New office is ready to harness new ideas to achieve social change

Matias Valenzuela, Director of the Office of Equity and Social Justice

Matias Valenzuela, Director of the Office of Equity and Social Justice

Equity and OpportunityKing County’s commitment to Equity and Social Justice is taking another step forward with the creation of an Office of Equity and Social Justice.

“This has been a progression. It has become one of the priorities for our leadership, especially for our Executive Dow Constantine. It’s essential to what he and our other County leaders are trying to accomplish,” said Matías Valenzuela, the Director of the Office of Equity and Social Justice (ESJ).

What started as an initiative by former County Executive Ron Sims has now evolved into a sustained effort that cuts across all County agencies with the aim of creating fairness and opportunity for all.

The office serves to support the Equity and Social Justice Inter-Branch Team, King County employees and community partners.  The goal is to provide employees and community partners with the tools, knowledge and resources to address inequities in the workforce and workplace, as well as in the community, on issues ranging from health to transportation to criminal justice.

“It’s also important to go to the root causes and have the difficult conversations such as about race,” Valenzuela said.

King County’s Equity and Social Justice initiative aims to address some stark facts: though King County is a great place to live for many, there are places such as south King County, and racial and ethnic groups such as African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, who do not enjoy the same level of access to our region’s benefits and opportunities.

“Inequities hurt everybody. As I like to say, we are all better off when all of us are better off,” Valenzuela said.

While there’s now both an ESJ Office and Inter-Branch Team with resources, support and tools, the ESJ effort and work belongs to everybody in County government.

“This year is going to be very significant because we’re doing our very first equity and justice strategic plan to try and create a long-term vision of how we look at and address equity issues,” Valenzuela said.  “We will be looking to work with all agencies and our community partners on this.”

One of the new office’s main objectives is to create ways for historically disempowered communities, as well as newer arrivers like immigrants and refugees, to have a greater voice in shaping government and our region’s future.

“We want all communities to have the tools and resources to solve their issues on their own and to be economically empowered so they can be self-sustaining and independent and they can thrive,” Valenzuela said.

ESJ strategies are most effective when they are driven by clear goals and measured, and the solutions come from across County agencies working with communities. Valenzuela referred to last year’s success in signing up close to 200,000 uninsured King County residents for affordable health coverage due in part to the hard work of County employees in getting the word out.

“We need to come up with a culture that is really driven by solutions and ideas from employees,” Valenzuela said. “So we’re really looking forward, as we start looking at this work, to hearing from all those people we have at the County who are doing this work and have some ideas of what we should be prioritizing.”

Since King County is a leader among governments in making equity a priority, Valenzuela is excited to see what sort of opportunities the Office of ESJ will create.

“There’s not a road map for doing this. Nationally we’re one of the leaders for equity work, so we’re developing some of the tools so people have opportunity to think about the work and not be afraid to start do things differently,” Valenzuela said.