Both Amber and Vanessa Waldref were student government leaders and graduated as valedictorians from Prep. Both went on to earn undergraduate degrees at Georgetown University. Amber is currently Director of The ZoNE at Northeast Community Center, a partnership generating hope and opportunity
in under-resourced northeast Spokane neighborhoods. Vanessa is a trial attorney for the Department of Justice’s Environmental Defense Division. In July, she was nominated by President Biden for the position of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to hold the position.
Catch us up: Where have you gone, and what have you done since graduating from Prep?
Vanessa: After graduating from Prep, I traveled to Washington, D.C. where I joined Amber at Georgetown University. After college, I served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Seattle, where I gave "Know Your Rights" workshops and coordinated a legal information hotline for low-income parents. I loved how knowledge of the law could be a tool for improving people's lives and decided that law school was the right path for me. I moved back to D.C. where Jeff (now my husband) was living and returned to Georgetown for law school. I started my law practice in Washington, D.C. and clerked for U.S. District Court Judge John Bates. My clerkship experience with Judge Bates strongly influenced my desire to work for the U.S. Department of Justice because I witnessed the high quality of work performed by federal government lawyers in his courtroom and learned from Judge Bates’ experience as an Assistant United States Attorney in Washington, DC.
We started our family a few years into my legal career, and although the excitement and opportunities of Washington, D.C. are wonderful, Spokane is home, and my husband and I have loved raising our two children here. (I often joke that going into labor driving home from my law firm job in Capital Beltway traffic was the catalyst to moving back to Spokane!). We have been back in Spokane for a decade now, and I initially worked at two great Spokane law firms and then joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington. I have been with the Department of Justice since 2013 – first as an Assistant United States Attorney handling a broad range of federal civil and criminal litigation, and more recently as a Trial Attorney within the Environment and Natural Resources Division handling environmental litigation around the country. As a DOJ attorney, I have had the great opportunity to work on challenging, important cases that fight fraud and corruption, protect our natural resources, and keep our communities safe. Another passion of mine is teaching and mentorship, and I have been an adjunct professor at Gonzaga University School of Law since 2015.
This January, Senators Murray and Cantwell recommended me to President Biden for the position of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington. This is an incredible honor, and if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed by the Senate in the coming months, I would be the first female U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District.
Amber: Since graduating from GPrep and then Georgetown University, my passion has been engaging local community members and state/national leaders to increase access to opportunity and justice, bringing people together to design equitable solutions, and helping organizations invest in people and places to create measurable, community-oriented change.
My roles have included national student activist leader, regional organizer working to clean up Hanford Nuclear Waste, development director at The Lands Council, Logan neighborhood leader, non-profit and small business developer, Spokane City Councilmember, Spokane Transit Board Chair, member of state and national policy groups including the Governor's 2020 Census Counts Committee, and as a cheerleader for the amazing neighbors and organizations doing incredible work to increase opportunity every day.
As Spokane City Council Member, I led the effort to expand Spokane’s public transit, oversaw major city investments to prevent pollution from entering the Spokane River, and spearheaded local and state policies to address the impacts of housing foreclosures. I initiated the first joint Mayor-City Council strategic plan that focused on more equitable outcomes using data and indicators to drive priority investments.
Currently, I create measurable impact through collective action back in the neighborhoods of Northeast Spokane where I grew up and where I went to school at Gonzaga Prep. As Director of The ZoNE at Northeast Community Center, I bring residents and multi-sector partners together to align strategies that increase education, economic, and health equity, build neighborhood leadership, and support thriving families and schools in an area of concentrated poverty and historically underrepresented residents.
As a consultant, I support people and organizations, especially non-profits, in reaching their strategic goals. Since 2017, I’ve provided backbone administrative and communications support to Urbanova, the “Smart Cities” collaboration based in Spokane’s University District.
