Volunteers, spiritual congregations and local businesses joined together in downtown Kirkland to install a public memorial that recognizes Black victims of systemic racism and racial injustice Tuesday, Oct. 20.
Woodinville resident and event planner Karen Thornton spearheaded the Say Their Names Memorial with Rev. Michael Ryan from St. John’s Episcopal Church and with support from the city of Kirkland. The public exhibit, which extends over the grounds of six churches in Kirkland, will be open to the public through Nov. 30.
"Our goal is to offer a chance for introspection and to encourage community members to better understand the role each of us plays in ongoing, systematic racism, while honoring those lives taken by it," Thornton said.
The public exhibit features the portraits of more than 240 Black victims of systemic racism, police brutality and racial injustice since the mid-19th century. Each image is accompanied with a floral tribute donated by local gardeners, flower farmers and florists. Thornton said she used her connections with vendors and friends in the event industry to pull off this exhibit.
She said Joy Proctor, a fellow event planner, created the original Say Their Names Memorial on Juneteenth in Portland, Ore. as a means to express the humanity behind police brutality and racial justice. Joy and her team have created resources to bring the memorials to different communities, she added. Since the first instillation, volunteers have mounted memorials in more than 25 locations across the country.
“I just sort of went into action,” Thornton said. “To me, this was a personal project.”
Thornton, who grew up in Normandy, Mo., said she was raised in a predominantly Black community before moving to “our white bubble of Western Washington,” where she has lived for 17 years now. She wants viewers to look at these people’s faces, say their names and reflect on their "personal responsibility in their deaths,” she added.
Thornton said she believes the challenges with racial injustice and systemic racism in this country is “a white problem, not a Black problem.” She noted it’s important to do something impactful in local communities and show condemnation over the injustices that happen to Black people on a daily basis.
“I was very intentional of wanting to do it on the Eastside,” Thornton said. “Black people and people of color bear the burden of something that is caused deliberately because of white people and our racism. We all need to understand that we have a role in their deaths. So, I was very aware from the beginning that I wanted to do [this memorial] in a predominantly white community.”
She said the goal of the memorial is to offer a chance for people to reflect on these Black lives in an effort to spur dialogue among community members, and also to honor the lives that have been taken.
Seattle volunteer Abby Isaacson assisted with set-up of the exhibit and added finishing touches at St. John’s. She said volunteering was something small she could do to help herself and others remember the work that needs to be done with regards to racial injustice.
“People need to see their faces,” she said, referring to the victims who have died.
Thornton said Kirkland City Councilmember Kelly Curtis got involved and was excited to support the memorial from the beginning. Curtis initially recommended a few churches for the exhibit to be hosted, primarily because of their locations on highly visible, pedestrian-friendly streets in downtown Kirkland.
"I am pleased to welcome the Say Their Names Memorial in our city and appreciate Saint John’s Episcopal and the other faith-based organizations for hosting this beautiful and powerful exhibit," Curtis said.
Curtis ultimately introduced Thornton to Father Michael, the lead at St. John’s Episcopal. She said he suggested other locations get involved in order to reach more people and have a broader impact beyond those just walking by St. John’s.
Across the six locations, Thornton estimated about 75-80 people showed up to help. She said each location recruited its own people, but St. John’s had around 40-45 volunteers come and go in two- or three-hour shifts throughout the day.
The memorial can be observed at the following locations:
• St. John's Episcopal Church, 105 State St., Kirkland
• Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, 10021 NE 124th St, Kirkland
• Kirkland Congregational United Church of Christ, 106 5th Ave, Kirkland
• Lake Washington Christian Church, 343 15th Ave, Kirkland
• Lake Washington United Methodist Church, 7525 132nd Ave. NE, Kirkland
• Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church, 308 4th Ave. S, Kirkland