Nonprofit Leader Receives MLK Award from Columbia Basin College
Naima Chambers-Smith begins to cry when she thinks of being compared to Martin Luther King Jr.
“I could never have imagined my name even being in the same sentence,” said Chambers-Smith, CEO of the Tri-Cities Diversity & Inclusion Council. “When we started the council and decided that was something we were going to do, it was more about how do we serve the community?”
Chambers-Smith, 46, has worked quietly behind the scenes to help various organizations understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in his role both within the Corrections Department of the Oregon and head of the Richland-based nonprofit.
Her work and that of the board will be recognized on Monday when 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 has been delayed due to an increase in COVID cases in the Tri-Cities, the college plans to release a video presentation online with a speech by Chambers-Smith and music from the Tri-Cities Gospel Flash Mob. An in-person presentation will be scheduled at a later date.
Chambers-Smith has a reputation as a unifying force in the community, said Jay Frank, assistant vice president of communications and external relations.
“We were impressed with her ability to engage others in the conversation about equity, diversity and inclusion in a way that empowers our entire community,” he said.
Help children in difficulty
Chambers-Smith has a long history of working with people in need of help, including leading the efforts of officers working with minors in custody.
Young people between the ages of 8 and 18 were taken away from their parents or offenders between the ages of 10 and 22 being held in juvenile detention.
“I didn’t know it was something I was going to enjoy,” she said. “I was looking for a job at the time and fell into what I believe to be my goal.”
The more she worked with young people, the more she realized that they needed role models. They needed to see people who looked like them and who were successful.
It was important for her to show them that they did not need to be victims of their situation.
“They are people,” she said. “Often they are… victims of traumatic lived experiences. Victims, who may not have the idea of a healthy family life, and as a result, they ended up in a residential treatment center .
“These are kids who 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.
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 such a divisive environment as the Tri-Cities,” she said. “I think it’s by ethnicity. I think it also has to do with political views here in this community.
It was unusual compared to his time in California where a cultural festival could attract people from different cultures and backgrounds to attend.
“You see a mixed and diverse population of people coming forward to support each other and celebrate that diversity,” she said.
This carried over to her new telecommuting job for the Oregon Department of Corrections, which was the most seamless agency she had ever seen. Prison staffing did not reflect the population of people served.
She now serves as Program Manager for Equity, Inclusion and Organizational Change, and she said it has improved within the department.
In reaction to what she was seeing, Chambers-Smith and her husband invited a group of friends over and asked what they thought about starting a nonprofit to organize cultural events.
“Initially, we all came together because we all 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 different cultures in our community.”
Most recently, this culminated in a celebration of community, diversity and culture in August.
She said the roughly 30-member organization is always looking for more people to participate. They meet on the second Thursday of each month.
“I feel like I knew my purpose very early in life, … to help others,” she said. “It varies over the years in terms of what it looks like. It could help young people in their early twenties during my time working in juvenile detention and try to contribute to those young people during my time working in the Department of Corrections.
The aftermath of George Floyd
The Tri-Cities Diversity & Inclusion Council has been called to action following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
Although the council has not participated directly in protests in the region, governments and other agencies have turned to them to help them understand issues around diversity, equity and inclusion.
They worked with Lynn Carlson and Gemini Corps to help provide this training.
Chambers-Smith was also named as a member of Pasco’s Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Commission.
As diversity, equity and inclusion have been overtaken by 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 takes an intentional effort to create inclusive environments where everyone feels welcome, everyone feels respected and everyone feels valued,” she said.
Equity is a choice of identifying systems that prevent people from achieving success and finding ways to ensure people feel supported.
“How can we make sure that race doesn’t play a role in whether or not you succeed?” she said.
She urged people who want to better understand the issue to read about other experiences and talk to people and look for ways to engage with diverse cultures and develop rapport and relationships.
She believes some people are trying to embrace the diversity in the area, but it’s not as widespread as she hopes.
“I think we’re getting better, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.
This story was originally published January 17, 2022 5:00 a.m.