Embracing Diversity

Anchorage residents gathered in Anchorage Town Square Park on Labor Day 2020 for an anti-racism rally organized by the Alaska Black Caucus and like-minded organizations and individuals.

Work that is ‘ongoing and forever’

One chilly day last fall, Celeste Hodge Growden faced a large, sign-waving crowd in downtown Anchorage’s Town Square Park. She had recently helped restart the Alaska Black Caucus, a civil rights group. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police quickly elevated ABC into a leadership role. The group joined with other like-minded organizations, fraternities and sororities to host an anti-racism rally and march that drew hundreds. Not all were on the same side. Someone tore down the word “Black” from the Black Lives Matter banners. Threats were made.

“I looked far and wide and saw faces of all the races,” Growden, ABC president, remembered. “In spite of all the negativity, there were more individuals that were supportive, standing in solidarity against racism. It was beautiful.”  They could take away a sign, she told the audience, but not the people’s spirit.

On Labor Day 2020, Celeste Hodge Growden, leader of the Alaska Black Caucus, looked into a sea of faces at Anchorage Town Square Park — and found reassurance and solidarity. (Photo by Jovell Rennie)

A spotlight on inequities and prejudices in 2020 brought pain — and opportunity. In just months, the new Alaska Black Caucus grew into an organization of 120 voting members and another 150 allies. ABC began hosting regular Sunday virtual community conversations on timely topics: race and health, police and body cameras. Support continues to grow.

Another new nonprofit found itself on a parallel course of facing 2020’s second pandemic: racism, and along with it the challenges that women specifically were up against. The Women’s Power League of Alaska had to find virtual footing fast to fulfill its mission of empowerment. Founder Kimberly Waller, Anchorage-raised with a broadcast background honed in New York, used her skills to build a strong online conference and host “Courageous Conversations about Race,” for women.  They talked about loss and fear in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, about rearranging or stepping back from working lives for their children’s virtual school, about mental health and community support. The group, Waller said, is building relationships and connections that will carry on.

In early 2020, Rasmuson Foundation gathered with Black leaders in Anchorage to discuss issues and how we can help. When we met again — virtually — after the murder of Floyd and protests around the country, Alaska Black leaders told us they weren’t sure who stood with them. They mentioned that solidarity messages from CEOs of major national companies had filled their inboxes but wondered about Alaska CEOs. To leave no doubt, we made a video of allies featuring the voices of some of Alaska’s largest companies: Alaska Airlines and ExxonMobil, Providence Health & Services Alaska and Sealaska. We launched a Black in Alaska project to share stories of everyday lives and remarkable ones. When six Asian American women were killed in Atlanta, we gathered with Korean American leaders.

We looked at ourselves, too. We recognized that some Black, Indigenous and People of Color groups needed help. We changed our approach, which typically focuses on capital needs, and awarded small grants to support operations for organizations including the Alaska Black Caucus, the Women’s Power League and Enlaces, which works to empower Alaska’s Latinx community.

Embracing the diversity of Alaska is embedded in our mission. The Rasmuson family has always stood up against injustice. One of our founders, Elmer Rasmuson, and our long-time matriarch, Mary Louise Rasmuson, were lifelong members of NAACP. Mary Louise is credited with integrating the U.S. Women’s Army Corps and, as leader of the organization, standing up for Black women in the service. We are learning with you how to best reach those who have been hurt by racism. We may not always get it right, but we promise to keep trying.

“If you talk about a silver lining, it would be that we have this enormous group of individuals standing with us,” Growden said recently. “Even though the work is ongoing and forever, you can’t grow weary in doing good.”