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El Centro de la Raza opens Federal Way location, responding to demographic shift

Students study notes during a class at El Centro de la Raza's new Federal Way location.
Parker Miles Blohm
/
KNKX
Students study notes during a class at El Centro de la Raza's new Federal Way location.

Responding to shifts in the region's demographics, El Centro de la Raza has opened a new space in Federal Way. It's a significant expansion for the iconic Seattle organization.

El Centro provides a variety of social services, from jobs and finance trainings to after-school programs and case management. Its services are available to anyone, but the organization has historically focused its efforts on the region's Hispanic and Latino population.

That population has shifted in the decades since El Centro was founded. According to census data, Latinos now make up more than nine percent of King County's population, compared with over five percent in 2000.

Where Latinos live has also shifted. More than half of King County's Latino population now lives south of Seattle. About 22 percent live in the city. Two decades ago, those numbers were closer together, with nearly a third of King County Latinos living in Seattle.

"Our community has moved south of Seattle due to the high cost of living," said Denise Pérez Lally, human services director for El Centro de la Raza.

That shift served as a call to action for the organization to meet people where they are, Pérez Lally says.

The Federal Way location opened in January. But there are several programs already underway with offerings set to grow rapidly. Most of the programs and services offered in Federal Way also can be accessed in Seattle.

One area of focus in South King County is the economy, from jobs training to financial literacy to help starting a business.

"The majority of the entrepreneurs, they're located now in south King County," said Liliana Paredes, who directs El Centro's business opportunity center.  "The economy is growing, and they're looking for resources in order to have everything in order and be in compliance to operate their businesses."

But it's not just south King County's Latino community that stands to benefit here.

Grace Tsiomba, 30, is originally from Congo-Brazzaville in central Africa. She's taking El Centro's training class to work in a bank, which is what she did in her home country. Her first language is French.

"It's a good opportunity for us bilingual students to have training with people who understand us well," Tsiomba said.

She explains that even though the instructors may not speak French, they understand how to work with students who may have trouble understanding certain concepts or financial terms.

Tsiomba lives in Des Moines and takes classes at Highline Community College. She says it would have been a lot harder to drive to Seattle to take the course.

El Centro had been doing outreach in south King County for several years before deciding to purchase space in the area. Pérez Lally says having its own building in Federal Way makes the organization's presence here premanent.

"This is your home away from home," she said. "This is a place where we look forward to being here at least another 50 to 100 years."

That sense of place is central to the ethos of El Centro de La Raza. It goes back to the organization's founding in the early 1970s, when Chicano activists occupied an abandoned school in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood. They stayed there for three months, demanding that city leaders allow them to turn the dilapidated building into a bilingual service center. 

They eventually won that fight, along with $87,000 from the city to build what is now El Centro de la Raza.

El Centro de la Raza in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Wash.
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
/
KNKX
El Centro de la Raza in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Wash.

The organization remains in that historic building, though its footprint in Seattle has grown. The Plaza Roberto Maestas, named for one of El Centro's founders, is an icon of Beacon Hill. In addition to classrooms and offices, the plaza incorporates apartments and retailers. 

The Federal Way building is not there yet. From the outside, it looks like any suburban office building. But Pérez Lally says that could change.

El Centro de la Raza new Federal Way location.
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
/
KNKX
El Centro de la Raza new Federal Way location.

"If you would have walked into this buiding three months ago, it would have never felt the way it feels today," she said. "It's the spirit and it's the energy that's going to turn or transform this space."

A Seattle native and former knkx intern, Simone Alicea has returned to the Pacific Northwest from covering breaking news at the Chicago Sun-Times. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.