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Friday, September 29, 2023
Sept. 29, 2023

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Other Papers Say: Office must focus on racism


The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:

The firing of the director of Washington’s Office of Equity should be of concern to all who truly want to make the state a leader in equity in government.

In explaining Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to fire Karen A. Johnson as the agency’s director, his spokesperson cited “a lack of stability in agency operations and the work environment, including high vacancy rates, high employee turnover and budgetary concerns.”

Johnson acknowledged she faced those challenges in building an office from scratch two years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which made for a task she called “making bricks without straw.” But, she got it done, a feat for which Inslee has commended her.

The Office of Equity was proposed in 2019 with a bill sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, and funded in 2021 after months of research by Gregerson and others.

They found that the demographics of the state were becoming more diverse and the disparities deeper. They also found that Washington can create a more equitable state if public agencies identify and implement strategies to eliminate systemic inequities.

Johnson had many accomplishments in her short tenure. She conducted a statewide listening tour to gather thoughts from employees, lawmakers and community members on issues of equity. Her team created Washington’s Pro-Equity Anti-Racism Ecosystem Plan & Playbook, which would, among other things, create an online dashboard to highlight agency-specific plans and outcomes related to DEI work.

Public concern over Johnson’s firing goes beyond one person losing her job. It comes at a time when polarization is oozing from every corner of society. Despite commitments from public and private sector leaders, workplaces struggle with issues of bias and racism that stifle employees’ potential.

Inslee has named Megan Matthews as the Equity Office’s acting director. Inslee’s office said whoever becomes the permanent leader should expect to provide accountability, implement the governor’s executive orders on equity and help agencies reduce disparities.

That person should have a keen understanding that leading an equity effort in any institution must be centered on race, and that they will not be met with full acceptance, but instead some resistance.

The person should be prepared to identify, disrupt and dismantle racist practices and policies, while acknowledging and accepting the risks. They should also understand that a 400-year-old system — institutional racism — won’t evaporate in two years with a few million dollars and a state office.

In December 2020, Inslee made a commitment to make Washington an anti-racist state. Merely saying those words won’t make that happen. Moving forward, the Office of Equity must hold up a mirror to all state agencies, remove blinders and began the work of transformation.