Student to Receive Governor’s Student Civic Leadership Award

March 11, 2024

Mayra Velazquez, an EWU senior studying urban planning and economics, recently received the prestigious Governor’s Student Civic Leadership Award for her work with Latinos en Spokane, a nonprofit organization supporting Spokane County’s Latinx community. Velazquez will be recognized in April at an award ceremony at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. 

Recipients of the award are chosen from students enrolled in institutions that are part of the  Washington Campus Coalition for the Public Good, a consortium that works in partnership with state colleges and universities to “cultivate vital and sustainable communities based on civic engagement and social entrepreneurship.” 

In addition to receiving the governor’s award, Velazquez and EWU student Sanai Maraire, president of Eastern’s Black Student Union, will be receiving the President’s/Chancellor’s Student Civic Leadership Award later this spring. (Look for a profile of Mariere in the near future.)

Velazquez demonstrated impactful civic engagement as an economic development specialist at Latinos en Spokane, which was founded in 2017 with the primary goal of listening to community needs and providing wrap-around-services for those navigating civic systems that may be new to them. 

Mayra Velazquez, pictured in the front row on the left, and alumna Jennyfer Mesa, co-founder of Latinos en Spokane, pictured in the back row wearing white, have done award-winning work to support the Latino community.

During her time there, Velazquez worked on a number of projects to support the Latino community. One of her major accomplishments included creating 30 maps full of census information. “We use all the data of the census to tell the stories of communities. From a 15 page demographic report, we learned the Latino community has more than doubled in Spokane. We then looked at housing and healthcare disparities for that population.”

The data Velazquez compiled is just one step in advocating for Latino community members. The data helps identify the gaps in equity, and Latinos en Spokane seek to fill those gaps with support and resources. 

“I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from my professors at EWU and from Jennyfer at Latinos en Spokane,” says Velazquez, who will graduate in June.

Latinos en Spokane was co-founded by Eagle alumna, Jennyfer Mesa, who has been instrumental in advancing participation, integration, community development, and empowerment of the Latino population in the Inland Northwest.

To date, Latinos en Spokane has developed five different services across legal, entrepreneurial, social, and educational sectors. They built the first ever Latino center in Spokane, located on North Monroe street, where people can come for support and community. 

“There’s a huge imbalance in health, home and business ownership, and representation for the Latino and immigrant community,” says Mesa. “We look at what needs to occur for those people to have a presence.”

Mesa graduated from EWU in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in urban planning. She says her time at Eastern has been a big boost to her work with Latinos en Spokane: “It prepared me to be a listener, impartial, and to get data to inform policy leaders.”

Among the issues confirmed by the group’s data collection, Mesa says, is a lack of home ownership in the Latino community. So, Latinos en Spokane plans to build a Latino-freindly housing cooperative. When completed, the planned housing cooperative will provide home ownership to 76 families. While in its early stages, Latinos en Spokane has already partnered with ROC Northwest and Spokane Regional Land Holding Properties LLC to locate a site and develop plans for construction. 

After examining a census study, Velazquez found that local Latino families were mostly living in rentals on the fringes of Spokane. The apparent reason? Latinos who previously resided near the city center were being priced out of Spokane’s urban core.

“The idea for the housing cooperative started from here,” Velazquez says. “We wanted folks to own their homes and the land their homes were on.”

The homes in the housing cooperative will be prefabricated — manufactured piece by piece offsite and then assembled on the property — which will give families the flexibility to help design their homes. “This is really the opposite of traditional housing development,” Mesa says. “We’re working with families to give them the education and envision what they want their community to look like.”

Mesa says each home will cost around $175,000, and that Latinos en Spokane will apply for grants to help eligible families come up with a 20 percent down payment. Owning their homes will help establish equity for the families, and will contribute towards their generational wealth over time.

For over a year, Latinos en Spokane has worked with a roster of interested families, which now includes a long-waitlist. Excitement for the project is not surprising, says Mesa, given the barriers that have long stood in the way of home ownership for many Latino families.

“This is a different kind of model that is new locally,” Mesa says. “We’re bringing in nontraditional families who have not had access to home ownership due to language barriers and racial disparity.”

While housing issues have become a major focus of Latinos in Spokane, Mesa is quick to emphasize that the group is heavily invested in supporting  all aspects of the Latino experience in Spokane. 

The last month of every Saturday, for example, the hosts El Mercadito—an outdoor cultural market held throughout the year in Spokane’s Cannon Park.  Vendors at the market showcase their products and services, while visitors can take advantage of free clinical services, exciting cultural activities and, for those in need, food distribution. In addition, over the next few weeks, Latinos en Spokane will rent out a food truck to help aspiring Latino restaurateurs introduce their culinary skills to the public.

“These projects are a way to create generational wealth through housing and business ownership,” says Mesa. “If you start investing in a growing community now, it’s a way to be proactive rather than reactive to issues that arise when people are in need.”