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Vanessa Waldref facilitates outreach to faiths

Vanessa Waldref facilitates United Against Hate outreach to faiths, community - Photo courtesy of Vanessa Waldref

By Marijke Fakasiieiki

As U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Washington, Vanessa Waldref seeks to share resources with area houses of worship, community groups and individuals about ways to report hate crimes and strengthen civil rights.

In addition to prosecuting violent crimes and narcotics trafficking, Vanessa prioritizes community outreach on the hate crimes initiative.

She said Eastern Washington has been troubled by increasing reports of hate-motivated violence and sees a need for a multifaceted approach to combat hate and hate-based violence. She knows hate cannot be defeated by law enforcement alone.

"There is no quick fix in thinking that if we prosecute a hate crime the problem will be solved. Law enforcement and government have a role to play to protect the community, especially marginalized groups impacted by hate," she said.

A key aspect of the U.S. Attorney Office's community outreach is the United Against Hate Initiative that educates the public on potential hate crimes and encourages the reporting of hate incidents, she explained. That initiative is partnering with law enforcement, the Spokane Police Department (SPD), and the FBI to connect with houses of worship and community organizations to promote visibility for Crime Check and describe how to report an incident of hate to the SPD.

The Department of Justice has chosen the Eastern District of Washington as one of three districts out of 94 districts in the nation, to advance the United Against Hate outreach initiative.

Even if a situation is not a hate crime that could be prosecuted,  it is still important for law enforcement to have information to help people feel safe, to monitor threats and to prevent future instances of hate and discrimination.

"Our efforts start at the community level with conversations to learn community needs," said Vanessa, who believes in putting faith into action to respond to needs in the community.

She invites houses of worship in Washington to access virtual training and resources on security and hate crimes through her office.

She has already begun working with Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane, the Islamic Center in Pullman and a Sikh Temple in Eastern Washington to build trust with community members.

Growing up in Spokane, Vanessa's family was involved in community organizations and St. Aloysius Catholic Parish.

"We were driven by faith to be engaged in the community and serve others. We were taught it was our duty to care for our neighbor and, if we saw a problem, to find a solution to create a healthier world," Vanessa said.

Helping serve Thanksgiving dinners to homeless people at St. Patrick's Parish instilled in her a commitment to do something for the community because "I had a roof over my head and a warm plate of food to eat," said Vanessa.

Those experiences also introduced her to experiences of crime victims and difficult life stories furthering her commitment to community work and activism, such as making sure workers receive fair wages.

As an undergraduate, she used persuasion skills to advocate on behalf of Students United Against Sweatshops, and began to see law as an opportunity to change inequities.

Her studies included worker rights, justice and peace, theology and sociology and social change movements. Vanessa wanted to use institutions such as the government and nonprofits to solve world problems.

In sociology, she focused on institutions promoting pragmatic ways to improve communities with the tools they have.

After earning a bachelor's degree at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., in 2002, Vanessa served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Seattle, running the Know Your Rights hotline for recipients of food or benefits from the state, to help them access childcare and educational resources.

"It was empowering to realize I was helping others navigate through systems where they had become stuck because they were told no. I saw how to advocate for them, help them find solutions, get education and resources to help their families," said Vanessa.

After a year there, she went to Georgetown Law School, where she had opportunities to attend Supreme Court hearings that interested her.

"It was a dynamic learning environment to be close to where policy is made as judges interpret laws. I saw how important law is to social change," said Vanessa, who graduated in 2008.

Seeing options to use law in private practice, government and advocacy, she moved into public service after paying off school loans.

For two years during law school, she worked on the Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. Then she practiced for a few years with a private firm, taking pro bono landlord-tenant cases in low-income D.C. neighborhoods. She also took cases about restaurants complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Subsequently, she did a clerkship for Federal District Court Judge John Bates.

"That opened my eyes to the high standards to which he held attorneys who represent the federal government," said Vanessa.

The judge relied on government attorneys to provide complete, accurate, fair arguments in civil and criminal advocacy. As a young attorney, she drafted opinions for judges, and saw how important the role of a prosecutor and trial attorney were.

"That's when I decided to work on behalf of the U.S. Attorney's office and advocate for citizens," said Vanessa.

Following her son's birth, she wanted to be back in Spokane, closer to family, more connected to the community she loved and grew up in. Her husband, who is from Philadelphia, agreed to settle in Spokane.

After working for some law firms in Spokane, she became an assistant to the U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney's office. In civil and criminal cases, she represented the U.S. government in Federal District Court.

Since 2015, Vanessa has also taught courses in environmental law, labor and employment law, and conflict of laws at Gonzaga University School of Law.

As U.S. Attorney, her priority is to use the gifts of the prosecution team to create safe, empowered communities.

After Vanessa served nine years in the Department of Justice, Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell recommended that President Joe Biden nominate her to the U.S. Attorney's office. The Senate confirmed her and she was sworn in on Oct. 7, 2021, as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington. She was the first woman to be appointed as U.S. Attorney.

"I bring an understanding of the work and my vision for what we can do to engage with the community in targeted ways to promote safety and strong communities," she said.

Vanessa's office also monitors domestic terrorism and extremism to help local, regional and national law enforcement detect, disrupt and deter threats that could lead to violence.

Priorities in this time of resistance and dissent include how to deter crimes and building awareness about organizations that pose a threat of violence.

Strengthening the U.S. Attorney Office's Civil Rights Program is another priority in the United Against Hate Efforts as it educates law enforcement and community groups to understand the difference between a hate crime and a hate incident, and to distinguish between hate speech and free speech.

Vanessa said discrimination can also be because of a person's disability or faith.

Her office has a civil rights web page, where people can report civil rights violations and complaints, and find civil rights lawyers to take cases.

It also handles cases related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Federal Housing Authority, the Educational Opportunity Association and the Fair Housing Act.

"We want to make sure those laws are faithfully executed," she said.

"In a time of much disagreement in the public dialogue," Vanessa said. "I am pleased that so many come together to recognize that hate has no place in Eastern Washington and to see that the role of government is in building trust, promoting safety and developing strong communities."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October 2022