Photo depicting two headshots of the two Champions of Unity Award Winners: Norman Rice (left) and Dr. Constance Rice (right).

Northwest African American Museum Benefit Launches Champions of Unity Award

by Patheresa Wells

Northwest African American Museum’s (NAAM) annual Unity Benefit will celebrate its mission to provide a place where the history, culture, and experiences of people of African descent can be accessed and enjoyed by all. This year, it will present the first Champions of Unity Award to former Seattle Mayor Norman Rice and his wife, Dr. Constance Rice. The ball will take place Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Four Seasons Hotel. 

This year’s theme, Elevate, is aspirational, and the idea is based on NAAM’s forward-thinking to the future. LaNesha DeBardelaben, president and CEO, said, “NAAM believes that museums are spaces for healing through art, history, culture, connection, contemplation, and action.”

The Unity Benefit began as an annual fundraiser for the museum 10 years ago, DeBardelaben says. It started as a way to make programming accessible to the community year-round. Initially, it began as “A Night at the Museum,” then the “Unity Luncheon,” eventually becoming an evening Unity Benefit. As a fundraiser, the event helps to facilitate the work NAAM does to uplift the Black community in the Pacific Northwest. DeBardelaben shared some of the ways NAAM provides community support, which include: 

  • The Knowledge is Power Book Giveaway Program, in which NAAM has distributed over 15,000 new, free, beautifully illustrated African American children’s books to children all over the regional community since 2020. This cultural literacy program is part of NAAM’s racial equity and justice work.
Photo depicting a youth on a bicycle wearing a white windbreaker holding a book that reads, "Hey Black Child." The youth's bike also has a NAAM tote bag hanging off the handlebars.
A recipient of NAAM’s Knowledge is Power Book Program shows one of the free children’s books as well as a free bicycle he received at NAAM’s Knowledge is Power pop-up in Rainier Valley. (Photo courtesy of the Northwest African American Museum)
  • The African American Cultural Ensemble (ACE), NAAM’s own choir. Its mission is to bring hope and healing to communities through heritage songs. It is the nation’s first permanent, ongoing museum choir. The choir has performed in various venues, including in front of just about all of our home teams — the Kraken, the Mariners, the Sounders, OL Reign, and it is scheduled to perform in front of the Seahawks in January. This choir is part of NAAM’s racial equity and justice work.
  • Juneteenth Week, a weeklong annual celebration. Other programs include the James Baldwin Circle, the Elders Circle, Malcolm X Day, hybrid King Day, Interactive Story Time sponsored by PNC Bank, the MLK60 Celebration hosting Martin Luther King III, and the Descendants Series, in which it has hosted the descendants of Ida B. Wells, Madam C. J. Walker, W.E.B. Du Bois, Dred Scott, Solomon Northup, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Malcolm X. Scheduled in the near future are descendants of Nat Turner and Sojourner Truth.
Photo depicting a group of volunteers wearing black NAAM T-shirts or Malcom X T-shirts raising their fists while standing behind a table with a NAAM banner laden with books.
NAAM staff and volunteers stationed in Federal Way on Malcolm X Day, distributing free African American children’s books to the community as part of NAAM’s Knowledge is Power Book Program. NAAM has pop-ups across the state with this cultural literacy program. The museum has distributed over 15,000 African American children’s books. (Photo courtesy of the Northwest African American Museum)

During the benefit, NAAM will be awarding its inaugural Champions of Unity Award. According to DeBardelaben, the award was the idea of museum staff, who “see firsthand the impact of community involvement upon the work of NAAM.” 

Each year, the award will be given to recipients who have shown a commitment to work that advances Communities of Color. This year’s recipients, Norman and Constance Rice, have worked throughout their careers and philanthropic work to elevate the lives of the Black community.

While many know the former mayor as the first Black mayor of Seattle, his wife, Constance Rice, has also been the first: She was the first Black person appointed as a Seattle Art Museum Board Chair and the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Washington School of Education. She says that finding connections, especially with other Black community members, helped her navigate being the first.

Education has played an essential role in the work the Rices do in the community. Constance Rice has long advocated for the local community college system, where she worked for the Seattle Community College District. She says that early on, she realized it was the one system that provided the opportunity for the average individual to access higher education, including individuals who dropped out of school or are working parents. “If you look across America, you find People of Color in higher education predominantly coming through the doors of the community colleges and matriculating up to undergraduate work and then graduate work,” she said. 

For instance, she shared that her husband dropped out of college before moving to Seattle. However, he eventually went back to school at Highline Community College before transferring to the University of Washington to complete his degree. Rice says she hopes more people will continue through that pathway to higher education or professional technical degrees. 

DeBardelaben says it was a unanimous decision to award Constance and Norman Rice as the inaugural recipients of the Champions of Unity Award “for their lifelong civic leadership to our regional community.” Constance Rice said receiving the award is an honor because she considers “museums to be a home that allows you to reflect as a time capsule of others. It’s a place where you see yourself in the people in the place.” 

That reflection of the Pacific Northwest’s African American community at NAAM is central to the work it does to uplift, elevate, and champion the Black experience. The Unity Benefit helps it provide not only the space of the museum but also Black art, education, and culture accessible to all. To give or attend the Unity Benefit, visit the Northwest African American Museum website for tickets.

Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She is currently pursuing a B.A. in creative writing. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.

📸 Featured Image: The Northwest African American Museum’s (NAAM) annual Unity Benefit Ball will not only celebrate the museum’s mission and vision, but also honor former Seattle Mayor Norman Rice (left) and his wife, Dr. Constance Rice, as recipients of the first Champions of Unity award. (Photo courtesy of Northwest African American Museum)

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