Betsy Wilkerson, a Spokane City Council member and longtime business owner , has a history of community involvement. It’s a life and a path she never could have imagined when she, her mother and her three siblings arrived in Spokane decades ago with few belongings.
Wilkerson’s work in the community earned her the 2023 YWCA Women of Achievement award for government and public service. She and the other award winners were honored during a luncheon earlier this month.
She was 6 years old when she arrived in Spokane on the train from West Point, Mississippi. Her mother was fleeing a bad relationship and had a friend in Spokane who invited her to open a beauty shop together. Wilkerson’s mother was also looking for a place where her children wouldn’t have to pick cotton, which all of Wilkerson’s older siblings did.
“My mom wanted to get out of the South,” she said.
When they arrived in 1963, Wilkerson attended Lincoln Elementary. The family moved to the East Central Neighborhood in 1965 and she attended the former Edison Elementary. When she graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1973, Wilkerson said she knew she wanted to attend a historically Black college.
But Wilkerson was in for a culture shock when she arrived via Greyhound bus at Jarvis Christian College in East Texas.
“When I got there they called me a white girl,” she said. “I was a product of my background. I didn’t have the music, I didn’t have the hair.”
Though she was shocked by the blatant racism she saw in Texas, she stayed and ended up getting married and having two children before she could finish college. After getting a divorce, she returned to Spokane and got a job as a teller at Spokane Teachers Credit Union. She would work her way up to loan officer in her 10 years there.
Wilkerson’s mother was a minister who co-founded Mt. Zion Holiness Church. She grew up in the church and it was there that she learned the meaning of servant leadership, she said.
“A lot of the things I do, I learned there,” she said. “That was my life. That’s really what I do today. I just try to help people. I don’t know any different.”
Her mother also operated an adult family home for people with disabilities called Moore’s Assisted Living. In the early 1990s, Wilkerson’s mother got sick and asked her to take over the business.
“I took to it like a duck takes to water, and I never looked back,” she said.
She also began volunteering. One of the first groups she joined was the Junior League. She was a member for 16 years.
“My superpower is when I join, I’m in it for the long haul,” she said. “Longevity is my superpower.”
Over the years, friends would suggest organizations. She’s been president of the Women Helping Women Fund, a member of the St. Luke’s Community Advisory Board and has served on the boards of the Innovia Foundation, Downtown Spokane Partnership and Spokane Housing Ventures. She also served on the Commission for Judicial Conduct for 16 years.
She was first appointed to the City Council in 2020 and was elected to the position in 2021, becoming the second Black councilwoman in Spokane’s history. When Wilkerson applied for a vacant City Council seat in 2020, she was up against 36 other people and thought she didn’t stand a chance. Wilkerson said she felt like she wasn’t changing outcomes and would have a better chance of that on the City Council.
“If I had to identify the one crazy thing I did, that would be it,” she said of putting in her application. “It really was about community service.”
She was surprised to make it to the group of top seven candidates and even more surprised to be appointed.
“It was all about community, and that’s the one thing I know about Spokane, is community,” she said. “That’s what this job is about.”
Wilkerson announced earlier this month that she will run for City Council president this year.
She’s the chair of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council and the president of the Association of Washington Cities. She’s also president of the board for the Carl Maxey Center.
Walter Kendricks, the vice president of the board for the Carl Maxey Center, said he has been impressed by Wilkerson’s courage, intelligence, eloquence and caring.
“I think super highly of Betsy,” he said. “She loves Spokane. It’s not just the Black community, it’s Spokane, period. She wants to make it a place where everyone is welcome and can thrive and succeed.”
Wilkerson said it is sometimes frustrating to not see immediate results from her work on the City Council, but she has to keep the faith and keep planting the seeds of change.
“The seeds that I’m planting, I may never see come to fruition,” she said. “It’s very different than what I was doing in community work.”
She said it’s strange when she receives accolades like the YWCA award, but she feels honored.
“It’s an amazing thing,” she said. “I’m just somebody who’s trying to do good. There’s a bunch of other women out there who need this award.”