As she walked Monday night into Spokane City Hall, where she would soon be appointed to the City Council, Betsy Wilkerson stopped near the entrance.
Two black men were leaning against the wall outside, eating free soup handed out by volunteers who feed the homeless and disadvantaged there every week.
“I go, ‘No, I got to go find out.’ Because when you see black people you want to know, how’d you get to Spokane? For most folks of color, Spokane is not a destination that you aspire to,” said Wilkerson, who is now the first African American to serve on the City Council since 2003.
One man had made his way to Spokane through military service. The second said he came to Spokane due to Washington’s lax marijuana laws, which posed a threat in his former state of Texas. She asked the man how life in Spokane has been.
“He goes, ‘You know, the racism is just undercover. You can’t get hired. It’s just hard in Spokane for a black man,’ ” Wilkerson said. “My heart just kind of broke because there’s so many of them in Spokane.”
With a résumé boasting 20-plus years as a business owner and leadership roles in several nonprofits, Wilkerson, 64, was appointed to a vacant seat on the City Council last week as she called on a city that is 85% white to consider and value a different perspective.
“Spokane always talks about a city for everyone. It talks about inclusion,” Wilkerson said. “So let’s demonstrate it.”
But in so readily leaning into her role as a black woman in city leadership, Wilkerson and those around her say she has taken on an incredible weight as she pledges to do justice not only to her black constituents – she was sworn in at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Annual Commemorative Celebration at Holy Temple Church on Sunday – but the entire city.
“(There is) all this expectation that I will change things, and I hope I do,” Wilkerson said. “Of course, I don’t want to disappoint. Because they’ve all put so much work and so much faith in me. But jeez, that’s a heavy cross to bear.”
Spokane is no bastion of diversity, and while its black community is firmly a minority, it is not a monolith.
And Wilkerson refuses to be pigeonholed.
“I do not speak for all black people. We have had some similar experiences, and I will share those, but I’m going to piss them off, too,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson’s journey to the City Council began in the small city of West Point, Mississippi.
In search of a better life and looking to escape racial injustice, Wilkerson’s divorced mother and her four children boarded a train in 1963 to Spokane, where Wilkerson’s mother had a friend who, like her, was a hairdresser. The family brought chicken, a pound cake and some bread and bologna to provide them sustenance for the ride. Two years later, Wilkerson’s aunt joined the family in Spokane.
“They were just pioneering women. They had businesses when they left Mississippi, and they walked away from all of that. They came here and started over,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson doesn’t remember much about life in Mississippi or the train ride to Spokane.
“I never picked cotton. My older siblings picked cotton before we came here. That’s just the way it was,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson’s mother eventually remarried. Both her mom and stepfather were ministers, eventually founding Mt. Zion Holiness Church on East Fifth Avenue. Wilkerson moved around a bit as a child, including time on Pacific Avenue near Napa Street, then to Fourth Avenue and Altamont Street. In the ninth grade, the family moved to Arthur Street.
After graduating from Lewis and Clark High School in 1973, Wilkerson enrolled in Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas.
“This is 1973. I’m black. I’m trying to find myself. I literally picked that college, like, out of thin air because it was a historically black college,” Wilkerson explained.
She arrived by bus, but quickly felt unwelcome. She was described by her classmates as “a white girl.”
“I was a product of my environment. I didn’t have that blackness of music. I didn’t have that blackness of speech. I started to have that blackness of dance. You know, because we just didn’t hear that music here in Spokane,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson got married and left college before finishing her degree, moving with her then-husband to Detroit, where he worked in government in a civil service job. She was a stay-at-home mom, but when the marriage dissolved she returned to Spokane with two children in tow and moved into her parents’ house. Wilkerson never remarried.
As a mother, she began to volunteer, helping fundraise for the Girl Scouts. She branched out as her children grew older, joining the charity Junior League of Spokane, where she forged relationships she maintains to this day.
The organization required its members to pay dues, but Wilkerson and her friends were poor. One friend had so little money that she was going to the food bank to make ends meet. But being a part of it was important, even though they were challenged “just to fit in,” Wilkerson said.
In the 1970s, Wilkerson’s parents bought and opened the building now home to Moore’s Assisted Living, a residential care facility for adults with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities. They secured a small business loan and bought the building, which was previously a boarding home for unwed mothers operated by The Salvation Army, for less than $40,000. Wilkerson’s parents lived on the third floor, the second floor was for residents, and the ground floor had a kitchen and living area.
When Wilkerson moved back to Spokane, she did not immediately join the family business. Instead, she started a career in banking at Spokane Teachers Credit Union. Later, she became a program manager for the American Heart Association.
She was often on the road, covering all of Eastern Washington and tasked with public outreach and education for the heart association. One night, when a white-out snowstorm closed Interstate 90, Wilkerson was left stranded at the rest stop in Ritzville.
“So I’m thinking, ‘I have to do something different.’ And that’s when my mom says, ‘You should think about taking on the boarding home,’ ” Wilkerson said.
She was reluctant to give up an office for a life of cleaning toilets and cooking. But she took to the work right away, even at its most challenging moments. It taught her that she can “step in,” a lesson she hopes to apply to her work on the City Council.
“I’m not afraid to do what needs to be done. I mean, that’s what I think is different. I don’t think I’m too good to do it,” Wilkerson said.
