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News / Clark County News

Vancouver teen walks, talks and dreams during waterfront tour

By Nika Bartoo-Smith, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 11, 2023, 5:42pm
4 Photos
Je'Kai Kazmende, left, recites a land acknowledgment next to his cousin, Jahad Hudson, as he begins the In My Shoes tour he created as an ambassador in the Word is Bond program.
Je'Kai Kazmende, left, recites a land acknowledgment next to his cousin, Jahad Hudson, as he begins the In My Shoes tour he created as an ambassador in the Word is Bond program. (Nika Bartoo-Smith/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

“I too have a dream and it’s a dream deeply rooted in the African American dream,” Je’Kai Kazmende said, addressing a crowd at Fort Vancouver Saturday morning. “I too hope to live in a world where I am not judged by the color of my skin but by the content of my character.”

On Saturday, a few dozen people gathered at Fort Vancouver, bundled up and wearing walking shoes — prepared to be taken on a tour of the Vancouver waterfront by a local 15-year-old. Some of the people gathered there were Je’Kai’s friends, family and even a teacher. Others were community members that had heard about the event and showed up out of curiosity.

Je’Kai, a sophomore at Union High School, is a community ambassador through the Portland-based nonprofit Word is Bond. As a community ambassador, he created a walking tour of the Vancouver waterfront as part of the “In My Shoes” program.

“You’ll never be able to step into my life but today I invite you to walk in my shoes,” Je’Kai said, introducing the start of his tour.

The tour detailed Je’Kai’s experience growing up in a predominantly white city as a young Black man. He talked to the crowd about his experiences with racism and showed them spaces that have significance in his life.

In one spot, Je’Kai told the story of a time when he and a friend were skateboarding around the waterfront. Others were out skateboarding and riding bikes in the same area. After a little while, Je’Kai said he remembered being approached by a police officer and told he and his friend were not allowed to skateboard there. No one else there skateboarding was approached, according to Je’Kai.

“The situation made me and my friend feel targeted because other people were also skateboarding and riding bikes,” Je’Kai said. “Feeling the pressure of being watched and traumatized in situations like these is disappointing.”

Along with touching on memories that highlight the racism Je’Kai has faced, he also spent much of the tour reflecting on positive memories of his, many including his older brother and mom. The tour group stopped in front of his favorite steakhouse, El Gaucho Vancouver, and Je’Kai talked about memories he had of family celebrations at the restaurant.

The In My Shoes walking tours are one of the ways community ambassadors through Word is Bond get to demonstrate their leadership abilities and practice public speaking. Lakayana Drury started Word is Bond in 2017, seeking to support young Black men as they transition from adolescence into adulthood.

“The inspiration was just my own experience growing up, like growing up without my dad, not seeing a lot of Black male mentors, struggling in the education system,” Drury told The Columbian. “And really wanting to create a program that could empower young Black men.”

Word is Bond currently has around 40 young adult participants. Two of those participants are from Vancouver — Je’Kai and his older brother.

This spring, Je’Kai and other community ambassadors will take what they learned and observed from the walking tours to Washington, D.C. There, they will get an opportunity to talk with senators and other elected officials to help create a public policy proposal to address a disparity within their community, according to Drury. The youth will then present the proposal to Portland City Council.

At the end of the walking tour, Je’Kai invited audience questions.

“At first I was a little nervous, but I felt pretty good,” Je’Kai said, in response to an audience question about how he felt the tour went. “I was just excited to see people and take you guys on a tour.”

To learn more

Community ambassadors from the program will be leading In My Shoes tours through the end of February. The other tours will all take place in Portland. For more information about the tours visit mywordisbond.org/inmyshoes.

To learn more about Word is Bond visit mywordisbond.org.

Columbian staff reporter