'A Work in Progress'

A campus, a community and an uphill climb



When Humboldt State University students left campus last spring, a cloud hung over Arcata. It still does. The April 15 stabbing death of HSU sophomore David Josiah Lawson at an off-campus party remains unsolved and many of the feelings unveiled in the aftermath of the killing remain unresolved. Lawson's death — and the protests, vigils and demonstrations that followed — brought into painful focus that racial tensions are very much a part of life in Humboldt County, on campus and off. The 19-year-old's death also started conversations about how to make our community more inclusive and equitable, and how to ensure that students who come here looking for an education are welcomed, supported and safe. In an effort to continue that conversation, we reached out to some community leaders and asked them to weigh in. You'll find their responses printed below, in their entirety. But we'd also like to hear from you. So, please, join the conversation online at or send us a letter, [email protected].


As we begin the fall semester, many activities and efforts are currently underway to create a more welcoming and supportive environment at Humboldt State University and in the larger community.

This work aligns directly with Humboldt State University's mission, vision, values and strategic goals. One of our four primary strategic goals is to "foster meaningful relationships across differences, including diverse cultural communities, identities and competencies," with the specific objective to "ensure that diverse perspectives, identities and communities are acknowledged and taught throughout the curriculum and provide a safe environment for everyone to explore a broad range of viewpoints and ideas."

The murder of David Josiah Lawson last April has been a catalyst for driving needed change in our community. Evidence of the commitment to action includes open letters signed by hundreds of faculty and staff in May and June supporting educational workshops and keynote speakers to stimulate our awareness of the need for, and discussion about, an inclusive and supportive environment at HSU. This work in our region is connected to issues that are affecting communities throughout the United States. HSU joins colleges and universities across the nation in condemning the violence and hatred illustrated in the recent white supremacy demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia.

On July 12, a group of about 65 people gathered to spend the day working on actions to be taken in the upcoming weeks and months. In addition to HSU faculty, staff, students and administrators, and elected and appointed officials from the city of Arcata, sectors represented at the meeting included the business community, K-12 education, College of the Redwoods, nonprofit organizations, the faith community and local residents. "Equity Arcata" has grown out of this gathering, with a focus on integrating university and city efforts and supporting the wide variety of activities that are underway across the region. A website is being developed that will provide a link to the initiatives, groups, updates and available information. Some areas of focus identified that day include: housing equity support and oversight; an Equity Awareness Campaign; racial equity training; and a program to strengthen the connection between HSU students and the university and Arcata police departments. We will be consulting with students to test, validate and modify the concepts that were developed at this meeting, to be sure that the action plans directly address their needs.

In addition to these initiatives, many other specific activities are underway. HSU has a new executive director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, who will lead and coordinate efforts on campus to strengthen these areas. Multiple educational opportunities will be available in the upcoming academic year, including workshops, speakers and seminars offered by the Center for Teaching and Learning. HSU is also working with the city of Arcata to address issues related to housing, safety and security in the area.

KHSU already produces Thursday Night Talk: Race Beat, hosted by Lorna Bryant, which focuses on in-depth discussions about race, equity and other issues facing people of color, both in Humboldt County and nationally. A new initiative, "Voices of Diversity," will capture oral history and storytelling about the experiences of diverse residents of the North Coast.

I am honored to be part of a community where the university, the city and local businesses are working together toward the common goals of respect, civility, understanding, racial equity and social justice. Our students — and our entire region — will benefit from this collaboration.

HSU President Lisa Rossbacher


As my heart and soul mourn for the victims of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, I'm grateful, inspired and uplifted by those who bravely stand against terror, bigotry and oppression. Terror has no place in our democracy and what happened in Charlottesville was nothing less than terrorism. It disgusted me to see those vile images of hatred and it saddened me to know that like-minded people live among us right here in Humboldt County.

