September 20, 2022

RSJ Spotlight: Alex Gibilisco

Racial & Social Justice Partner Spotlight Series

Each month, our Equity Coordinator, Lara, sits down with an organization or individual in our community to spotlight the work they do to create real and lasting change for a more equitable Spokane.


(13 minute read)

September Spotlight

Alex Gibilisco, Manager of Equity and Inclusion Initiatives, Spokane City Council

Image of Hispanic man with text that reads, "I am not scared about what our next generation's going to do. As long as we're able to have these hard conversations about how history and current society and cultures can negatively impact our human experience, they will carry on that work and dismantle in a lot healthier ways because we're providing those tools for them to be able to have those difficult conversations, to express how they're feeling, and why they're feeling it. And to set expectations for everybody else on how they want to be treated, looked at, and being able to ask for that."

Background

Alex and I both started on Spokane City Council around the same time in 2020, just as the entire world was entering a life-altering pandemic. He was new to Spokane, I was new to local government as legislative assistant for former Councilmember Kate Burke. Over the next year, we had a handful of opportunities to work alongside each other serving our constituents and I immediately recognized Alex as an invaluable wealth of knowledge and experience.

I left City Council last year (spoilers!) and am grateful for the opportunity to stay connected with Alex and, admittedly, lean on him somewhat, in this new role at YWCA Spokane as Equity Coordinator. He’s someone I look up to, I admire his work thus far, and there’s so much I can learn from him. Fun fact: We didn’t meet in person until my last week!

Our former Community Engagement Associate, Rachel, and I found some time to chat more about his advocacy work and what he hopes for the future of Spokane. Read on to learn more!

Listen to the full transcript here.


Lara Estaris: Why don’t you start out with your background? 

Alex Gibilisco: Yeah. So, el/he/him are my pronouns. I’ve had a lot of different jobs and roles throughout my career that have been focused on equity. Being born in Guatemala, coming to the states when I was 10 years old, I saw inequities early on in my life.

And just (in) my experiences that were forcing me to assimilate, to the point that, at times, I pushed away from my culture. Having seen that actually is the reason that encouraged me to go to college and study political science and international studies. Seeing how I could help the communities that I had been from or had come from initially, the idea was to go to Guatemala, but then come back. Or go to Guatemala and see what are the issues that were being experienced there. Soon, I realized that there were large disparities here.

A quick summary of my career track: right after college I went to Tucson, Arizona, where they had just passed some anti-immigrant legislation and went there to advocate for immigration reform and also to get out to vote within the Latino community.

After that I went to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I went to school at and (continued advocacy work) but focused more on organizing different communities, ensuring that they had access to their political leaders, whether it was in their city council or local legislators or federal representatives, to ensure that their concerns were being addressed and reflected in their community in the way that their elected officials understood them.

My first government job was at the state of Iowa working with migrant seasonal farm workers. That’s where I recognized that the need was really on how we improve systems to better serve our residents. Even though we already have laws to protect and that ask for us to ensure that we’re serving everybody equally, the outcomes are unequal. And a lot of the times that’s the way we provide those services and work in that specific field, serving migrant seasonal farm workers. I think that’s something that I saw a lot of and need to improve those systems.

I have moved a lot. I’ve had a lot of different jobs and part of that is because I am married to my wife who is super talented and works in news. That industry caused us to move around a lot. So then we came to Washington state and I worked with the Washington State Department of Transportation in their civil rights office doing equal employment opportunity reviews.

From there, I worked at the City of Tacoma. I worked in their neighborhood and community services. There, I focused on how to bring members of impacted communities into our neighborhood services programs. I chose the neighborhoods, Hilltop and Eastside, because they were definitely the most diverse groups, to see how we could make sure that we were providing services to them, but then also I worked internally to ensure that we supported our BIPOC employees in recognizing and celebrating the way that we wanted to be seen in the city and how we wanted our work to be reflected. I thought that was a great growth opportunity for me, but also a way to actually bond with other staff members. I am now here in the City of Spokane.

Lara: How did I not know you used to work for WSDOT?!

Alex: (laughs) It’s my civil rights work experience – I am like, “Ooh, we have a lot of work to do.” So it’s not something I brag about all the time.

