Alaska’s first female African American judge: ‘Justice is not just done. Justice is seen. And justice is experienced.’

Judge Pamela Washington speaks with students during the Color of Justice program. (Hillman/KSKA)

Anchorage District Court Judge Pamela Scott Washington is like a lot of dedicated public servants: a member of the community trying to help others resolve conflicts, in her case, through the justice system. But, as Washington put it, “Justice is not just done. Justice is seen. And justice is experienced.”

Washington knows that well as the first female African American judge in Alaska. She’s a Chugiak High School graduate, and her 2010 appointment to the bench is a historic milestone that — as of this Black History Month — is still less than a decade old.

As Washington told Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove, the significance of who she is and the position she holds is not lost on her.

Washington: When I heard somebody say, “Oh, she’s the first African-American woman (judge in Alaska) . I’m like, “Hey, I’m so young, can I be the first of anything?” But I do applaud that progress that we’ve made and I think the experience I had was, I could tell so many people were very proud. It didn’t matter if they were locked up or in jail. I mean I could just see the way they responded to me, particularly African-American people and other people of color. They would, they would even say, “Congratulations!” in the middle of, you know, didn’t matter if I was giving them a hard sentence or challenging them about some of their behaviors. I still felt that there was some respect that someone that looked like them was actually in the courtroom, and that’s, you know, we take it for granted but there’s something about that. Justice is experienced, and so I feel like we sort of up the game of justice when the court system looks like the people we serve.

Grove: You’re very much home grown here in Anchorage. I think you had said at one point you were the only African American in your senior class. What was it like growing up in the Anchorage area? Or I guess Eagle River right?

Washington: Well when we first moved to Anchorage, I went to Clark Middle School and that was the 8th grade so when I started 9th grade, we had moved out to Eagle River. Now, mind you, coming to Alaska, I hadn’t even recognized that I was a minority. But as soon as I got to Alaska, I began to recognize that I was different than just about everyone that I saw around me.

Grove: Remind me, where did you move up from?

Washington: We move directly up from Jackson, Mississippi, but I’m from New Orleans. My stepfather moved us to Alaska, and so we were brand new. I had never been on a plane before. I had never seen snow before. Alaska was quite different. Right away, I started to fit in. I think it’s not unusual for people to try to just fit in, and so I sort of did that. And one of the things I did was just do what everybody else did, and I got involved in activities and organizations and tried to minimize the differences in that regard.

Grove: I think you had said in a speech that , rather than describing America or even Anchorage as a “melting pot,” that you prefer to use the term “salad bowl”. Like it’s mixed up like a salad bowl. What do you mean by that?

Washington: Well, like I said, when I first got here the thing was trying to blend in. I think we are taught that America is a melting pot.. And so people come from all over the place and they try to blend in, and if you throw everything in a pot, we all look the same. I basically say that true diversity is more like a salad bowl, where you can have all sorts of ingredients, amazing ingredients — tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, nuts, fruit, lettuce, tomato — and you can toss it up in this bowl, and together these flavors are pretty amazing. But you can still see each ingredient, so you don’t have to lose who you are and what you bring to the table just to really be a part of the the big whole.

Grove: I know this is maybe a pretty broad question, but where do you think we’re at in 2019 with issues of race and equality, or inequality, in the country and in Alaska specifically?

Washington: Well, it’s very different right now. I think more and more people are aware. I think what’s happening in the culture now is that, you just sort of lived your life, and I’m me, you’re you and everybody sort of doing their thing. And if the nothing is affecting you and your family you don’t think much about it. But I think now what has happened in the last 10 years is that, you know, America, we see that our slip is showing. We’re not all as united as we had hoped to be. But I think the good thing about it is, is what’s happening has made us aware and take note and be deliberate about how we move forward and how we engage with our brothers and sisters and people in the community, like us and not like us. But I think it’s a good time for America, because I think in the overall scheme of things we are absolutely more aware, and I think more people are engaged in the process than ever before.