Many well-meaning people have come into neighborhoods in northeast Spokane with big ideas about how to fix the problems they see in those communities over the years, then left without leaving a lasting impact, community leaders, such as Logan Elementary Principal Brent Perdue and Northeast Community Center Executive Director Dave Richardson, say.
But Gonzaga University’s newly announced Opportunity Northeast initiative is different to them.
Rather than force its own agenda upon northeast Spokane,the school said it embarked on a listening tour about two years ago to learn from the people who live and work in those communities about their perceptions and the issues they face to inform existing programs and create new ones.
The initiative has its roots in the 25-year-old Campus Kids program that started at Logan Elementary with about 20 elementary students and 20 college mentors. Now about 400 Gonzaga students work with around 600 Spokane Public Schools students at different grade levels, mostly in northeast Spokane.
Gonzaga first conducted an assessment of community assets and priorities in northeast Spokane about five years ago, then updated the research in spring 2019 by interviewing more than 100 residents and community leaders.
Among the priorities that remained five years later were food insecurity, access to health care and education, building more connected neighborhoods, and housing quality and affordability.
Molly Ayers, director of Gonzaga’s Center for Community Engagement since 2015, said she was most surprised about a finding that the second biggest community challenge is the negative perception of northeast Spokane.
“It’s the way people speak about northeast Spokane, and the way the news media covers northeast Spokane,” Ayers said, that is detrimental to how the communities view themselves. “What’s the narrative that we hold about our community and how do we reshape that?”
But the biggest community challenge identified was poverty.
The median household income is $33,171 and 39% percent of children under 18 are living in households at or below the poverty line, according to data gathered for Northeast Spokane’s Zone Project. Between 77% and 94% of students enrolled in northeast Spokane schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And life expectancy in northeast Spokane can be more than a decade shorter than in areas like the South Hill.
Gonzaga and an advisory board identified three focus areas for Opportunity Northeast: improve educational opportunities and outcomes for both youth and adults; increase safety, as well as access to health care, food and quality housing; and engage the entire Gonzaga community in this process to provide learning and leadership development opportunities.
The programs from the initiative will be pursued through community partnerships with schools, nonprofits and other groups.
“This feels representative of an evolution that has been in the making,” said Gonzaga president Thayne McCulloh, who hopes to see more sectors of the university become involved in volunteer efforts through Opportunity Northeast. “Spokane is our hometown, and we derive a tremendous amount of support and generosity of spirit and participation from people right here. We need to pay attention to ways we can give back and support people in our own community.”
Gonzaga’s partnership with Logan Elementary has blossomed over the last few years, Perdue said. New programs include the weekly Logan Family Meal, which feeds neighborhood residents facing food insecurity, the Walking School Bus, where volunteers walk students to school, and the after-school ZagDance program taught by Gonzaga dance students.
The biggest impact of youth programs, Perdue said, can be little things like a Gonzaga student showing up at recess and playing with dozens of kids or knocking on doors to make sure students make it to school with the Walking School Bus. And volunteering gives Gonzaga students, many of them from more privileged backgrounds than northeast Spokane students, the opportunity to learn from others’ lived experiences.
Sometime in his first few years leading the university, McCulloh remembered receiving a note from a former Logan Elementary student who had been inspired by a Gonzaga mentor to go to college and study chemistry.
“And that’s exactly the type of outcome some of these programs are intended to produce,” McCulloh said. “It’s planting a seed that these kids are capable of doing any number of things with the proper support along the way.”
Gonzaga student Jacqeline Baca said northeast Spokane students “have taught me a lot about how to care for others,” in a video from the university. “Even with all the struggles and challenges these students might be facing, they still carry that kindness with everybody that they interact with.”
Some of the programs also provide opportunities for Gonzaga students studying education and English language learning, and business students have helped develop a marketing plan to support the Hillyard Farmers Market.
“That’s where I think it can go both ways,” Perdue said. “I think the idea is you’re coming alongside one another and lifting each other up.”
The new programs Gonzaga plans to create could take some time to develop, but the announcement of the Opportunity Northeast initiative represents a long-term commitment to increasing quality of life in the neighborhood, leaders say.
Ayers said Gonzaga has been in a pilot phase for the past year, which included professional development workshops for faculty to envision potential partnerships and community-engaged learning opportunities for students. Faculty have also done northeast Spokane immersions to help them learn about neighborhoods.
“There will be new programs and projects that emerge, but in a lot of ways it’s making sure what we’re currently doing is aligned and supporting the community,” Ayers said.
The school is launching a summer fellowship this spring for six Gonzaga students to be paid to work with groups like Second Harvest, Bite 2 Go and high school summer programs. Additional partnerships could be created with the schools of business administration, law and education.
Perdue said he wants to expand the routes for the Walking School Bus and create a school-based health clinic with the University of Washington-Gonzaga University Regional Health Partnership and Gonzaga nursing program.
McCulloh said Gonzaga has received funding from benefactors to eventually hire new staff members to support the initiative. He said he hopes Gonzaga can support the Gonzaga Family Haven affordable housing project for homeless families with social services through the Opporunity Northeast initiative.
“After about two years of planning, a lot of work, a lot people, I think we’ve got a lot of energy to start moving ahead on the work,” Ayers said.
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