A program at Eastern Washington University combines activism and academia to teach students the basics of community organizing.
This year’s EWU “activist in residence” is Lili Navarrete, an alumna of the university who immigrated to Spokane from Mexico City in 1988. She is the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, and she manages Raíz, the organization’s outreach program for Latino communities.
Every Wednesday through March 4, Navarrete is hosting afternoon workshops to teach students about immigrant rights as well as general skills for creating social and political change.
“Immigration nowadays is all over the news. And there’s a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of demonization of immigrants and asylum-seekers,” said Navarrete, a naturalized U.S. citizen. “This is a good opportunity to educate, to form allies and to get that perspective of immigrants and (dispel) the wrong ideas that are out on TV and in the news.”
The workshop series began on Jan. 29 with a showing of the 2010 documentary “La Bestia,” which follows Central American migrants as they make a harrowing attempt to cross Mexico by train.
Last week, several dozen students attended a panel discussion featuring Navarrete, Raíz organizer Fernanda Mazcot and Spanish language interpreter Olga Lucia Herrera. They spoke about ways to get involved in local protests and demonstrations, lobby for legislation and find common ground with those who have conflicting views.
Titles of upcoming discussions include “Coalition Building to Make Lasting Change” and “Lobbying to Shape Public Policy.” Each event starts at 3:30 p.m. Wednesdays in room 207 of Monroe Hall.
Navarrete also works with immigrant rights groups, helps lead Spokane’s Hispanic Business/Professional Association and was recently appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
She is the sixth person to serve as EWU’s activist in residence. The workshop series is hosted by several university departments but spearheaded by the Women’s and Gender Studies Program.
Previous activists in residence have included Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, and Sandy Williams, publisher of the Black Lens, a monthly newspaper focused on Spokane’s Black community.
“The selection of our annual activist in residence is really student-driven, based on what they want to learn the most about,” said Lisa Logan, director of EWU’s Women’s and Gender Education Center. “Over the years we’ve focused on smart justice, environmentalism, anti-racism and public health.”
But the program is fundamentally about leadership development and “the general skills of activism,” and organizers strive to keep the message nonpartisan, Logan said.
“It also opens the doors for students to get involved in community organizations across the region through internships, and it makes them better prepared for their work in the future,” Logan said. “It makes them more well-rounded candidates for jobs after graduation.”
One student who has benefited from the program is Jennifer Contreras, a junior majoring in women’s and gender studies. The 22-year-old said she landed an internship with the Spokane Regional Health District after meeting last year’s activist in residence, Rowena Pineda, a health district program manager.
Contreras immigrated to Washington from Mexico with her mother when she was 2 years old and is in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. She said she appreciates the activist in residence program because it offers a space for students of color to be heard.
“It’s really important also because Eastern likes to use the words ‘No. 1 in diversity’ in a lot of things. I mean, it’s all over campus, like it’s on all our banners,” Contreras said. “But if the university wants to retain people of color on campus, they need more events like the activist in residence to create more resources that actually benefit people of color. And I think this is a good start.”
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