I enjoy living in the beautiful Inland Northwest where I garden, run and bike on local trails, take my two children (Nora - 10 and Karolina -13) to festivals and parks, downhill ski, and enjoy local wines and music. I love traveling and experiencing new places and cultures. My husband Tom Flanagan has taught Chemistry at Gonzaga Prep for over 20 years. He keeps me and our children connected to GPrep activities and traditions!
More info and my bio can be found at www.amberwaldref.org.
What is your relationship as sisters like?
Vanessa: Amber is the best big sister. Growing up she always let me play with her friends and included me in her activities. We have never really been competitive with each other. Amber is brave and independent, and her leading the way and traveling across the country to Georgetown University definitely inspired me to take the leap and explore Washington, D.C. for college. We overlapped for one year at Georgetown -- which was awesome. I met my husband at Georgetown that year through his and Amber's mutual friend.
Now we live less than a mile away from each other in Northeast Spokane, not far from Prep and where we grew up. Being able to raise our kids together has been an amazing joy. During the pandemic we lived in Amber's backyard by the firepit while the kids were jumping on the trampoline. Also, we are both distance runners and spend hours together on the Centennial Trail jogging along the Spokane River, troubleshooting ideas and trying to solve problems big and small!
Amber: Being three years apart in school allowed us to develop common interests like music and tennis, but also our own friendships, dreams and passions. We enjoyed being in band and jazz band together at GPrep (where Vanessa was a much better saxophone player than I was!). I have often been inspired by Vanessa -- for instance when she became a vegetarian in 7th grade because of the environmental impact of raising animals as food. At Georgetown we were both activists but in different areas -- Vanessa was one of the student leaders fighting to stop Georgetown University from buying/selling clothing made in international sweatshops. I was Leading a student peace and justice club that was calling for a ban on landmines and the impacts of war and genocide. Even when we lived on different sides of the country, or in other parts of the world, or now in the same neighborhood in Spokane we've stayed very close and supported each other through professional and personal challenges.
How did your upbringing influence paths at Prep?
Amber: Our parents were always very concerned about social justice and encouraged us to be change agents in the tradition of Catholic social teaching. This probably put us on the path to getting active in student government (Amber served as Senior Class President and Vanessa was ASB Girls Vice President), starting up and participating in clubs (Amber started an Environmental Club, Vanessa was President of the History Club and led community tours of historic Spokane sites). Our mom had graduated from college with an English Major and she really inspired us to be good readers, writers and public speakers, which fueled our interest in Honors English classes and electives. Even though we grew up low-income/working class without a lot of financial resources, our parents had high hopes for a college education for both of us and really encouraged us to perform at a high academic level, take difficult classes, and also take part in the arts. We both took piano lessons from a young age and then transitioned into different band instruments to play at a high level at GPrep.
Vanessa: When we were in grade school, our mom coordinated a community Thanksgiving Dinner each year at St. Patrick’s Parish that served a full, sit-down Thanksgiving meal to anyone who walked in the door. It was a huge undertaking and involved coordinating bus transport from homeless shelters in town. Amber and I served coffee and cleared tables and listened to the stories of the dinner guests. This was a formative experience for me, where I heard about the difficult lives of many families and witnessed the disparity of resources in our community. This fortified my resolve to treat everyone with respect and work for social justice. I loved how teachers at Prep were also passionate about community service and social justice work. I was a leader with Ancilla, collected and delivered food for Prep’s awesome Thanksgiving food drive, and really appreciated how community service was built into the school’s curriculum.
How did the academics at Prep prepare you?
Vanessa: We both had Dr. Birrer for English and loved literature and writing. I remember Dr. Birrer's teaching the class about writing with the analogy of a red thread—the thread needs to weave through the entire essay, tying the paragraphs together to make the essay remain focused on the topic and transition smoothly. At Georgetown, Amber and I both were accepted into a selective Liberal Arts Seminar that involved rigorous research and writing—the language arts skills I gained at Prep were vital to performing well in that environment.
