What does freedom mean to you?

Clark County community members describe how an American ideal has been challenged, changed, confirmed

In this most unusual of years, Independence Day is different, too.

Wrapped in red, white and blue bunting, the holiday commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But 2020 has tested the concepts of freedom and responsibility like no other recent year. These themes play through the stories of both the coronavirus pandemic and the struggle against systemic racism.

We reached out to a group of community members and asked them what freedom means to them, and how their perceptions have been challenged, changed or confirmed. 

What does freedom mean to you at this unique moment in history? 

— Craig Brown, Columbian editor


Dru Holley of Ridgefield is co-director and producer of the documentary film “Buffalo Soldiers of the Pacific Northwest.”

Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian files

Dru Holley

Co-director and producer of the documentary film
“Buffalo Soldiers of the Pacific Northwest”

Freedom for me is being able to go for a jog in the morning, or take my daughters for a walk, or drive to the store without worrying about being targeted by some cop or racist who doesn’t know me or can’t identify with me because we’re different.

Freedom is all about having the right to be different.

As a Black man living in a rural part of Clark County, I drive past a confederate flag every day and I’m reminded of that lack of appreciation of my freedom.

Is freedom the fear of living in the shadow of someone’s hate? Is freedom feeling persecuted by those who cling to a past that held people who look like me as slaves? Is freedom the feeling that police target my skin color? Is freedom a president who says white supremacists are good people too? America was founded on a lie that all men are created equal.

More than any other race it has been Black people who have struggled to turn that lie into truth, although our country is pretty far from it right now. People who don’t have freedom fight the hardest for it.

Still, I have hope that if we got to know our neighbors who are different from ourselves we would see them as a human beings first.

While my culture and dress may be different than yours, I’m a father, a husband and a person.

But you should know that my Independence Day is Juneteenth.


Jamie Spinelli is a case worker with Community Services Northwest.

Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian files

Jamie Spinelli

Homeless advocate and peer housing support at CVAB (Community Voices Are Born)

As a child, I learned that America was the freest place on Earth. Anyone could be whatever they wanted, and opportunities were limitless if I put in the effort. I learned that our freedoms of speech, religion and so forth applied to everyone.

As a young adult, I was moved to tears reading Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” while visiting the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me …”.

I was proud of America. I felt fortunate to live in a place that valued and embodied traits like compassion, empathy and acceptance, and took care of its people while welcoming more in.

To be young again, right? Today, I don’t see us taking care of our tired, poor and homeless. In fact, I watch unsheltered human beings be herded, like cattle, from one block to the next at the request of those with money, property, power or influence. Freedom seems to be enjoyed only by those able to pay for it. If someone must ask permission to do things needed to survive — eat, sleep, use the restroom — they are not free. Focusing on our own individual freedoms, autonomy and quality of life has made us angry, entitled, fearful, greedy, depressed and addicted. We’ve caused our own suffering by not caring more for each other. We won’t experience true freedom until the freedom of others doesn’t threaten our own.


Larry J. Smith is a a former Vancouver City Council member.

The Columbian files

Larry J. Smith

Retired U.S. Army colonel, former Vancouver city councilor
and Clark County First Citizen 2017

As a young boy I learned the meaning of our Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence from my father, a career naval officer, and through participation in Cub Scouts.

Freedom for me, like many others in our country, is all about democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality. More so, it is about the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as upward mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work and commitment. My father, a product of the Great Depression and World War II, stressed the importance that nothing is given to you; you have to work hard for success. As such, our country is among the freest nations on earth; our citizens enjoy tremendous liberty thanks to the way our government was set up by the founders. A democracy is a government in which the people are able to choose our leaders. I followed my father with a career in the U. S. Army.

The Declaration of Independence states that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” African Americans and women were not considered equal then. Our Constitution and amendments address equality and fairness but there is much to be done — especially in our legal system — to bring all America, especially African Americans, to a level playing field. I am hopeful.


Susan Rasmussen testifies in front of county elected officials in 2016.

The Columbian files

Susan Rasmussen

La Center resident and president of Clark County Citizens United

Because I grew up in a military family, I know the sacrifices countless men, women and their families make. Thank you to all who serve and have served to defend our freedoms in this complex nation we call home. God bless and protect all our active military and veterans!

Ideal freedom is having the ability to choose and to be responsible for the way one feels, acts, reacts and lives one’s life. As Americans, we confirm our freedoms when we salute the flag, sing our anthem, cast a vote and join others in celebrating America’s birth, July 4, 1776. The Declaration of Independence defines us as free Americans with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, with those rights secured by a government that derives its powers from the consent of the governed.

The Constitution embraces our spirit of ideal freedom. The First Amendment grants us the ability to express what we believe, on equal footing. Clark County Citizens United routinely exercises that right with every testimony submitted to the public record. County councilors recently had a packed hearing room full of peaceful equestrians voicing their concerns about infringements to their ideal freedoms.

Americans have shown we are willing to go to great lengths to defend our freedoms and express our beliefs. Our America is a work in progress and is always evolving toward a more ideal and perfect union.


Evans Kaame, a political science major, is the 2020 Clark College senior class president.

Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian

Evans Kaame

2020 Clark College graduate

The American ideal of freedom has to be dependent upon the opportunities that have been put in place to level the playing field so that each individual can rise to their full potential.

Since I came to the United States from Kenya in August 2018, I have grown intellectually and socially by making good use of the opportunities that I have had. Speaking of intellectual growth, the education system in the United States is world-class. I was amazed by Washington’s Running Start program that lets high school students take college courses toward an associate degree. That kind of opportunity does not exist in Kenya where I completed my high school education.

