Community Conversations: Ophelia Noble

Community Conversations: Ophelia Noble

While 2020 marked an important shift in the global movement for Black liberation, it is critical for us to understand the long history of Black activism here in Washington. Ophelia Noble of The Noble Foundation talks to Carmen Berkley, our vice president of programs, about the organizing work in Vancouver and Southwest Washington over the last year, including the moments that have inspired her to keep going.

Ophelia also shares her approach to cross-racial organizing, what brings her Black joy, and how philanthropy can be better partners to organizations like hers and another she works with, Southwest Washington Communities United for Change (SWCUC). “We need philanthropy to be patient because we’ve been hurt in our community. Trust is not built overnight and I do not assign a dollar sign to my trust.”

In June 2020 alone, after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, SWCUC organized more than 10 protests, demonstrations, and direct actions. People in Kelso and Longview joined together in their communities’ first-ever Black-led protests. Their work also acknowledges the compounding inequities Black, Indigenous and other people of color face. With their partners, they succeeded earlier this year in shutting down the nation’s last immigrant youth jail in Cowlitz County.

 

Full video transcript

Carmen:

Hello. My name is Carmen Berkley, and I’m one of the vice presidents of programs for the Group Health Foundation. Welcome to our “Community Conversations.” Black people have been fighting for full liberation from the first day we entered this country, and while the pressure of the pandemic and the traumatic police violence behind the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tacoma, Washington’s very own Manuel Ellis, and hundreds of other Black cis and trans folks reached an undeniable unveiling of the discrimination Black folks move through the world with every day.

Organizers, activists, allies, and justice seekers utilize the opportunities to push forward their centuries-long call to shift the balance of power into the hands of those most impacted by the discrimination they face. While the events of last summer reverberated throughout the world, it is important to understand that Washington has a long tradition of Black activism—from Spokane to Vancouver, the work to not only defend, but to acknowledge the dignity and power of Black people. And, there is a strong tradition in every corner of the state to ensure our community’s voices are heard.

The Group Health Foundation is proud to invite one of our leaders, Ophelia Noble, who serves as the executive director of The Noble Foundation and also as a leader of the Southwest Washington Communities United for Change, to discuss their dynamic work to achieve racial justice and liberation for folks in Southwest Washington and beyond. Hello, Ophelia. It is a pleasure to have you here.

Ophelia:

Thank you. I am honored. Thank you so much for taking the time out.

Carmen:

I am honored to be sitting here and listening and learning from your leadership. You know, Ophelia, one thing I love about our Black tradition is storytelling time. So, do you mind telling us a little bit more about your family and how you all arrived to Washington?

Ophelia:

I am Washington born myself. My grandfather from Arkansas moved here in the seventies or sixties. My mother was born here as well, in Tacoma. So the Hilltop of Tacoma is where several generations [lived]. I believe in about the mid-eighties, we moved to Vancouver, and that was really so that my mom could, as a single mother, raise myself and my brother at the time, and since then, having two [more] siblings as well. So there’s four of us in the family. And actually, my earliest memory of Washington is Vancouver. I’ve been in Vancouver from elementary through a couple college graduations, and this is my home.

Carmen:

That is beautiful. And, I have not been to Vancouver yet, but I cannot wait to come.

Ophelia:

Come on.

Carmen:

You said you’ve got your mom, you’ve got your family. Do you all have any family traditions, a food tradition, a holiday tradition?

Ophelia:

Well, actually we have a community tradition that started about 12 years ago, and this might lend really well into what we’re kind of talking about with The Noble Foundation. Every year, for the past 12 or 13 years, four multi-generational Black families—the Rasheeds, the Nobles, the Hamptons, and Prejeans—have put on a community picnic coinciding with Labor Day weekend, right before the kids go to school. So we hand out school supplies and different things and just come together as families that have been in this community, dealing with the systems in this community, and just celebrate the longevity of our relationships. So, that is something that we look forward to every year.

Carmen:

Thank you all for doing that. I’m so happy that your families do that. I’m sure even with each other and for the community, it’s hard work.

Ophelia:

Yeah. Connection is the key, right? And that’s what we have found, especially in Vancouver where we have … In the eighties and nineties, there was like seven Black families that lived in Vancouver. Right? And so we all kind of knew each other and built these long-term, sustainable relationships, and what better way to celebrate us than to throw a thing that’s for and by us.

Carmen:

That’s right. I’m so happy you all have been able to make that grow too.

Ophelia:

Yeah. Yeah. It’s been amazing.

