Seeing the life brutally taken from George Floyd by a callous police officer as he begged for air is a haunting image. Enough is enough. Caring people throughout the world are outraged and have shown it through demonstrations. Not just because of George Floyd, but because of all those before him whose lives were taken unjustifiably, and because of the feeling that it’s just a matter of time before it happens again.
It’s an honor to lead Alaska’s largest private foundation. During troubling times, I am grounded by the guidance in our mission written by board member Judy Rasmuson almost 15 years ago:
The Foundation acts as a catalyst for change.
The Foundation embraces the diversity within Alaska.
Our early Foundation leaders were committed to justice. Elmer Rasmuson was an advocate of equal rights for all, a proud lifelong member of the NAACP. Our matriarch, Col. Mary Louise Rasmuson, the fifth director of the Women’s Army Corps, is noted as an advocate for equal rights. She was instrumental in the integration of Black women in the Corps.
Monday afternoon, leaders in the Black community who have become trusted advisers convened via Zoom to discuss their feelings about the events in our country. All of the men — including a member of law enforcement, a management consultant, a business executive — nodded in agreement when one speaker described how, as a new driver, he was taught, if ever pulled over by the police, to keep his hands on the steering wheel, never reach for his license or registration, and do whatever he was told. Good advice for anyone, but fundamental for Black drivers, with potentially lethal consequences otherwise.
A state senator wished he could, just once, go up the elevator in the Alaska State Capitol with a White woman — and not have her glance at her purse.
I am so grateful for the words of a man I’ve never met, Shola Richards of Los Angeles, whose social media post went viral this week as he reminded us why his daily experience is different from mine. He is a 45-year-old father of two young girls who is also tall — and Black. He walks his dog Ace around the neighborhood twice each day, wearing a mask as recommended by the local health department. He always takes one of his daughters with him on his dog walks. Why? Because with his daughter by his side, passersby see him as a dad with a dog taking a walk. Walking alone, he is frightened he could be seen as a threat. That someone could spark an interaction that could spiral out of control. His fear is others’ fear.
With the backdrop of disproportionate deaths from COVID-19 among Black Americans and other people of color, with inequities around access to healthcare and the internet for people of color during a pandemic, what we’ve seen this week is about more than just policing. The pain and, yes, outrage that are pouring out of the Black community and its allies are the result of hundreds of years of being marginalized in systemic ways.
Here in Alaska, in as diverse and compassionate a place as exists in the United States, protesters are expressing themselves peacefully. I’m proud of my community and its people for speaking out, including Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll who quickly issued a thoughtful response to Floyd’s killing and 16-year-old Markus Vinson, who organized the peaceful protest in downtown Anchorage.
Sadly, groups of people with another agenda have tried to hijack this moment of legitimate protest by burning and looting in some of America’s cities. The images are frightening, and we reject violence. The stories from protestors who feel betrayed are heartbreaking, as are the interviews with justice-promoting small business owners whose stores and livelihoods have been destroyed. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I urge all Alaskans to listen and learn, and to talk to each other. If your usual circle of friends mostly looks like you, make a commitment to change that over time. Find organizations to volunteer with or donate to — like the Senator Bettye Davis Memorial Scholarship Fund and the Social Justice Fund at The Alaska Community Foundation — that are working to create a better future for us all by addressing inequities. Educate yourself, so that you are empowered to speak up when confronted by racism. Let’s hold our leaders — and ourselves — accountable.
When Jenny Olson and E.A Rasmuson immigrated to Yakutat in the early 1900s, they were the only White people in the community. They were met by love, not fear. In that environment they flourished, as teachers and as a young married couple. The family went on to be a founder of something that would reflect that love back to Alaska — Rasmuson Foundation. Let’s all commit to be the catalyst for change that the Foundation’s leaders imagined years ago.