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Spokane filmmaker, publisher, Sandy Williams leaves behind legacy of activism, organizing

Sandy Williams speaks to Northwest Public Broadcasting's Sueann Ramela in 2021.
Northwest Public Broadcasting
Sandy Williams speaks to Northwest Public Broadcasting's Sueann Ramela in 2021.

The Spokane community is adjusting to the loss of Sandy Williams, racial justice advocate and founder of eastern Washington’s only Black newspaper. She died last Sunday in a plane crash in Puget Sound.

Sandy Williams leaves a significant legacy that includes her newspaper, “The Black Lens”, the Carl Maxey Center, and decades of work alongside many non-profits in Spokane to promote equity, LGBTQIA rights and racial justice.

Her journey to activism started as a teenager, when she was told by her Cheney High School administrators that girls weren’t allowed to take shop class.

In an archival interview with KSPS in 2019, she said a teacher taught her how to write a persuasive essay, which she sent to the principal. He changed the rules.

“I'm 13, and I've just now changed school policy, huh, so that sort of gets into your psyche a little bit,” Williams said, “I think that started me on my journey of, you know, what else can I change?”

Her focus on change continued into adulthood, with launching the Black Lens. She said it was originally meant to showcase happy stories.

“I set out to do that and then there was a report that was produced by the Spokane Police Department,” she said. “It said that the people of color, particularly African Americans and Native Americans, were disproportionately impacted by use of force, and that wasn't really communicated in the media and so I went, 'man, if I don't tell that story, that is not going to get out there.' So that was the first article of the very first issue, and so there went my happy news.”

In an interview with Northwest Public Broadcasting’s Sueann Ramella last year, Williams recalled the challenges of growing up in a predominately white community, and the need for safe spaces for Black people.

She said that need eventually led to the Carl Maxey Center.

“The non-profit was initially called friends of the Black Lens,” she said. “Kind of like they have friends of the symphony, or something like that. That was our initial idea, five of us sitting in my backyard eating barbecue. And so pretty quick, almost in the blink of an eye, we figured out that was not big enough. The need was so much bigger than that.”

They found a vacant building in East Central that became a home for organizing, and a safe space.

“We needed to create a space that's specifically safe for Black people,” she said. “It’s not that other people can't come, but the intention of it is to be a safe space for Black people.”

She told Ramella that part of her work as an activist, revolves around the idea of comfort.

“If you’re comfortable, you’re not doing anything.” She said. “Because you can't be doing this work, and have it be comfortable, you just can't be. Even I get uncomfortable in some of the situations I get into and I've been doing this for decades.”

Williams was also foundational to launching a Pride center at EWU, and Spokane Community Against Racism. Several local, as well as statewide, organizations are honoring her this week, including the local YWCA, Washington ACLU, and many local leaders.

Williams and her partner Pat Hicks were both killed in the crash on Sunday. Her celebration of life is scheduled for September 13 at 5 p.m. at the First Interstate Center for the Arts. Her family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Carl Maxey Center.

Listen to Sueann Ramella's full interview with Williams here:

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.