Carmen:

Ophelia, you kind of alluded to the fact that you’re the executive director of The Noble Foundation, and I know that you’re also a leader within the Southwest Washington Communities United for Change. So you’re clearly playing multiple roles. I’m sure you probably have eight more roles I don’t know about, but I feel like a lot has changed over the last year. Some folks believe that organizing started in the summer of 2020, and it’s like, well, it just shifted. So, what’s that shift look like for you from before Manuel Ellis and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd to today?

Ophelia:

I think historically, and I have to contextualize things a little bit. I started in conversation as being a Black woman living in Vancouver, Washington, being raised in Vancouver, Washington, and having experienced the multiple systems from the educational system, the criminal justice system, the state services systems, and all of those pieces. I think what we have seen shift is the realization of white folks in their journey through allyship, commitment, trust, and authenticity in the work. Right? I think a couple of the names that, and it’s so hard to continue saying the names, right, really brought on a concerted, like an internal urge for white folks in Southwest Washington to say, I am going to defy what has been our social norm for the past 20 years, 30 years, and begin engaging within our Black—and I often pull together our Black and brown or BIPOC at large—community because without unity within our own community, it makes organizing that much more difficult.

And, so while I identify as a Black woman, I also know historically our Indigenous community really housed and took us, our Black community, in as we were slaves. Right? I also do know and recognize that our blood is mixed. And, so we are all shades of a lot of things, and we will never be able to seek the truest, purest form of liberation until we find a way to come together, uniquely unified as BIPOC communities. So, I think I’ve seen both of those shifts happen over the last year. White folks becoming so much more ingrained and involved, and our communities of color really trying to come together and build out a justice framework that reaches more than just … When I think of organizing, I think this status quo, but we still have this emergence of the middle class and then we have another layer of our society.

And often times it is our community, the true, the grassroots, the folks in the community that have been disempowered that do not receive the valuable resources. And that’s where TNF, SWCUC, Our Place Nuestra Casa came into play. There really wasn’t until we came on the scene in about 2010, there wasn’t an organization led by Black folks. And last year, we actually shifted to the more BIPOC organizing model. But within that, we realized that there were so many holes and that the resources weren’t available.

So not only did we need The Noble Foundation securing financial resources, but we needed political resources and we needed services resources. So we’ve been in a constant mode of trying to build out all of the layers that community is wanting to see led by us. So, it’s been a challenging year as well in our community. Now we’re the fourth largest Black population in Washington State, which is often under noted because we have Federal Way, right? We have Snohomish and Pierce counties. And I think a lot of times we are so close to Portland, Oregon, that we just kind of get sifted into Oregon organizing. And, I have tried to remain so firm; while I appreciate Oregon and Portland and it’s a connection, I was basically raised in Portland, right? At least that’s where my personal sense of Blackness was brought out because I did not have that in my local community. So I honor Portland, but we are still Washington, and we live under Washington laws and policies, and we needed connections within the greater organizing efforts that were happening in Washington. And so remaining pretty firm to some of the critical infrastructure development-like frameworks. We just really have had to make sure that as we’re moving through our organizing work, that it is really culturally specific and culturally humble. And that we’re just out here trying to meet the needs in our community in multiple ways.

Carmen:

Thank you. And you know when I first met you, before the pandemic, we were in Oregon, in Portland, and what I appreciated is you were so clear that you live in Washington State and that the laws in Washington State are different from the ones in Oregon, and you’re down for solidarity. And we got some work to do in Vancouver and Southwest Washington.

Ophelia:

That’s right. That’s right.

Carmen:

You were so good about it too. The other thing I just want to underscore is that when I went to Noble Foundation’s website, I loved the way you all spelled community, with like “unity” bolded, highlighted, basically underlined. Why did you all do that?

Ophelia:

Well, I think for us because there is a sense of lacking in our community in Southwest Washington. And so for us, the unity piece means everything. It’s that feeling of trust. It’s the feeling of aspiration. It’s the feeling of growth. And again, coming to this work in authentic care and concern for the communities that do not sit at the table. I mean, just a personal aside I guess, I had the opportunity to sit at tables, and what I realized in my journey was that these tables were not created by us, for us in ways that could support our community growth.

One thing that was made very clear by the four founding families was that no matter what we have gone through historically from building wealth, like TNF, we really came on the scene as more of an economic justice organization, and when 45 was voted into office, we transitioned into social justice. But one thing that we had the power to do was to sit at that table, and one family brought the sauce and one family brought the eggs and another family brought the flour. And that was what our innate strength was, is that we brought together and we built together. And so I think, overall, we say, well we have community, but do we have unity, capital U-N-I-T-Y, in our movement, in our organization, and in the direction that we want to see the social norms change.

