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Women of the Year: Petra Hoy inspires ‘hope, equity and democracy’ through grassroots organizing

Community organizer Petra Hoy of Be The Change-Eastside Gladiators, a grassroots, nonpartisan organization dedicated to building a more kind and inclusive community, is photographed near her home in Spokane Valley on Nov. 8.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Petra Hoy’s children call her a full-time volunteer. Her friends call her “Petie” or the energizer bunny. She calls herself a cheerleader and insists that others deserve the credit for the work she has initiated. She can now add Women of the Year nominee to that list.

“I don’t really feel worthy,” she said. “That’s very sweet.”

Hoy was born in Winnipeg, Canada, to a German mother and a Yugoslavian father. Her parents met by chance when her father was in Canada on vacation. He swore he’d come back, but her mother didn’t believe him. He did come back.

The young family moved to Sandy, Oregon, when Hoy was about 3. She didn’t speak English until she was 5. She became a United States citizen at 17.

“I always say I’m an American by choice,” she said. “My parents were deciding at the time, too. My parents really loved the USA. They were just the epitome of the American dream.”

She attended Mt. Hood Community College on a 4H scholarship, then earned a degree in environmental studies at Cal State. She met her husband Mark while she was earning her master’s degree in business administration at George Fox. The couple moved often for Mark’s work and Hoy became a stay-at-home mom and volunteer. They moved to Spokane Valley in December 2010, and Hoy wasted no time immersing herself into her new community.

“I joined the PTA before I even moved here,” she said.

Her children attended Sunrise Elementary and before the first month was out, Hoy brought cookies to the school’s holiday party. Her daughter had previously been in a jump rope club and Sunrise didn’t have one, so Hoy started one. “We just jumped in,” she said.

She was heavily involved in her children’s schools and after the 2016 election she decided to make a shift into more community and political work. She said she had often heard Barack Obama tell people to “be the change” they wanted to see, but always thought that was for people more accomplished than her. But she said she realized she wanted to encourage people and make them feel supported.

Hoy talked to people she knew about her desire to help and they offered to join her.

“It just started from there,” she said. “Essentially I am a community organizer and promoter of hope, equity and democracy.”

Today she’s at the helm of a grassroots nonpartisan group she calls Be the Change 509 – East Side Gladiators. “We call ourselves gladiators because we are in the arena fighting for what we love, not sitting on the sidelines,” she said.

The group grew slowly by word of mouth. There is no website, just a private Facebook group and an email list that keeps everyone in communication. “For the longest time, we didn’t have a name,” Hoy said. “I feel like other people were looking for something to do and didn’t know where to start. I really like the idea of a group of people just doing stuff.”

Nationally, Hoy and her volunteers have sent Care Cards to survivors of gun violence. They sent text messages and thousands of postcards to encourage people to vote in pivotal races in Ohio, Georgia and Virginia.

They’ve campaigned for local political candidates and sent thank -you notes and treats to local school district employees, librarians and employees at the Spokane County Regional Health District. They distributed bright red “Love” signs to be placed in yards or in windows. They helped stage a “Freedom to Read” rally to support the Liberty Lake Library when there was a discussion about banning a book.

They’ve also worked with national groups such as the League of Women Voters, Volunteers of America and Reclaim Our Vote. With people being removed from the voting rolls by the hundreds of thousands across the country, Hoy and her group have helped Reclaim Our Vote reach out to people taken off the voting rolls to let them know how to reregister. “It’s pretty nice to help people vote again,” she said.

Hoy likes to be able to help as soon as she or someone else sees a need. “With other groups, it seems like things take a long time,” she said. “I want to act. Since we’re a grassroots group, we’re really agile. We don’t have to vote on things.”

Hoy looks to the late Rep. John Lewis for her inspiration, particularly his quote about never being afraid “to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” She carries rocks with the words “Good Trouble” written on them to hand out to people.

Hoy said she and her group have supported candidates from across the political spectrum. “Love and kindness has no party,” she said. “The love and kindness stuff will really make a difference. It’s really what matters.”

One of those political candidates is Al Merkel, who just won a seat on the Spokane Valley City Council. He first met Hoy five years ago the first time he ran for a city council seat. “Petra really does a good job of supporting common sense candidates of any sort,” he said. “She has worked exceedingly hard for common sense solutions, not only in Spokane Valley, not only in Spokane, but all across the region. This isn’t about blue or red. We want cities to function. Petra has been a cornerstone in helping that happen.”

Merkel said he and Hoy don’t necessarily agree on all issues and he’s seen her be under fire from those who assume she only supports Democratic candidates. “She has taken that all in stride,” he said. “She still had the courage to step up and support Republicans like me.”

Becky Hattenburg, one of nine people to nominate Hoy for the Women of the Year honor, is the wife of Spokane Valley councilman Tim Hattenburg. She said she has joined Hoy’s group since Hoy first helped her husband get elected to his seat. “I’m an East Side Gladiator,” she said.

Hattenburg said she has been impressed by Hoy since the very beginning. “She was just incredible,” she said. “She’s got more energy than anyone I know. We call her the energizer bunny.”

She said she’s impressed by how much Hoy has managed to accomplish.

“She believes in trying to do things she can do to keep things right,” she said. “I love her as a person. I love her spirit. She keeps us all going.”

Hattenburg said she’s pleased that Hoy is being recognized with a Women of the Year award. “She deserves it so much,” she said.

Hoy said it’s her team that has made it all possible.

“We have achieved a lot because we have the best people and the best team,” she said.

With this month’s election over, Hoy was asked if she was going to take a break. She responded with an emphatic “No.”

“There’s always more to do,” she said. “If John Lewis could keep putting one foot in front of the other, so can we.”