Conflict has arisen between True North Organizing Network, a former employee and another Del Norte County nonprofit.
The dispute spilled over into the organizing network’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Crescent City on Jan. 15.
Thomas H. Joseph II, who worked for True North as a regional youth organizer and the Del Norte organizer for about 31 months, said the faith-based organization fired him without cause Jan. 18. He says he is one of many in the local indigenous community voicing their concerns about the nonprofit, accusing it of taking advantage of their poverty and neglecting their community.
Joseph criticized the organizing network for not having a presence at a protest and candlelight vigil earlier this month for the relocation of the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse away from Yurok burial grounds. He said True North didn’t mobilize after Humboldt State University student Josiah Lawson was stabbed last spring. Joseph listed several instances of indigenous youth being killed that were unaddressed by True North.
“There’s also the stabbing of the tribal member that was done in Klamath where the capital of the Yurok nation is and that person that killed the tribal member said he stabbed and killed him because he was Indian and he was charged with a hate crime. That also went unaddressed,” Joseph said. “There was Dante (Romannose-Jones) that was killed a couple years ago. There’s also been police shootings of tribal members in eastern Humboldt that went unaddressed. A state officer killed a tribal member in Willow Creek and tribal police killed a tribal member in Weitchpec; both of those cases went unaddressed.”
Joseph said True North has a rapid response network that could have mobilized in each of those cases.
“It’s programmed and designed for the protection of undocumented community members, but this application should have been put into effect when those killings happened,” he said. “What that would mean is we would have first responders showing up the same time police is showing up, the same time everybody else is showing up. They’re able to mobilize within minutes to get people on the ground to start documenting and start raising concern.”
Joseph, along with Sammy Gensaw III, interrupted True North’s Day of Unity event on Jan. 15 to air their concerns.
“Basically me, Thomas and a bunch of organizers got really upset with True North and no longer work with True North; a lot of people walked away from True North,” Gensaw said. “They’re not in our communities how they should be and if they’re accepting (California Endowment) money and if they’re spending that money and say they’re outputting resources for indigenous (communities) I think that’s something we should hold them accountable for. Why aren’t they standing with us when we’re doing indigenous issues? They fired (Joseph) for asking.”
Based in Bayside and funded through the California Endowment, True North Organizing Network has community organizers from Orleans near the Siskiyou County line to Smith River and south to Eureka and Lolita, said Executive Director Terry Supahan. True North introduced itself to the community at large at a meeting in Orick in February 2014 to determine what issues residents of both counties wanted the organizing network to focus on.
“People from across the region said (they wanted us to focus on) improving public schools, water and the environment, immigration policy, police accountability and mental health and homeless issues,” Supahan said. “Those are our social justice issues.”
Supahan said the organization has been criticized by former employees for not hiring employees from local communities. But, he said, they are local.
An organizer’s task is first to speak with local residents to find out their story and about the issues that concern them, Supahan said. They then try to find others with similar concerns and “bring people to consensus so they can decide for themselves what it is they’re willing to work with.”
“Obviously this method and this organizing is demanding and challenges your experience all the time and only one part of it is moving into the public square,” Supahan said. “The other huge parts are one-to-one and personal storytelling and building. It’s a combination of skills and talents that both speaks to your ability to communicate and think and write extemporaneously and from your experience, but always trying to speak to your heart so that you’re authentic when you’re speaking with other people.”
Joseph and Gensaw and others grabbed the microphone toward the end of the Martin Luther King Day event, Supahan said. But they were able to speak, he said. Apart from that, the event was well attended and celebrated Del Norte’s diversity.
Supahan said that while the entire organizing network wasn’t able to respond to the protest at the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse, his grandchildren were there and he attended the candlelight vigil. He noted the protest was a “fast-moving important issue” that needed to be addressed with care, which was difficult given the holiday break.
When asked about Joseph’s criticism regarding Josiah Lawson’s stabbing, the Dante Romannose-Jones murder and the other killings of tribal members in Eastern Humboldt, Supahan said he didn’t want to discuss Joseph’s personnel issues.
“But it’s interesting about some of those because he was the organizer in this region for a year,” Supahan said referring to Joseph. “I definitely know how we would want to address such charged and passionate situations. If that was your loved one, I’m guessing that it would take awhile for you and me to be able to even talk about that or your concern about that. This method is the same no matter if it’s that or some other issue.”
Supahan, who helped facilitate a town hall meeting in Arcata following Lawson’s death, said for True North to address the fears many have there would need to be organizers in Arcata, at Humboldt State University and in the nearby town of McKinleyville. But that effort may be hampered by HSU’s school schedule, he said.
“I would love to see half a dozen people begin an organizing committee (to) deal with race and an explosion of increase by the California State University system sending urban youth to this rural area and how the communications divide exists,” he said.
Joseph said True North could have made public statements via local media following Lawson’s death and the death of Dante Romannose-Jones. He also noted that one of the concerns in the case of the stabbing in Klamath is there wasn’t adequate response time from ambulances and first responders.
“If we were able to raise concern in a powerful manner with people on the ground they would come to a decision between all parties that were involved on how they can get an ambulance stationed in Klamath,” Joseph said. “But nothing gets done.”
Joseph criticized Supahan’s stance that the work True North organizers do is slow moving.
“My stance is when our communities are under attack we need to mobilize and defend our communities,” he said. “People of color are continuing to die and they’re not being addressed and as the only social justice network in Del Norte and Humboldt that has a huge budget, they hold a greater responsibility to protect these communities.”
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com .