Demanding equity: When do we stand up?

Posted on June 5, 2019 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Reader opinion by D’mitra Smith 

I moved to Sonoma Valley in 2001, a month after 9/11. I was called the N-word within three months. Store clerks asked for my ID, and I often got the infamous “Can I help you?” that is so familiar to people of color.  It means, “I don’t think you belong in this space.” American flags were everywhere, and aggressive pickup-truck drivers tailgated me, snarling from their windows. Law enforcement asked if I was local. I regretted leaving San Francisco. At that time, I felt like the valley was full of unwanted, negative attention. But this isn’t about me.  

There is a lack of equity built into our beautiful Valley of the Moon. The west side of the unincorporated county is unable to vote in city elections, run for city council, or benefit from revenue for improvements and services. The 2014 groundbreaking study Portrait of Sonoma County examined disparities among neighborhoods along the lines of race, ethnicity, and gender. The results are among the lowest levels of life expectancy, education, and income, right here in our community. How can this be when the residents of Boyes Hot Springs and surrounding areas contribute so much labor and income to Sonoma Valley?  

The answer lies in the painful history of land occupation and agricultural conquest which drew the lines that we have today. The founding and development of Sonoma Valley was built upon the destruction of the indigenous populations that flourished here, and the exploitation of Chinese laborers that largely built the first wineries but weren’t welcome as residents. The Bracero program of 1942 utilized Mexican workers without allowing them to become stakeholders either. It’s also well-documented history that much of Sonoma County supported the Confederacy, and many towns had official or unspoken sundown policies barring African Americans for decades.

So what does this have to do with an extremely successful poster campaign?  And why would I bring all of this up when we’ve had such an amazing outpouring of support for the LGBTQ+ community in response to the beliefs and political affiliations of wealthy developers?  As a human rights commissioner, I’m not here to be adversarial, but I’m here to tell the truth. I want to elevate voices that aren’t heard and bring light to what’s invisible. That often means I have to talk about things that aren’t comfortable.

Nobel prize-winning writer, activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel tells us, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” In short, we must speak out against bigotry, racism, exploitation, and injustice all the time, every time.  

In 2017, I tried to launch an inclusive poster campaign in the valley, but many businesses weren’t ready to speak out. By now, three years into the 45th presidential administration, many folks who remained silent before are finding their voices. For folks on the front lines, it is bittersweet. When we choose to speak out is a function of the level of privilege and comfort we enjoy within our society. Everyone just wants to live their lives in peace. But for so many, that isn’t possible because of who we are, and we’re forever asking others to join the struggle. It will take all of us to make this right.  

Since 2017 we’ve had serious human rights issues in the valley. We had a racist hate crime in which a community organizer was targeted and brutally attacked, and the perpetrator was never found. I asked elected officials to make public statements about inclusion then, and stand strong on reinforcing values of protection and dignity for everyone in our community. I’m glad we’re doing this now; seeing the town come together to support the LGBTQ+ community reminds me of why I stayed here, and what’s possible when we truly see each other.  

Let these posters be the beginning of discussions around real equity. Let’s make sure that LGBTQ+ youth who also live in the intersection of race and class feel safe enough to be out, proud, and visible. Let’s push back against forces that marginalize the folks that largely make this valley function. Let’s help hotel, restaurant and agricultural workers organize for better protections in an industry that is supported by healthy tourism dollars and local affluence. Let’s make sure all schools in the valley flourish with opportunity instead of struggling for basic supplies and services.   

When the Sun reached out to me to cover the story of the posters, it would be easy to take a photo and congratulate ourselves. Don’t get me wrong. I am truly proud of what we’ve done, and now other cities in the county want to join our campaign. But since I’m just building on the work and resistance of people who started this work long before I came here, it’s my job to think about those who still need protection, who still need to feel welcomed, heard, and seen. It’s my job to listen and use my platform to amplify their voices. Let the welcome posters lead to more action, so that we all feel like we belong. I thank each and every one of you for joining me, and I’m asking us to go further. It’s time to stand up, together.

D’mitra Smith lives in Boyes Hot Springs and is the vice chair of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights.

11 thoughts on “Demanding equity: When do we stand up?

