November 8, 2021 Dena Jensen
Dena Jensen of Noisy Waters Northwest, here. Some people might already be aware from following the posts on this blog, but for those who are visiting for the first time, I haven’t ever conducted any interviews, even though some of the people whose articles I have shared on Noisy Waters Northwest have. But there’s always a potential first time for everything, and a potential way of doing something that has always seemed like a puzzle that couldn’t be solved.
So, when I had the opportunity to spend time with Kristina Michele Martens, it was a good motivation to realize that I do know how, and have some practice at asking questions of elected representatives. And it appears that Martens is exactly that, now that Election Day and numerous vote counts are behind us.
Meanwhile, Martens herself boldly figured out the puzzle of campaigning for elected office for the first time and is the presumptive winner of the Bellingham City Council At-Large seat. She will be the first Black woman ever to serve on that Council.
I put my questions together and met with Martens over Zoom after she had had at least a little rest over the weekend that came after Election Day. And hey, I got answers! – plus an additional statement from her to close out our visit. Here’s how it all went:
Prior to your candidacy, from your videos, other social media posts, community events, and your efforts to bring life to a Racial Equity Commission for Bellingham and Whatcom County, your drive to raise awareness and take action to increase racial equity locally has been apparent. During your campaign, what input did you get from community members that let you know your prior actions were, or were not, leading you in the right directions?
Kristina Michele Martens:
It was definitely a mixed bag of both. It was – all of the posts, and all the events that I was involved in, in 2020, that had community members saying I was the type of person that they wanted to see. And then getting on the campaign trail. It was also then reinforced that having someone who really just wants to get to the heart of the problems, who can speak from experience about what it’s like to live through history. And when everyone’s talking about Black Lives Matter, having a Black person actually be able to say what’s failing us in our systems all around us.
And then I started getting a lot of push back from the people that don’t experience it everyday – a lot of unsolicited advice that me being as aggressive/coming off as your super-cool angry black woman was not falling well on ears. And to me that – it just was further indication that I had to keep going, because it’s a lot of the established establishment that – oh, you can’t say that, or you can’t do that, or you can’t phrase it like that. And I really wanted to make sure I was staying true to myself, first and foremost. I will never be able to package myself the way that established American government wants to see. But that’s part of the reason that we’re in this whole mess to begin with.
And just really remembering that the community that really rallied behind me are those that are often left out of the conversation – your low-income, your renters, your people of color. So for me to change whatever I was saying or where it was coming from even – out of my heart and my soul – would have been a disservice, because it just would have been playing to what the politician machine is. And I just – I do not want to let down the community that has been so often ignored, neglected, and shut out of these conversations.
I knew I was on the right path when the establishment was getting scared, to be quite honest, and I heard that from a lot of different people when calling about their advice for how I should, and have to, win a Council race that, you know – you’ve got to tone it down, you can’t say things like this, that, and the other thing. And I’m happy to have been able to prove that that’s wrong.
From input you received during your campaign and past community interactions you have had, what would you say are some of the most significant unserved and underserved needs being faced by BIPOC and other people facing ongoing or chronic crises and discrimination in Bellingham and Whatcom County?
Kristina Michele Martens:
It’s been an interesting road that got me here. A lot of this really started with an interaction with the Bellingham Police Department. And that’s a whole other story unto itself. But calling them out on social media – and that led to five meetings with former [Bellingham] Police Chief Doll, current interim [Chief] Flo Simon, and Lieutenant Deputy Claudia Murphy.
And a lot of the conversations there, and the bulk of the issues that we were kind of hearing, in these these conversations, was: well, people of color, there just aren’t enough in Whatcom County to be tracking any data! And I’m like – right there! – how can you know that you’re doing a good job if you’re not even tracking the job that you’re doing?
And if the population is so small, however, black and African American people in Whatcom County are like 1.4% but they make up close to 6% of the jail population, and the indigenous population is 4% but they make up like 11% of the jail population. – Please fact check all of those! – But I know that it’s something just terrible like that, to then say that- oh we’re not tracking data because there just aren’t a lot of people of color. That’s a giant red flag right there.
And so, how do we know, from a government point of view, or perspective, what is and isn’t working to begin with? And that was really kind of one of the original cruxes for the Whatcom Racial Equity Commission – there is no one tracking it. So there are so many issues being faced by our BIPOC community members but we can’t pinpoint it.
But from looking at the data that we do have with the Health Department and the work that the Children and Family Well-being Taskforce is doing, a lot of it starts in the beginning. A lot of these communities are of lower-income and have less access to childcare, less access to – unto themselves – jobs that pay an actual living wage. And so then they have to collect two, or three, or four and it just creates this terrible cycle.
And a big issue is food scarcity – the Birchwood neighborhood being one of the largest populations, or largest demographics of people of color – and this ongoing fight about not being able to get a grocery store in there is just absolutely insane.
