'Every child needs dreams, opportunities to succeed'
Amber Waldref became the director of the Zone Project to empower Northeast Spokane children, youth and families in December 2017. In so doing, her life's journey brought her full circle back to her roots.
Amber grew up in the 99207 postal zone, a neighborhood of working class families.
From her early days, she saw herself on a journey to reach her full potential.
"It meant even if a working class or poor child had dreams, the tight community helped him or her see and dream," she said.
Amber believes every child needs dreams and opportunities to reach his/her full potential.
The Zone Project vision is for all children to be safe and nurtured, residents to be engaged, and families to have what they need to thrive, she said.
It seeks to empower children, youth and families to reach their potential by building on assets, sharing resources, and collaborating across multiple organizations and with residents in a "collective impact" model.
The Project focuses efforts on Northeast neighborhoods and schools that feed to Shaw and Garry Middle Schools.
"Northeast Spokane is a diverse neighborhood with many assets, but also many challenges, where 39 percent of children and youth—5,000 of them—live in poverty, where 53 percent of incoming kindergarteners are not fully prepared for school, and where 26 percent of elementary school students are at risk of dropping out by sixth grade," Amber said.
The Zone Project works holistically to improve housing, education, safety, health and economic stability, she said. It supports children and families in a multi-generational approach to health, safety, jobs and education in partnership with organizations, such as Spokane Public Schools, Gonzaga University, the Housing Authority and Spokane Regional Health District.
"The community's vision is to support children, youth and adults 'cradle to career,' which cannot be carried out by any one organization or person but requires the whole community working together," Amber said.
Her life journey demonstrates the power of a supportive family and community who affirmed her dreams as a child and empowered her to take advantage of opportunities that came her way.
Amber credits her family with giving her tools she needed to succeed. They imbued her with a sense of the importance of education.
While her family sometimes struggled economically, education helped her go beyond the reality of growing up in a poor neighborhood, where she attended elementary school. She then went to Gonzaga Prep, which provided both "a fine education" and a gateway to opportunities to live out the dreams her family and neighborhood fostered.
As valedictorian of a Jesuit high school, she received a full scholarship to Georgetown University with diverse students. Skills she gained at Gonzaga Prep helped her navigate in this world.
She worked hard to spend a year abroad in Madrid, Spain, through Georgetown's program.
"This experience was a new window on the world. I experienced life as a foreigner. I learned to navigate the world in another language. This helped me relate to the non-native experience and live a piece of it," Amber reflected.
After graduation, she continued her education through her work and began to fulfill part of her dream, which was "to give back."
Peace Action, a small nonprofit in Washington, D.C., hired her as campus youth coordinator. This required her to travel around the United States, "giving back" as a speaker advising campus chapters, teaching members how to write press releases and recruiting students for meetings. She organized youth around issues they cared about.
Missing the Northwest, she moved to Seattle as field director on Hanford cleanup for the Heart of America Northwest. Amber went from organizing youth to organizing adults on cleanup, which was the largest outside of Chernobyl.
"I learned about the complex issues related to the Clean Water Act, nuclear site cleanup and the care of the Columbia River," she said.
Seeking to learn more, she earned a master's degree in environment and community at Antioch University in Seattle.
Then her journey came full circle back to Spokane.
Amber held several positions at The Lands Council, including Water Watch coordinator. She learned that the Spokane River contains pollutants from years of mining upstream. Eating its fish could cause serious illnesses.
"I identified people in the community and trained them to teach the safe way to cook fish before eating it, because many people native to Spokane and immigrants regularly eat fish," Amber said.
To prepare fish more safely, she taught health workers that people need to filet the fish and remove the fat where PCBs and other toxins settle.
"One fun thing I did there was work with the Russian and Ukrainian community," she said. "I filmed a video at Comcast. My words were translated into Russian."
About this time, Amber married. She and her husband, Tom Flanagan, chose to live in the Logan neighborhood, in the 99207 zip code. She had her first child, Karolina.
Through a close friend, she became involved in organizing to make the neighborhood a safe place. One day she talked with her friend about whom to tap to run for Spokane City Council from their neighborhood.
"It was a perfect time. There was an open seat, so a candidate wouldn't run against an incumbent. We raised names but none could run," she said. "I thought – I guess I could run."
Her friend, who was on the planning commission and knew what was required, jumped on the idea, offering to support her. As Amber tested the water in the next months, she found her parents, friends and a whole village would support her.
"When I do something I am in it to win," she said.
Win she did and, at the time, was the youngest woman to be elected to the City Council. When she had her second daughter, Nora, she became the first woman to have a baby while serving on City Council. Because of her experience and that of other women leaders, City Hall now has a room for breast-feeding.
"Through City Council, I met professionals and developed new skills. I brought my baby to meetings. One day, at a Finance Committee meeting in City Hall, the chair said the meeting was the calmest ever," she said.
During two terms, Amber worked to create thriving neighborhoods and for better public transportation and pedestrian safety.
Rather than waiting for complaints, which meant she would hear only from the most persistent, she went out in the neighborhoods to learn the needs.
Based on what she learned, she chose items she promoted in her eight years on City Council, including protecting the Spokane River, improving housing quality and revitalizing neighborhoods. She left confident she was leaving the city in a good place in finances, vision and leadership for the future.
In Amber's second term, under the leadership of Andre Wicks, then the assistant principal of Shaw Middle School, she consulted on developing a Promise Zone proposal for Northeast Spokane neighborhoods, modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone.
That zone is a nonprofit bringing together partners to support low-income children and families in Harlem, providing free support in parenting workshops, a pre-school program, three charter schools, and child-oriented health programs for thousands of children and families.
Andre and Amber believed the Northeast neighborhoods, especially Hillyard, met criteria for a Promise Zone because of the poverty, low educational achievement and high crime rates. Amber was part of a team of more than 100 organizations, residents and school partners who worked for more than a year to develop a proposal for wraparound support programs in the neighborhoods.
They did not gain federal recognition as a Promise Zone, but went ahead with the Zone Project with funding from Spokane Public Schools, the City of Spokane and the Ballmer Group.
At first, Andre was its director. After he returned as assistant principal at Shadle Park High School, the project was transferred to the Northeast Community Center. After Amber's term on City Council, she was hired to direct the project.
In addition, she works part-time as a consultant for Urbanova, a Spokane collaboration to improve the quality of life, innovation and health in cities. It uses the University District as a living laboratory for small-city solutions that can be replicated around the world.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February 2019