‘Mercy, not hate:’ Award-winning Fairhaven professor organizes outreach after racist incident
Photo courtesy of Breyan Haizlip
After a long day of appointments, Breyan Haizlip sat in her office, the room radiating essential oils, the walls covered with banners of different chakras. The assistant professor at Fairhaven College describes herself as a seer-sage-scientist, combining her knowledge of neuroscience with her healing nature.
On Tuesday, Jan. 22, Haizlip’s family was kicked out of their daughter’s basketball game at Squalicum High School in an event the school has since described as “racially motivated.” Three days earlier, on Jan. 19, Breyan was awarded the 2019 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Award by the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force at the organization’s Unity Ball. The Unity Ball came after the 21st annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Saturday Conference, a day-long conference with workshops and community resource tables.
Amanda Grelock, head of diversity and inclusion at the Community Food Co-op and one of the organizers of the Unity Ball, said Haizlip was chosen as this year’s recipient because she wants to make Bellingham’s community better. Grelock said when she is faced with difficult conversations, Haizlip always leans in and listens.
After moving to Bellingham with her husband, Adam Haizlip, and three daughters just over a year ago, Breyan has brought her work to more than just Western students. She said she also works with the community through Momentum Counseling and Consulting, her private practice.
Breyan said her counseling work in Bellingham began when the Community Food Co-op asked her to host an event because they were having issues with discrimination and connecting with the community. Breyan said any work she does begins with assessment, which is why the first step she took was organizing and facilitating a town hall meeting in February 2018 where people could voice their concerns and help the Co-op become a more socially responsible business.
“I think it really helped to introduce the way I approach equity, diversity and inclusion,” Breyan said, “[Because] it’s different. It’s specifically about not retraumatizing one another through doing this work for our ancestors, but instead doing it for our great grandchildren.”
Breyan said after the town hall, she was approached by people who wanted to work with her privately. So, in August 2018, Breyan decided to open a small practice in downtown Fairhaven.
“I was kind of on this adventure of [asking] what happens if I just say yes to what life asks of me and instead of always asking my life for something,” Breyan said.
After receiving an overwhelming response to her practice, Breyan moved to a larger location on Lincoln Street in January 2019, where she also offers small classes ranging from open journal nights to diversity trainings.
Breyan said coming to teach at Western was a gift she gave to herself. She said teaching psychology in Fairhaven College allows her to teach without boundaries, something she has struggled with at other institutions.
“I am a healer, but I am also a teacher,” Breyan said. “[My work] is really anchored in the intention of being a catalyst for people’s awakening.”
Since starting in October 2017, Breyan has taught a variety of psychology courses at Fairhaven, including the psychology of race and racism, the psychology of love, lust and attraction, and analysis of individual identity. Breyan said no matter what topic she’s teaching, every course begins with practicing meditation and making sure her students understand how the brain works.
Naomi Edelstein, a fourth-year Fairhaven student studying somatic sexology, described Breyan as a goddess. Edelstein, who has been a student of Breyan’s for over a year, said her professor radiates love and honesty.
“There’s so much [to Breyan],” Edelstein said. “It means something that I’m taking a third class with her.”
Breyan and her husband, Adam Haizlip, are also part of the Whatcom Diversity Academy, a cooperative of training consultants who help organizations develop leadership through culturally responsive and multicultural training, according to their website.
Adam is also a professor at Fairhaven College, and is currently teaching a course called the African American Experience. Both Breyan and Adam participated in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Saturday Conference on Jan. 19, where they spoke and held workshops on equity, diversity and inclusion. That evening at the Unity Ball, Breyan received the Unity Award.
Three days later, on Tuesday, Jan. 22, Adam and his family were removed from his daughter’s Squalicum High School varsity basketball game after he asked the referee about a foul call made in the game.
Spectators watched uncomfortably, but did nothing, as the African-American father of three was escorted out of the gym, according to a brief written by the principal of the high school, Miguel Perez. In the communication to students and parents, Perez said the incident appeared to be racially motivated.
“The timing was hard,” Breyan said. “We had just partied with Bellingham and everyone was just so uplifted, and it was just a fall from a big high.”