Amber: For me, it was the Honors English classes with teachers like the late Dr. Birrer, Christian Birrer and Mr. Carroll. We read some incredible literature by Elie Wiesel, Bronte and Shakespeare—literature that opened up historical experiences and perspectives. Also, writing essays prepared me so well for becoming a Georgetown University English Major. I would also say History—American History with Mr. Long really inspired my interest in government, civics and social movements, leading me to choose Sociology as my second major in college and drive my career interests to be a community organizer, environmental advocate and eventually run for public office. GPrep truly prepared us to be leaders in action and to set the world on fire!
How did service and faith experiences at Prep prepare you?
Vanessa: Prep's service learning and retreat programs were an incredible part of my high school experience. Ignatian teaching about being companions and neighbors for those in need— "Men and Women for others"—is foundational in my desire to engage in public service work. Amber and I both were leaders in the service club Ancilla and involved in Search and other retreats. Our interest in government and public service is driven by our desire to serve all members of the community, especially those who are most vulnerable.
Amber: I was part of the liturgy team that provided music for all the Masses while I was at GPrep. This allowed me to use my musical talents on the piano to express my faith—and make some lifelong friends. I really appreciated being a part of Ancilla and providing service in many different ways throughout Spokane. It felt very good to give back to a community that had always supported me in my dreams. This love of service continues to be a guiding force for me in my career and life choices.
What teachers or counselors played a role in your paths?
Vanessa: Mr. Duffy was my geometry and calculus teacher. I loved his passion for students understanding WHY the answer was correct and all of the steps in the process. Just getting the right answer was not enough. Now as a parent trying to work with my kids using the "new math" I have even greater appreciation for his patience and deliberate approach. As a lawyer, I fortunately do not need to recall specific math formulas—but understanding the process and practical steps to prepare a case for trial and make progress in negotiations is critical.
Amber and I were both in band together and Mr. Smith's love of music and encouragement of students to be creative and have fun has also stuck with us. We both continued playing music at Georgetown in the pep band and coordinated a program called GU Melody where college students gave free music lessons to low-income elementary students in D.C. We now encourage our kids to practice their instruments (with occasional success!).
We are both grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Kukuk, our counselors who alerted us to the Bellarmine Scholarship at Georgetown University, which is available for valedictorians of Jesuit High Schools. We both received this scholarship, which changed our lives and opened so many doors for us that we did not even know existed.
What advice would you give to current Prep students, especially young women?
Vanessa: I would encourage Prep students to dream big, explore any careers that they find interesting, and really engage in their community. Prep has wonderful teachers and great relationships with community partners—connect with all these great people to explore areas that you are passionate about.
For young women—be courageous and take risks. As a law professor, I see that my female students are often less likely to speak up in class and are less likely to apply for positions unless they are overqualified for them. If you want to try something, go for it! If it doesn't work out the first time, go for it again!
Also, I would encourage everyone to build a community of friends who support and appreciate you. Authentic friendships will carry you through hard times and keep you true to your values. Even when we were apart during college and in the early years of our careers, I have remained close with several high school friends who are always there to remind me of my Spokane roots and type of person I strive to be.
Amber: I would encourage GPrep students to understand what is happening in their own communities politically and economically—what can you learn from this and where can you use your talents to improve the lives of others? GPrep in the Jesuit tradition supports students as critical thinkers. Keep thinking critically about your world and world around you. Seek out new ideas. Listen. Question.
For women, do not be afraid to ask for help in reaching your dreams. Find a mentor who can support you if you don't have that person in your life. Be persistent and do not try to bully others or mimic traditional Anglo male leadership styles because they are the norm—create your own style. Be kind. Be an ally to other women. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed!
Are there specific moments in your journey where your Prep education is something that you relied on, changed your trajectory, inspired you to serve others?
At GPrep, we were encouraged to build strong relationships with our teachers and other students—to ask questions, ask for help, engage in critical dialogue. This experience is something we relied on when we attended Georgetown University for our undergrad degrees and then went on to Masters work and Law School. GPrep definitely prepared us to actively engage in critical dialogue inside and outside the classroom.