June 12, 2020
It’s been a week since I wrote to say we were going silent for a week and “taking a knee” in solidarity and respect for the national crisis about racism. The point was to contribute by not cluttering “airwaves” with unrelated content across all of our brands and platforms—to give the space for the voices and conversations all too often quieted to rise up and be heard. We saw it as a way to support and not distract, and we recognized this continues to be time for us to listen, to learn, and consider the internal work of addressing systemic racism in ourselves, our organization and the maritime industry.
I got criticisms that we said too much and that we said too little. I agree with the latter. We could have done better by saying out loud and unequivocally: BLACK LIVES MATTER. That, and as an organization we are committed to becoming an anti-racist institution that through our mission and programs works to dismantle those systems that perpetuate inequality and oppression. I thought that taking a knee said all of that in less words, but given the number of people I respect contacting me with criticism to the contrary, I can say I was clearly wrong, the latest bumpy lesson in my own learning curve on racism. If I’m doing the work I anticipate that there will be more.
The past week of silence and contemplation has been filled with reflection and growth for me, this organization, and I hope you too. I reflected on the things we’re already doing to address the effects of racism. Port Townsend as a geographic center and the maritime industry are overwhelmingly white. We have to do better in creating programs, an organization, and a community that is actively inclusive and welcoming. Our expeditionary learning programs and Salish Sea Expeditions intentionally work to recruit, serve, and provide financial assistance for schools with high numbers of students of color, diverse backgrounds, and communities that are traditionally underserved by maritime programs, but we can and will do more.
There are two projects in which we are working for more structural changes. We are embarking on a project with the South Whidbey Schools to help them start a district-wide change to create a project-based district with a central theme of marine science. We’re also working with the Port of Seattle, the Highline School District, and a South Park neighborhood organization to create a standalone maritime high school with the intention of both creating compelling place-based education in a new community school, but do so with the explicit intention to address and dismantle some of the structural racism in a community that has long been at the wrong end of consequences—health indicators, incarceration rates, employment rates, life expectancy, etc. The idea is to create world-class, engaging learning that is also a potential on-ramp into the maritime industry; pair their need for a pipeline of new maritime workforce with a community that has always been industry adjacent, but only makes up 3-5% of the 5,000+ maritime jobs within a 5-mile radius. For all of those reasons, I couldn’t be more excited.
As an organization, we took the week to reflect on the ways we engage and the things we teach unknowingly reinforce historical acts of oppression. Folks in our organization looked through our HR policies to understand if there was more we could do to be as welcoming and inclusive as we intend to be; rethinking where we post jobs, how we hire, and even removing language from our HR manual; common use phrases that when examined are less than inclusive across cultures.
I also realized that even our programs, run by the most beautifully inclusive souls I have ever met, almost unknowingly include a narrative that needs examining and updating. Boats from European traditions in general, and longboats specifically, have a past that is complicated at best, and at worst includes transportation of slaves and the conveyance of colonial power to subjugate indigenous people worldwide.
None of this denigrates their value as a teaching platform, but if as an organization we are going to live up to the ideals that inspired us to accept the gift of a totem pole, we will need to not only include the Native maritime subject matter in our programs but better acknowledge and address that darker historical maritime context in what we already teach. That example is just a start, but we’re already looking into funding sources that would allow us to undertake that work.
This is clearly a big topic, and we have work to do as an organization to become as inclusive and anti-racist as we aspire to be. Proof will be in our actions, but I wanted you to know that our week of silence wasn’t a hollow gesture and that we are committed to doing the work to become part of the solution.