So we can see all of the issues around us. In that spectrum too, we have such a large amount of property rental companies and such a small amount of independent property owners who are then leasing their independent homes. And there’s no real safety net for the actual renters, as we saw with the People First, and the initiatives that they really tried to bring forth.
It’s just so many tiny little issues that no one wants to collect the data on, that we can see are impacting and furthering to implode so many families and so many individual lives, because they just can’t catch a break. They can’t get ahead. Instead of pulling people out of the river, we’re not asking: what is causing them to fall in at the beginning.
And for me that just all just circles back around to data and what we’re not collecting – and how we can’t, as a local government, kind of acknowledge that we’re failing a lot of these communities from birth. Even with the birth rate at St. Joe’s, a white individual has a twelve year longer life expectancy than an indigenous person born at the same hospital.
So, if we can look at that on the spectrum – how many times, how often did we fail them – and how many times did we then revert back to the excuse that we’re not collecting data, so we don’t know how to help them. It’s this incredible depressing cycle that I feel like we, as a nation, need to just stop, okay? We can’t keep throwing money at the problems in the avenues that we think are solutions, because they’re not working and we’re failing all of us. So let’s start at the root of all the problems.
And for that to be an incredibly long answer – I feel like the short answer is just that people of color aren’t really categorized or considered as a part of a community when the percentage is so low. And so to a certain degree it’s just not having respect for actual human life, because you don’t like the packaging it’s in.
But to harness around something specific, so many community members of color want a community space for people of color. We’ve heard it from so many different demographics that they just want to be able to go to a place where – because there is so few of us – you don’t feel like you’re on display. There is hopefully, fingers crossed, more than one person of color. And in a perfect world, there would be like 25 people of color being able to hang out at that community space, at any given point in time, where you can take your mask off and set your shield down in a space that’s not just your home, but somewhere out in the community that is welcoming and inviting. That right there, a touch point where the communities of color themselves can gather and support each other, would be a great first stepping stone.
What is something you learned about your community and their urgent needs while you were campaigning of which you were not aware previously?
Kristina Michele Martens:
I feel like this is something so small, but I believe there are something like between 42 and 46 languages spoken in Whatcom County. And there’s no one in City Hall that can translate anything. And so everything that the local government is turning out is only in English. No wonder there’s such a large disconnect between the communities that really need a lot of help. And the first step is just to let them know what’s happening out here in Whatcom County.
But it’s so hard to get that information, that it’s no wonder that they all kind of feel – everyone who predominately speaks not-English as a first language – feels so left out of the loop and is so hard to reach, to then further find out what it is they’re missing that the local government could be doing to help serve them further.
In the local City Hall there’s not even an ASL translator on hand. And I just assumed, like a lot of people in America that aren’t making sure they’re going through line by line of a government’s code, just assumed they were trying to reach out to all of the community on the same level, in the same way, and we’re just not.
So even, right there to me, is a giant step one. We need to make it so that the people you’re trying to serve are able to get in contact with you and be able to share information that affects them. Right here at the local level everyone always wants to make sure they vote in the National Presidential election, but right here the people who are serving you make decisions that impact you tomorrow and if you can’t understand the information they’re putting out because it’s not in your first language, you would just be kind of adrift as to what’s going on in the community.
And I just think that we’re going to see so much more diversity move into this area that if we can’t get a handle on it now, we’re going to have – I would even guess that almost 50% of the population right now doesn’t speak your governmental legalese, no matter if English is a first language or not. So being able to give it, is important – to meet the people where they’re at, to make sure that they know the decisions that are being made about them and for them, and to give it to everyone in a language that they can understand.
Since voters have placed you in a Bellingham City Council seat, what do you feel will be unique or set precedents in how you address your community members and their calls to action?
Kristina Michele Martens:
I would say that it really – because I was never raised to be a politician, it wasn’t necessarily on my radar, I never really put on that – or at least haven’t yet – decided that that is an air that I want to put on. And, for me, being able to hold this seat, I feel that a further length of the duty that I promised to the voters when I set out on this, is that I will be checking back in with you.
I will be giving you run-downs on what was discussed – what the actions are coming up – where you can put input in. It’s no surprise that watching any Council meeting anywhere is not exciting and/or sexy. You don’t have a lot of community members gathered around the computer watching it as a family.
And it’s just a lot of time. An average meeting is two hours, but sometimes they go four, five, six. And in there is really important information that the community needs. But there doesn’t seem to be a two and a half minute, “here’s what you missed” type of thing that I really do think would be incredibly valuable, not just in our community but everywhere. Making sure that people have the information that they need in a form that they can actually digest it, and that makes sense to them.
So I’m going to hold myself accountable for making sure that I am very, very frequently communicating with the community from my own platform: this is what’s happening, this is what we are discussing, here’s where you can jump in, and this is how it’s going to have an impact on you.
