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A conversation with Dr. Karen Johnson on the Office of Equity

Dr. Karen Johnson was appointed to lead Washington State’s newly created Office of Equity this February, which is tasked with increasing access and equity, and reducing disparities in state government. 

The Office has three staff members, but is planning on expanding to develop the state’s five-year equity strategic plan. When the Office was created during the 2020 Legislative session, it was designed to include eight people. Some of the first steps of that process over the summer included conducting listening sessions with more than 90 groups, and meeting more than 1,000 people to figure out what an anti-racist Washington would look like. 

“We got really great input from people across the state,” Johnson said. 

Some of the main themes that came out of these meetings were about income inequality, homeownership, ensuring everyone receives a quality education, and access to quality and affordable health care. Additionally, there was a desire to create greater equity in the hiring process for people of color, as well as increasing supplier diversity, and contracting with Black-owned and women-owned businesses. 

The 2019 Washington State Disparity Study found that only 1.7% of state contracting dollars went to Black-owned businesses, .7% to Hispanic-owned businesses and .6% to Native American-owned businesses. Johnson said her Office will be looking at ways to achieve equity in contracting at every step, from requests for proposals to performance evaluations. 

The Office of Equity is taking a three-point strategy that is similar to the Governor’s Poverty Reduction Work Group. This includes creating laws, rules and policies that center equity, maximize the current system through stronger policy to promote equity, and build a better system that incorporates equity in its design. 

Critical to designing a better system is figuring out where the state is currently failing people who have been disadvantaged, talking with them, and building on their feedback.

“They are the ones who bump up against the gaps in our system, they are the ones who bump up against the barriers,” Johnson said. “So we are going to ask them, what do we need to improve?”

The Office of Equity will be asking for funding from the Legislature. It comes at a time when the Biden administration has also directed federal agencies to address equity within their budgets. Johnson said Washington was already moving in that direction, and called on the Legislature to to adequately fund her office’s work in the upcoming session. 

“We really have a great opportunity here to reframe how state government works,” Johnson said. 

For Johnson, the goal is that in 100 years that racism, sexism and other forms of injustice are history, and that children will have to learn about them as an academic exercise, instead of experiencing or witnessing them. Part of that will not only be adjusting guidelines for state agencies and passing legislation, but working on transforming people as well. 

“One hundred years from now, when the history books are read, we want the people of that day to tell their children and grandchildren that they get to go to the best schools no matter where they live, put food on their tables, diapers on the baby, and have a roof over their head that they get to pass onto their children because a group of people in Washington state in 2021 decided to shift the trajectory of society toward equity and justice for all,” Johnson said. “And when they talk about the things this group of Washingtonians dealt with in their day like racism, sexism, and discrimination, the children will ask, what is that? Because they will only know what it is like to live in a multicultural, anti-racist society where everyone belongs.”

The Office of Equity was formed in 2020 after recommendations from a task force bearing the same name. Before being appointed to lead the Office, Johnson was the equity and inclusion administrator for the Washington State Department of Corrections, had worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and as the director for Tri-Love Ministries in Seattle. 

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