One of my favorite quotes is from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Dr. King wrote those words from a jail cell in Alabama, where he had been incarcerated for peacefully standing up and speaking out against injustice. He did not wear body armor, carry a weapon or drive a car into a crowd. Those are the tools and methods of cowards, those with ideas so pathetic and weak that only force can give them voice. I'm resolute in my alliance with our diverse campus community and committed to protecting and serving them; providing a safe place to live, learn, work and visit. I am in solidarity with those likeminded people who believe in peace and inclusion, and I stand with you against forces of hatred and violence. And I'm hopeful that we will see a complete and resounding repudiation of such actions in my lifetime. I am committed to working toward that goal.

Visionary leadership demands a clear and powerful rejection of white nationalist terror. The strong and declarative message from local leaders — like Eureka City Councilmember Natalie Arroyo, Arcata Vice-Mayor Sofia Pereira, Arcata City Manager Karen Deimer and HSU President Lisa Rossbacher — who together as part of an overall broader effort, recently hosted a day-long workshop to address racism in our community, stands in sharp contrast with the weak and mealy-mouthed statements coming from our nation's capital (well, actually from a golf resort in New Jersey) in the wake of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville. I stand with our local leaders in proudly declaring, "Not in our town!"

I will conclude with another wonderful quote from Dr. King: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

In the face of terrorism, I loudly and proudly stand with my brothers and sisters of diverse color, nationality, sexual preference, gender identity, age and faith against hatred, bigotry and oppression in all forms. A welcoming and safe campus environment means little when there is hostility off campus. It is critically important that we foster an environment here that attracts students from diverse backgrounds, along with the faculty and staff that will provide those educational opportunities. It is my fervent hope (and life's work) that we can collectively and inclusively create just such a community here. Not only on campus, but throughout Humboldt County as well. One that feels safe and welcoming to all and, especially, to our increasingly diverse population.

Hope alone will accomplish little, though. We must do the work and that work is happening right now. In the current climate, silence equates to consent. Regardless of your thoughts or beliefs, silence is perceived as apathy and apathy may as well be support for white nationalism. If you have been silent or sitting on the sidelines, I urge you to join in this supremely worthwhile effort. Lend your voice so that those spewing hate, violence and bigotry are drowned out by those offering love, peace and inclusion.

HSU Police Chief Donn Peterson


I am a 19-year-old African American male from Moreno Valley, California. I'm going into my second year at Humboldt State University. The experience I've had has been bittersweet. From a middle-class, city boy perspective, HSU is a decent environment in which to experience college. From its redwood trees to green scenery, you can enjoy yourself with new aspects of a college. But it's important to know that the college town of Arcata is actually a small town, which can cause an eyebrow raise. Housing off campus becomes difficult, there's a minimal number of shopping centers, as well as humanitarian services such as police stations, hospitals or fire departments.

If you're a person of color, I wouldn't say that you wouldn't like the HSU campus or community, but rather that you may stand out more than usual, the reason being that most HSU students come from bigger cities. Even those from small cities like Arcata are usually used to more diversity. The campus and community here are working on it, we suppose. I wouldn't promise everyone the best experience, whether they're a person of color or not. Change is uncomfortable, so you just learn to get used to the environment. To adapt to the environment, you must be willing to learn and observe differences between yourself, others and the place you may or may not be living in for four years.

What is in need of work is the university's advertisements. Many feel when they finally spend more than a month or two here, HSU isn't everything it proclaimed itself to be. I've experienced what they were talking about a few times, such as the school diversity. I have not had a major issue with diversity in terms of being uncomfortable due to there being very few people who look like I do. It would be nice to see more people of color, but that's out of my hands. In all honesty, the campus is being revamped with new ideas, cultural acknowledgment and student population growth. Humboldt State is a work in progress.

HSU Sophomore Katauri Thompson


As an over-60 African American, I often feel like my parents, who raised me in a black community in Georgia before and during the Civil Rights era, prepared me for this 80-plus percent white community. In essence, they kept telling me, as did all the professionals in my community, "Change is going to come. Be ready." Of course, they didn't just say this. My early schools, church and local business owners, as well as the available medical services and social services, actively changed to welcome integration's advent and prepare me. As a result, when Jim Crow was delegitimized, young people in my neighborhood soared.