Carmen:

That’s right. Oh, that’s beautiful. And you’re also out here quoting Queen Latifah so … [crosstalk]

Ophelia:

You know that’s right. [crosstalk]

Carmen:

Reading your work or the work of the Southwest Washington Communities United for Change, I see all of these different issues that y’all are focusing on. I’m sure there’s more than just what’s on the website, defunding and demilitarizing the police, voting rights, redistricting, health equity, the list goes on. You know, I’m a big fan of Octavia Butler. I just found out that she used to live in Lynnwood, Washington. So I’m like … [crosstalk] Afrofuturist. But, the world that you all are building through your organizing, it seems very futuristic. So if we were going to think in the future, what does a safe community look like to you? If we could imagine Southwest Washington, Vancouver. I live up in King County; if we could imagine King County, a world without police and ICE, immigration enforcement, what does that look like to you?

Ophelia:

Well you know that’s a very broad question, I’ll start there. And it’s an interesting question because I never quite have an answer. Right? Because is it really, for me as a leader to have that vision, or is it really for me as a leader to capture the voice of the community that we’re working with. What I would say that I’ve heard our community wants to see is a place where Black and brown folks are not intimidated by racism, either systemic or at the community level. Right? What I’ve heard our community wants to see are the services that are provided by us, for us in ways that, and by folks that look like us. What I’ve heard our community wants to see is equity and going even further past equity, justice in all of the systems that have been unjust historically and currently. What I’ve heard is that our community wants to wrap ourselves and other communities in love, honor, and respect. Just a few of the values that strategic planning and sitting down in conversations with community begins to lead us to. But then there’s also conversations around our community being able to not police ourselves, but really looking at restorative justice, having community oversight boards, really ensuring that the voice of our people is retained by our people and the movements in our community are moved by our community.

In Southwest Washington, there have been 13 police murders in a year and a half, I’m sorry, in the last 10 years, which is unheard of in the community that I was raised and that I know. Half of those police murders were BIPOC-identifying folks. It’s hard to talk about these things, but when you’re in a community, and you’re seeing a shift, and you’re experiencing that shift at the same time that you’re. … Oftentimes, some tables are so far removed from the community that the expression of how our community is impacted, it’s not present.

Our community has experienced so much hurt through COVID, through the police shootings, through just sitting at the table and saying divest in our police, okay, defund, we understand that that’s problematic in language, but divest and invest in our communities.

City of Vancouver has a pretty extensive budget and over 50 percent of that budget is dedicated to policing community. Gentrification of north and northeast Portland and Seattle, we’re finding our folks moving here with no community infrastructure to catch.

Carmen:

I’m sure they are, because I’m like, “It is expensive.”

Ophelia:

Yes, that’s right, that’s right, that’s right. As our community is mobilizing into different areas, it’s so important to build up those areas before we emerge. You know, I think also recognizing not only do we organize in Vancouver, but we have rural Clark and Cowlitz counties as well, so we’re organizing in Cowlitz, Kelso, Washington specifically, which is seeing an emergence. I’ve met folks from Seattle not being able to afford the cost of living in Seattle, moving to Cowlitz County and being met with racism. I, myself, out of Cowlitz County, when I was pushed out of Vancouver, I couldn’t afford to continue raising my family here, and so I was pushed into Cowlitz County. I received a two-page letter to my home, through the mail, the first sentence, “To the n-word who had the nerve moving to my small white town.” That’s what we’re being met with.

These are the places where our organizing work is so important and so valuable. We have generations that are living here, and without having an infrastructure that’s sustainable, where do our kids, where do they learn? Where do they educate? What do they grow? Where do they become empowered? Not in a system that’s created to disempower.

Carmen:

That’s right. Thank you, and thank you for also helping refocus the conversation that it’s not your vision or our vision. It’s community’s vision for what it looks like, so thank you for that.

I assume that over the last couple of years, you all have had incredible moments or rallies or proclamations from communities, from organizations, from individuals. Is there anything that you’ve witnessed or seen in the past year from community that inspired you or just made you go, “This is why I’m doing the work, right here.”

Ophelia:

Yes. Our organizing, and again, I get a little emotional, our organizing work shut down the last national youth ICE detention center in Cowlitz County. Their contract ended in December, forcefully, by our folks taking to the streets and standing out, sending emails to counselors, county counselors, and just being heard. That is one thing that as a both micro and macro moment in this work, and it was literally the last ICE youth contract in the nation, this rural community was able to continue. The Blake decision, huge, decriminalizing.

