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"How Seattle and King County Are Tackling Institutional Inequities,"

by Julie Nelson, Glenn Harris, Sandy Ciske & Matias Valenzuela September/October 2009 issue of Poverty & Race

At PRRAC’s May meeting in Seattle in conjunction with its latest round of research/advocacy grants, city and county representatives made fascinating presentations of their respective social justice initiatives. We asked them to describe these steps for P&R readers, in the hope that other cities and counties might replicate these important moves.

At first sight, the Seattle-King County area in the Pacific Northwest seems to be a land of wealth and good living. It is the epicenter of major industries such as Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks. But take a closer look: The region’s social inequities mirror national trends, and many communities are losing ground.

Two government entities in the Pacific Northwest are tackling the problem directly. The City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) seeks to end institutional racism in City government and to promote multiculturalism and full participation by all residents. King County’s Equity and Social Justice Initiative seeks to create a place of opportunity, fairness, equity and social justice where all people thrive.

Seattle is the largest city in King County, which stretches from the shores of Puget Sound to the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains. The County’s 1.9 million people are about 70% white. Asian communities comprise 13.4% of the total population, Latinos 6.8%, African Americans 5.3% and mixed-race 3.2%. The Seattle-King County area has a national reputation for being politically progressive and culturally diverse.

The history of the Pacific Northwest reflects the complexities of the nation’s ongoing struggle to achieve racial and social equity. Early trading relationships between Northwest tribes and European settlers soon gave way to armed conflict, usurpation of land and establishment of tribal reservations. The Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and other Asians succeeded in establishing strong communities, yet experienced periodic waves of repression, legal containment or expulsion. The most infamous of these was the forced relocation and internment of approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans in 1942 under Executive Order 9066. African Americans migrated to Seattle-King County to escape Jim Crow conditions in other parts of the country; once they arrived, they were forced to navigate a seldom-acknowledged system of restricted employment and segregated housing. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans and other people of color in Seattle were systematically excluded from higher education and many professions and industries. The current racial makeup of Seattle neighborhoods is a legacy of restrictive, race-based covenants and redlining that were common in Seattle until the early 1950s. In 1964, the voters of Seattle rejected a local “Open Housing” initiative by a margin of two to one.

When it comes to racial and other systemic inequities, Seattle-King County in 2009 is no different than any other city in the United States. Race influences where we live, where we work, how well we do in school, how long we will live, and the likelihood of our involvement in the criminal justice system. To this day, people of color in Seattle-King County account for a disproportionate number of people living in poverty. In 2006, the poverty rate of Native Americans and African Americans was 30%. People of color also continue to experience discrimination in employment, housing, education and public places. Significant inequities exist in environmental justice, criminal justice, health and education.

Geography still plays a part in defining inequities. The north ends of both Seattle and King County, which historically were racially restricted areas, have better outcomes in health, education and other indicators.

The Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative and the King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative were planned and introduced independently of one another. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels called for a Race and Social Justice Initiative in 2001 at the start of his first term as Mayor, after his own experiences on the campaign trail revealed a racial chasm in residents’ perceptions of City government. Several City departments already had been working for years to address racial disparities and race-based barriers to the use of City services. Citywide diversity and cultural competency training had created a relatively diverse and civil workplace, but it had done little to address underlying systemic issues. In 2004, Seattle began to implement its initiative to address these issues throughout City government.

Among the various activities by King County that contributed to launching its Equity and Social Justice Initiative, two stand out. First, several years ago, Executive Ron Sims (currently the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) convened a cross-departmental group to examine inequities for young men of color, based on the national Dellums Commission that looked at health, education, employment, child welfare, criminal/juvenile justice and media. Similarly, over the last three years, King County, along with about 16 other sites across the country, has been participating in an effort called Place Matters to identify and address root causes of inequities and the social determinants of health.

City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI)

Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative focuses on race because race has profoundly shaped all our institutions and public policies. Until now, government typically had responded to inequities—when it responded at all—by developing programs and services to ameliorate the effects of racism. The RSJI attempts to focus on root causes. Ending institutional racism involves more than simply developing programs to help people of color. The Race and Social Justice Initiative is the City of Seattle’s effort to change the underlying system that creates and preserves inequities, rather than attempt to treat the symptoms.

Since 2005, all City departments are required to develop and implement annual RSJI work plans, whose key elements also are included in department directors’ Accountability Agreements with the Mayor. Each department has created its own Change Team to guide and support the department’s work plan implementation and to support its RSJI activities. RSJI also requires departments to work on citywide issues:

• End racial disparities internal to the City—improve workforce equity, increase City employees’ knowledge and tools, and increase contracting equity.

• Strengthen the way the City engages the community and provides services—improve outreach and public engagement, improve existing services using Race and Social Justice best practices, and improve immigrants’ and refugees’ access to City services.

• Eliminate race-based disparities in the broader community.

The Seattle Office for Civil Rights oversees the Initiative, monitoring departments’ progress and coordinating citywide employee training. An interdepartmental Subcabinet monitors RSJI work and makes broad policy recommendations.