So much of it is just written in such legal jargon and all the footnotes and the extra research, and all of that. It takes a lot of time and effort to get the full picture. It’s not realistic to be saying that the community is responsible for being as engaged as Council Members are, but not really offering them a platform to do so in a way that’s not eating up into their day.
We know that, especially with COVID and the eviction moratoriums expiring, that people are doing everything they can to just stay in their homes. And there will be, I imagine, a lot of legislation coming up that they need to be aware of, but they don’t that the three, four, five hours to go through all the information to get the two minutes of nuggets that they need.
So I want to make sure that I can be a touch point for the community, that I will always be here for them, and I want to make sure that we’re actually not leaving anyone behind, which has been the tagline in America for so long. But as far as I can tell, it’s been incredibly performative. And now it’s time to finally deliver.
And we’re lucky to be in a time where we have all of these tools at our disposal, especially with the majority of all of these meetings during COVID over Zoom, we can do this. We have the technology and the instruments to make it so that we can be of better service to the community.
What is your deepest aspiration, at this early stage, regarding the forthcoming impacts of the work of the Racial Equity Commission?
Kristina Michele Martens:
Right now, it would just be to get it passed by Whatcom County Council. That’s really step one!
And then, after that, I mean, if we can do this and if the County accepts that this is something that needs to happen – and we’re not the only community that’s working on an entity such as this. There’s been quite the flood, and I am so happy to see that. Even Washington State itself has created an office of equity at the state level. And we have actually been in communication with the director, Dr. Karen Johnson.
So it’s being taken seriously, the need for commissions and entities like this. And at the heart of all the conversations that we’re having with other groups that form them across the country, is the need for data. It’s the need to acknowledge that you have different cultures, different ethnicities, different needs among an entire community. And we have to start acknowledging it.
As cute and adorable as Bellingham is, I really feel like we’re stuck in about 1985. Everything that’s being done and how it’s being done just feels like it’s for a very homogenous community of maybe 60,000 people. And it’s not that. Right now, everything it seems to be is busting at the seams, and we can be collecting so much data to help further inform us down the road, because the secret’s out: Bellingham’s beautiful and amazing and people are coming in droves. And they’re not going to look like the predominant past majority.
And we also hear a lot of – I can speak for the Bellingham community specifically – wanting more diversity. But it’s very hard to be that thing – right here, the Black woman that Bellingham wants much more of – because it’s not very welcoming. I’ve had a couple moments walking into a coffee shop, and I am the only person of color. And when I walk in that door, it feels like the record skips, and everyone looks at you.
So, knowing that that’s something that I’m going through, I want to try to keep as much diversity here as possible so that we can diversify everything: our culture, our food, who has power, who is a representative for what the community needs.
So that’s for the Racial Equity Commission: making sure that people of color know that someone is looking out for them and that our local governments at least acknowledge that. That’s what I feel like it passing through the Whatcom County Council will be at least acknowledging that we have gaps that we need to fill. These gaps can’t be filled by our past governmental structures that was born of white supremacy. You need people of color building this. You need people of color, front and center of this, to let you know – the government itself – where you’re on the right track, where you’re headed in the wrong direction, how we can feather more groups together because they’re experiencing very similar issues.
There needs to be an acknowledgment that there is diversity in Whatcom County. I feel like the passing of the equity commission would be that. And that the history of Whatcom County has not been great when it comes to dealing with different ethnicities and diverse cultures moving into the area.
And right now is a moment in time where we can really acknowledge those failings. We can look at the laws that are still on the books that are contributing to that and how they’re contributing to that, and then be able to hold government partners accountable for fixing it.
You don’t know what you don’t know. And you can’t fix what you don’t see as broken. So it’s really being able to have the perspective of those who are being failed by our local system.
Kristina Michele Martens:
And then this wasn’t a question that you asked, but on a personal level, being able to be the first Black woman on Bellingham City Council – I hope that I’m not the best Black woman Bellingham sees on City Council in its history now. I hope – and what I felt like my job to do right now was to get that door open.
It takes a lot of effort and energy and self fortitude to be the first, especially when the old guard really doesn’t like what you’re talking about – really is against the changes that I want to see, because it will directly impact them.
One of the big issues was, talking about our zoning laws and bringing in more multi-family zoning. And I was just so struck at the rhetoric from the save our ‘hoods group and their fear of urban elements moving into the neighborhood.
And it breaks my heart and it’s just not something they are able to put off forever. There is no more land – in the world! We’re on all of it! So people are gonna have to learn how to share. It’s the way it’s going to have to be.
But I just truly hope that a lot of people that would have normally never paid attention to a Council race or a campaign this long, and never thought that they could see themselves in local government and/or being able to have an impact – I’m hoping inspired a handful who will go on to do the same, so that there’s just more people who understand the exact crises that we’re up against, being able to discuss them at a level that actually has impact.