Lara: What kind of spurred the shift from community organizing to government work?

Alex: To be honest, the nonprofit world did not pay enough to make a life sustainable in that space. I was definitely passionate and it was hard for me to detach myself from community organizing and advocacy and move into government. But I was able to identify that there was also a space within government to invite voices that have not been at the table to be part of our decision making process. The advocacy and nonprofit world is hard, especially for BIPOC individuals that are not always compensated for the work and sweat that they put in.

Lara: What guides you and what keeps you kind of going while also preserving yourself and protecting yourself?

Alex: What really motivates me is recognizing the people that have come before me in my direct life experience. I was raised by two strong women, my grandmother and my mother, who supported their kids, were single moms that raised us without the support of their community or the society that they were in. Just recognizing their hard work, their love, and their willingness to be in uncomfortable situations just to see us succeed and be a part of this community is really something that reminds me that this work is not done.

It reminds me that it’s okay to be in uncomfortable situations. My grandmother left a small village in Guatemala and moved to the city and eventually migrated to the United States. I just can’t imagine going through so many transitions in life and still wanting to continue living and persevering.

And same thing with my mother. There’s a lot of people that have suffered and continue to suffer because we have policies and cultures that do not support them in everyday life. So how do we support, how do we contribute to either ending that or addressing that in our lives?

Those are my main motivators, but (also) always looking back and asking how many other people have dedicated their lives to this work, even though we know that you’re not always supported in it, right? There’s so many obstacles, but then there’s a lot of people that also do support it. How do we continue doing that? There’s small victories all along the way and a lot of reminders that inequity still exists that keep me engaged and focused.

Lara: That is very true. Especially when you might not always get to see the product or outcomes of your work, because a lot of times change takes a long time.

Alex: Yeah.

Lara: (in raising his two daughters) How does that translate, having been raised by two strong women? How do you apply that to the future generations that you’re raising?

Alex: I think just being an immigrant, right? There’s so many different ties that are broken, cultures that you feel more, at least I feel more distant from. But there’s always opportunities to have reminders for my daughters of where I came from and where my passions are at.

There’s a lot of growth that I’ve had to do when it comes to raising young kids. But man, kids are sharp. I am not scared about what our next generation’s going to do. As long as we’re able to have these hard conversations about how history and current society and cultures can negatively impact our human experience, they will carry on that work and dismantle in a lot healthier ways because we’re providing those tools for them to be able to have those difficult conversations, to express how they’re feeling, and why they’re feeling it. And to set expectations for everybody else on how they want to be treated, looked at, and being able to ask for that.

Hopefully, that’s what they’re getting from me! I feel like they’re my boss most of the time anyway, and they’re not scared to tell me that. I just can’t wait until they get out into the world and are able to express themselves either in the same way or better than I ever did.

Lara: I definitely agree with those feelings about the future generation. I think they’re fearless. A lot of them are who I wish I could have been when I was that age. But I’m learning a lot from them. So you’ve been working on City Council about, what, two years? ‘Cause we kind of started at the same time, right?

Alex: Two years. Yeah, last week was my two-year anniversary.

Lara: Oh, congrats! Did you do anything to celebrate?

Alex: No, I didn’t. It just came by and left.

Lara: You gotta celebrate those milestones! I think there’s been a huge emphasis on that, especially during the pandemic, just finding the things that you can celebrate.

Alex: (laughs)

Lara: What are some things that you’ve been proud of so far in your work with City Council?

Alex: When I came in, it was really in the middle of COVID. Most people weren’t coming into the office. It was also right after the George Floyd protests and equity was being used in everything that we were doing but the City’s still going through this process of how to operationalize that idea and put it into work.

I think, and this is where I can say that I go back to my community organizing work, that early on I got to meet with organizations that were being highlighted. Part of my work is asking who else should I be talking to? Or, who’s in this space that I have not gotten to meet. One role that I like about my work is that there are so many amazing people in organizations already doing this work. They are passionate in implementing this out in the community that, for many years, were doing it through their volunteerism and trying to balance both their everyday lives, along with the volunteering, ensuring that there wasn’t too much harm being done within the communities that they worked in.

