‘To help other people.’ Tri-Cities nonprofit leader awarded MLK Spirit Award

Jennifer King/jking@tricityherald.com
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Naima Chambers-Smith starts tearing up when she thinks about being compared to Martin Luther King Jr.

“I could have never even fathomed the idea of my name even being in the same sentence,” said Chambers-Smith, the CEO of the Tri-Cities Diversity & Inclusion Council. “When we started up the council, and really decided that this is something that we were going to do, it was more about how do we serve the community?”

Chambers-Smith, 46, has quietly worked behind the scenes trying to help various organizations understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion while in her role both with the Oregon Department of Corrections and as head of the Richland-based nonprofit.

Her and the council’s work will be recognized Monday as she receives the Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award from Columbia Basin College.

Each year, CBC honors a member of the community for their commitment to equality and social justice, and whose contributions to society reflect the spirit, philosophy and teachings of the slain civil rights leader.

While the in-person presentation was delayed because of a surge in COVID cases in the Tri-Cities, the college plans to post online a video presentation with a speech from Chambers-Smith and music from the Tri-Cities Gospel FlashMob. An in-person presentation will be scheduled for a later date.

Chambers-Smith has a track record of being a unifying force in the community, said Jay Frank, the assistant vice president of communications and external relations.

“We were impressed by her ability to get others engaged in the conversation around equity, diversity and inclusion in a way that allows our entire community to be strengthened,” he said.

Helping children in trouble

Chambers-Smith has a long history of working with people needing help, including leading efforts of officers working with juveniles in detention.

The youth from 8 to 18 were taken from their parents or offenders ages 10 to 22 being held in juvenile detention.

“I didn’t know that was something that I was going to enjoy,” she said. “I was looking for a job at the time, and kind of fell into what I believe to be my purpose.”

The more she worked with youth, the more she realized that what they needed were role models. They needed to see people who looked like them who were successful.

It was important for her to show them that they didn’t need to be victims of their circumstances.

“They’re people,” she said. “A lot of times they are ... victims to traumatic lived experiences. Victims, who may not have the idea or healthy home life, and therefore, as a result they ended up in residential treatment facility.”

“Those are kids that definitely need support, ... definitely need guidance,” she said.

She worked in California with the Orange County Probation Department for more than 16 years before moving to the Tri-Cities after her husband started working at the Hanford site.

People divided

When Chambers-Smith moved to the Tri-Cities she was struck by how people stayed in their “sillos,” separated from other groups.

“I don’t think I’ve ever lived in an environment as divisive as the Tri-Cities,” she said. “I think it is by ethnicity. I think it also has to do with political views here in this community.”

It was unusual compared to her time in California where a cultural festival might draw in people from across different cultures and walks of life to participate.

“You see a mixed and diverse population of folks that show up to support each other and celebrate that diversity,” she said.

This carried through to her new job telecommuting for the Oregon Department of Corrections which was the most homogeneous agency she had ever seen. The staffing of the jail didn’t reflect the population of people being served.

She now serves as the program manager for equity, inclusion and organizational change, and she said it has gotten better at the department.

In reaction to what she was seeing, Chambers-Smith and her husband invited over a group of friends and asked what they thought about starting a nonprofit aimed at holding some cultural events.

“Initially, we all came together because all of us wanted to contribute to the community in some way,” she said. “We decided, let’s see how we can impact the community and how we can celebrate the various cultures in our community.”

Most recently that resulted in an August Celebration of Community, Diversity and Culture.

She said the organization of about 30 members is always looking for more people who want to participate. They meet on the second Thursday of every month.

“I feel like I’ve known my purpose very early on in life, ... to help other people,” she said. “That varies over the years as far as what that looks like. It could be helping youth in my early 20s to my time working in juvenile detention and trying to pour into those youth to my time working in the Department of Corrections.”

George Floyd aftermath

The Tri-Cities Diversity & Inclusion Council was called into action following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin.

While the council did not participate directly in area protests, governments and other agencies turned to them for help understanding the issues around diversity, equity and inclusion.

They worked with Lynn Carlson and Gemini Corps to help provide that training.

Chambers-Smith also was named as one of the members of Pasco’s Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Commission.

While diversity, equity and inclusion have been caught up in politics following the protests, Chambers-Smith said diversity is a fact. People live in a diverse world filled with people from different backgrounds, experiences and cultures.

“Inclusion is an action. It is taking an intentional effort to create inclusive environments where everyone feels welcome, everyone feels respected and everyone feels valued,” she said.

Equity is a choice to identify systems that prevent people from being successful, and to find ways to make sure people feel they are supported.

“How can we make sure that race doesn’t play a factor in whether or not you’re going to be able to be successful?” she said.

She urged people who want to understand the issue more to read about other experiences and to talk to people and look for ways to engage with diverse cultures and develop rapport and relationships.

She believes that some people are trying to embrace the diversity in the area, but it’s not as widespread as she would hope.

“I think that we are improving, but we have a long way to go,” she said.

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