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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Betsy Wilkerson reflects on her time as the only Black woman on Spokane’s city council: ‘We’re poised for greatness and greatness for people of color’

Wilkerson  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson left Mississippi and arrived in Spokane in 1963.

She’s never looked back. Becoming a true Spokanite, she attended Edison Elementary, Libby Junior High and Lewis and Clark High School.

She’s seen the highs and lows of Spokane’s community. Serving since 2020, when she was appointed to an open seat, she was elected last year to a new four-year term.

For Women’s History Month, Wilkerson reflected on her journey as the second Black woman to serve on Spokane’s City Council. Since joining the council, she believes the city’s steps to a more equitable future have been undeniable.

“Over the last two years, there has been a level of engagement from the communities of color that I’ve never witnessed before,” Wilkerson said. “Actually showing up in spaces, having their voices heard, whether that’s around policy or even culturally. Even the first Lunar New Year, we celebrated the second Black History Month at Riverfront Park with Numerica.”

One person present in the backdrop of Wilkerson’s service is Roberta Greene, the first Black woman to serve on the city council, from 1995 to 2003. The two have a close relationship, as Wilkerson leans on Greene in uncertain times within the City Council, or just getting advice on how to introduce solutions that emphasize community and outcomes.

“Roberta arrived and got on council, and she brought a grace. If you look at her today, she still has that grace and that presence in how she communicates,” Wilkerson said.

Both native Southerners, Greene and Wilkerson share similar paths of adding to Spokane beyond their City Council positions. Wilkerson owns a business in Browne’s Addition, while Greene currently serves as a senior lecturer in economics at Eastern Washington University. The two are close, sitting two rows from one another at Bethel A.M.E. Church. With intentions rooted in service, Wilkerson called Greene an “amazing woman.” Attempts to reach Greene for this article were unsuccessful.

“I try to get her engaged when I was running for office, but she said, ‘Betsy, I’m just done.’ She had served her time and she just didn’t want to be engaged. So a lot of her work remains in the church. So, for me, just affirming that anchor in my faith and to see her and how that’s played out in her life, that’s the most important thing, and to continue to show up,” Wilkerson said.

Spokane’s council has to access what Wilkerson describes as “low-hanging fruit.” Talks of equity could become student field trips to understand how the Grand Coulee works or learning about the behind-the-scenes jobs of the Spokane International Airport. This is an easy way to diversify children of color’s prospective careers, like those in mechanical and electric engineering.

“I was watching this show about Evergreen College over there in Olympia where their enrollment is down, so I thought, ‘What if we made that available to our kids of color who have never probably even heard of Evergreen College?’” Wilkerson proposed. “Because they’re doing this intentional outreach. So, again, what’s our role and how do we get this out there? How do we let them know what’s going on and what’s the opportunity?”

Wilkerson remembers being a student at Libby Junior High, and how its status as a cultural hub helped Black people thrive in the 1970s and ‘80s.

But for Wilkerson, the city can sometimes feel as if its culture is going in backward. The Black population of East Central is a fraction what it was in the 1960s and ‘70s, with double-digit percentage decreases over the decades, according to a University of Washington study. That limits access and programs for those in the area.

She also discussed how her family’s move from Fourth Avenue and Altamont Street to the Perry District created a “culture shock,” which helped her realize that having a variety of experiences often is lacking in Spokane’s Black youth’s formative years.

“Things felt so much more opening and welcoming in the ‘70s, and that just may be my perception, but when I hear stuff going in with my grandkids, and some and the things they’re still experiencing, I’m like, ‘Really, we’re in 2022. Why are we having these conversations? So how can we continue to talk about that?’” Wilkerson said.

Some of the City Council’s missing components are the ability to create initiatives that would require those from different lifestyles and points of view to engage in touchy conversations. Wilkerson believes the simplicity of sit-and-talks are being overlooked.

If Wilkerson could grade the current talks of equity, she would give Spokane’s dedication a C or a C-. As chairperson of the city’s Finance and Administration Committee, she believes the feedback loops are broken.

“Overall, I love Spokane, I do, but I’ve never seen it so divisive in some areas, just so negative,” she said. “But again, I truly think we’re poised for greatness and greatness for people of color. The city will do fine, but for communities of color there’s an align of the stars with the people who are in leadership in these groups, their community, and their willingness and commitment to step out there.”

Most of the advocacy work done in the city is led by volunteers, which creates what Wilkerson calls “ebbs and flows of leadership.” The mission, she says, is to create an ongoing system of communication between city leaders and citizens. Community engagement cannot be a buzzword with an equitable city as the goal.

“Well, what does that engagement look like? It looks so different for Black folks than it does for Hispanic people than it does for dominant culture, but the issue that I want community engagement around has to encapsulate everyone,” she said.

But the work will have to start from the ground up. Wilkerson reflected on Spokane’s “top heavy” government, which can stifle the growth of the grassroots organizations that voice citizen concerns. The question now is, who is in the pipeline to create change on behalf of the city?

Wilkerson acknowledges the “pockets of powerful women” around the area, but believes the real changes will come once the women of the city come together for a single cause. Shifting the narrative will take all hands on deck, but the infighting between Spokane’s organizations must be alleviated first.

“Lord knows we women struggle, but the best way to continue to honor that struggle is to be productive of where I am now and to move forward,” Wilkerson said. “If we just stop, history will kinda fade away.

“You don’t want them to be done for nothing, and that we don’t value it and build on it.”