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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After advocating for herself and her children, Virla Spencer found her calling doing the same for others

Virla Spencer, a local civil rights advocate, stands in her office in Spokane on Friday. She is in front of a painting of Breonna Taylor, a medical worker who was shot and killed by police in Louisville, Ky., in 2020.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Virla Spencer has spent her life advocating for herself, for her children and for anyone who needs help navigating the worlds of criminal justice, education, housing and health care.

She sees her job as CEO and co-founder of The Way to Justice to disrupt and dismantle systems that are often biased against people of color.

Her work is being recognized with the 2023 YWCA Women of Achievement Carl Maxey Racial and Social Justice award. Spencer and the other winners will be recognized at a luncheon on March 9 at the Davenport Grand Hotel.

Spencer was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a family with four siblings. When she was in fourth grade, her mother fled with her children to escape an abusive relationship. They arrived in Spokane on a Greyhound bus.

“I remember this blue little beach bag,” she said. “We each had a bag, but we basically just had the clothes on our backs.”

Her mother worked hard, but the family was poor. When she would get into trouble at school, her mother couldn’t leave work to come to the school to advocate against the multiple suspensions she received. “I learned how to advocate for myself,” she said. “I got good at it.”

Spencer attended Lewis and Clark High School before dropping out. She had her first child at 17. She found herself in a relationship with a violent man and vowed that if she broke free, she would break that cycle so that her children wouldn’t end up in abusive relationships.

“I also vowed that I would break the cycle of poverty with my family,” she said.

It took time, but she did it.

Spencer had three children by the time she earned her high school diploma at the age of 21. She spent years on welfare, received housing benefits and was homeless for five years. After an early brush with the legal system, she told herself she had to do something different if she wanted to change, so she became an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer.

She was placed at the Center for Justice, where she blossomed.

She stayed after her volunteer term was up and began working in outreach. Spencer was the part-time assistant director of the program that helped people get their driver’s licenses back after they were suspended over unpaid fines, then became the full-time director of the program.

Spencer said there are 300,000 people in Washington with suspended driver’s licenses.

A license is required for a lot more than driving a car, Spencer said. “It’s a big deal,” she said. “It’s literally a lifeline for people.”

She was a dedicated advocate for her children when they attended school, and complaints that she made about racial bias against her children and other children sparked a U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation into Spokane Public Schools in 2005. A few months later, Spencer was banned from all school district property for a year after the district said her written and verbal communication was hostile and aggressive.

Spencer said she was an angry parent at the time, and that while she doesn’t regret advocating for her children, she was in the midst of a learning curve on how to do it effectively.

“We have to advocate for our kids,” she said. “They don’t have a voice. I would do it all over again, not only for my children, but for other children.”

When the Center for Justice closed in 2020, Spencer wasn’t ready to give up working on behalf of others. She recruited a co-worker, Camerina Zorrozua, the help her launch The Way to Justice to continue some of the Center for Justice’s work. “We worked the entire first year with no funding,” she said. “We worked from home.”

Grants from Better Health Together kicked the organization into a higher gear, and there are now several people working to help people expunge criminal records and get their driver’s licenses back. The organization also started a youth empowerment program.

Zorrozua said Spencer has a huge heart and genuinely cares for others.

“She describes herself as a force to be reckoned with, and I do not disagree,” she said. “She’s really good at breaking down walls, assumptions.”

At Spencer’s core is a desire for justice for everyone, Zorrozua said.

“She’s really good at being right there when someone needs it the most,” she said. “It does change lives. I’ve seen it happen.”

Spencer said she’s not used to the spotlight the award has brought and has been struggling to accept it. “I don’t do this work for the recognition,” she said. “I do this work because it’s needed and it’s necessary.”

She said she’s honored to be among the other award winners, including City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson and the late Sandy Williams, an activist who created the Carl Maxey Center in the East Central Neighborhood and founded the The Black Lens newspaper.

“To me, that’s an honor to share the spotlight with those two,” Spencer said. “Sandy, she was a mentor to me.”