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‘How we spend our money demonstrates our values’: Spokane council’s new equity subcommittee takes shape

Led by Spokane City Council Member Betsy Wilkerson, left, the Spokane City Council Subcommittee on Equity meets for the first time at The Hive in East Spokane on June 15. From left, are Wilkerson, K.J. January, Vivian Chalardsoontornvatee and Lisa Gardner, who is the Spokane City Council’s communications director. The committee will advise and give feedback to the Spokane City Council on issues of equity.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Led by Spokane City Council Member Betsy Wilkerson, left, the Spokane City Council Subcommittee on Equity meets for the first time at The Hive in East Spokane on June 15. From left, are Wilkerson, K.J. January, Vivian Chalardsoontornvatee and Lisa Gardner, who is the Spokane City Council’s communications director. The committee will advise and give feedback to the Spokane City Council on issues of equity. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

For Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, Spokane City Hall’s seventh floor can sometimes feel like an echo chamber when it comes to policymaking.

The seventh, home to the mayor and City Council offices, is missing a particular perspective Wilkerson said she hopes to gain with the City Council’s newly formed Equity Subcommittee.

As a subcommittee of the council’s Finance and Administration Committee, the group will serve as an advisory board aimed at identifying, removing and disrupting racial, social and economic inequities in city services, programs and decision-making processes.

“We don’t get to make policy, but we’ll get to drive policy,” she said, “and that is what I think was missing.”

Subcommittee members have not yet determined how often they will meet.

Wilkerson, who chairs the council’s Finance and Administration Committee, said the subcommittee will be available as a resource not only to the City Council, but to the mayor’s office and city departments. Mayor Nadine Woodward said she has not yet spoken with Wilkerson about the subcommittee.

The Equity Subcommittee met for the first time last week for an informal orientation attended by those of the 16-member group who could make it.

The subcommittee is still accepting applications, with preference given to residents of low-income neighborhoods, English learners, veterans and 15- to 24-year-olds. Ten current members reside around south Spokane within City Council District 2, which Wilkerson represents; five live in northeast Spokane within District 1 and one lives in the northwest Spokane area in District 3.

Subcommittee members include natives and those who are relatively new to the city. Nine members live in empowerment zones, federally designated areas of high poverty and unemployment that are eligible for tax incentives for businesses.

Alex Gibilisco, the city council’s manager of equity and inclusion initiatives, said residents in council districts 1 and 3 are also encouraged to apply.

Equal representation by council district was one of the points of contention for Councilman Michael Cathcart, who voted against the appointment of the subcommittee’s initial members earlier this month. Cathcart said he also has concerns with the subcommittee’s compliance with the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), as he does with other council subcommittees. They should be properly noticed and open to the public, Cathcart said.

“I just want to make sure that all of these are, to some extent, compliant with OPMA, and we don’t quite have that yet,” Cathcart said earlier this month.

Wendy Levy, who lives on the South Hill, said she applied to join the group to be of service to Spokane.

Levy is the executive director of the Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, an organization that works with artists and filmmakers across the country. And while Levy said she has worked with these artists on building social change through art, she realized that she was doing much of this work recently from home or over Zoom.

“I really wanted to bring whatever expertise I had amassed through my 60 years in the world and that perspective to support the leaders here on setting their priorities,” she said. “How we spend our money demonstrates our values.”

Levy, who previously lived in Brooklyn and Oakland before moving to Spokane around five years ago, said she feels in tune with the arts community, a “large and very diverse community of often low-income folks who are struggling for opportunities.”

“I feel like I represent maybe people who are not from here. I’m also gay and Jewish,” she said. “There’s a sense that sometimes the voices of traditionally marginalized folks aren’t necessarily in the mix, so my goal is to bring them into the mix.”

Lili Navarrete brings a perspective she’s gained from her life and her career, which has included roles as director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho; the director of Raíz, Planned Parenthood’s outreach program for Latino communities; director of social justice for the Hispanic Business and Professionals Association in Spokane and a commissioner for the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

Navarrete said she has felt her voice has not been heard at times by the past and current city administration.

“One of my goals is to open that door for more diverse folks to join in city government,” she said. “Especially in neighborhoods that are mostly diverse and with marginalized communities, just have them live in better conditions.”

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