Becky Avila stands with the mayor of L.A.
Becky Avila '09, second from right, stands with her colleagues from Safe Place for Youth and the mayor of Los Angeles during the opening of housing for homeless youth. (Courtesy photo)

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Becky Avila '09 knows how hard it can be for first-generation students of color to succeed in college. As a first-year student at Whitman College in 2005, she worked hard to overcome hurdles. Since graduating with her degree in race and ethnic studies, Avila went on to earn a graduate degree and return to the Los Angeles neighborhood where she grew up.

This week, she'll visit Whitman College to share her message of advocacy and community involvement with students as the guest speaker for the Student Engagement Center's annual dinner celebrating community connections on April 30. The event celebrates students and their involvement in volunteer organizations and events in Walla Walla.

After earning her doctorate from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, Avila returned to the community of Del Rey, California, where her first job was at a local youth center with after school programs for low-income Latino students and families living in the Del Rey housing projects.

"I wanted to be a mentor for those high school students so that they could see someone from their community that attended college, attended grad school, and went abroad," she said. "It's the importance of returning to sow those seeds into the community."

To amplify the often-unheard voices of her students and their families, Avila ran for a Del Rey neighborhood council position. The neighborhood council is a local form of government, certified by the city. Del Rey is part of a larger network of 99 neighborhoods in Los Angeles, each serving about 40,000 people.

"I talked about how difficult it was for the students in this community to worry about SAT scores when they are hearing gunshots in the middle of the night," she said. "And I know they are hearing these gunshots, because I live here too and am hearing the same gunshots."

Avila's work in and for the Del Rey community was recognized in 2018 when she was honored with the title "neighborhood hero." Avila works to bring attention to the poverty in Del Rey and to make sure that it doesn't get overlooked.

"I understand the intricacies of what young people are going through there and how disillusioning it can be to want to strive for something better when the options are so limited. It's not very encouraging," Avila said.

She wants to see students in neighborhoods like hers achieve educational success, and then return to "share the seeds of wisdom and tools that they've got with their communities."

In her current role at Safe Place for Youth, an organization that helps homeless youth on the westside of Los Angeles, Avila is faced with the ever-present impacts of gentrification. For students who are able to go to college, many return home to discover that the cost of living in their area has skyrocketed. Her advocacy work includes working for more affordable housing.

Avila has learned lots in her years working in the Del Rey and West Side communities, and she has much to share with students interested in pursuing community service and advocacy.

"One of the biggest challenges is the lack of understanding. It's really hard to hear people who don't want to share their backyard or their space with people in need," she said. "Because you are representing a bigger body and a bigger cause, you have to pick your battles. Some you lose and some you win - you are playing the long game."

She attributes her knowledge and understanding of how race and identity intersect with policy, economics, laws and social customs to her undergraduate education.

"It is a really powerful and critical lens that helps me navigate the world," said Avila of the perspective she developed at Whitman. She also credits Whitman for helping her develop strong writing skills. "Those skills are transferable - they make us stronger allies, stronger advocates. It makes us louder both in written and verbal word."

Students who chose advocacy as a path after graduation will face struggles and challenges, which is why Avila feels strongly that they pursue advocacy with fervor and passion - and get encouragement from those already working as advocates.

"If we continue together, we can make a difference one person at a time," she said. "I encourage anyone who is feeling exhausted to remember that they have a team to rely on. We can't do this work alone. We need to continually encourage one another rather than discourage each other."