By Dona Ponepinto, President & CEO, United Way of Pierce County
While there are many incredible past and current leaders across our country, this month, as part of Black History Month, we would like to acknowledge the many African American members of our community making history in Pierce County. Below you will find just a few of the impressive accomplishments of men, women and organizations that have made their mark and are leading positive change in our community today. This is by no means a complete list but includes educators, spiritual leaders, politicians and passionate people lending their voice and power to create positive change.
Melanie Morgan is a Democratic member of the Washington House of Representatives, representing District 29a. As the only woman of color serving on the Franklin-Pierce School Board, Melanie was instrumental in the passage of the district's $157 million bond measure in 2016 and two school levy renewals in February 2018.
The Black Collective is a community of black people dedicated to civic engagement through volunteer service. Since 1968, they have advanced the political interests of black people, improved the educational outcomes of black students, and provided social justice advocacy to black individuals and communities and increased black economic development.
Melannie Denise Cunningham is the Greater Tacoma Peace Prize Laureate a/ka/253 Peace Queen for her exemplary work promoting racial reconciliation.
Dr. Carla Santorno, Superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, initiates and directs projects that positively affect students' academic achievement and general well-being—acting upon the firm belief that every learner can achieve and ultimately succeed. Carla is currently a United Way of Pierce County Board member.
Dr.Isiaah Crawford is President of the University of Puget Sound, a recipient of national awards, and he has been published on topics including post-traumatic stress, racial inequality, HIV/AIDS, sexual abuse, visual impairment, poverty, depression and more.
Dr. Ivan Harrell, President of Tacoma Community College, strives every day to lead a group of professionals in providing the best environment, programs and services students need to complete their academic and career goals.
Willie Stewart was hired by Tacoma School District in 1960 and assigned to Gault Junior High to teach life science and physical science. Stewart taught at Gault until 1966 when he was promoted to assistant principal. He was later hired at Lincoln High School as assistant principal. In 1970, he became the first black principal in the Tacoma School District.1.
Andrea Cobb, Tacoma Public School Board. She believes that our schools should be the backbone of our community. As the first person in her family to attend college, she is making her mark in education and policy.
Lyle Quasim has held leadership positions in public health and administration in Tacoma, Pierce County, and the state of Washington. In 1995, he became the first African American to head Washington's Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker was elected to the District 3 seat of the Tacoma City Council in 2015. He now sits on the city's Government Performance and Finance Committee, the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health. He serves as Chair of the city's Community Vitality and Safety Committee.
T'wina Nobles, President and CEO at The Tacoma Urban League. She is the newly elected senator for the 28th district in the Washington State House of Representatives. When she assumed office on January 11, 2021 she became the first black legislator elected to the Senate since 2010. She is also a member on the University Place School Board.
Mary Moss is Councilwoman (Position 1) on the Lakewood City Council. Lakewood is the second-largest city in Pierce County and is host to Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) and Camp Murray.
Victoria Woodards is the current mayor of Tacoma, Washington. She formerly served on the city council for two terms. Woodards grew up in Tacoma and attended Lincoln High School. Woodards previously served in the United States Army and was stationed at Fort Lewis.
Marilyn Strickland is a South Korean-born American politician and businesswoman who is the U.S. Representative for Washington's 10th congressional district. The district is based in the state capital of Olympia and also includes much of eastern Tacoma. A member of the Democratic Party, she began her first term on January 3, 2021. Strickland previously served as the 38th Mayor of Tacoma from 2010 to 2018. She is the first member of the United States Congress who is of both Korean and African American heritage, and the first African-American member elected from Washington. Strickland is also one of the first three Korean-American women ever elected to Congress, beginning her term on the same day as Young Kim and Michelle Steel. She was also a former United Way of Pierce County Campaign Chair.
Jim Walton was the Director of Tacoma's Human Relations Department in 1970, and in 2003, he became the first black city manager. In 2018, he was awarded the Community Health Care Humanitarian of the Year. He also serves on the board of United Way of Pierce County.
Jessie Baines, Jr. is the Commissioner of Metro Parks helps shape the future of the parks he grew up in; he also helps low-wage workers develop career advancement plans through the Tacoma Urban League.
Aaron Pointer was a pro baseball player for more than a decade that included playing for the Houston Colts, which became the Astros, Chicago Cubs and later the Tacoma Cubs, a farm club. He serves as the President of the Metro Parks Board of Commissioners.
For 50 years, the Tacoma Urban League has worked in various ways to strengthen and support the local African American community. Founded in 1968, the Tacoma Urban League is devoted to empowering African Americans and other disenfranchised groups to enter the economic and social mainstream.
Rev. Toney Montgomery is a spiritual leader at Father's House Church and serves as the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance chair. The organization collaborates with many other community and faith-based organizations by advocating for freedom of worship and social and economic equality.
Rev. Gregory Christopher is the pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Tacoma and President of the NAACP's local chapter. In 2017 went to Washington D.C. ready to face arrest during a demonstration supporting the Affordable Care Act. Capitol police took him and 46 other demonstrators away in handcuffs. He continues to fight for affordable care for all.
Justice G. Helen Whitener was appointed to the Washington State Supreme Court in April 2020. The voters elected her to retain her position on the State Supreme Court in November 2020. Before her appointment to Washington State's highest court, Justice Whitener served as a Pierce County Superior Court judge. Justice Whitener also served as a judge on the Washington State Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals and as a pro-tem judge in Pierce County District Court and the City of Tacoma Municipal Court.
Darrell L. Cain, Ph.D., President of Pierce College Puyallup, leads the staff and faculty of the Puyallup campus, serving 7,000 students annually. Before joining Pierce College in July 2018, Dr. Cain served as vice chancellor for student affairs at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis. He previously was the vice president for academic affairs at Eastfield College in Dallas and was dean for academic affairs at Atlanta Technical College. A collaborative leader, Dr. Cain is committed to working with the Pierce College team and the larger community to support student success.
Dr. Tafona Ervin is the executive director for the Foundation for Tacoma Students (FFTS), the cradle-to-career backbone dedicated to ensuring the continuity, stability, and growth of the Graduate Tacoma community-wide movement.
DeAnne Hamilton is Executive Director and General Manager of KBTC Public Television in the Seattle-Tacoma market. Hamilton joined KBTC, a licensee of Bates Technical College, in 2016. Besides providing quality content from public media sources, KBTC has increased its engagement through locally produced content, a speaker's series and other community partnerships. As a Ready To Learn (RTL) station, KBTC has expanded learning opportunities in Tacoma-based schools and grew its outreach efforts to underserved families in Pierce County. KBTC's RTL program has garnered the attention of the state's members of Congress.