WENATCHEE — Utilizing groundwork undertaken by the Our Valley Our Future nonprofit organization, a new group has formed to address race, equity and inclusion issues in the region.

The Equity and Inclusion Working Group has met six times since late June. Group members have been focusing on self-learning and on advocating for changes to fill equity gaps in the community.

The group’s formation follows the May death of George Floyd, which has sparked demonstrations for racial justice across the country, and it comes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Latinos and African-Americans.

The Equity and Inclusion Working Group is co-chaired by Teresa Bendito of the Parque Padrinos neighborhood organization and by Chelan County Commissioner Bob Bugert. Other members of the working group include (in alphabetical order): Karen Alman, Cecilia Anguiano, Jerrilea Crawford, Karen Francis-McWhite, Donny Guerrero, Vanessa Gutierrez, Mark Kulaas, Mary Big Bull-Lewis, Randy Lewis, Stacy Luckensmeyer, Jessi Mendoza, Karen Rutherford, Keni Sturgeon, Caroline Tillier, Erin Tofte, Karina Vega-Villa, Rufus Woods, Steve Wright and Teresa Zepeda.

Eleven of the 21 members are people of color.

“The end goal is to help the overall community better understand race, equity and inclusion issues and topics and in the process break down barriers,” Bendito said. “We also want to serve as an example and encourage others to take steps in their personal and professional lives that will make this place a more accepting community for all.”

The new group grew out of Our Valley Our Future’s One Community game-changer project, which was developed by residents to bridge jurisdictional and cultural divides. As part of that game-changer, a committee of community leaders spent 10 months researching and writing a “Regional Thinking, Inclusion and Collaboration” white paper. The white paper is slated for release this August. Among the recommendations in the report are for the community “to make a concerted effort to nurture a sense of inclusion so the strengths of the entire community are tapped” and to communicate broadly “the meaning and importance of inclusion.”

“COVID-19 has only exacerbated inequities that have always existed in our community, and as the pandemic has progressed, it’s felt like an urgent call to action for all of us to get involved, take care of each other, and take a stand for what’s right,” said Bendito, who also was part of the One Community committee that developed the white paper.

The Equity and Inclusion Working Group has created a meeting framework in which it holds a “learning session” on race, equity and inclusion issues one week and then discusses and develops action steps the following week. Karen Francis-McWhite, former North Central Washington Economic Development District director who is now with the state Department of Commerce, has been facilitating the learning sessions. Our Valley Our Future (OVOF) has been assisting the new group by serving as a convener and communicator.

People interested in joining the Equity and Inclusion Working Group should email info@ourvalleyourfuture.org with their contact information and a brief statement on why they would like to join.

“OVOF supports the Equity and Inclusion Working Group and believes it can have a real impact in bringing together collaborative partners, in advocating for necessary change, and in modeling the kind of work that is needed throughout the community,” said Steve Maher, OVOF coordinator. “The Equity and Inclusion Working Group is a logical extension of the visioning, planning and community building work that OVOF has conducted and continues to conduct.”

OVOF, founded in 2015, is a collaborative nonprofit organization that brings together residents and organizations to improve the region’s quality of life. Its guiding document is its Action Plan, which includes more than 160 projects led by partnering organizations. OVOF serves as convener, facilitator, data-collector, planner and communicator.

Steve Maher is the project coordinator for Our Valley Our Future.