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Kiantha Duncan Brings People Together, Leads Through Adversity

In the middle of a global pandemic, during the violent civic-uprising that followed the death of George Floyd, Kiantha Duncan was already steadily at work for justice for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) groups in Spokane.

A community leader, activist, philanthropist and a non-profit consultant with her own leadership consulting business, Duncan found herself on the executive committee of Spokane NAACP at a time when the whole country was in flux, grappling with a surge in racism awareness.

“There was so much going on. We were in the middle of the uprising after George Floyd’s death, we were deep in the pandemic, there were protests, all these things that caused us to be more aware of everything going on around us,” Duncan said. “It was a lot. It is a lot. It continues to be a lot.”

As if all of that wasn’t enough, that’s also when Duncan agreed to accept the position as president of Spokane NAACP.

“We had strategized about how the next iteration of NAACP should look and it was decided the best move was for me to take the helm of the organization,” Duncan said. “But for me to do so, the organization was going to look a lot different than it had in the past.”

Duncan said the NAACP both nationally and locally has always held power to fight injustice, to fight against inequality, fight against oppression and racism.

“To me, that sounded exhaustive. I am not a fighter, that has never been my style,” Duncan said, reflecting on when she decided to accept the role as president. “I work with people. I want to identify the problem and help people find a solution. I am a collaborator; I have always been much less focused on fighting.”

At the top of Duncan’s agenda is helping anyone in Spokane overcome any apprehension toward the NAACP. She said NAACP generates powerful responses because it was created in response to something – inequality, racism, injustice – and therefore has held very strong positions in the past.

“We held those positions out of necessity and there is tension helping organizations in our city understand that while NAACP held particular positions in the past, that may have changed in the present,” Duncan said. “This last year has helped us all see that there are lots of opportunities for BIPOC people to live better here. We can’t hold people in the positions they used to have; that’s not how the world works.”

Duncan moved to Spokane a little over six years ago, and in 2020 she was appointed by Governor Jay Inslee to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Community Colleges of Spokane. Duncan lives in Spokane Valley with her partner, Sylvia Brown.

Duncan gave a TEDx Talk in early 2020 about her own experience of childhood trauma. The talk was titled, A Perfect 10, meaning that she experienced ten different types of childhood trauma.

In the very intimate talk, she tells the audience that anyone who has experienced trauma is responsible for repurposing it for something good.  

“It is not easy, and it is something that you have to work on every single day,” she said in her talk, before sharing three steps toward healing. “Let go of the trauma that has happened to you – don’t let it overpower you; let love be your guide to living and healing and commit to leading others to healing.”

She often begins her Facebook posts with, “Spokane, I am telling you this because I love you…” not as a way to soften the blow of what she’s about to tell you, but to set up the right perspective: one of deep love for this community.

Dinner parties at the Duncan Brown household are legendary: not only because of the fabulous food, but mostly because the parties draw people together from all parts of Spokane – and they open lines of communication that sometimes lead to healing.

“When you have a community that is so very polarized you have to bring people out of their tight corners and into a shared space, or you are never going to move forward,” Duncan said.

But in-person meetings were not always an option over this past year. Duncan struggled a little with the Zoom meeting format, but made a strategy:

“I show up to online meetings as my full self. I show up so people can feel who I am, hear my words, hear that I talk from my heart.”

During her inaugural NAACP presidential address – which was delivered online because of COVID – she presented one of her goals for the organization: partnerships. And one of the new partners was the Spokane Club, a legacy organization that has not always been open to Black people and other minorities.

“I took a lot of heat for that one, that was hard. A lot of our people didn’t like that partnership,” Duncan said. “But I believe in my method: what I am hoping these partnerships show is that everything changes, the weather, the trees, everything changes, we can’t just hold organizations in spaces closed off by past mistakes.” Another partnership is with the Spokane Journal of Business, and more are to come. Duncan is also working on creating an organization that encompasses all the higher education institutions in Spokane, with the goal of helping students who come to Eastern Washington to go to school, family away from family.

“There have been racial incidents at all institutions, and I don’t want to get the phone call after the situation has been addressed,” Duncan said. “NAACP wants to be in the room when the conversation happens, so we can help make things better for everyone involved.”

In some ways, Duncan said she feels like all the turmoil and upheaval over the past year has created a great, big reset. People’s work-life changed, business changed, travel changed, and the world was shut down by a pandemic which Duncan said took away “all the noise and forced us to focus on faith, work, and family.” We are now slowly coming out on the other side, and she has some questions for us to think about:  

“How do we use this moment in time? We will never experience this again in our lifetime, a time where everyone is so raw. How do we reimagine our community, our city, our state, our world – because we almost have a blank slate now.”

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