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Karen Francis McWhite

Karen Francis-McWhite: Capable Outdoorswoman – 2/29/24

Written by Chris Rader

Those who have seen Brave Space Media’s documentary “Expedition Reclamation,” shot in November 2020, will recognize Karen Francis-McWhite as one of the women of color profiled in the film. According to the Brave Space website, the film seeks “to redefine ‘outdoorsy’ and reclaim belonging in the outdoors for Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color by highlighting their joyful, resilient, and transformative relationships to outdoor recreation.” Many of the scenes were shot around Leavenworth and Lake Wenatchee and feature other local women as well, including Chelsea Murphy, Erin Joy Nash, Mary Big Bull Lewis and Elisa Lopez.

Francis-McWhite loves being out in Nature, and – along with her daughter, Zora – especially enjoys cross-country skiing. (Zora runs on the cross-country team at Icicle River Middle School.) The two moved to the Wenatchee Valley several years ago.

“I fell in love with the area because of its topography: the forests, the mountains, the colors,” Karen said. “I grew up in the Bay Area back when there were still orchards around, and so this felt like coming home.”

Francis-McWhite had moved from California to Tacoma and then to Ellensburg. She was dating a man from Chelan and they would meet halfway, in Leavenworth. Then she moved away to study law, and lived in New York and Colorado for a time. She passed the bar exam for several states but missed the Washington bar by two points and figured she was meant to work in some other field. When the North Central Washington Economic Development District advertised for a director, she applied – and was hired. She and Zora rented a condo in East Wenatchee, a studio in Leavenworth, and then bought a rehabbed manufactured home (on a rental lot) by the Wenatchee River in Cashmere.

The NCWEDD had been in transition and required a lot of work to recover. It was a difficult time, but she got the organization on solid financial and operational footing. Then in 2019 Francis-McWhite was hired by the state Department of Commerce as Central Washington community engagement and outreach specialist.

At Commerce, her first role focused on listening to and learning from communities. “It’s all about building relationships, which is hard in rural communities,” she said. “It’s hard to meet people and build trust” – especially when faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, which prevented in-person gatherings.

But she has done well in making connections. She is now part of a statewide team working on a law called Healthy Environments for All, requiring several state agencies to reform their practices to reduce environmental harm and increase social justice. Closer to home, she serves on the NCW Equity Alliance board and facilitates equity and inclusion learning opportunities.

Amongst all this, she is building a home on the outskirts of Leavenworth. She says finding affordable housing was a nightmare – and it wasn’t until “ragescrolling through Craig’s List” that she found a nice lot at the edge of the forest. With the help of friends, she works on the house as much as she can on weekday evenings and weekends. When it is finished, she intends to start a flower and herb farmette.

Francis-McWhite says being a Black woman in the Wenatchee Valley has its challenges, but she hasn’t really encountered violent racism.

“It’s hard to be anonymous!” she laughed. “Well-meaning people ask me, ‘Why did you come here?’ as if I’m different. I came for the same reason as everyone, because the area is so beautiful!”

She says discrimination manifests itself here through micro-aggressions. “I got the startled and occasionally menacing looks when I showed up in some places representing the EDD because I wasn’t what they expected,” she said.

During the Black Lives Matter protest in Wenatchee last year, which drew a large number of supporters along with a small group of detractors (many with Trump signs), the detractors tried to get close to her and expressed “snarky rudeness.” She has also drawn disapproving looks from a few people when seen in public with a white man.

But Francis-McWhite has developed empathy for those who treat people of color in negative ways. “It’s all about reconciliation and working to make things better,” she said. “Many people of color have been deeply hurt by systems and individual choices – but should we take the attitude that there’s no path to forgiveness for harm? Institutions can change! People can change!”

This mostly-white community could learn a lot from people like Karen Francis-McWhite.

This story was originally published in Confluence Magazine in the Summer edition of 2022. In an effort to preserve these stories, the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center will be posting these stories on the museum’s official blog.

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