  1. I really appreciate your story and your continuing efforts, but I wonder every day when will it really change, if ever… I was born and raised in San Francisco during a time when most everyone seemed to get along. No, not the Summer of Love ~ Waaaay before that! SF was such a melting pot of peoples and cultures, nature and sophistication, a magical place to grow up as a child!
    Over time, things would change in various ways but I always felt safe in The City… During my lifetime I have experienced many sizes of cities and towns; attitudes and mores; and always wished I could go back to that innocent time.
    Recently in Sonoma I have been involved in an ugly expression of bigotry and racism from from the other side. Not against me, personally, but against a new business in town and our friends who opened it. Terrible, ugly and threatening posts began on local ‘social media’ sights and spiraled into a broadspread attack on people they didn’t even know ~ except they were ‘different! No amount of explaining would change their minds. And as it continued and grew I attempted to contact members of our City Council (mainly because a member of the council had chosen to join in on the posts ! I received NO response from phone calls or email messages from any member, and was very discouraged and disappointed. What has happened to our little town and our Country that instead of more understanding, we seem to have become more ugly and hate-filled?
    I wish you luck with your program, but don’t really feel it will have much effect. At first – maybe – but that will just be for show… There won’t be any long-lasting changes of attitudes 🙁 I regret the conditions I am leaving behind for my children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. In 1988 I believed moving to Sonoma was a good thing….

    1. I would like to know what business and business owner is being referred too. At this point I am only aware of the coverage of the Mattson/ Lefever ownership of Sonoma businesses and of their opinions that generated reaction and commentary from the community. I will not say anything about your comments accuracy until I know who you are actually talking about.

  2. As always D’mitra Is brilliant and accurate in her assessment of the current racial divisions in Sonoma! The rental greed raising rents some 45% since the 2017 fires along with the proliferation of vacation rentals to feed the out of town landlords and the property management companies at the cost of driving out all service and working people from affordable housing! Young people cannot afford to live here unless they have three or four roommates in two bedroom flats or homes — families which the core of the community cannot find homes to rent long term and if they are available they are undeniably obscene rent. The plaza has been reduced to an array of places for tourists only no entrepreneurial businesses could afford those San Francisco rents. So now we have right wing homophobic billionaires snapping up huge properties and doing develpoements that push out the very people that are the spine of this community we all need to keep speaking out! I salute D’mitra for have the voice and the skills to articulate the need for protection of those that don’t fit into the Cold hearted bigots idea of what kind of people we need in this place! they seem to thrive on making others suffer…

  3. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
    I remember when Prop 8 (“only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”) was on the ballet and Sonoma Valley Sun refused to take a position on it. I’ve not read any articles from them until now and it’s only because it’s written by D’mitra Smith who I respect. I will continue my personal boycott now.

    1. The ownership and editorial board have entirely changed since that election.

  4. Thank you for your work and commitment to the people affected by the serious issues of racism, classism, hatred, exclusionism, and denial of basic human rights in Sonoma Valley, D’mitra. Thank you for your voice, and for beating the drum to make us all aware of the ignorance that continues to exist. Let us all stand up for what is right, fair and just, no matter our station in life.

  5. I love to tease my oh so liberal Sonoma friends about keeping Sonoma white! Sonoma is white, Irish heritage and Catholic. I have a condo in Sonoma but live in Livonia Michigan. Livonia is White, Polish heritage and Catholic also. Livonia has harsh winters. And we are more a swing vote. In Livonia people can admit they voted for our President. In Sonoma they do not admit it because they may be attacked by the politically correct majority.

    1. Sonoma has a strong Catholic influence but that is also due to Italians, Mexicans and the Spanish. Before the US invaded California, this was Alta California, and outpost of Imperial Spain. And before that – and still, because we are still here – indigenous people.

      There are also many Latinos here. More than an Livonia, I suppose.
      Michigan also has indigenous people. Indeed, as I recall, the name ‘Michigan’ comes from Anishnaabe language. I guess that might not be politically correct to point out to Snowflakes the existence of toponyms derived from languages decidedly Not English. And also upsets snowflakes to remind them that Turtle Island (aka North America) was never all-white and is not a part of Europe.

  6. Thank you D. Smith, I am not so great at articulating my words but you do it so well. I’m glad to have a person with your great insight in our community. I have seen posters with the same words before but it was not until the article of a specific person that in my opinion is playing monopoly in this town that more people voiced concern and discomfort rightfully so. In order for positive changes there needs to be continued actions and discussions. I was born and reared in Sonoma, LOL not the affluent side though. Thank you!

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