While she was born in Mexico, Yolanda Avila’s family has had ties to Colorado Springs since the late 1950s. The city councilor represents District 4 on the Southeast side, an area with which she is entirely familiar.
Avila’s father spent 21 years in the Army and was stationed at Fort Carson on more than one occasion. Avila attended local elementary and middle schools and is a graduate of Mitchell High School. She attended Pikes Peak Community College and earned her degree from Colorado College, where she studied economics and political science.
Avila (and dog, Puma), a resident of 80910, spoke with the Business Journal about her district, her challenges and her commitment to her constituents.
What’s your history with Colorado Springs?
Well, I was born in Mexico. My mom did the opposite of what some would expect — when she was pregnant she would leave the U.S. when she could and go to Mexico to have her children. … There was a lot of racism at the time — people had to drink from separate water fountains and were segregated in public places. My mom didn’t like that.
My parents were living in Garden City, Kan., which is where my dad had been born and raised. … He got a letter from Uncle Sam and was drafted into the Army. He was based at Fort Carson for the first time when I was 3 years old and my mom fell in love with the Springs. She said it would be our home base.
I’m not a native here, but I sure feel like one.
What was your first job out of college?
I graduated during a recession and looked everywhere for a job. There was a receptionist position with the Chamber of Commerce that I applied for and was told I would be bored to tears. I ended up going to Denver and worked … helping women on public assistance get into job training or into a job with benefits. I was in Denver until 1989.
I went to law school in Michigan for a year and I did not like it. … So I went to Orange County, Calif., in 1990. Every job I applied for, I was offered. It was so different from here. I had been working as a temp at a machine shop doing administrative stuff. They really wanted me to stay, but I said I applied for a job with the county as a criminal defense investigator.
“You have to know somebody,” they said. “You’re from Colorado. You don’t know anybody.”
Three weeks later I was offered the job.
What was that job like?
I loved it. I couldn’t wait to go to work — kind of like now. In 1995 I’d been promoted and bought a new Toyota Camry with a sunroof. I was working out of Newport Beach and remember looking up at the palm trees and thinking all my hard work paid off. I had money in my pocket, a new ride. What else could you want?
But in 1998 I got the diagnosis that I was going to go blind. I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, where the cells in my retina gradually deteriorate.
I gave my daughter my car keys. I had already gone down a couple one-ways the wrong way.
For the first couple years I was in a fog. I didn’t know the life of a person with a disability. But I learned I’m more than my five senses — I’m the depth and breadth of all my experiences and they’re still there.
Has losing your vision impacted your sense of social responsibility?
What made the transition [to blindness] easier in California was that every street and sidewalk was completely accessible. Buses ran every 10 or 15 minutes. I didn’t have to go on disability and move back in with my mom in the Springs. But I came back to the Springs to retire in August 2011 and a third of the city lights were out. Buses were only running Monday through Friday and they were done by 5:30 p.m. The sidewalks were horrible or nonexistent.
I was like, “What happened to my city?”
I thought I would read books and do yoga and hang out with my mom. I bought a house near her in 2005 because I planned to retire here.
So I started talking at city council meetings and getting involved in transportation. People were asking me to be on their board. I knew things needed to be done and, a couple years ago, before I was elected, we were able to increase route frequency and added night routes and Saturdays and Sundays.
I knew I could have a voice and contribute.
Talk about running for council.
I’d been asked by some to run for city council and, secretly in my heart, I really did want to.
I first ran in 2015 and had no idea what I was doing.
I had just broken my ankle after falling into a utility hole. … It had been left open and I walked right into it. … I ran in 2015 with a cast and I’m blind and I don’t have a campaign manager. After my first forum I went home and cried. … I thought, “What am I doing?” I felt like I was in way over my head.
But after the 2015 election I did a candidates class — Emerge Colorado — to get the tools I needed to try again. I grew my network and got a campaign manager and treasurer for 2017. I had more than 200 volunteers coming in from Eagle, Denver, all the way to Pueblo. I knocked on thousands of doors.
It’s all part of my commitment to my district. My mom lives there. My parents bought that house in 1967, and my mom’s still there.
Talk about issues in your district.
I felt like my district wasn’t being paid attention to for a long time. People had just given up on anything happening there. When I was campaigning, the unemployment rate in my district was 8 percent. In the city it was 2.7 percent. Five years ago the workforce center was moved to the Northwest side of town. A bus ride [with transfers] could take two or three hours.
In 2015 a bus used to pass a third of a block from my house to go to The Citadel mall. Right after the 2015 election, that stop was completely removed.
A battered women’s shelter had just located in that exact place because of the bus stop. That wasn’t being paid attention to. It was faster for kids attending Sierra High School to walk two miles than wait for the bus. I felt infrastructure projects weren’t being equally distributed throughout the city.
I’m also concerned about stormwater and jobs, but transportation ties into everything — getting to grocery stores, medical appointments and work.
What are your strengths?
When I get emailed by my neighbors, I respond to them and let them know I’m working for them. One person emailed that there was another Dumpster needed at Wildflower Park, so I got a hold of the [parks and recreation department] and the next week the Dumpster was there. The constituent said that had never happened before. I’m a community person. I know policy and stuff and I’m learning, but my strength is my connection to my community.
What are your thoughts on this council?
I love this council. It feels like we have three pretty conservative council members, three moderate and three progressive council members. I think that creates a pretty good balance. When an issue comes up, it’s great to hear the different points of view from the council. I learn so much from their comments.
Personally, I like all my colleagues. These people are smart. It freaks me out.
What’s your favorite thing about your district?
The people! … We’re passionate but there isn’t a sense of entitlement. … We’re not the squeaky wheel because we’re so grateful for what we have as a community right now. The people in my district are humble, but they also know they aren’t getting their fair share. But I love the diversity in my district, that I can go have soul food and Mexican food and Korean food and Filipino food — you can see I’m all about food.