When I reflect, getting to know the individuals has been amazing. Getting to know the work that they’re doing is really cool to see. For my role, it’s like, how do we support that? How do we amplify that? They’re already doing a lot of that work. We just gotta make sure that they are supported by our institutions and systems to continue doing the work the way that the community members that they serve expect.

One of my successes has been really getting to know a lot of those people that have been providing the services to our community and bringing them into spaces where they can influence our elected officials and some of the programs that they’re looking to fund. I think that’s going to be and needs to be an ongoing relationship, and I am continuing to grow because of those individuals. I think that the city and having these connections is also growing and changing because of that. I think part of it is building all those relationships. We at City Council set up a housing action subcommittee and it was one of the most diverse groups to come together to talk about housing. They focus on equity and want to implement different tools to (reach) equity.

We just started working with an equity subcommittee to really create that vision that normalizes our work at the city. And hopefully also creates a pathway on how we implement it citywide.

I guess the outcome of my work is yet to be seen. We’ll see, right? Because we don’t see change right away, but there are little steps that we can do to normalize our conversation, to figure out how we can better implement tools or organizing them and then, how do we operationalize it? And how that looks like on the ground and for communities.

Lara: It’s a, what do they say? It’s a marathon, not a sprint?

Alex: Yeah. Not a sprint!

Lara: What are some ways people can either support the work that you’re doing or the communities that you’ve worked with? More people are paying attention to local government and following along with state legislation. What are some things that you think people should also pay attention to if they are really wanting to see change in the city of Spokane?

Alex: My mind’s going in so many different ways because there’s an advocacy piece that we wanna see, but then there’s also the self-reflection in how we go through everyday life and recognizing what our choices are and at what points we’re choosing to flex them to be anti-racist in the community. Or knowing how we impact different spaces.

Sometimes this work seems to be daunting because there is a lot of work to do, but we can address some things in our everyday life by choosing who we support or what nonprofits we support, or how we ask questions of one another, how we reflect. And, where do we wanna spend time? As an advocate, voting is the least you can do when it comes to civic engagement, following when it comes to following our local policies.

Lara, you know, I can’t expect people to watch Cable City 5 on Monday night.

Lara: But it’s so exciting!

(both laugh)

Alex: I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t work for local government and then asking them to follow the Washington state legislature. I wouldn’t be able to do that either. Cuz we’re busy, right? We’re busy individuals and I think: How do we slow down and reflect? How do we slow down and reflect on how we impact each other? How do we see everyone as human beings? How do we approach the way that we do things in a way as if we were living in a community that wanted to see the best results for everyone and if there are steps that we’re taking that create negative impact. Are we willing to change that? And why not? Or, you know, I guess (starting to) ask some of those questions.

I don’t have a clear answer.

Lara: Honestly, I just realized that I should have sent you questions ahead of time so you can prepare, cuz thinking on the spot is kind of hard!

Taking all of that into consideration and the work that you’ve done and us knowing this advocacy work can be relentless and growing and never ending, how have you, if you have, incorporated the more holistic or restorative aspect, maybe the healing part of equity work into what you do?

Alex: I think recognizing and knowing where we’re at as a community in trying to address a lot of the inequities that are happening in the community.

Lara: How do you restore yourself? How do you incorporate that into the internal work that you do at the City for staff who might also be in those same positions?

How, if you have, either thought about or tried to incorporate more, especially for communities of color and other marginalized communities that we have here, healing and restorative work into equity, social justice?

Alex: I guess the way that I approach a lot of our equity work, especially at the City, is how we focus more on outcomes. I haven’t really had the opportunity to create space for restorative or healing spaces. A lot of the community members that I work with are trying to run nonprofits that are really calling for a lot of their time. I wanna be respectful of that time. But, in the work that we do, how do we communicate those concerns to our elected officials? There’s opportunities to include those concerns, and the way that we design processes to ensure that we’re including it in there.

The way that I restore myself: I work with and coordinate with a lot of different individuals throughout the state and the country to kind of see what policies they’re working on. How have they handled different situations? What are policies that are bringing the best outcomes to their communities and how have they worked? How do they continue to tweak them? I think being able to have those conversations with different equity practitioners throughout the state is very helpful for me and sometimes inspirational, right? There’s amazing work happening throughout the country in policy and local government at this moment. How do we continue pushing that forward here?