I’ve got to tell you, every single day, there is a micro moment that happens in terms of relationships that are built, interculturally, cross-culturally. Several of our staff have come in during COVID for services and wound up staying and are now employed with us, right?

Carmen:

Wow.

Ophelia:

Right? To be able to build relationships with folks, just, it feels honorable, it really does.

Carmen:

I’m so happy you’re doing that. Okay. I have a few more questions.

Ophelia:

Okay, okay.

Carmen:

Ophelia, what brings you … you know, we use this term Black joy. I know I have my hobbies that bring me Black joy. So what brings you Black joy?

Ophelia:

Me. I know, I know, I know, I know. But I have to tell you, as a 6’2″ Black woman who has lived in the same community being the only Black girl in all of her educational experiences, and the self-consciousness that goes along with that cultural experience, at 46 years old, and I think it was just 45, I finally became my joy. And I will say, my children, my grandchildren, my family, my parents, all of that, but to be able to recognize me and see me where I never thought I would see, it was only a dream, but to see me, it’s an amazing, amazing point of joy for me.

Carmen:

That brought me joy, and your skin is popping, it’s lovely on you.

Ophelia:

Oh, thank you.

Carmen:

My last question is about folks in philanthropy. I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but I know that there are people who work at foundations, whether they’re the president of the foundation or any other position, that are either going to learn about you and be excited or maybe they feel connected to something that you’re saying and they’re not really sure how to build a relationship or how they can support the work that you’re doing. So, how do you want for folks in philanthropy to interact and support your work?

Ophelia:

You know, I have never actually been asked that question, how do I want, and I thank you for asking that question. I wish I had about a week to prepare, but: Slowly. Intentionally. Carefully. I think, a lot of times philanthropy moves quickly. We have this funding, we’d like to distribute this funding, and I think a lot of times they’re able to run into, seek or find organizations that are like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” I think as a new infrastructure, as a nascent organization, as a new group of folks that are really coming together to experience and learn from each other, we need philanthropy to be patient because we’ve been hurt in our community. Trust is not built overnight, and I do not assign a dollar sign to my trust. And, I think that’s often missing. I want to know within philanthropy that the values are similar. I’m starting to really … We need to have values alignment, mission alignment. We need to know that we make mistakes. We are human out here. And, we are trying to pull together a thing that has never been pulled together by folks that are not PhD holding folks that don’t have, and I just say patience, and it’s a process and we’re all learning the process, but we’re learning in real time. We’re not learning out of a textbook that we can repeat verbatim a specific, “This is where the infrastructure comes from.” We’re piecing it together through hurt, through trauma, through success, through failure, to step back through whatever language is attached to the moment. Right? And so I think it’s just patience and it’s being there when we call.

What’s amazing and why I lean heavily on Front and Centered as one of our amazing partners, is that in one of our conversations, they just said, “Well, we were thinking about attending your event. Oh, we didn’t have to invite you. Oh my God, come on through.” Right. And they were serious. They were like, “We want to come.”

And so I think it’s moments like that where we sit behind a computer and write a grant, words on paper, very important words on paper, but there’s no words that can really, really reflect and describe what’s happening in the streets right now. Right. And be as powerful and as meaningful as that moment to just sit back and really listen to what we’re saying. It may not make sense in the moment that we’re speaking it, but true visionary style within two to three years, what we say comes to bear. And so for me, it really is about building slowly, intentionally. And, I may have said this previously, but investing in what’s already happening in our community. Right? Amazing work happens. And it’s not quantitative. Right? There’s no way that I can assign a number or a dollar value to shutting down an ICE detention center. And, honey, that was 10 organizers who faithfully showed up.

Carmen:

Right. it’s an honor to have your time. And for folks who are like, I want to know more about Noble Foundation. I want to know more about Southwest Washington Communities United for Change. Where can folks find you all?

Ophelia:

Oh, we’re everywhere. Online, Facebook, website, the noblefoundation.org. You can reach us by phone (360) 635-5235. We have a Twitter and Instagram. I don’t know all of those handles. We save that for the communications folks. So yeah, just plug us in. You can Google us.

Carmen:

That’s great. I love that you have a phone number. I’m about to call the phone.

Ophelia:

I know that’s right. And you will catch me on that phone. That’s the beauty.

Carmen:

That’s fantastic. Thank you so much, Ophelia.

Ophelia:

Thank you, Carmen. It’s been an amazing conversation and I appreciate getting to know you even deeper as well.