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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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2020 Census finds Spokane is growing – and growing more diverse

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 23, 2021

Maybe you’ve noticed the monthly market called El Mercadito that distributes free ingredients used in Latino and Hispanic cuisine? Or perhaps you’ve recognized different cultures at community events? Taken note of Annmarie Caño serving as Gonzaga’s dean of the College of Arts and Sciences?

The 2020 census finds Spokane is more diverse than ever, with an uptick in Hispanic and Latino populations as the driving force.

Spokane County’s diversifying racial makeup still lags behind the national data. The Hispanic or Latino racial groups consists of 18.7% of the U.S. population and only 13.7% of Washington’s state population. In Spokane County, Latinos and Hispanics make up only 6.6% of the population, but the trend line is moving upward: From 2010 to 2020, 14,090 people of Latino ancestry moved to Spokane County, for an increase of 66%, the largest increase of any single racial category.

Michael DeLand, sociology professor at Gonzaga University, views Spokane’s diverse census results as a city playing catch -up. The children of people who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s and ’90s are starting to call Spokane home.

“My sense is that there’s a generation and second generation of laborers coming of age, going to college and finally graduating college,” DeLand said of the increase of Hispanic populations despite low immigration numbers. “Now they’re looking for jobs and a slightly bigger city or striking distances from their parents.”

After studying growth in big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, DeLand also sees the diverse communities bringing more money and opportunities to Spokane. Variables such as Spokane’s low cost of living or job opportunities close to someone’s alma mater make Spokane fertile ground.

“New people of color that are moving to Spokane are college educated and have the middle- to upper-income distribution,” DeLand said. “That feels different in the city where people are contributing (substantial amounts) of capital. That creates a different racial dynamic than a lot of big metropolitan cities.”

As racial dynamics shift, so do the communities’ efforts to support diversity. Authentic food trucks like the Indian cuisine No NAANsense and an uptick in students learning English as a second language are key indicators of a diverse population growing and welcoming its changing landscape.

“As the (ethnic) community develops, more will find their way to Spokane,” DeLand said. “They are bound to ask their (families) coming to join them because they hear this is a place to be where ethnicities can (coexist peacefully).”

For community members like Jennyfer Mesa, the focus is about providing resources for a sustainable new life. Mesa is the co-founder of Latinos en Spokane and recognizes the link between the uptick and the nonprofit’s grassroots efforts to get growing ethnic communities acclimated to the area.

Mesa adds to the census data herself, moving to Spokane from Colombia after obtaining a work visa in 2011.

Latinos en Spokane made it their responsibility to get their communities active during events that required public involvement. After a meeting with the Washington Census Alliance, Mesa placed heavy emphasis on census participation to help create a clearer image of the Hispanic and Latino population in Spokane.

“We were connected with the WCA and they gave us a grant because they saw the work we were doing,” Mesa said. “It helped us hire trusted messengers within our community and organizations to do the research on the census.”

As families with mixed citizenship status grew wary of the census process, Mesa hired eight community “comadres,” or “close friends” in English, to explain the purpose of the census while ensuring there would be no contact with deportation institutions such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Each community member had 30 to 40 families with whom they could connect.

“They were Sunday school teachers, college students, elders and people of our trusted community that are known and have a long -standing presence,” Mesa said. “Then we made fun out of it. Latinos en Spokane hosted cultural parties with kids’ activities, and it helped us raise our hands in this census.”

Once COVID hit, Latinos en Spokane shifted back to its community comadres. The network’s responsibilities included translating the ongoing news of COVID, delivering PPE and cleaning supplies, and providing food delivery for those of high risk to the virus’s effects. This inward system of community workers navigated vaccine distribution as well as translated information, disproved conspiracies and provided transportation to vaccination appointments. Mesa thinks the channels of communication provided by community leaders makes the diversity sustainable.

“In spite of so many difficult things presented by COVID, even the fears from the past president, we continue to move forward and be thankful,” Mesa said. “(The census and COVID) had a domino effect, and we were able to provide jobs to key important people in our community and we have this connection with all these families.”

