Ellensburg City Council initiative seeks to give diverse community members a voice

ELLENSBURG, Wash. — The City of Ellensburg has launched a new initiative to bring the community together and ensure its diverse residents’ voices are heard.

At the end of July, several council members began reaching out to local leaders and asking them to bring community members to the table to discuss concerns, ideas and hopes for the future — particularly those involving racial equality.

“[The community leaders] are people of color. They’re people over 65. They’re people in certain religious areas,” city spokesperson Margaret Reich said. “They’re people that we have received word from who don’t always feel like their voices are being heard or they are well-represented.”

Once the leaders are contacted, the team leading the Inclusion, Diversity and Equity initiative — council members Nancy Goodloe, Bruce Tabb, and Nancy Lillquist — invite them to join them in a virtual video chat to talk about issues facing the community.

“The council wants to recognize that as this population changes, as we grow, that we’re sure to let everyone know that they’re welcome here, that they belong here, that we care about them and that we hope that they will be able to seek their full potential here in Ellensburg,” Reich said.

Reich said the initiative has been in the works for a while, but was spurred on by the city’s population growth and changing demographics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the overall population in Ellensburg has increased 5.6 percent in the last five years from 18,980 in 2015 to an estimated 20,050 in 2020.

“Our population is growing and it’s growing at a rate that exceeds most places in the nation; we’re one of the top 10 micro regions in the nation for population growth,” Reich said. “What we’re seeing with that population growth is an increase in people of color and older people moving into our community.”

Additionally, the percentage of the population identifying as white decreased 5.1  percent over a five-year period, from 82.7 percent in 2013 to 78.5 percent in 2017, while the percentage of people identifying as a race other than white increased 24.3 percent, from 17.3 percent in 2013 to 21.5 percent in 2017, according to census data.

Reich said while the majority of the community members involved in the listening sessions have said they feel welcome in Ellensburg, the city has had its share of racial tensions.

“We’ve had a number of incidents and visitors to our community that aren’t welcoming diverse populations,” Reich said.

In June, police launched an investigation into more than a dozen spray-painting vandalism incidents in Ellensburg, some depicting anti-Semitic symbols and at least one involving a racial slur.

Last year, the far-right Patriot Prayer activist group — which has sparked controversy over violent confrontations and connections to white nationalists — held a demonstration at the Central Washington University campus. In 2016, residents found brochures featuring KKK propoganda in their driveways.

“They’ve mentioned that regardless of what community you live in, there’s going to be a few people that aren’t going to appreciate a diverse and inclusive community,” Reich said. “But for the most part, people feel safe in Ellensburg and they feel welcome here.”

Community activist Alex Mandujano was one of the residents chosen to participate in a listening session. He said he was glad to be invited to participate and provide input on racial relations in the city.

“I was very pleased to see that Ellensburg is taking the initiative to address the racial inequality in this town,” Mandujano said.

Mandujano serves on the board of Apoyo, a local food bank that mainly caters to the Latino community. He also volunteers as an English teacher for Spanish speakers and oversees a bilingual conversation club.

“That’s my effort to try to bring a friendly format for people to learn about each other,” Mandujano said.

Mandujano has lived in Ellensburg since 1992 — a time when he said racial tensions were much higher.

“Initially, when we first got here, some of us — Latinos mainly — were very glad to be here because we got the impression that it was a very peaceful, very welcoming town,” Mandujano said.

A few days after Mandujano’s arrival, he and his friends were walking to a nearby store and heard people shout racially-charged comments from passing cars, saying, “Go back to Mexico! What are you doing here?”

“That was my first taste of some of the negative element in Ellensburg,” Mandujano said. “Over the years, I hadn’t seen anything that extreme until now that the BLM movement is back up again; I see it every time I visit the protesters.”

Concern for the protesters was one of the points Mandujano brought up in the listening session he attended. He said while the majority of interactions between passersby and the local group of Black Lives Matter activists who gather daily near West Fifth Avenue and North Main Street are positive, he’s also seen people verbally and physically confront the protesters.

“We do get some very negative interactions … They either use their middle finger to express their opinion or they just scream out,” Mandujano said.

Mandujano said it’s discouraging when he sees families driving by with young children and then hear the driver yelling racial comments and making rude hand gestures. He said those incidents teach children that their parent’s behavior is okay and may encourage them to imitate it.

“That’s striking to me because as an adult, why would I want to initiate that kind of hate into a young man’s life?” Mandujano said. “I just see it as a very sad cycle that keeps going in the family.”

Despite some of the experiences Mandujano has experienced and witnessed, he said he believes in the city and hopes that the council will come together with community members to make it an even better place to live.

“One of the reasons I decided to live in this town and raise my children here is because, by far, this town is very welcoming, very loving, the neighbors are great,” Mandujano said. “I love this place, but I also know it has some dark areas that need some work.”

The “listening tour” began at the end of July and is expected to include about 20 sessions, taking place from now through September. Reich said the council members will gather overall themes and ideas gleaned from the sessions in October and come up with a work plan.

“The best part of the initiative is the opportunity for council members to truly sit and listen to constituents … for people to know that our council members care and want to listen,” Reich said.

Reich said part of that plan will be to create a board or commission to specifically address inclusion, diversity and equity in the community, as well as enacting the work plan itself.

“We’ll compile some information that we’ve heard, some of those similar themes that we’ve heard from each of the sessions and that will help to inform what we can do because the whole notion of inclusion, diversity and equity for our council is to do better,” Reich said. “We know that we’re doing a good job but we also know that we can do better.”

While some of the issues presented will require a long-term approach, Reich said several of the ideas brainstormed in the sessions can be done soon.

“Having signage and starting to work with others in our community to better celebrate everyone’s cultures and traditions,” Reich said. “Those are things we can right now.”

Residents wanting to share their feedback, ideas, and comments with the city can fill out an online form here or email askthemayor@ci.ellensburg.wa.us.