Even here in Spokane, there are some things that kind of amaze me, especially in the past few months. We upzoned the entire city! Single family home lots used to not be able to have multi-family complexes or condos, which, in some of the equity work, we consider that exclusionary zoning. We just entered a pilot program into that. When we talk about multi-family tax exemptions, the incentives to build more affordable homes or living facilities in parts of the town that are better off was also approved. Last month, we approved the language access plan or policy that hopefully will be budgeted for and implemented next year so all of our city departments will have a way to translate documents to those that need it.

I think there’s a lot of exciting things that are happening and I’m able to communicate with other individuals that are in it. Sometimes we recognize that we don’t have all those connections, but we’re working towards building a community where we can have these conversations.

The equity subcommittee is one of those, but we’re still doing hard work, working within government, where we have to learn what all the processes are and strategies on how to improve our services to the community.

I have not created healing spaces. Because that’s its own work within itself. And really, I’m trying to focus on the outcomes and I know the outcomes are years away, but we’re steering that way.

Lara: What is one thing that you hope or envision for the future of Spokane in the next few years or so?

Alex: There’s a few things that are happening, right? The City put out a cultural events grant. We’re starting to celebrate the diversity of the city, recognizing cultures as they are and people the way that they’re showing up. I think that’s exciting. How do we continue to grow that?

I’m excited and wonder how that’s gonna look in our different neighborhoods. Is that going to start being represented in the way that we name streets or the things that we see around downtown when it comes to art fixtures and things like that? What sense of belonging do we see for our city and who serves on our boards and commissions? Do people feel welcomed and able to speak towards and demand from our local government and regional government officials on what their needs are and the different ways that we can get there? I think there’s a lot of energy there. I am just hoping that we can capture it so it can be reflected and celebrated here in Spokane.

Lara: That’s a really good point in how culture might be reflected in even street names, because we’ve had some issues with that and statues around town.

Alex: I even forget a bit about Whistalks Way. Oh my gosh! I helped organize that celebration! Just seeing the community’s energy to want to celebrate that, I am proud that I was in that space and shared it with them.

Rachel Dannen: What’s a good fire word for you, or, words that really capture the spirit of your work or your goals? I call these fire words.

Alex: I think the one that comes to mind at the moment is just committed. I like it because I think back to the earlier conversation of how this work can be draining, and emotional, and sometimes personal. How do we stay engaged for the long term? And I think that’s to be able to see some change coming through.

Lara: Is there anything else that you want to share with us or any last words?

Alex: I know I said it a lot and probably skipped around, but I’m sure you guys are gonna make this sound better than the interview.

Lara: It was a great conversation. We want these to feel less like interviews and more of a conversation where we get to know you and it’s just really organic. So thanks for taking the time to talk.

Alex: Yeah, I appreciate it. It’s a lot less daunting than having those questions and then figure leaving it up to me to write it up and, and taking that pressure to make it feel or sound good. So I appreciate that.


YWCA Spokane’s Racial & Social Justice Committee

Our vision is to strive to be a consistently accurate resource for information on racial, ethnic, and cultural awareness to promote diversity, equity, and inclusivity in employment, in business practices, and in the care and services provided throughout the communities we serve.  For 2022, the RSJ Committee is focusing on:

  • Community Partnerships
    • Enhance outreach efforts to community partners and liaisons to share ideas, support each other with action, and solidify connections. View the list of our RSJ Partners.
  • Events
    • Develop and host or co-host events to connect various groups of community members to share and understand each other’s stories. Events include movie nights, Stand Against Racism, equity & growth Challenge, and Transformations Camp for youth.
  • Education & Training
    • Provide training to YWCA staff, board of directors, mission partners and the community to allow awareness of subconscious thoughts or attitudes that affect our perceptions about people, the decisions we make, and the impact on our community.

Join the conversation with our Facebook Group and learn more about our RSJ Committee at ywcaspokane.org/racialjustice.


CHECK OUT OUR PREVIOUS SPOTLIGHTS

If you or someone you know should have their advocacy work highlighted through our RSJ Spotlight series, please email our equity coordinator, larae@ywcaspokane.org.

By: Lara Estaris

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