Spotlight Stories: King County, Washington

The Spotlight Stories series features examples of how people across the country are working creatively and effectively to enhance well-being for themselves and to leave a legacy of well-being for generations to come. These are stories from communities creating lasting legacies identified through the Well Being Legacy initiative.  

THE BACKGROUND

King County, Washington, home to nearly 2.2 million people, is the 13th largest county in the country and anchored by the city of Seattle. About two-thirds of the county population lives in Seattle’s suburbs, which include nearly 40 cities and towns, as well as a large, mostly rural unincorporated area. King County was formed in 1852 and named in honor of William Rufus DeVane King, an Alabama senator and slave owner, who had just been elected to serve as Vice President to Franklin Pierce (for whom the neighboring county to the south is named). In 1986, the King County Council officially rejected their connection to a man who “maintained his lifestyle by oppressing and exploiting other human beings.” Instead, they renamed their county in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who better embodies “attributes for which the citizens of King County can be proud, and claim as their own.” Their choice to embrace a legacy of inclusion over oppression is a clear signal and a practical step in King County’s still-unfinished quest to become a place where everyone has a sense of belonging, is able to fulfill their potential, and can contribute.

THE CHALLENGE 

King County is a experiencing high population growth because of its economic vitality, natural beauty, and progressive values. But growth also comes with challenges, such as pressure on housing affordability, traffic congestion, and economic inequity. More and more people are being displaced, and Matias Valenzuela, director of King County’s Office of Equity and Social Justice points out that data show “deep and historically based chasms” by race, place, class, gender, immigration status, and other distinctions.

Over the past decade, equity and social justice have emerged as explicit criteria for the new legacies that King County seeks to create. This is long-term work, yet approached with the urgency of a present, pressing crisis. It is “an ardent journey toward well-being as defined by those most negatively affected.” Far from a romantic vision, this work is widely understood to be “disruptive and demanding vigilance.” According to the county’s official strategic plan for equity and social justice, “being ‘pro-equity’ requires us to dismantle deeply entrenched systems of privilege and oppression that have led to inequitable decision-making processes and the uneven distribution of benefits and burdens in our communities.”

THE COLLABORATION

Current efforts to enhance equity and social justice (ESJ) in King County are formal commitments, backed by the force of law and institutional obligation. A common equity framework, a local ordinance, and a strategic plan establish a shared foundation for understanding, focus, transparency, and accountability. County Executive Ron Sims first elevated ESJ priorities in 2008, which were further formalized by Executive Dow Constantine and the County Council via ordinance in 2010. ESJ is now an integrated part of operations for the county as well as many cities and towns in the region, supported by dedicated staff in an ESJ Office, along with a widening network of partners.

Upholding ESJ values requires doing business differently, with many partners. King County employees and community partners developed a shared blueprint for change in the form of their six-year ESJ Strategic Plan. From the outset, the planning process was designed to hear from people across sectors, geography, and populations. Over 600 County employees and 100 local organizations collaborated to create the ESJ Plan. Its goals and measures inform county practices and strategies that are making a difference.

“A major goal for King County is to build bodies of evidence for institutionalizing equity—creating new, better systems and dismantling those that have perpetuated poor outcomes—to create a more fair, just, and effective government and society.” –  Matias Valenzuela, Director, Office of Equity and Social Justice 

THE BRIGHT SPOT

Many communities in America care about equity and social justice. However, King County has done more than most to make it an operational and continuous priority. The County recognizes that much work still needs to be done, especially in terms of racial equity, and that many communities continue to fall behind.

The open and ambitious ESJ values the County and their partners have established have inspired a mosaic of impressive endeavors, each designed to create the conditions for more equitable health and well-being across the county. Some of these include:

  • Best Starts for Kids, the most comprehensive approach to child development in the nation;
  • Communities of Opportunity, a growing movement to assure that being housed, healthy, employed, and connected to one’s community are basic human needs regardless of race or place;
  • HealthierHere, an Accountable Community for Health that is redesigning how health care happens, and channeling new resources into a “Social Equity and Wellness Fund”;
  • Sound Transit 3, a $54 billion mass transit expansion;
  • The Road Map Project, to improve education from cradle to college and career;
  • Familiar Faces and other justice reforms intended to decrease the population in detention while reducing racial disproportionalities.

Most recently, The Seattle Foundation announced strong support for the Civic Commons, a “new regional civic infrastructure to unite more community voices in decision-making.” One of the first priorities is to nurture a novel venture called You Belong Here, which builds a leadership ethos that crosses traditional networks. This stance is also the official governing philosophy of the King County Executive Dow Constantine. It counters divisiveness and increasing disconnection with an unequivocal commitment that King County will be a place where all people feel that they belong and can contribute.

In his 2017 “State of the County” address, Executive Constantine reinforced this sense of community connection by recalling our temporary place in the long legacies of generations past and future.

“We are all guests here. Unless you are among the native peoples of this land, no one of us has a particularly superior claim to the bounty of this place. Each of us should have the chance to participate, and to contribute to the best of our abilities, and to thrive. That’s a big part of who we are…Our message to newcomers and old-timers alike is simple: This is your home. You Belong Here.”

THE FUTURE

The many partners who strive to create equity and social justice in King County understand the hard work ahead. They know that “our status quo responses are, in many ways, resulting in a potentially vicious cycle creating more division and dislocation.” That is precisely what moves them to act with the conviction that “through inclusion, addressing some of our toughest issues head on, expanding who’s at the table and challenging ourselves to work in a way that reflects our highest values, we can co-create the civic muscle that allows us to make headway against our most entrenched problems together.”

Early indicators show promising signs of transformation, broad public support, organizational change, and community outcomes. And, King County is in it for the long-term, knowing that the last decade of planning, engagement, and action will yield more positive outcomes over time, even though there are market forces and other factors pushing in the opposite direction toward inequity and injustice.

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