What does it mean to be a human being on Orcas Island?

by Jari Brenner

Orcas Island

I am a cultural anthropologist with an emphasis on contemporary American culture. I also study intercultural communication.

When I first came to Orcas Island in 1990, there was a thriving community. Year-round islanders regularly met to share their lives, ideas and hopes in community building workshops. It was a time of vibrant relationships. Though circumstances led me away from the island in 1993, I always expected to return. It was the sense of community that called me back.

I returned in 2013 to find many changes. There was still a sense of community — and a greater sense of tolerance to some differences between us — yet, there was something missing. Why, on this idyllic microcosm of our larger world, was there still so little diversity?

Though I am a straight, white woman, I was gratified to see that there seemed to be a much greater tolerance for difference in religion; gender identity; and sexual preference than when I left in 1993. I also noticed that there were a few more people of color calling this island their year-round home.

When I left Orcas, I went to Honolulu on O’ahu, and Kapa’a, on Kau’ai, in the state of Hawaii, where I was in a distinct minority. I appreciated understanding, in some small way, what it felt like to be immediately judged by some people based on my skin color. It was good to know what this felt like.

It doesn’t feel good. I felt uncomfortable when incidents of unmistakable racism occurred. I felt threatened, objectified and ignored. I also felt incredibly enriched by the cultural diversity, and warmth, of most of the people there. The everyday lifeI experienced as a year-round resident of Hawaii included a depth of culture through food, music, art and, yes, paradoxically, a feeling of inclusion and love. Cultural groups actively shared with each other their way of seeing the world, and their way of expressing it.

I then lived in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, where rich diversity exists, yet it is extremely compartmentalized. Each diverse group keeps to itself. It seems, for the most part, to be a pretty tolerant place, but it could be much more.

A few intolerant people can cause a great deal of harm through ignorance. What can we, as the year-round residents of Orcas Island, do to truly promote liberty, equality and justice for all?

One thing we can do is to learn about ourselves. We have all been exposed to various forms of intolerance through cultural immersion. Whether through media, family, schools or churches, we all have prejudices.

These can be unlearned if one is willing to work at it.

We have a tremendous opportunity to create a model for tolerance, understanding and respect on this island. We have been graced with the interest and presence of many different cultures who are finally feeling that it might be safe to live here. This diversity is a rich and strong building material for the future of Orcas Island, and we have much to learn from each other.

A group is forming to discuss how we can each unlearn what isn’t serving us through diversity education training. Please watch for announcements and join in. You are needed and valued.

The future of Orcas Island depends on you.