Over the two years that I've worked and lived here, I have gotten to know what a great gift the university is to this community's social and economic future. Its racial and ethnic diversity supplies a rich mix, bringing new insights, talents, cultural perspectives and, therefore, possibilities to our county. I've met a number of HSU people of color and they are eager for new opportunities for involvement here. Too often the community treats the university as if it's an airport filled with temporary visitors. The most we expect is that they will buy something and then be on their way. By contrast, most of the blacks I've met here came with a connection to HSU and stayed.

Unfortunately, in my observations, no one told the resident majority white population, "Change is going to come." And by my lights, most of our institutions and structures, from schools to businesses to government and nonprofits, while well meaning, are not ready. By that, I mean they are not well adapted to serving and developing the growing number of people of color. While many are ready to accept us (by "us" I mean all people of color), they don't have a clue about what to do, either personally or institutionally, to be better at outreach, welcoming, cultural adaption of services, and hiring and retention.

While HSU's diversity, energy and intellectual capital sits on our doorstep, it is largely disconnected. As a result, I've seen local nonprofits over use and exhaust a small number of people of color. I've seen our social services lack sensitivity to cultural difference because, in their limited interactions, they don't yet know who we are. Hiring us is one thing but if you want to retain us and release our creativity and gain our commitment, that requires both personal and institutional shifts in mental culture and institutional policies and practices. It is not enough to treat everyone the same. We aren't. So, in my opinion, most are not ready.

However, I do see signs that give me a cautious hope. I must say to my brothers and sisters of color, who are experiencing hurt and exclusion here daily, do not hear what I assert here as a denial of your social and personal pain. I see it, and know it. It is real for all of us. I would however, ask you to be patient with my optimism (or delusion), because I sense signs that deep irreversible change is afoot.

In two years, I have seen a greater awareness of our growing, racial and ethnic diversity, and the need for inclusion. The local institutions, governments and businesses currently examining their policies and practices with a racial equity lens touch many thousands of our residents annually. Their work will transform how they view and serve all of their constituents. Now, I'd be the last person to confuse talk with change. But I have never seen fundamental change without serious, analytical conversation.

To those who are skeptical that we can ever really eliminate racism, I would remind you the concept of race was invented only a few centuries ago. A blip in human history. And that what can be done through human ignorance and greed can be undone by human compassion, power, focus and ingenuity. Be ready. Isn't that what all of our spiritual and religious traditions teach?

Humboldt Area Foundation Leadership Program Manager Ron White


I wear many hats in this community, from husband, brother, father to Bay Trail advocate to founder of Los Bagels. But today I want to talk with you about my involvement with Humboldt State University. Particularly, the changing demographics, issues of recruitment, retention and efforts to promote diversity on campus and beyond.

It's hard to know where to begin but, in reality, it goes back to my parents, Paula and Izzy, who were a strong, brave multi-cultural couple who raised two sons to be proud of who they are and stand up for what they believe.

Opening Los Bagels in 1984, one of the hopes — besides bagels — was to share both my Jewish and Latino heritage and customs with our community, which includes HSU.

Early on, I was instrumental in collaborating with HSU's Center Arts and the Multicultural Center to create Chicano Voices, highlighting Chicano culture, food and music. I have subsequently worked with and supported MECHA, Hispanic Engineering Club and other clubs and student groups trying to bridge the gap between the Arcata community, HSU and people of color. My parents shared their experiences of discrimination and taught me the importance of speaking up for what you believe.

Fortunately or unfortunately, as a successful Latino business person, I have been asked to serve on numerous committees. Though I have seen this as an opportunity, I am always quick to point out that I represent myself, not all Latinos, not all Jews and not all Mexican Jews.

These last 34 years have afforded me numerous opportunities to interact, serve on numerous committees, educate and promote various cultural activities, from Dia de Los Muertos to Chanuka, with community leaders and numerous HSU staff, faculty and administrators.

