Seattle Times social justice columnist Naomi Ishisaka. Photo courtesy of Naomi Ishisaka.

How about this 2020, huh? 

A global pandemic, economic shutdowns, mass protests. Coming after four years of a White House openly supportive of white supremacists, separated families at the border, countless Black deaths at the hands of police, shuttered businesses, and an Asian/Pacific Islander community targeted and slandered.

And, in a matter of days, a weary nation braces for what will come from arguably the most contentious presidential election in U.S. history.

Needless to say, there has been lots of drama and trauma to go around for our communities of color. However, while it might not always feel like it, we must realize that we are also witnessing progress.

One indicator of that is Naomi Ishisaka.

The veteran journalist and the International Examiner’s Community Voice Award winner for Excellence in Journalism has been on the frontlines of the Social Justice Movement, battling trolls while illuminating a perspective steeped in equity in her year as Social Justice Columnist for the Seattle Times.

The very fact that she was hired by Washington’s largest newspaper to be a leading voice for societal change is remarkable in and of itself.

Then came the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter activists hitting the streets while mainstream brands plastered their social media accounts with BLM affirmations.

In a short time, the ground has shifted dramatically. And the Times newsroom was lucky to have Ishisaka there to offer a lens that could bring into focus the impetus behind the movement that was driving these rapidly shifting landscapes.

In these changing times, the newsroom has recognized the need for a refined equity lens to help ensure balanced reporting informed by all voices. Just this month, Ishisaka was promoted to Assistant Managing Editor for Diversity, Inclusion and Staff Development. She will continue to write her column, while “working to ensure our coverage is reflective of the communities we serve,” as she describes in a social media post announcing the promotion.

Ishisaka’s rise at the Seattle Times is evidence of the progress we are making as a society. 

Ishisaka says trying to cover this dizzyingly tumultuous 2020 has been overwhelming. 

“It was enough that we had COVID start hitting us in late winter, early spring — which, of course, one of the first stories I wrote about was around the anti-Asian discrimination and attacks that were going on, and a lot of the fears around that, which seems like a million years ago,” she said in an interview with the Examiner. “But this has evolved into really the story of our lifetime, something that I personally had never thought would have been possible a year ago, or any time in my life.”

Simply covering COVID — and its myriad implications on how it disproportionately affects communities of color, folks with disabilities and low-wage workers — “would be enough to write about every week and never come up short,” she says.

But, 2020 had much more in store for us. In May, a social uprising took hold across the nation in response to police brutality, after video footage emerged of Floyd dying under the boot of a police officer. This resulted in a call to defund the police and reallocate those resources toward social programs that would keep people safe in more nuanced and less punitive ways.

“We had this historic moment for racial justice, and it has really transformed so many of our institutions, so many organizations, and really kicked off a soul searching that has been long, long overdue,” she said. “And so, you put those things together, and it’s a great time to do the kind of work that I’m doing. But at the same time, it’s an extremely challenging time in the sense that all the folks who are reporting on it we’re not only living it, we’re also trying to tell the story while living it. There’s a lot of limitations around what we can do and how we engage in the community that we’ve never really faced before.”

Ishisaka has had no shortage of stories to tell. From reporting on the impacts of shutting down the Census count to reflecting on the legacy of the Americans with Disabilities Act to a call for compassion for mental illness and addiction to a reimagining of our criminal justice system, Ishisaka’s archive page should be required reading for every American.

Despite the progress made from protests, there is a question around how lasting this change will be. We saw in Minneapolis how the City Council talked a big talk about defunding police to “end policing as we know it,” but ultimately retreated.

In Seattle, the City Council voted to cut police department funding, and voted again last month to override Mayor Jenny Durkin’s veto of those funding cuts.

“Like any other social change movement, you’re seeing more and more activists and organizers really pushing that question,” Ishisaka said. “You definitely see that locally as well, with King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle creating a set of concrete goals and expectations that they’re holding elected officials to. That’s a real shift. And that’s what you saw with the City Council overturning the mayor’s veto. A lot of folks, including me, didn’t think that was going to go that direction, but it did. And a lot of that was due to that very strenuous advocacy and organizing.”

And she’s been able to challenge the assumptions of readers who believe public safety means a well-armed police force — which only serves to uphold an unjust status quo.

So, what’s it like for Ishisaka to be at the vanguard of covering social justice views in a center-right country that isn’t always quite ready for justice-oriented change? The comments sections of her columns have been filled with trolls spewing hostile (and anonymous) vitriol. But, she says she’s been able to reach some readers.

“I have heard a lot of people who have said that, particularly when it comes to criminal justice issues, that they’ve thought about things differently (from reading her column),” she said. “One of the things I’ve always tried to do with people who write me — no matter how hostile or angry they might be — I always try to respond with graciousness and kindness. Because I think the only way to start having conversation is by not being defensive and not just screaming at each other. One of the heartening things about that is a lot of times when I’ve responded to readers that way, they’ve come back and said, ‘Thank you so much for the response.’ I think it’s opened up a conversation, a channel for dialogue that might not have been there. And that’s really what I’m hoping to do. It’s not going to always be successful. But I think if we can start talking to each other more, I think we find out we have more common ground than we think.”    

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