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Grays Harbor Institute brings radical perspectives within reach of their community— and Olympia too

Gary Murrell

Radicalism isn’t a concept that many readers of Works in Progress call to mind when thinking (if they ever do think) about Grays Harbor. Ocean, yes; oysters and crab, yes; salmon, undoubtedly. Radicalism? Not so much. Radicals in Grays Harbor often looked on in envy at Olympia’s activism, when possible making the journey to add our voices to those of our neighbors to the east.

A reliable group of activists

Our few opportunities to participate in events locally tended to be confined to the usual suspects. When discussions in the community led to actions to oppose war, as they did in the early years of the century; or to confront white racism, a relentless, perennial problem here; or to challenge environmental assaults, we knew who would attend. For the most part, when the ACLU still had chapters around the state, our core group of twenty-five or thirty members formed the radical nucleus here.

Spurred by a refusal

All that began to change around 15 years ago. One of the most important members of that core group, Fred Rakavich, had formed a friendship (prior to that word being Facebookified) with the radical journalist Alexander Cockburn. In 2005 Fred asked Cockburn to come to Grays Harbor to speak. Alex agreed, contingent on a reasonable honorarium to meet his expenses. We asked the state ACLU, which had generously supported our First Amendment issues/actions in the past, to sponsor Cockburn’s talk but they (properly) turned us down.

Spurred by this refusal, we decided that not only would we find a way to bring Cockburn to Grays Harbor but that his appearance would be the catalyst for an organization that would bring us speakers to present perspectives that would never otherwise be heard here.

Creating a vehicle to deliver the goods

The Grays Harbor Institute [] was incorporated that same year as a federally tax exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The Institute took the form of a speakers bureau that would provide speakers, lectures, seminars, round-tables and other presentations for the educational benefit of the general public. Presentations would investigate, analyze, synthesize and promote democratic ideals consistent with ending poverty and racism; and advancing human, civil, environmental, educational and health rights. Thirteen years later, our roster of speakers might even invite a little envy from our Olympia neighbors.

Speakers of national stature

The Institute got off to a strong start in 2006 and never looked back. Stephanie Coontz, the country’s most prominent expert on the family and an Evergreen State College professor was the Institute’s inaugural speaker. Alex Cockburn followed her a month later, making his first presentation on 14 October 2005. He spoke twice that day, at noon on the campus of Grays Harbor College to a packed room of students and staff and later that evening at the Polish Club to more than a hundred and fifty people. He returned a year later for an encore presentation. His analysis was music that resonated with this community. No doubt we would have invited him again had he not succumbed to cancer.

Kucinich to Davis to Farrell

In 2007 we had the opportunity to advance four extraordinary speakers. That March Dennis and Elizabeth Kucinich packed the Grays Harbor College Bishop Center as Dennis sought the Democratic Party nomination for President. Then in April, to an even bigger audience, Angela Davis spoke in the same venue. Earlier in the day she made a lively presentation to a mostly Black audience of more than one-hundred at our local outpost of the American Gulag, Stafford Creek prison. Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington spoke on climate change in May. Then in October the television actor (MASH) Mike Farrell spoke passionately in opposition to the death penalty.

Pastors, singers, politicians and more

For most of the last thirteen years the Institute has been able to meet its goal to bring two speakers to town every year. A few highlights: Father Roy Bourgeois berated the School of the Americas. Former Washington Governor Booth Gardner spoke movingly about assisted suicide (death with dignity) in 2008. The historian Rick Shenkman and climate scientist Orrin Pilkey spoke in 2009 and the radical folk singer Anne Feeney helped the Institute at fundraisers in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017. Melissa Harris-Perry spoke in 2011 and radical political scientist Michael Parenti in 2012. Thomas Frank gave us a preview of his new book, Listen Liberal in late 2015 and earlier this year journalist and Noam Chomsky amanuensis, David Barsamian rocked a crowded room.

From local halls to the airwaves

Even though several hundred citizens had attended presentations during our first five years of operation, by 2010 we were searching for possibilities to further broaden our impact in the community. The solution landed in our lap when a friend of the Institute, Dr. Sandi (her academic title) fulfilled a dream when she oversaw our application to the Federal Communications Commission to begin operation of a full-power, non-profit FM radio station.

We raised money in the community, secured a site for our studio, and bought, assembled and raised a 110 foot broadcast tower near Westport. In May 2011, on what still seems a magical day, KGHI 91.1FM ( exploded onto the public airwaves as a community service of the Grays Harbor Institute and an affiliate of the Pacifica Network. One second there was no radio signal on 91.1 FM and the next second our station trumpeted classical music and radical/progressive news, talk, and commentary loud and clear across all of Grays Harbor County.

Visit Grays Harbor for a new perspective

So now, when you’re thinking about Grays Harbor, it may bring to mind the likes of Alexander Cockburn, Angela Davis, Stephanie Coontz. But you’re invited to benefit from the work of the Institute—our next speaker, Stephen Bezruchka, Professor of global health at the University of Washington will be here in September. In the meantime, when you’re driving through Grays Harbor—tune into true community public radio KGHI, 91.1 FM or near Elma, KGHE, 89.1 FM, your radical alternative in Grays Harbor.


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