch with one of her professors at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. She met Tim Hopf while looking for an alternative to the speech requirement, noting she was “shy back then” and public speaking “terrified” her. “Tim was teaching a group communication class that I thought would be less scary,” Williams says. “I took several classes from him and learned as much about myself as I did about communications. We developed a strong friendship, and we actually are still in touch.”

Williams grew up in Spokane and moved back to the area in 2006. In 2018, she was honored with the YWCA Woman of Achievement Carl Maxey Racial and Social Justice Award, named for Spokane’s first prominent Black attorney and an influential civil-rights leader.

“I feel like I have this responsibility to represent the Black voice in the community,” Williams says. “The Black Lens is more than a newspaper; it’s a tool for advocacy.”

Copies of The Black Lens can be found in the African American Student Center in the CUB 420 on the Pullman campus as well as the academic center at the WSU Health Sciences Spokane campus.

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