In 2007, the Initiative underwent a thorough assessment to measure progress and make recommendations for the future. The next year, the City announced the next phase of RSJI. In addition to continuing to address racial disparities within Seattle City government, the Initiative also would begin to address fundamental race-based disparities in the larger community by developing partnerships with other key institutions—such as the King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative.

King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative (ESJI)

The King County Equity & Social Justice Initiative is built on the premise that people of color, low-income residents and ethnic groups who have limited English proficiency are more likely to experience racism, underemployment, low education, poor health outcomes, incarceration and general loss of opportunity. In addition, they are more likely to have unsafe living conditions with less access to public goods and services, resources and life opportunities.

King County acknowledges that it needs to change the way it does business in order to address the root causes of inequities. Since there is no blueprint for a government to take on these issues, the County recognizes that it must create a new culture—one that promotes learning and provides spaces for groups and departments to attempt different approaches. The push is for departments and their employees to look beyond individual behaviors to the social, economic and physical factors in communities that shape behaviors. In other words, it is not about blaming the individual, but pushing “upstream” and addressing the root causes of inequities. And it is about looking at decisions, systems and policies that will create more equitable conditions. This means working across departments and side-by-side with communities and partners, especially historically marginalized communities, so they will influence decisions.

The Equity and Social Justice Initiative has prioritized three areas of work. First, it is working to incorporate an equity lens into Countywide policy development and decision-making. Second, all executive departments make yearly commitments to address equity and social justice. And third, the County is engaging community groups that are the most impacted by inequities, as well as groups that hold institutional power, to raise the common understanding about equity and identify policies that will make a difference.

An Inter-Departmental Team is responsible for the Initiative’s accountability and oversight, and reports to both the executive and operations cabinets. This team, with the Public Health Department as the facilitator, includes high-level representation from all executive departments plus the executive’s office and the office of strategic planning and performance measures. More recently, the Inter-Departmental Team has had participation from County departments headed by separately elected officials, such as district and superior courts.

Similarities and Differences between the Two Initiatives

RSJI and ESJI share several important similarities:

• Both Initiatives use community organizing models to move the work forward. In both Initiatives, teams are responsible for developing critical mass within a larger community—to “widen the circle” of participants who understand the theory behind the Initiatives and can begin to put it into practice by changing the institutions’ policies, practices and procedures.

• Both Initiatives strive for systemic change; neither represents a program or “project.” There are no quick fixes, only a long-term commitment to a new way of doing business through institutional change.

RSJI and ESJI do differ, however, in a number of critical areas:

• Seattle’s RSJI focuses explicitly on institutional racism. Although the Initiative acknowledges other systemic inequities based on class, gender or heterosexism, RSJI keeps its lens focused on racism because of its centrality within Seattle’s experience.

• For its part, King County’s ESJI aims to improve the conditions for people of color, low-income residents and ethnic groups who have limited English proficiency due to the barriers faced by these communities—ranging from racism to lack of opportunity. The work of the County focuses on 13 social, economic and physical environment factors that are also termed the social determinants of equity. (These factors include family- wage jobs/job training; community economic development; affordable, quality, healthy housing; quality early childhood development; quality education; healthy physical environment; community and public safety; neighborhood social cohesion; access to all modes of safe and efficient transportation; access to affordable food systems and affordable and healthy foods; access to parks and nature; access to affordable and culturally appropriate health and human services; and racial justice in organizational practices.)

• Seattle and King County also have taken different community organizing approaches. Seattle’s Initiative began by focusing on the City’s own programs and services, because the first priority was to “get its own house in order”—in other words, to address institutional racism within City government as a necessary first step before engaging the community more broadly. Only when the City felt the Initiative had gained some internal traction did it begin to tackle its “next phase”—to address race-based disparities in the external community.

Although King County has focused on its internal practices and policies from the start, it has also engaged communities since the launch of its initiative. The goal is to work closely with community partners who can both lead and support efforts that ensure fairness and opportunity for all King County residents. Also, the county seeks opportunities to participate in a community dialogue process with community members to increase collective understanding of equity and social justice and to spur action.

RSJI Accomplishments

The RSJ Initiative has resulted in significant policy and program changes within Seattle City government:

• Translation and Interpretation Policy: A comprehensive Translation and Interpretation Policy was created in 2007 as part of strategies to improve immigrants’ and refugees’ access to services. All City departments now provide essential translation and interpretation services for non-English speaking customers.

• Outreach and Public Engagement Policy: To improve civic participation, departments are working together on new inclusive outreach and public engagement strategies. Department liaisons have received training in the new strategies, and are expected to train co-workers within their own departments.

• Contracting Equity: To provide more contracting opportunities for communities of color, the City has improved its process and increased opportunities to compete. From 2003 to 2007, the City doubled the percentage of contracting for non-construction goods and services with women and minority-owned businesses. The City exceeded its 2007 goal by more than 40%. Despite these increases, results were not uniformly positive: Use of African-American, Latino and Native-American business enterprises did not increase substantially, and have become a focus of current contracting efforts.

