My grandparents immigrated from Sweden to Yakutat in the early 1900s. My grandmother, Jenny was a Christian missionary and my grandfather, E.A., an educator and missionary. Faith was their guiding light, and they believed strongly that all people were to be treated with dignity, compassion and respect. These values were instilled into their two children, Maud Evangeline and my father, Elmer Rasmuson, and my dad passed them on to me and to my two sisters, Lile and Judy. In many ways, these values serve as the pillars upon which Rasmuson Foundation was built.
I and my fellow Rasmuson Foundation board members have been reflecting a lot recently on the state of our country. We’ve been thinking about the death of George Floyd, watching the raw emotions and agony being processed before our eyes on live television. In the last week, we’ve seen the good in people — including right here in Anchorage where community members came together in solidarity to peacefully demonstrate, mourn the loss of a life and support each other. And we’ve seen the bad: the violence and division.
Under that backdrop, members of our board met this week to talk about our values and how to respond in this moment. We are living in a time where both action and inaction are statements about who you are and what you value. Going back to the days of Jenny and E.A., our family has always stood up against injustice. My grandmother fought to keep bootleggers out of Yakutat (quite successfully I am told). My stepmother, Mary Louise Rasmuson, was a member of the first Women’s Army Corps and was recognized for her work integrating Black women into the WACs and fighting for equality. In addition to growing National Bank of Alaska into the largest bank in the state before selling it to Wells Fargo in 2000 to focus on philanthropy, my father was mayor of Anchorage. In his book, “Banking on Alaska”, he spoke about what he was most proud of from his tenure as Anchorage’s chief executive. One thing he identified was “peaceful progress on civil rights and equality for all, at a time when racial strife was tearing the nation apart.” Under his tenure, the Anchorage Human Relations Commission was created and the first fair housing ordinance outlawing discrimination in the city passed. He was an outspoken supporter of equal rights for African Americans, and became a lifetime member of the NAACP.
We know there is no easy solution when talking about racism and inequity. But this is an issue we will continue to address. Our board meets later this month, and we intend to discuss the issue of racism, just as we have addressed homelessness, alcoholism and other societal challenges.
I will close with an anecdote about my father. On one occasion in 1965, he received an angry letter from a Homer man who believed that an Anchorage demonstration in support of voting rights was communist inspired. “I hope you appreciate,” Elmer wrote back, “that people have the right to march and parade as you also have the right to write letters.”
Elmer truly did see the dignity, compassion and respect in all people, even when he disagreed with what they were saying. When my grandparents moved to a Tlingit village in the early 1900’s they were greeted with love. Today, that love is reflected back to Alaska through the Rasmuson Foundation.