As Cook County's new five-year strategic plan is open for public comment through the end of the month, Washington's King County offers lessons for building equity into the model
If you live in Cook County like I do, you probably received an invitation to participate in a survey asking for input on the county’s strategic planning process. Yes, a survey soliciting input on county government. That was not a typo.
The short survey asked a few important questions: How are we doing? What policy areas should we focus on? What guiding principles will help us reach those goals? It was the answer option for the third question that struck me: Of the options of principles to choose from, “equity” was at the top of the list.
How do you shift the culture of a massive county government to focus on racial equity?
From police misconduct to stark differences in life expectancy between neighborhoods, our region’s racial disparities impact our economy, regional growth and public safety. These disparities have also, fortunately, become part of mainstream discourse. Cook County is joining the conversation by making equity a priority in planning for the future.
Last week Cook County released their Policy Roadmap: A Five Year Strategic Plan for the Offices under the President. The roadmap will be open for public comment until September 28th and the county will host public meetings to answer questions and solicit feedback. A video on the county’s website also features leaders in county government sharing why equity matters. Deputy Chief of Staff Lanetta Haynes Turner led the team that spearheaded the strategic planning process. Turner comments, “racial equity is a foundational value because we want to make sure in our roadmap that we are intentional about bringing people to the table and the belief that no matter what your race and where you live you should have the ability to prosper.”
At the release of MPC’s “Our Equitable Future” report in May, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced the creation of a strategic plan intended to address inequities through targeted economic development, job creation, improved access to health care and reform of the criminal justice system. The county sent a survey to constituents and held listening sessions at various locations to get public input of their priorities while crafting the roadmap. They also analyzed data to learn where disparities exist across the geography.
In a time that talking about issues of race and equity can be seen as a liability for politicians, President Preckwinkle is leaning into the discussion and challenging members of her cabinet to do the same. A recent retreat for county directors focused on developing a shared understanding of racial equity and inclusion and exploring pathways to create an equity framework.
So how do you shift the culture of a massive county government to focus on racial equity? We asked Matias Valenzuela, Director of the Office of Equity and Social Justice for King County, Washington. The two governments have built a knowledge sharing relationship over several months and Valenzuela joined President Preckwinkle, and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Julie Morita on a panel at MPC’s Our Equitable Future event to share his insights.
King County Washington is Washington state’s most populous county, with over 2.1 million residents. King County includes notable cities like Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue. Originally named for a slave owner the name was officially changed to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2005. The following year King County Council adopted an image of the civil rights leader as the county’s logo indicating their direction towards a commitment to equity. Three years later, then County Executive Ron Sims launched Equity and Social Justice as an official part of the county’s work, formalized by an ordinance in 2010.
“When we started this work it was not so much in the news every day and it was a harder conversation. One of the advantages to doing this work now is that the bandage has been ripped off and we are really talking about it,” Valenzuela reflected.
King County officials began their journey by working internally to socialize these values of equity with staff convening frontline workers, managers and leadership together for training and honest conversations on undoing racism. Data is another important tool for illustrating by race and by place the inequities present across King County. Taking a nod from the health department where the race equity work got started, the county adapted measures for charting progress from the social determinants of health.
These determinants of equity are a hallmark of King County’s first Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan. There are 14 determinants including early childhood development, education, transportation, housing, parks and natural resources and economic development. Each determinant includes a number of indicators for data collections that allows the county to understand current conditions and track progress.
Valenzuela shared some valuable lessons from his 16 years advancing equity within county government. Making equity part of county law enabled champions advancing this work within King County to gain needed resources and power to explicitly move the work forward and to coordinate it across departments. Support was cultivated form the bottom-up by both community members and government employees. Leadership from the top was also key. Current Executive Dow Constantine, reinforced equity and social justice as one of the four county priorities along with climate change, transportation and "best run government".
Other lessons came directly from listening to constituents. “We heard from our community partners that as government we tend to use community when we need them, they want us to have real relationships where we really support and fund them.” Valenzuela noted. Transparent and accountable leadership is also a desire of the public. “We will be releasing some public reporting that shows across departments and agencies where we are making progress and where we are not because that is what our communities are asking us to do.”
Cook County officials have been thoughtful in their initial approach to prioritize equity. They have engaged advisors including MPC, sought community input and identified six priority areas that are driven by the Offices under the President: economic development, criminal justice, health and wellness, environmental sustainability, public infrastructure and good government. Racial equity is the central theme of the policy roadmap and is baked into the objectives for each policy priority.
“We are focusing on areas of the county with the greatest need,” commented President Preckwinkle at MPC’s event in May. Preckwinkle noted the Cost of Segregation and broader research that highlights the relationship between equity and thriving places. “Regions that are the most economically vibrant have the least inequality. In our seven-county regional initiative and within county itself so we are trying to lift those parts of the community and economy that are struggling so we can benefit everybody”.
Cook County’s Policy Roadmap is an important tool that will help guide the government towards a more equitable future and prosperous region. Although King and Cook counties are very different places at different stages of the journey, both are embracing that challenge and importance of adopting a racial equity framework. So don’t be surprised if Cook County reaches out for your input as a resident. Its part of the work of bringing more people to the table where building strong, prosperous and resilient communities for everyone is the main dish.