On Saturday, Jan. 28, 121 people showed up to the same gym to support the Haizlip family and the varsity girls’ basketball team, carrying signs of solidarity and encouragement.
Breyan created a Facebook event calling for friends and strangers alike to come support her husband, their family and the girl’s basketball team. The event was named “Support our DAD’s (Demonstrate Appreciation for Diversity).”
“We cheered without anybody worrying we were going to get kicked out,” Breyan said tearfully of Saturday night’s game.
Breyan watched her husband and daughters pick up garbage left behind in the emptied out gym, long after the game had ended and the euphoria of the home team’s win had worn off. Adam, a former high school and collegiate athlete, never misses one of his daughter’s games, she said.
“Number one: I have all daughters,” Adam said. “So presence [is important], letting them know no matter what they’re going through — positive, negative, their challenging moments — dad is going to be there.”
Adam and Breyan spent all of Saturday’s game in the front row of the bleachers starting chants for their daughter’s team. Chants often began with foot stomping, crescendoing into words of positive affirmation like, “We are proud of you! I said, we are proud of you!”
Adam also encouraged the rival team, congratulating the girls on scoring plays.
“Tonight I felt community. I didn’t feel alone,” Adam said. “That day in the gym I felt alone. Just me and my babies. I have a duty to protect them, and I can’t protect them if I’m in handcuffs or if I’m in a fight … I had to speak policies and truth.”
Ryan Peters, a friend of the Haizlips, attended the game, holding high a handmade sign that read, “Work together!”
“I think it’s important for people to make relationships with people from different cultures and backgrounds,” Peters said. “That’s the way the world is moving and we should embrace our similarities.”
Another supporter, Crystal Bevis, described the Saturday game as peaceful and supportive. Bevis, who has lived in Bellingham for over 20 years, said she was sad to hear about the incident on Tuesday, but she wasn’t surprised.
“I’ve had experiences like that living here, even though I love it,” Bevis said.
Although the situation was traumatic for the Haizlips, both parents said they were grateful the incident happened to them because they have the resources, training and patience necessary to deal with the aftermath of a racially-charged situation.
“We wanted to send so much love,” Breyan said. “We did not want to let anybody demonize him. We wanted to reach out to him with love, say, ‘Come over for a meal, chill.’ It was scary for him too.”
Squalicum High School’s Communications Manager Dana Smith said as a former teacher in the school system, she was saddened to hear about the incident.
“It was really unfortunate what happened,” Smith said. “We want all of our families to feel safe and welcome here.”
Since the incident, the Haizlips have been working with the Bellingham School District to instill a curriculum called Cultural Responsivity Training for Educators (CRTE), they said. Breyan said the curriculum treats racism as a wound and the training as healing work.
“No one changes from shame,” she said. “[In the training] we are calling people in instead of calling people out. Our schools need that. Our teachers need that.”
Edelstein, who has been a student of Breyan’s for over a year, said her heart dropped when she heard about the incident. Breyan read her Facebook post to the class after the incident, Edelstein said.
“Dr. Bre was reading it to us in class and crying,” Edelstein said. “She was really vulnerable in sharing where her life is at right now. She also told us she was telling her kids ‘That isn’t what white people do, those were the actions of one white man.’ She didn’t want her kids growing up being fearful or hateful of white people.”
To Breyan, the incident was a beautiful opportunity to grow, she said.
“Mercy, not hate,” Breyan said. “I tell my daughters, ‘Mercy is that which you give to those who don’t deserve it in the hopes of it coming back to you.’”
Sitting on the lime green couch in her office days after her family’s demonstration, Breyan reflected on what real change would look like. She said if school districts or government officials want to address their equity, diversity and inclusion problems, they have to include the people who are most impacted.
Breyan said she wants her family to have a seat at the table when these discussions are happening, and because she happens to be an psychology nerd, she is uniquely equipped to help Bellingham schools address these issues.
“I know how powerful the work we already do [is],” Breyan said. “I see how much it changes people and the organizational culture [and] I want my daughters to have teachers and administrators who have had that opportunity to do this kind of introspective work.”
For more information on Breyan’s private practice or Whatcom Diversity academy, visit drbre.com and whatcomdiversityacademy.com