Anti-racism work updates: Eliminating racist symbolism
Dear PhinneyWood Community,
We have a few updates to share with you about our on-going commitment to anti-racism and equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) at the PNA.
You are probably familiar with the neighborhood tradition of the winter holiday monkeys. For the last five years, these LED-lit metal monkeys hung in the windows of businesses and organizations along the Phinney-Greenwood corridor. The monkey project was initially spearheaded by the PNA Business Group with the intent to bring a spirit and tradition unique to the PhinneyWood neighborhood. They chose monkeys as a complement to Woodland Park Zoo WildLights, perhaps as “escaped” animals from that display.
However, the PNA did not take into account the extended history of monkeys being used as a racist symbol, with Black people being derogatorily referred to as monkeys symbolically and in language. We do not want to cause any hurt or harm to our Black community members or visitors nor reinforce this symbolism, so the Board of Directors voted on July 21 to permanently retire the monkey project. This is just one step in our work of dismantling systemic racism.
We recognize that losing this winter tradition could be disappointing, but we hope you will stand with us in our efforts to become an anti-racist organization. We are committed to working with the Business Advisory Group to research, develop, and implement an alternative PhinneyWood tradition to unite business and community. We will engage local businesses and the community with ideas and feedback in the planning process. To pass on ideas to the Business Advisory Committee, please email Chris at [email protected].
In addition to the monkey symbolism, it came to our attention that a water fountain in the Phinney Center presented to some community members as a legacy or symbol of segregation and caused discomfort and pain.
As background, our Blue Building was built in 1904 as a Seattle Public School and remained in operation as a school until 1981. The small water fountain in the lobby was the only fountain on that level until 2012, when PNA installed a modern ADA accessible water fountain and bottle filler as part of a larger accessibility and conservation project that included an elevator and other building improvements.
When the new fountain was installed, PNA decided to keep the old fountain as part of the building’s historic character, and for easier use by smaller children. We did not realize at the time that the presence of the two separate fountains could bring up imagery of racial segregation.
Facilities staff first heard about the second water fountain making some community members uncomfortable on July 8, 2020. After brief consultation with PNA leadership, maintenance staff removed the fountain on July 10, 2020. We have a little cosmetic work to finish, but are glad to have addressed the concern as soon as we became aware of it.
Last, but not least, at the July 21 meeting, the Board passed a resolution to formalize the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee. This will make sure this work permanently remains part of the fabric of the organization.
Thank you for supporting us in this work, and as always, if you have any comments or questions, please reach out: [email protected].
We have received much feedback and many emails from the community voicing a range of opinions about the decision to retire the holiday monkeys. We appreciate the time people have taken to share their concerns, as well as their investment in our neighborhood. Many people requested more context and background about the PNA’s decision.
In December 2019, the PNA hired Dar’Nesha Weary as the new executive director, who is Black. Soon after she was hired, she expressed concern regarding the monkeys, given that monkeys are routinely used as a racist slur against Black people. She felt uncomfortable “selling” the monkeys as part of her job representing the organization given that historic context. Soon after she expressed this opinion, she and another member of our staff who is a person of color received a racist email that invoked exactly this racist imagery, with a derogatory caption that referenced her objection to the monkey lights as a symbol for the neighborhood. The email claimed to be from “Friends of the PNA.” The PNA reported the incident to local police and tried to trace the origin of the email, but to no avail.
Dar’Nesha resigned from PNA in early June 2020. She has vocally stated that much of her decision to leave involved structural racism that she endured while working at PNA, and she specifically has mentioned the monkeys, along with other examples, in her public statements. The Board listened to her concerns, and determined that, at this critical moment in time, removing the monkeys as a visible symbol (and fundraiser) of PNA – a largely white organization who has been made more made aware of structural racism in our community – is the right thing to do. .
We recognize that this decision has been a hard one for many people and businesses, as the monkeys have been a loved and unique tradition for several years in our neighborhood. We plan and look forward to working with the business community and neighbors to find a new symbol of community and joy to light up our winter days in 2021.
- What are you going to do with the monkeys?
The PNA has not yet come to a decision yet about what will happen with the monkeys.
- Can I have/buy a monkey?
Because of the reason that we are retiring the monkeys, we are not offering them to individuals to go back out into the community.
- Are you going to use a different animal for holiday lights? / What animal are you going to use instead?
The PNA Business Advisory Group will be exploring other winter tradition options, which may or may not include lighted animals. As planning gets underway, they will seek business and community ideas and feedback.
- I have an idea for a winter tradition…
Please email Chris Maykut at [email protected] and he’ll pass ideas along to the Business Advisory Group.