That desire to fill a gap manifested itself again when Wilkerson helped form the Carl Maxey Center, a planned African American community center in East Central that bears the name of an iconic civil rights advocate in Spokane.
The Carl Maxey Center was conceived at a backyard barbeque at the home of Sandy Williams, who publishes The Black Lens, an independent newspaper that focuses on the African American community in Spokane.
Williams recalled the group – which included Wilkerson, the Rev. Walter Kendricks of Morning Star Baptist Church, Terrie Ashby-Scott and Curtis Hampton – decided “what’s missing is a place to gather, come together and create community.”
“She had a vision. Be wary of people who say they have visions,” Wilkerson joked about Williams.
When the owner received an offer on the Fifth Avenue property, the group was left with just eight weeks to raise capital and buy the building. They quickly formed a nonprofit, and Wilkerson stepped in as board president. Wilkerson spearheaded the first of two capital campaigns that ultimately raised $375,000 to buy the building and an adjacent lot.
“It’s all relationships. She’s very well-known in the community, very well-respected in the community,” Williams said of Wilkerson.
By helping to lead an organization bearing the name of a black hero in Spokane, and now taking on the job of city councilwoman, Wilkerson walks in the footsteps of leaders who came before her, like Clarence Freeman, an African American business owner and civic leader.
“They were my parents’ generation … We all know we benefited from everything that they did,” Wilkerson said. “We didn’t know it then, but we know it now – as we got older we know it – but he was just iconic, and you get with a group of more mature black people than me, and they can just wax about Carl’s spirit and life persona.”
Despite the work of the generation before hers, Wilkerson sees that there’s progress still to be made. She’s only the second black woman to serve on the Spokane City Council, next to Roberta Greene, who served until 2003.
“I don’t think a whole bunch changed since then,” Wilkerson said. “Look around. You see some good stuff, but as I said, when people look at me, the first thing they see is a black woman.”
To make the city more welcoming and inclusive, Wilkerson argued it’s incumbent upon city leaders to reach out to marginalized communities.
“Why should they have to come to us? Truly, it can be intimidating to just walk in City Hall. We walk in and people look at you funny,” Wilkerson said. “As leaders, we have to go out there and support and embrace and engage them.”
For example, Wilkerson advocated the city hold civil service exams in community centers to eliminate barriers to access, like transportation.
Part-time, seasonal jobs at Riverfront Park aren’t civil service restricted, Wilkerson noted. She sees those positions as a way to introduce children of color to government in a non-threatening way while also serving as a way for Spokane to demonstrate its diversity to the many visitors in Riverfront Park.
“Why are we not doing a deliberate recruitment of kids of color for those jobs? Because we know how it works. You work there, so you get your friends’ kids to work there,” Wilkerson said.
Although she hopes her humor has a positive impact on the sometimes “stuffy” culture at City Hall, Wilkerson acknowledged she has to have “different personas.” There’s the way she interacts with the community of color: “Hey, how y’all doing? What’s up? Bag of chips and dip and all that.”
Then, at City Hall, it’s different.
For example, Wilkerson respects unabashedly liberal Councilwoman Kate Burke, whom she described as outspoken and vocal.
“Let me tell you my reality,” Wilkerson said. “If that was me, they would immediately call me an angry black woman. That’s my reality. Even though I’m saying the exact same thing, it would be received differently.”
Wilkerson also has had to prepare her family for potential blowback to her political career. She said she advises her children to say, “Those are my mom’s politics,” and walk away if confronted.
“I said, ‘You know how this game is played,’ ” Wilkerson said. “So, we’ve had those conversations probably more than maybe another City Council person would have had to have. It’s like the ‘driving while black’ conversation. It’s just our reality going forward.”
The council did a good thing in appointing Wilkerson, and not only because she’s black, Williams said.
“The most important thing is she was the most qualified person, and she happened to be black,” Williams said.
As a community, Williams said she hopes “we come together to support her in all of the moves that she makes, not just when we’re happy about what she does.”
Wilkinson’s appointment last week landed heavily with her pastor, the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“I thought in my mind, what a powerful moment,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell has known Wilkinson for more than two decades and lauded her willingness to “create partnerships” and be a “a powerful broker for the underprivileged.”
That ability will be tested as Wilkerson is thrown into the debate over the city’s most contentious issues. In the coming weeks, the council will reignite discussions over a proposed set of tenant protections that was delayed in December.
Wilkerson said she’s spoken to people on both sides of the issue and believes there’s room for compromise. For example, a proposed $2,000 relocation fee on landlords who increase the rent on burdened tenants is controversial, but Wilkerson said she’s heard from landlords who are open to providing more notice before a rent increase.
“Don’t let perfection be the enemy of doing good,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson also noted the burden of application fees on those searching for an apartment. She suggested the city partner with a nonprofit or implement a program to standardize the application process and reduce the cost of applying for housing to tenants.
Wilkerson describes herself as a bleeding-heart social worker, but also as a fiscal conservative whose frugality is informed by her work as a business owner with a state contract and as the overseer of a nonprofit.
She’ll apply the same philosophies to her work at City Hall.
“That’s not my money,” Wilkerson said. “That’s money people have entrusted to us, just like taxpayers, to get the best outcomes with their money, and not just go hog wild and just spend it willy-nilly.”
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