Lift every voice and sing: Community leaders celebrate Renton’s Black history

Taking place Feb. 10 at Renton Technical College, the forum was an open discussion for Black community leaders and members to talk about the city’s past, present and future.

On Feb. 10, the Renton King County Black Alliance for Justice and Renton Technical College (RTC) hosted “The Art of Cultivating Community,” an open forum on “how to restore hope through activism, education and engagement.”

A Black History Month tradition in Renton, this forum was held in the library of RTC from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and included Black artists, community leaders and those who wanted to celebrate Black history in the city.

“Black people helped build this city,” said John Houston, a community leader and lifelong Rentonite.

Hosted once again by artist Charles Conner, the event kicked off with an introduction and invocation by Rev. Dr. Linda Smith of Renton King County Alliance for Justice, followed by the Black National Anthem, which was led by singer Ayana Freeman. Next was a poetry reading by Azziem Underwood of King County Metro Transit.

The keynote speaker for the event was Dr. Yoshiko Harden, RTC’s first female president and the school’s first president to be a person of color. Harden spoke about the importance of post-secondary higher education, especially for Black learners who still face barriers when it comes to seeking higher education.

“How do we build upon and restore hope, particularly [in] this time when post-secondary education and college education is under active attack?” said Harden, acknowledging some nods from the crowd. “It is under active attack, it is a strategy, there is a benefit to having an uneducated and ignorant population. That is on purpose. It is not about ‘woke,’ it’s not about ‘DEI,’ it’s about keeping people uneducated so they cannot make decisions upon their own.”

Michelle Strange, Director of Restorative Practices at Bellevue College, spoke about the importance of “speaking truth to power,” building community and restorative justice, saying that there is “woundedness on top of woundedness.”

Next was Renton School Board Vice President Justin Booker, who spoke about George Washington Carver and the concept of mental health and success in Black communities.

When asked how people can help Booker be successful in his position as school board vice president, Booker said that he didn’t know yet, after he said: “Changing any system scares folks and the people in it. I’m always struggling with […] trying to walk that line where I can effect change, and still bring people along.”

After Booker, Renton Police Sgt. Corey Jacobs spoke to the crowd about how he became a police officer to “be part of the change” and to support his community, adding that it’s important for more people of color to join the police department.

During Jacobs’ speaking time, the topic of people in the Black community being afraid of police officers was brought up.

“We have this fear around police officers and things like that, I mean that fear is just inside of us, that’s how we live as people,” said Dr. Smith. “I think one of the things that I just want to lift up today for our community is [that] building a relationship really makes a difference.”

Community leader Benita Horn brought up the city’s diversity and asked Sgt. Jacobs about the challenges and successes of working as an officer serving a diverse city.

“The biggest challenge is getting people to talk to us,” he said. “Overcoming the stereotypes of talking to police and I tell those people, ‘I’m a community member first.’”

Sgt. Jacobs spoke about the need for “open and honest conversations,” saying that his willingness to speak to the community about policing has been a success. Sgt. Jacobs also brought up Dr. Smith’s earlier statement about the need to challenge fears.

“We have to challenge our fears. We have fears of law enforcement, I have fears of sharks, I still go swimming,” said Sgt. Jacobs, which brought laughs from the crowd. Sgt. Jacobs spoke about “bad people in law enforcement” and depictions of police in the media. “I want people to celebrate us when we do good things as well,” he said.

The topic of white supremacy in policing and the media also came up, with the need to “dismantle” the institution in order to “rebuild something new,” which Sgt. Jacobs agreed with.

“That starts with our government. Our government isn’t built for us, I hate to say it,” he said. “The top 1%, they can buy their way out of anything.”

William Smith, chief of staff at the City of Seattle Department of Information Technology and son to Dr. Smith, spoke about his educational journey, mental health for Black men and the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“Education is very important, not just formal education, but the education of life,” Smith said.

Alonda Williams, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, talked about the need for mentors in the Black community, encouraging people in the crowd to sign up.

“We have a waitlist of young people waiting for a mentor,” she said, adding that she would love to have a partnership with the City of Renton.

Other speakers at the event included Mayor Armondo Pavone, Councilmembers Ruth Pérez and Kim-Khánh Van, who was thanked by Dr. Smith for her support of Renton’s Black community and the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd.

Poet Kawana Nicole Farrish recited one of her pieces, and licenced mental health therapist Kelvin Peprah returned to the topic of mental health in the Black community, especially for Black men: “There are not enough therapists of color, less Black therapists and even less Black male therapists,” Peprah said.

Like last year’s forum, one of the most moving portions of the event took place when community leaders John Houston and Benita Horn took the stage to talk about their virtual history tour of Renton and how the Black community helped build up the city. Houston, whose family once owned nearly 10 acres of land in the Renton Highlands before being forced to sell it to the school district, spoke about his fight for support and reparations for his family.

“For me, this is a message of hope,” said Horn. “We don’t use the power that we have.”

Benita Horn and John Houston talk about Black history in Renton.

Benita Horn and John Houston talk about Black history in Renton.

Renton Police Sgt. Corey Jacobs spoke at the forum on Feb. 10.

Renton Police Sgt. Corey Jacobs spoke at the forum on Feb. 10.