Posters promoting Patriot Front, a white nationalist group, were seen along Borgen Avenue roundabouts and the north Gig Harbor area. Photo: Meredith Browand

The meeting room at the Gig Harbor Round Table Pizza was full on Nov. 28 as people met to discuss the apparent rise of alt-right and white nationalist hate groups on the Gig Harbor peninsula. The Gig Harbor Democrats Social Club sponsored the meeting; former state representative Larry Seaquist moderated. Attendees came from Bremerton, Port Orchard, Olalla, Fox Island, Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula.

Two incidents prompted the meeting. In September, graffiti appeared at Peninsula High School saying “Black Lives Don’t Matter.” It was removed immediately, a single student was identified as responsible, and the district started a diversity committee at PHS.

In November, a banner was suspended over State Route 16 at the Wollochet overpass promoting “Blood and Soil,” a phrase associated with Patriot Front, a white nationalist organization with groups in the area. Posters also appeared in Gig Harbor North. All were posted illegally and were removed by Gig Harbor police.

Meeting attendees grappled both with what has led to these incidents and what to do about them. Three themes were identified.

First, Gig Harbor and the surrounding communities are predominantly white. One former real estate agent in the audience said that when he was working, some potential clients looking for homes in Gig Harbor specifically wanted assurance that the neighborhood was white. Others in the room, having moved from other cities, said that they missed their experience of a more diverse population.

Second, those attending the meeting wanted to welcome diversity to the community and to find ways to expose local residents who live here to people from other races and cultures. One participant noted the Gig Harbor City Council is all white; he felt that considering diversity at a high level is important. Others talked about stepping out of their comfort zones—attending events or churches in Tacoma or Seattle that are majority nonwhite, for example.

Third, although racism and fear of those who are different does exist, young people in particular may be more open to accepting those who are from other races and cultures. “You have to be taught to hate,” said longtime KP community volunteer Hugh McMillan, who was in the audience.

Joy Stanford, who is black and lives in Gig Harbor and whose son attends Peninsula High School, said she is looking forward to working with the school’s diversity committee. Others recalled valuable experiences in pairing with sister schools in Tacoma to expose students to other cultures or unfamiliar parts of their own society. Students became pen pals and then met in person. While 80 percent of students in the Peninsula School District are white, statewide that number is 55 percent and in Tacoma, it is 40 percent.

“We want to both be more inclusive and to change the perception of our community,” said Robyn Denson, a founding member of Open Hearts, an organization working in Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula to promote equity and dignity for all.

Open Hearts, with a membership that includes parents, grandparents and retirees, is focusing on young people for now, Denson said. It is working with PSD to sponsor an event Jan. 16 to talk about how to support the community and young people to become more welcoming and open to diversity. PHS Principal David Goodwin, Superintendent Rob Manahan and students from Peninsula and Gig Harbor high schools will share their experiences and plans. The public is welcome to attend the event at the Gig Harbor Library community room from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

The Gig Harbor Democrats Social Club will reconvene Jan. 23 at Round Table Pizza from 7 to 8:30 p.m. to further discuss possible avenues of action.

Current groups active in addressing diversity in our area include:

Kitsap Showing Up for Racial Justice meets monthly in Poulsbo and Bremerton. Visit their website or email them at kitsapsurj@gmail.com.

Open Hearts meets regularly at the Gig Harbor Library. Visit their website or email them at peninsulaopenhearts@gmail.com.

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