I have seen a lot of changes in the demographics at HSU, particularly with people of color and, more specifically, Latino students. These changes to the student population, unfortunately, have not been followed by the same changes in demographics for staff and faculty. In my mind, for an institution to successfully make a change, it needs to be done holistically. In this case, when you recruit Latino students, you need to also recruit and hire Latino staff, faculty and administrators.

This seems to be one of the issues with retention for a lot of students of color. That is, not having enough support and mentors within the institutional infrastructure from the staff, faculty and administration.

These issues aren't unique to HSU. Arcata is also struggling to create a safer, more welcome community, both within the city and the business community. I feel this demographic change brings vitality and an enrichment to our community.

For a year and a half, I have been working with a small group of folks from HSU, Humboldt Area Foundation, the city of Arcata and Arcata business people on the issue of racial equity.

This has involved way too many meetings, great speakers and trainers, having both business town hall meetings and community forums, working toward bringing about some positive changes to a safer more welcoming community for everyone.

Change doesn't come quickly. Some conversations are very difficult and we all can listen more and learn from each other. Reach out to someone you don't know. Have the discussion with your neighbors, friends, family and kids. Especially in these times, it is imperative that we all get involved. As my mother said, "Change begins at home."

Be strong. Stand up for what you believe and we can all make our community a more equitable, safer and welcome place for everyone.

Hasta la proxima ... Until the next time.

Local business owner Dennis Rael


I watched the events unfold in Charlottesville, Virginia, in shock and disbelief. Hatred, bigotry and racism were once again front and center. It is difficult for me to fathom, to truly understand how some people can harbor such vile hatred. How they can be devoid of compassion, empathy and understanding.

We have seen an increase in public acts of racism and hate. It is naïve to say that we as a community did not have racism before, but it seems that through national events people feel empowered to voice words of hate more publicly.

As a community we must address this head-on and work together to make Arcata and its surrounding communities an inclusive and safe place for all citizens. I ask all community members to join me and others to publicly denounce the alt-right movement and its commitment to racism and white supremacy. The event in Charlottesville was an act of domestic terrorism and must be dealt with as such.

The Arcata Police Department is committed to working with our community to earn their trust and make Arcata safe for all.

Trust is built on relationships, and I recognize that we as a department must do more to foster these relationships with all members of our community. We are working on a program to have small groups of community members meet with our officers to share perspectives and experiences. The only way we are going to understand each other is to be willing to listen. Our personal experiences shape us and how we perceive our community. The first step is opening up dialogue and building relationships.

In October, the Arcata Police Department will host a Fair and Impartial Policing training for all of our officers and supervisors. We will have an open invitation to all of our neighboring police departments and the sheriff's office as we work collectively to be the best we can be.

"Not in Our Town" is a movement to stop hate, address bullying and build safe and inclusive communities for all. Please join me and other members of our community as we launch a "Not in Our Town" campaign.

United together we can make great things happen in our community.

Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman


'The Equity Manifesto'

It begins by joining together, believing in the potency of inclusion, and building from a common bond.

It embraces complexity as cause for collaboration, accepting that our fates are inextricable.

It recognizes local leaders as national leaders, nurturing the wisdom and creativity within every community as essential to solving the nation's problems.

It demands honesty and forthrightness, calling out racism and oppression, both overt and systemic.

It strives for the power to realize our goals while summoning the grace to sustain them.

It requires that we understand the past, without being trapped in it; embrace the present, without being constrained by it; and look to the future, guided by the hopes and courage of those who have fought before and beside us.

This is equity: just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Unlocking the promise of the nation by unleashing the promise in us all.

— From PolicyLink, a national institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity put on by Lifting Up What Works.

The Equity Manifesto provides the principles that guide me as I navigate the complex work of creating equitable institutions, cities and organizations. Recent national and local tragedies have brought us to a precipice. The question for me, and all of us, is how to turn back from this precipice and join one another in the long journey toward equity and racial justice. The answers don't come easily, but the first step in backing away from the abyss is to find common ground in a world seemingly filled with uncommon grounds.

