New Washougal group aims to address ‘homegrown extremism’

East County Citizens Alliance leader says ‘ideological debates are destroying our ability to talk to one another, address real-life problems in our community’

In 2021, a group of Camas and Washougal residents came together to discuss critical race theory — an academic movement that examines social, cultural and legal issues as they relate to race and racism — and to try to figure out why CRT had become a highlight of contentious school board meetings across the country.

“We just wanted to figure out what this whole flap was about,” said group member Melanie Wilson, a Washougal resident. “Over time we became more and more focused on what was happening in the local school system — schools being where a lot of the political action is right now in this community and a lot of other communities around the country. And over time, the group became more focused on anti-extremism than anything else.”

The members of the group — which eventually swelled to about 90 people — approached their conversations with no established opinions and open minds. Eventually, the group formed the East County Citizens Alliance (ECCA), a space where local residents could engage in reasonable conversations about the different types of issues affecting their daily lives and talk about how they might make a difference in their own communities.

Wilson is the de facto leader of the ECCA, and said the group wants to support local public institutions by growing positive community relationships and fighting the “corrosive effects of extremism.”

“(We’ve seen a) continual erosion of trust in the local government, and government at all levels, really, and a lot of the division locally was being driven by our own homegrown extremism group, the Washougal Moms,” Wilson said of a group that launched a smear campaign against former Washougal School Board member Donna Sinclair during the November 2021 election and once held a “tribunal” to vote for a shadow school board in Washougal. “We didn’t want to be overly focused on them, but it’s hard to look away when they’re driving so much of the conversation.”

The ECCA plans to launch a blog, “East County Voices,” in March to help spread its message.

Wilson said the blog will feature regular writers and guest contributors who represent a variety of local opinions.

“It is going to be a space for reasoned dialogue,” Wilson, a social worker, said. “We have a set of principles. We are interested in facts, evidence, respect and civil behavior. We want to move beyond ideological debates, which I think are just destroying our ability to talk to one another, and actually address the real-life problems in our community.”

The blog, she said, will not include “intimidation or conspiracy theories or propaganda.”

“We’ve seen a lot of very exclusionary talk from our local extremism group about who the ‘people’ really are and who the ‘patriots’ really are. We want to get outside of that paradigm entirely and talk about real problems and thoughtful responses,” Wilson said. “We are interested in being fair and balanced, but we’re not neutral. Our point of view is that we want a space that’s free of the damaging and mindless rhetoric that we see throughout our community. All you have to do is look at NextDoor to see how unable we are to talk to one another right now. This would be the antidote to that.”

Wilson encourages other Washougal residents to stand up against the divisive rhetoric being promoted by groups like the Washougal Moms.

“It’s OK to stand up to these people. It really is,” Wilson said. “We don’t have to be afraid. I think there’s more of us than them. We can’t give into thuggery. We just can’t. That’s what we’re trying to do — to step up. And hopefully what we’re doing will embolden other people to step up as well. Bullying only works if you are … intimidated. If you’re not intimidated, then their power disappears.”

Wilson knows many of the ECCA’s initial conversations might focus on the Washougal Moms group, but she said she hopes that, eventually, the discourse will include other topics.

“I think our broader goal is to help reduce the suspicion that a lot of people are bringing to their experience of living in a community,” Wilson said. “We have people in this community who simply don’t trust that the town isn’t scamming them. We hear a lot of complaints about the same things over and over. Obviously, not everything in this town works well, but if we pull together and figure (things) out and assume that other people are people of good will, and that there are explanations for why things are the way they are, then we can come to some sort of reasoned solution about those things. We can begin to think of government as something that works for us all.”

Exposing Washougal residents’ concerns about schools and government in general can help find reasonable solutions, Wilson said.

“I feel like, if we can bring issues like that to the fore and talk about them, we’ll find a solution because we’re all adults and capable people, and these things are not beyond our ability to address,” she said.

‘Utterly alarming’ school board meetings

Wilson has been attending Washougal School Board meetings for the past six months and describes an “utterly alarming” situation involving members of the Proud Boys – a group the Canadian government has dubbed a “terrorist entity,” anti-maskers and others who seem willing to disrupt the public meetings.

“At the first meeting that I went to, a citizen stood up and said, ‘Civil war is almost here. I’m sharpening my bullets. Do you people on the board think you’re going to be the ones to win the war?'” Wilson said. “That was a blatant, fairly explicit threat, and a group of Washougal Moms were there, hooting and clapping.”

On Jan. 25, a group of anti-maskers who refused to follow state public health mandates meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 disrupted a Washougal School Board meeting and caused the board to end its in-person session and meet later in a remote setting.

“People simply would not put on masks and wanted to argue with the board president and the superintendent about it,” Wilson said. “I thought (the board officials) handled it well. They said, ‘We really do want to hear you. But you have to put on a mask. This is our policy.’ But they just wouldn’t do it, and eventually the board president had to say, ‘Please clear the room. We’re done.’ That meant that the people who were sitting there wearing masks and had speeches they wanted to give didn’t have the opportunity to do that.”

The board reconvened remotely on Jan. 27, via Zoom to complete unfinished business.

Now, the school board will consider how they meet — in-person or remotely — before every public meeting. Les Brown, the Washougal School District’s director of communications and technology, said that the board “will provide notice about the meeting format ahead of each meeting so patrons know how they can participate, including the process for public comment during regularly scheduled board meetings.”

Brown said the district will announce the meeting format when they post the meeting agenda on the school district’s website.