Launch Northwest Prepares Local Students to Launch Into Careers Through Mentorship

article and video editing by Taylor D. Waring

Launch Northwest is a new program designed to assist students throughout their academic journey through job placement throughout Spokane, Eastern Washington, and Northern Idaho. We sat down with Launch Northwest Executive Director Ben Small and Spokane Public School’s Chief Family and Community Engagement Officer Oscar Harris to talk about their mission, mentorship, and the bright hope they have for future generations.

Taylor: To start out, can you tell our readers a little bit about Launch Northwest?

Ben: Launch Northwest became public in May of 2022 when we announced our very audacious goal of raising a promised scholarship and pairing that promise scholarship with the wraparound supports for children and families to make sure that every child — even the furthest from education and social justice — would be able to graduate from high school and attend post high school education.

Launch NW Ben and Oscar

Launch Northwest Executive Director Ben Small and Spokane Public School’s Chief Family and Community Engagement Officer Oscar Harris. Photo by Val Mohney.

Taylor: What are some current initiatives you’re working on that support our students in Spokane and beyond?

Oscar: One thing I’ll say in particular that is critical to the success of any type of programming is making sure you’re including everyone, from the start to the finish. That’s very connected to us within Spokane Public Schools, especially our Department of Family and Community Engagement. One thing that we are doing in particular is mentoring programs. If you look at the research and talk to individuals, the key factor that helped them to be successful in life was a mentor

Taylor: On that idea of mentoring, could you talk a little bit about the importance of mentorship in your own life and how that’s helped you to where you’re today?

Ben: Well, my brother and I took a chance and said, Hey, I’m on the WSU campus, come and visit.. Up until that point, I hadn’t had a pathway to college whatsoever. It wasn’t until he said to me, you can do this that I started to think about attending college. But I didn’t know how to apply to college. I didn’t know how to fill out the FAFSA. I didn’t understand what it was even like to be a college student. But that spark that started with my brother led me to success. Without that, I would still be working in the fast food industry right now, I can guarantee you.

Oscar: Without having mentors in my life, I could not occupy the spaces that I’m currently in Even starting at an earlier age, my uncle who came into my life at a critical time. Being from the small rural town that I was, I did not have access to the outside. So having a mentor who subscribed to National Geographic and who would sit down with me and allow for me to peruse through the pages to see the world. And while perusing through the pages would also say, one day I’m gonna take you to a place that’s different from the Mississippi Delta region. I’m gonna take you to a place called Spokane. And in a place called Spokane, Washington, there’s going to be great opportunities for you.

Taylor: Launch Northwest is part of Innovia, whose mission statement highlights innovation along with collaboration and inclusivity. How have you seen the students in the Spokane community and beyond adapt to the especially challenging last few years?

Oscar: Some students found it very challenging on students because many of them missed key rites of passages. They couldn’t go to prom. At the same time many of them did begin to start exploring the workforce. And going to the work market and so they began to garner specific skills and knowledge that’s going to be critical to them.

Ben: It has been a challenging time for our young people. But know that, when we as adults, provide the opportunity for children to understand their trauma — the trauma of a pandemic, the trauma of racism — they are so resilient. The challenge that, I think, we have as a community today, is to rise up and provide the opportunities in the lives of our young people to deal with and understand that trauma that they’ve experienced.

Taylor: You said in your answer how important it is for an older person to help younger people through trauma. But, there’s also a current cultural conversation where a lot of older folks seem to dismiss the emotions and pains of younger folks. What do you have to say to those folks who feel like people aren’t tough enough anymore?

Ben: One of the first things that I would ask somebody who was questioning whether our young people should get the support or need the support is: would you like to be living their life? Would you like to be growing up in a world of social media the way it is? Would you like to be growing up through the pandemic? And I think people would say, you know, maybe just maybe, I don’t think I’d want to step into those shoes.

Taylor: It sounds like empathy is incredibly important to your mission at Launch Northwest. How do you facilitate empathy for the students in Spokane and beyond?

Ben: It’s so important to us that the student voice is part of Launch Northwest. We recently held a student town hall where we had over 60 high school students come. Our students are so honest — and kind in their honesty — yet also impatient with us. We need to start listening to them differently. At Launch Northwest, we actually have a high school student who’s on our leadership council. We have two college students that are on our leadership council, and they are giving the student voice to the challenges that they see in the Spokane community and beyond. Our young people have great things to say and we need to give them the space to do it.