Although I’m transferring to Washington State University, Clark College is home to me; I have built lasting friendships I will always cherish. While studying at Clark College, I had the honor of serving the students as the president of the student government. In this capacity, I had the privilege of meeting with honorable people who serve in politics and economic development.

Based on my experience, I would say that this is what the American ideal of freedom is like: You are given the opportunity to become who you want to be. And it does not stop there, life is like an onion, you peel each piece — fresh and useful. Make good use of each piece and keep growing.


Annette Nettles is the pastor of Love at the Cross Ministries in Washougal.

Provided photo

Annette Nettles

Senior pastor, Love at the Cross Ministries in Washougal

believe the ideal American freedom is when humanity is not judged by the color of our skin, but by our character.

American freedom is when people have the right to make choices, free of bias. When people have equal access to housing, food, education, employment, and health care — rights granted based on a person’s merit as a human and without judgment.

Does America achieve this now? No. However, I believe our country has started the journey to strive toward it.

The Black Lives Matter movement that was re-energized by the tragic death of George Floyd is sweeping our country and world. “Black lives matter” is really a message to humanity that equality improves all lives. An injustice for one is an injustice for all. Unity can fuel change. Love conquers hate. And respect for everyone resolves these issues.

I am so proud of my brothers and sisters who are peacefully demonstrating the message that all lives matter. Equality, justice, unity, love, and respect for all must be present today — and must exist for all future generations.

When we reach this level of equality, justice, unity, love, and respect, we will have achieved freedom.


Roy Schimelpfenig is a Woodland resident.

Provided photo

Roy Schimelpfenig

Woodland resident and frequent Columbian letter writer

Our Founding Fathers chose an unsurpassed “framework of government” that is all about freedom. 

Our free will is everything. I’m not yet forced into an internment camp for practicing Christianity. I enjoy my First and Second Amendments along with “We the people” government.

Lately, however, anarchists are allowed to rule. Politicians, both left and right, just stand and watch these radicals destroy history, pillage and burn businesses.

We all have sin. But, to make this all work for the human race, we must possess forgiveness as well, and a little love.

I will always stand for my nation’s flag and forever kneel to God.

My thanks to all our military and law enforcement for standing in harm’s way that we can celebrate our independence from tyranny. I pray it is not our last.


Diana Avalos-Leos was named Clark County's First Citizen of 2020-21.

Provided photo

Diana Avalos-Leos

Clark County First Citizen 2020-21

The American ideal of freedom is being able to speak freely without persecution, being able to express yourself, live and love freely and without fear. But as a woman with brown skin, I’m told I have to support certain movements. I’m told I have to vote a certain way. But as an American, I know that I have the freedom to say what I want, believe what I choose, and vote for whomever and whatever I think is best.

Today we’re not doing a good job of fighting for or handing down the American ideal. In some ways it seems like freedom is losing these days. It may seem like freedom is being threatened in America, but in reality, freedom is on the move. The uprise of movements to call for a fundamental change in judicial, political and economic systems, the right to health care, safe affordable housing, clean air and water, self-expression and dignity demonstrate the American ideal of freedom.


Igor Shakhman is the executive director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

The Columbian files

Igor Shakhman

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra executive director

As I reflect on the idea of freedom, I am overwhelmed by gratitude for the opportunities that were bestowed upon me in my life. I was born in Ukraine, and have been fortunate enough to experience various cultures and customs while spending time in different parts of the world.

In these unprecedented, challenging times of great uncertainty, fear and anxiousness I can’t help but think that the beautiful concepts that make up the American ideal of freedom — liberty, equality, opportunity and human rights — are now more relevant than ever before on a global scale. Wouldn’t it be amazing if humans all over the globe could put aside their differences and work together to make the world a better place for everybody, regardless of geographical location, political affiliations or socioeconomic circumstances?

I had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the fall of the Iron Curtain, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. It was an incredible experience to see how people from all over the world came together to communicate and cooperate in spite of speaking different languages and having different backgrounds. As borders opened, a tremendously powerful force of creativity and collaboration was unleashed that allowed people to join forces in scientific, cultural and artistic endeavors.

It is my hope that in the aftermath of current tragic and challenging events we can all join our efforts and collectively find a path to a better and brighter future.


Erica Erland is a downtown Vancouver resident.

Provided photo

Erica Erland

Living legally married to her wife in downtown Vancouver

To me, in the midst of this disorienting moment in our nation’s history, freedom is to feel the relief and peace of not having to ask for freedoms others freely enjoy.

In 2012, my now wife and I knocked on doors and begged strangers to fill in a bubble on a mail-in ballot that would let us be legally married. It worked, and in 2013 we became a legal family in our state. Two years later, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and in an instant we were legally married across the country. All because Edie Windsor took her case to the nation’s highest court to ask for equal treatment under federal law — to request freedom.

Today, though, so many more people in my world are sincerely and earnestly asking the question: What do others in America have to ASK for, that I have always received? Is it safety — to breathe? Opportunity — to study or to work? Or grace — to be afforded the benefit of the doubt? What am I taking for granted that others are still begging for?

And I’m hopeful, because it’s going to take all of us who are free to thrive in America to recognize what that freedom feels like. To listen when Black and Brown and LGBTQ Americans are begging to live with dignity. For access to health care. For safe working conditions.

And then to fight, together, for those fundamental freedoms to be felt by all. Without asking.

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