Commerce expands team dedicated to promoting equitable opportunities for underserved communities and small businesses
Yakima’s Jessica Camacho to lead statewide Small Business Resiliency Network; Karlena Brailey and Norma Chavez take on community engagement posts in the Olympic Peninsula and south central regions.
OLYMPIA, WA — Three recent hires by the Washington State Department of Commerce significantly increase the agency’s Community Engagement and Outreach team dedicated to promoting equity and opportunity for rural and underserved communities, small businesses and organizations.
Jessica Camacho of Yakima will lead Commerce’s Small Business Resiliency Network, a statewide program formed in Spring 2020, that works to ensure historically underserved business owners have access to business assistance, including COVID relief funding and support. Camacho will work closely with Commerce’s trusted community messenger the network partners in the network to help strengthen the network’s reach and impact. She will also work with Commerce’s community engagement specialists and the rural small business assistance team in the agency’s Office of Economic Development and Competitiveness.
“Small-business owners add so much value to the quality of life in our towns and cities, yet many are underserved and underrepresented,” Camacho said. She explained that many of these business owners may not always have access to a small-business advisor who speaks their language, a computer with high-speed internet or even a trusted guide who can help them maneuver through all the complicated language for grant and loan applications.
“Our Small Business Resiliency Network’s collective efforts provide underserved business owners with the connections and resources they need to be successful. By doing so, we empower them to continue running their businesses while encouraging locals and visitors to support these community businesses,” Camacho said.
Commerce is also expanding the Community Engagement team, a group of professionals central to the agency’s unique, collaborative approach to helping communities explore and address obstacles that may keep them from achieving their top priorities.
Karlena Brailey joined Commerce in September as community engagement specialist based on the Olympic Peninsula, including Clallam, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Kitsap and Mason counties. Brailey’s background is in public health and community development as it relates to addressing some of the chronic barriers that prevent people from being able to access the resources they need to live healthy lives. In her new capacity, she will similarly engage with various underserved rural communities in Western Washington, listening to understand community needs and priorities, providing technical and navigational assistance and linking them to available resources at Commerce and elsewhere that can help address both emergent and long-term unmet needs.
“I’m excited that part of my work will be to advocate for and assist with engaging diverse and historically marginalized neighborhoods, regions, communities and organizations to ensure everyone in Washington has opportunities to succeed and live their best lives,” Brailey said.
Norma Chavez fills a similar post based in Kennewick, covering Adams, Benton, Columbia, Franklin, Klickitat, Yakima and Walla Walla counties. Chavez’s 25-year background in Washington state government includes community engagement and outreach at the Washington Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Labor and Industries. She also worked for the civil rights branch for the Washington State Department of Transportation, working to provide equal opportunity to socially and economically disadvantaged businesses, and she headed the agricultural seasonal workforce services office at the Department of Agriculture.
“I am thrilled to be part of a growing team that wants to help communities help communities to gain equitable access to resources and reach their goals.. This includes expanding the programs that Commerce has to offer in an equitable manner,” Chavez said. “It is exciting to build a new regional position in south central Washington and bridge opportunities with community members, small businesses, organizations, cities and counties.”
“From housing, homelessness and infrastructure to jobs, child care and downtown revitalization, the challenges facing local leaders today are complex and daunting, especially for Washington’s rural and underserved communities,” said Commerce Director Lisa Brown. “We recognize that one size does not fit all when it comes to strengthening communities, and most importantly, successful solutions must be community-driven, not preconceived or imposed from outside.”
As stewards of about 100 state and federally-funded programs, Commerce began to pivot several years ago from typical, and often siloed, government assistance models to new approaches focused on intensive, comprehensive community engagement and outreach.
The community engagement team’s primary work is to establish and strengthen ongoing strategic partnerships with community leaders, local jurisdictions, community-based organizations, educational institutions and informal leaders and stakeholders. They bring subject matter experts to the table and work together to increase communities’ capacity to navigate and access the programs and funding needed to facilitate their priorities.
Tailoring technical assistance in this way to the specific needs of a community maximizes opportunities for success.
Brailey and Chavez bring their experience to the growing Commerce Community Engagement and Outreach team stationed throughout the state. Community Engagement and Outreach Office Deputy Director JB Bennis is based in Seattle, assisted by Contracts and Program Development Lead Tracy Gunter based in Olympia. Also based in Olympia, Engagement Specialist Steve Dunk serves southwestern Washington communities. Based in Spokane, Julia Havens manages the team and also serves as specialist for the far eastern portion of the state.
Commerce is currently recruiting two more community engagement specialists, one serving north central Washington, including Okanogan, Ferry, Chelan, Douglas, Lincoln, Kittitas and Grant counties, and the other covering the northwestern region encompassing San Juan, Island, Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish and King counties. For more information on these and other open positions, see Commerce’s website.
Anyone interested in connecting with the team can email firstname.lastname@example.org.