Spokane’s Black community newspaper is making a comeback

After a two-year hiatus and the 2022 death of founder Sandy Williams, The Black Lens returns with a new website and a wider circulation.

Sandy Williams, founder of The Black Lens

Sandy Williams, founder of The Black Lens, passed away in 2022. The Black newspaper in Spokane is now relaunching under new leadership. (Young Kwak for Crosscut) 

Black History Month in Spokane will be memorable this year with the relaunch of the publication that had documented the events and happenings of the city’s Black community for nearly a decade.

After nearly a two-year hiatus, the latest edition of The Black Lens showed up inside The Spokesman-Review and in Black-owned small businesses and churches. 

The future of the community newspaper had looked uncertain when founder and community activist Sandy Williams died in September 2022. The publication had already been on hiatus since January of that year

But a collaborative effort between Williams’ family, members of Spokane’s Black communities and Spokesman-Review journalists, plus an outpouring of support from businesses and community members, gave the publication new life. 

Williams’ community building over several decades led to this collaboration. 

“It's incredible to watch the community rally around this paper and demand that their voices continue to be heard,” said Renika Williams, Sandy Williams’ daughter and a member of the publication’s board of directors. “It's even more impressive the people who rallied around the paper to help bring it back. I think my mom would be so proud to see the paper continuing on without her.” 

And it’s that continued collaboration, community leaders say, that will be key to the newspaper not just surviving but thriving. 

The latest issue, which came out earlier this month, features Lisa Gardner, communications director for the city of  Spokane, taking over as president of NAACP Spokane.  

Gardner’s been a frequent presence in The Black Lens. Besides being featured in the publication, Gardner also wrote articles, including one on her experience with sickle cell disease, an illness that disproportionately impacts Black Americans. 

Gardner believes the newspaper is crucial to bringing Spokane’s Black community — about 2% of the city’s population — together and having them represented in a way that doesn’t happen in other media outlets. 

“We had a resuscitation of life in having The Black Lens relaunch and getting back to reporting news that is for us and about us,” Gardner said. 

Interim editor Natasha Hill is coordinating this initial new effort. For Hill, a local attorney who ran against Cathy McMorris Rodgers for Congress in 2022, it was yet another new venture, as she does not have a journalism background. The Williams family believed, however, that Hill’s skills in cultivating relationships and community organizing would be crucial in relaunching the publication. 

As someone involved in activism and local politics, Hill understands the power of news media to give voice to those who are part of small or marginalized communities. 

Being involved with The Black Lens “broadens my platform, connects the community and gets the community connected in what they’re interested in and what they support,” she said. 

That includes tackling tough topics, such as racism and the impact of white supremacy on the community. But, Hill said, it also includes highlighting Black joy, things that prompt celebration of Black culture and excellence, such as the emergence of successful Black professionals and artists. 

The Feb. 4 issue features articles highlighting various Black-owned businesses and organizations, plus stories about Spokane's Black residents' cultural and artistic contributions. The writers and contributors are members of the Black community. 

“We got a lot of issues; there are a lot of things we need to talk about,” Hill said. “But before we delve into those harder conversations, we thought it was important to celebrate Black culture, Black joy, in introducing the publication to the community.” 

The front page of the February 2024 issue of The Black Lens.

Continuing a legacy 

While Hill has been undergoing a crash course in running and publishing a community newspaper to give The Black Lens an initial push forward, the coalition is still planning to hire a permanent editor with journalism experience.

“The one thing Sandy didn’t get the opportunity to do is take [The Black Lens] to the next level, so it wasn’t something she didn’t have to carry on her own,” Hill said. 

Williams was both the editor and the face of the publication for years. She founded The Black Lens in 2015 to provide a different perspective on the news. The publication sought to answer her question of what the news would look like if Spokane’s Black residents covered it. 

Williams was involved in every aspect of the process, including delivering copies of the newspaper to various pickup points at Black churches and businesses. 

The Black Lens was part of Williams’ public service efforts. She also served as executive director of the Carl Maxey Center, a nonprofit that runs programs and services to improve the lives of Spokane’s Black residents. Williams put The Black Lens on one-year hiatus back in early 2022 so she could focus more on the center. 

The visible impact of her work helped both the nonprofit and the newspaper gain credibility among the city’s Black community and other allies and community members in Spokane. 

“She created so many relationships with so many people in Spokane, and her integrity was unmatched. It's not surprising to me that there are so many people that want to continue her vision and support it,” said Renika Williams. 

In the weeks leading up to the newspaper relaunch, No-Li Brewhouse, a Spokane brewery, donated $10,000 and challenged other small businesses to donate. 

Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley was friends with Williams and connected with her during protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Those conversations led to the Spokesman-Review publishing stories from The Black Lens.

Curley also encouraged the Williams family to resurrect and sustain the paper so it wasn’t on the back of one individual, as it was with Williams when she ran the paper alongside her other work. 

“I can’t let her legacy die,” he said. 

Along with single copies being distributed in local Black businesses and churches, the Spokesman-Review will include the publication monthly in its Sunday edition. 

Current and former Spokesman-Review editors and writers are also aiding The Black Lens with monthly contributor meetings, where potential writers and other contributors come and learn about the paper’s mission and how to craft stories and other media content and also volunteered time to do various jobs, such as copy editing and design.

Curley is also on the board of a nonprofit, Comma Journalism Labs, that will aid the publication in developing a model to fund and sustain community-backed independent journalism. One goal is to bring and replicate this model to other communities and cities, Hill said. 

Curley had already worked with Williams following the Black Lives Matter protests in Spokane to get grant funding for a race and equity reporter that would write for both the Spokesman Review and The Black Lens. 

The funding for a full-time editor is also approved. The goal is to get funding for a third full-time production position by the first anniversary of the paper’s re-launch. This position would do the work that is being donated by the Spokesman-Review journalists. 

But while Comma would provide support for The Black Lens, the publication would operate under a separate nonprofit. 

Ultimately, Curley said, The Black Lens is and will remain an independent entity, not a product of Spokesman-Review.

“All we’re doing is making sure [The Black Lens re-launch] happens because we care for it,” he said. 

For Gardner, the NAACP president, even a temporary hiatus was difficult. The community is determined to work and ensure the publication isn’t at risk of closing down. The temporary loss of an outlet that reliably printed news and information about community events was a massive blow to the city’s Black community. 

Hill said small businesses also were impacted because The Black Lens was a key source of gaining and retaining customers. One of the publication’s key features is a Black business directory. 

“We’re really more eager to put our arms around making sure the publication is not just stood up but thrives,” Gardner said. 

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