The growing population comes hand in hand with organizations catering to their unique needs. Latinos en Spokane, started in 2017, transitioned from a loose network of volunteers to an actual office space in May of this year.

Other ethnic and racial groups also experienced growth in Spokane County in the past decade.

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders witnessed a 127% increase of population, with 2,401 more people. The number of African Americans living in Spokane County increased 36% in the past decade, with 2,923 more people. The county’s Asian population grew by 2,697, or a growth rate of 27%. American Indians in Spokane County grew by 797 people, for a 10% growth rate. Those who are of two or more races in Spokane County increased by 170%, or 30,504 people. There was a 5% growth of the white population, with 22,677 new residents.

Nonwhite ethnic groups make up 17 % of Spokane County’s 539,339 population.

For the first time, the national population of non-Hispanic white people shrunk by 8%. Washington’s white population decreased by 1.3% from 2010 to 2020.

According to the census bureau, the Diversity Index measures “The probability that two people chosen at random will be from different race and ethnicity groups.” The U.S. Census marked the United States Diversity Index at 61 %. Washington ranks 20th nationally, with 56% on the Diversity Index in the Evergreen state population.

The census data doesn’t tell us from where these people of color new to the Spokane region are moving, but it is expected that some of the change is driven by immigration.

The Spokane City Council partnered with the New American Economy, a bipartisan immigrant research and organization that focuses on immigration’s impact on the federal, state and local levels, to determine immigrants’ economic impact in the city. NAE relies on data like 2020 census and the yearly American Community Survey to piece together critical data for local communities in a project called Gateway for Growth.

“Our report we just recently launched for Spokane is based on a subsection of the census from 2014 to 2019, and changes and roles that immigrants play in the region,” said Mo Kanter, the director for NAE’S State and Local initiatives. “We’re moving with the data that’s released to constantly update our information. Certain programs and initiatives will compile it different ways for different segments of the community.”

According to NAE’s findings, 26,273 immigrants made up 5.2% of the total population in Spokane County in 2019. Mexico, Canada, Ukraine, Vietnam and Russia were the top five home countries of Spokane’s immigrant population. Mexican immigrants topped the list with 10%.

Almost 6% of foreign-born households held all of their spending power in Spokane County and contributed $1.8 billion of Spokane County’s gross domestic products.

In July, they presented their Spokane results in the State of Immigrants and Refugees in Spokane Virtual Forum, where community organizers discussed the local economy with New American Economy.

Spokane City Manager of Equity and Inclusion Initiatives Alexander Gibilisco said information like the 2020 census and NAE’s findings makes the job for an equitable city much more specific.

“Throughout the forum we held, we asked that question and how do we support those communities here,” Gabilisco said. “It helps us think and have conversations to create an ethnic community, and what are the barriers associated with that?”

One barrier Spokane recently faced was the lack of immigrants settling in the area. With immigration numbers cut dramatically by the Trump administration, immigrant population decreased by 4.1%, although Spokane’s entire county population grew by 6.1% in the NAE report from 2014 to 2019.

Spokane’s refugee organizations took a hard hit. World Relief’s refugee resettlement program hosts classes that teach law enforcement interactions, the public library system and the landlord-tenant relationship, but the downsize in refugees created a lack of funding for those programs. Mark Finney is the director of Spokane’s World Relief office that provides resettlement for immigrants and refugees in the Spokane area and remembers the shift between 2014 and 2019.

“We had a lack of resources or (immigrants) were living in a greater sense of anxiety since there were more deportations and immigrant relocation. It made a lot of things more difficult,” Finney said from Richmond, Virginia, as he worked to get Afghan refugees settled in America on Wednesday morning.

Community groups like Latinos en Spokane assisted and supported World Relief once the government thinned out funding for immigrant programs, proving how community service go hand in hand with diversity and population upticks. Finney reflected on watching Spokane natives and new residents provide an all-hands-on-deck approach and make the issue “owned by the entire community and not just World Relief.”

“I’d like to say it was a real joy to see the way the community has come together when the government tapered off and we really needed to lean into the community for local support,” Finney said. “Volunteers, fundraising and the general source and sense of support really made the difference for us to make it through a difficult season, and I credit that to our entire community.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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