As The Seattle Times’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day editorial suggests, this is a time to reflect on how far King County has come toward accomplishing the civil rights legend’s dream of a fair and just society — and how much farther we have to go.
Two must-reads that inspired our board’s view are King County’s Equity and Social Justice Annual Reports in 2012 and 2013. Both are a punch to the gut. They represent public health officials’ courageous effort to lay bare a simple fact: Race and place are directly linked to opportunities for better health, higher incomes and longer lives.
Government has a role to play in setting policies and an overall vision for a fair and just community, but there must be an openness to building private-public partnerships and exploring the root causes of problems in our neighborhoods.
For instance, chronic health issues in some areas could be traced back to disparities such as a lack of sidewalks for people to walk on or fewer grocery stores available that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. As stated in the editorial, we need public officials to work closely with philanthropists, nonprofits, planners, developers, health professionals and volunteers to do more to confront the issues before us, break down silos, communicate with each other and collaborate to help communities thrive.
Like any movement, engagement with local residents is essential, especially when King County is home to many different ethnic minorities. Last year’s report is particularly poignant because it points to some real opportunities to improve outcomes for citizens:
- Start with the kids. Kent schools experienced a double-digit percentage growth in students of color and improved academic achievement by engaging with parents in their native language. Administrators also revised rules so that minority children are not disproportionately punished.
- Be culturally sensitive. In Bellevue, a third of the residents don’t speak English at home, so the city created a mini-city hall in the most diverse part of town where staffers and volunteers speak foreign languages.
- Plan for livable communities. Seattle’s Northgate area has become more racially diverse in recent years. About one in seven live in poverty. Planners have a chance to work around those demographic changes by considering how transit, mixed-use developments and public amenities can change the way people live and help them break the cycle of poverty.