• Racial Equity Toolkit for Policies and Programs: City departments have begun to use this tool to analyze the Race and Social Justice implications of all budget proposals, as well as departments’ own programs and policies. Through use of the Toolkit, programs and policies are being revamped to further racial justice.

• Capacity-Building: The Initiative developed and implemented a quality basic training program for all City employees based on the PBS documentary, “Race: The Power of an Illusion.” Managers, departmental Change Team members and other key stakeholders receive more in-depth training, including use of the Racial Equity Toolkit. By August 2009, two-thirds of all City employees had participated in RSJI training.

• Other significant changes to business operations: Under RSJI, departments have implemented significant changes to their business operations. For example, the Department of Neighborhoods created a new RSJI category as part of its Neighborhood Matching Grant program to support actions in the community geared towards achieving racial equity. The Human Services Department revised its funding process for non-profit community agencies to make it more accessible for smaller organizations, including agencies that serve communities with limited English skills. Seattle Public Utilities created a new Environmental Justice and Service Equity division to ensure that all Utility customers receive equitable services, as well as have access to SPU decision-making processes. As part of the region’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, the Human Services and Housing Departments crafted a fundamental shift in the City’s housing and shelter policies to acknowledge racial disproportionality in homelessness, and to focus efforts on people with the greatest housing needs.

ESJI Accomplishments

Since its launch in early 2008, King County’s ESJI has major accomplishments in its main areas of work:

• Policy development and decision-making: King County has committed to ensuring that promoting equity is intentionally considered across all departments, and developed an Equity Impact Review Tool to determine whether policies and programs advance a shared agenda of fairness, spread burdens fairly, and help address historic patterns of institutional bias and discrimination. A training curriculum was created for the Equity Impact Review Tool, and County staff is receiving training on how to use it. Several departments have used the Tool. All departments described equity impacts of program reductions in their business plans.

• Department commitments and delivery of County services: In 2008, all executive departments committed to specific actions that promote equity and social justice. For example, Development and Environmental Services has begun to rewrite the zoning code to allow greater flexibility for developers and encourage more vibrant, mixed- use neighborhoods in return for providing public benefits such as mixed-income housing, walkability and sustainability. Natural Resources and Parks conducted a GIS-based equity assessment that mapped benefits (for example, proximity to a park or trail) and burdens (for example, proximity to a wastewater regulator facility) related to demographic variables such as race, income and language. This analysis helped to identify and promote action on potential areas of disproportionality in the department’s facility locations and service delivery.

• Community partnerships: King County has committed to support capacity-building of local organizations and communities and to more effectively involve community members in creating solutions to inequities. The Initiative’s Community Engagement Team, comprised of County staff and community partners, has provided leadership to engage communities in dialogues and actions related to equity and social justice. Over 100 people have received training to facilitate community dialogues involving screening of the PBS documentary “Unnatural Causes: Is inequality making us sick?” Throughout the County, discussion and dialogues have already taken place with over 100 groups. These groups cross many sectors of the community, including education, criminal justice, human services, public health, youth and faith-based groups. Additionally, hundreds of County residents attended three Town Hall meetings in 2008—one led by King County Executive Ron Sims, a second hosted by the King County Council, and a third one focusing on neighborhoods and health.

Both Initiatives: Working Separately and Together

Although the two Initiatives began separately and have somewhat different focuses, staff teams from both government jurisdictions have begun meeting regularly to update each other and to discuss strategies and approaches. Each team is taking advantage of the other’s expertise: King County staff are learning more about the challenges of large-scale employee training, and City of Seattle staff are absorbing lessons from the County’s initial community work. The two teams also are actively looking for areas of collaboration. Last January, they co-sponsored a lecture in south King County by educator Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu that attracted hundreds of school teachers and administrators from throughout the region.

Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative and King County’s Equity and Social Justice Initiative both remain works-in-progress with significant challenges ahead. For one thing, there are shifting political realities: In November 2009, both governments will elect new leaders who have had limited or no prior involvement in either Initiative’s efforts. In addition, both Initiatives recognize that the work thus far represents merely first steps down a long road. The Initiatives have tried to incorporate some of the lessons learned from the many others who have labored for social justice; at the same time, Initiative organizers believe that their experiences might offer lessons for other governments and institutions that want to pursue a similar course.

Both the City and County have committed themselves to long-term systemic change, and both Initiatives hope to demonstrate that government can be a catalyst in the struggle to achieve real equity for the people who live and work in Seattle-King County.

Julie Nelson is the director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights.
Glenn Harris is the manager of the Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative.
Sandy Ciske is Regional Health Officer for Public Health-Seattle & King County. sandra.ciske@king
Matias Valenzuela is the Public Education Coordinator for Public Health-Seattle & King County.

The ideas and actions in this article represent the collaboration of many people within Seattle and King County government, especially King County’s Inter-Departmental Team and Seattle’s RSJI Coordinating Committee. Thank you all.

To learn more about the Initiatives and to download more detailed reports, visit:  - King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative; - Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative

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