I'm a big believer in relationships and building trusting relationships. I believe that change is in the relationship. The first step in building trusting relationships is to validate each other's experience and the narratives we carry. This is particularly true when we are doing the work of racial equity.

American history tells us that many peoples of color and other groups have been brutalized, marginalized and suffered via genocide. These are the facts, neither pleasant nor pretty, but it is our history. I often speak about historical trauma and the intergenerational transmission of this trauma that run through generations of families that have experienced these atrocities over and over. These are the narratives I speak of, the narratives we all carry. Validating these narratives, understanding how structural racism plays out in our lives and maintains the status quo, this is how we build trusting relationships and find our common ground.

As we build trusting relationships and listen to one another, we must confront some hard facts. Data informs us about the inequities that have been created in our institutions and have persisted for a very long time. It's not a pretty picture, but the data does not allow us to turn away. I approach equity work through a data lens because data shows us where inequity has been happening. Whether it's in the classroom, housing, health or economics, data shines a light on things that are often covert and hidden in the shadows.

We must understand that creating equity is not about excluding one group to benefit another, it is about creating inclusion for all. The commentator Heather McGhee has observed that when a group is accustomed to privilege, equity can, at least initially, feel like oppression. It is through our trusting relationships that we can teach one another that equity and inclusion benefit us all.

I look forward to building our common ground and creating a community in which everyone feels welcomed and achieves success. I believe, together, we can achieve our greatest aspirations for racial justice, healing and transformation.

—HSU Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Executive Director Cheryl Johnson


Humboldt State University brought me to Arcata in 2005. At the age of 18, I didn't know I would make Arcata my permanent home after graduating, or that I would go on to serve on the city council. Each year new students join our community and move into HSU's residence halls or into the neighborhoods off campus; this week, we are welcoming our new student neighbors. In the next couple of weeks, you may have the opportunity to meet one of Arcata's future city councilmembers. (Fun fact: currently all five members of the Arcata city council attended HSU!)

The student body at HSU is changing. As one of the few destination campuses in the California State University system, our new residents are a reflection of California — a diverse population with different backgrounds and experiences. Arcata is now a city of greater diversity and we are fortunate that students have chosen Arcata as their home for the next four years.

Since I was an undergraduate, and even now as a graduate student, I have heard students of color express frustrations about their struggles living in our community. Their experiences vary from feeling unwelcome shopping in local businesses to feeling outcast in the community after the murder of a beloved student leader — David Josiah Lawson.

Discussing racism in our own community is uncomfortable, especially right now when we see what happened in Charlottesville. How could this level of racism exist in Humboldt County? In response to charges of racism locally, we may try to rationalize why a business employee followed a student of color around a store, or why a particular student didn't get that apartment he or she applied for. We may argue that we aren't a part of the problem, that it's someone else. At the end of the day, we need to take these experiences seriously and we need take action. We at the city will continue doing work around racial inequity, just as we have since the beginning of my term in Arcata, working with HSU and the business community.

Last month, representatives from HSU, the city of Arcata, and leaders from the business, faith and nonprofit communities spent a day strategizing and planning concrete actions to take this next year to address the concerns of students of color — to turn Arcata into OURcata. These actions range from increased outreach by the Arcata Police Department to students, to improved access to housing. If you'd like to support these efforts, you can contact the City Manager's Office at 822-5953.

Tackling racism and other systemic and cultural issues often feels bigger than ourselves and impossible to take on. I admire the tenacity of those in our community who have decided that it's better to do something than nothing. Throughout its history, Arcata has been on the cutting edge of developing a livable community by strengthening local businesses and preserving our natural resources. We must now choose courage over comfort and fight racial inequity to make Arcata and Humboldt County a livable community for all students and residents.

— Arcata Vice Mayor Sofia Pereira

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