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PROFILE

AllIn
Jesse Farias talks about how growing up poor in a non-Englishspeaking household uniquely prepared him to govern his hometown of Wapato~ one of Washington~s most diverse communities.
You grew up in Wapato as one of 12 kids. What was your childhood like? My parents were farmworkers who moved here from Texas, and we didn't have a lot of money. We followed the crops, whatever my dad could find. Here in the valley, we worked in hops, potatoes, sugar beets. I helped from when I was 5 or 6 years old. At that age, I'd walk ahead of my dad and take the vines off to make it easier for him to pick potatoes. What did that experience teach you? My folks didn't have any formal education at all. But they gave us two gifts: one was a work ethic; the other was education. Of the 12 of us, 10 of us graduated from high school. I went to college and got a degree in sociology.

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You also joined the Army and lost your legs in the Vietnam War. How did that affect your life? I think it gave me access to more opportunities. My disability hasn't been much of a barrier. You retired to Wapato after three decades in state government-including a stint as Booth Gardner's director of veterans affairs-and now you're mayor of your hometown. What attracted you to local politics? When I moved back, I was just sitting around. I started watching the city council on TV and thinking I could do a better job, so I ran for mayor and was elected. That was eight years ago. How would you describe Wapato? It's a small town, only about 5,000 people, but we're known for our diversity. Our population is made up of two different groups of Hispanics, Filipinos, Japanese, and Native Americans. We have a Buddhist temple; the Filipinos have their own community center. And we're completely surrounded by the Yakama Indian reservation. It's a very diverse community. What's the greatest challenge? Wapato's like an island. How do you work with a sovereign nation when you're completely surrounded by it? How do you deal with that? How do you deal with that? The Yakama are our partners; they help us run our swimming pool. Two years ago, we closed down our swimming pool for lack of money- it costs $140,000 a year to run, and our entire budget's only $2.5 million. It was a rude awakening to the community. How did Wapato end up partnering with the Yakama? They had a change in leadership and decided that this was a good thing to do, to fund the pool and reopen it. We took their offer. It was a no-brainer. Does the city partner with the Yakama in other ways? We're doing some things in law enforcement also. Our officers ride around together, the tribal officers and our police officers. We provide backup to the tribal police. We also work closely together with them on animal control issues. What can Wapato teach other cities about diversity? I'm a firm believer that your workforce should mirror your community. Wapato is over 70 percent Hispanic, and our workforce reflects that. My police chief and the fire chief are Hispanic. Our city council is made up of five Hispanics and two Caucasians.

Government needs to be accessible. People can call me and contact me whenever they wish.
What's your philosophy as mayor? Government needs to be accessible. If you go through the front door of our city hall, prominently posted are the names of every city councilmernber and their phone numbers, as well as mine. People can call me and contact me whenever they wish. And why is that important? People need to know who is responsible for what, and they need to know that they can speak to the people in the city that are working for them. To that end, most of your staff is bilingual. How else do you make everybody in such a diverse community feei included in city government? I'm outgoing; every day I make sure I go out into the community and shake hands, greet people. That's the direction I urge all the department heads to take and pass on to the rank and file. What's one truth you wish elected officials would understand about diversity? I know the numbers can be frightening, but this isn't a new phenomenon. My parents came to Wapato in 1935. Hispanics have been coming here for a long time. So don't feel threatened. Many electeds think of diversity as a challenge. What's your take? Diversity is a city's strength. The more people you can get involved in determining your city's future, the better off you're going to be. And the more people understand each other, the less strife there will be.

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