Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity in government? We have interviewed practitioners across the country who are working to advance more racially equitable governance in their own communities. Some are working from the inside to change institutional practice. Others are organizing communities on the outside to apply political pressure and keep government accountable. What are their motivations and their challenges? What accomplishments are they proud of? This Racial Equity Leadership Profile series seeks to capture and share these stories from the frontlines of the movement for racial equity in government.
In this installment, GARE Research Assistant Alec Weiss interviews Janine Anzalota, the Civil Rights Program Manager for the King County Office of Equity and Social Justice. Before working in Washington, Janine worked for the City of Boston as the Executive Director of the Office of Fair Housing and Equity.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your current role in local government for King County, WA.
I am a Civil Rights Program Manager within the Office of Equity and Social Justice. Since coming to King County, I am restructuring the civil rights program to better connect the work of civil rights to the office’s racial equity and social justice efforts. This includes revising our ordinances, internal policies, and finding ways to apply equity and social justice to address discrimination complaints that may not meet the legal threshold for an investigation.
What does this actually look like? Civil rights has historically been about basic protections to create equality, which means everyoneis protected. This framework, however, does not provide for opportunities to target our efforts towards the most marginalized.
How do we get to a place of racial equity within a legal structure that envisions justice as equal protection under the law? Within the Office of Equity and Social Justice, Civil Rights has the opportunity to bridge the gaps in the law that have the potential to move us towards equity. For example, addressing internal policies and procedural fixes by leveraging the goals of the countywide Equity and Social Justice strategic plan. My goal is to use racial equity framing, tools, and best practices to help ensure King County resources go to and work for our most marginalized communities. For many areas of inequity in the county, that means advancing outcomes for Native and African American residents.
Q: How did you arrive at this role?
I’ve been working on racial equity in clinical social work, public health, and civil rights for the past 15 years. Early in my career, people were talking about “diversity,” about getting people of color to the table. That’s where the conversation ended; people didn’t talk about the real impacts of racism on our lives. It was also frustrating to be one of few Latinx folks bringing up these issues. Diversity in representation is important, but it was obvious to me that diversity alone would not solve these glaring social issues. To be honest, it got me angry and I understood that my work as a direct service provider was not enough to make real change. I left direct service and went into public health program management. I moved into civil rights after working with housing providers and civil rights leaders on the intersection of social determinants and the multiple sectors working together to address the health impacts of housing discrimination. Racial justice is about changing the policies and practices so that we are not seeing worse outcomes. I spent most of my adult life doing this work in Boston. My partner and I decided we wanted to have new challenges and experiences that come with living in a different part of the county. So we came out to King County in March of 2018.
Q: With your perspective of having worked in multiple jurisdictions, have you seen any trends among racial equity efforts comparing King County to the City of Boston?
The challenges facing King County in moving racial equity work forward are similar to those in Boston, but at the same time very different. The hierarchy and additional processes that come from working in political environments are the same challenges many jurisdictions face. The unknown of how long political leadership will be there as well as the challenges of institutionalizing work prior to leadership changes are all the same. The structural and institutional challenges are pretty much the same across the country.
King County’s work is much older and established via ordinance with a countywide strategic plan guiding the work. The context of each Boston and King County’s challenges and identities of the most marginalized people of color impacted are very different. Homelessness is a much greater problem by the numbers in Seattle. Seattle is third highest in the nation for homelessness while Boston is number eight. Both are very expensive cities with real wealth divides. The county sees its African American population shrinking and moving further away from Seattle where it is more affordable. This is also true for Boston. This is one of many serious issues affecting both places, but looks and feels very different. Both places have huge multi-sectoral problems they are trying to solve.
I previously worked in the health department in Boston where racial equity initiatives were going on since the early 2000’s. The Health Department’s work has recently spread to City Hall through its resilience and equity plan. The racial equity work at Boston City Hall is a lot newer than it is here in King County. The county also works with local government throughout the region to support and grow this work. That type of local government support is missing in Boston and the New England region.
In King County, It makes a big difference that racial equity and social justice work is written into public documents and incorporated into the budgeting process. Once these initiatives are written into the city ordinances and institutionalized, they have a lot more staying power and are much harder to undo. I also want to caution that the County still faces challenges. Codifying the work in and of itself does not lead to the institutional and cultural change needed to really affect inequities. In King County, I think one of the challenges moving forward is to continue to recruit and maintain people of color in positions of leadership. The City of Seattle is over 75% white and that is where most of the offices for our leadership positions are. Fortunately, there is a foundation of institutional support to advance the work; we just need to be strategic and persistent and keep up the pressure of urgency of our efforts.
Q: What have been the most challenging aspects of this work?
For me, coming to King County from Boston has been challenging. I have spent so many years growing accustomed to working with specific communities of color that are very small here and not as visible as they are in Boston. There is a lot of cultural nuance to be attuned to. There is a lot about living here and about this community that I am unfamiliar with. I am taking the time and every opportunity to learn. It is important to have people around me who have lived here longer, who are enmeshed in the community. I have had the good fortune to build relationships with many people who live and work in King County. Even though I am new here, I am doing my best to be respectful and help push this work forward. I do not think that this a unique challenge. Given I am so new here; my challenges are about learning and navigating culture. I’ve heard my colleagues say, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That has really resonated with me as a new person to the county, state, and this coast. I have found that building relationships with people in authentic ways helps to move the work forward.
Q: In your opinion, what role does local government have in addressing racial inequities?
In this political climate, the future of racially equitable outcomes relays on local government. All the things we hear about happening or not happening at a federal level are distractions from what is really at stake, and what’s at stake is people’s lives. We need to act with a sense of urgency – if we do not act, there is the potential for drastic impact on real peoples’ lives.
On a national scale, we are distracted from the greater work of advancing racial equity. The federal government has a record of dehumanizing people, black people, native people, immigrants, refugees, and undocumented people. As local government, we have the opportunity to really push for change. We need to be bold and not be afraid to continue to challenge the federal government. We knowwho our communities are. We have the data, the stories, and many of us have personal experience being from marginalized communities of color. We don’t always have the resources, but this is the responsibility of government. Government is not always good about listening to and being in partnership with community. We often take snapshots of what community tells us and use it to inform our decisions. Government often does not make time and room for community to share in decision-making processes and that’s a place government can do better.
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect to you personally?
Building relationships and connections with the people advancing racial equity work across the country. Working directly with folks who live and breathe this work, and value the lived experience of community. I’ve learned a lot from so many people who helped shaped my personal and professional development. That experience happens when you are in relationship with people beyond the transactional relationship that government values and perpetuates.
It has been rewarding working with GARE and previously being a GARE co-chair. Being an active member of this community that spans the nation where we can share ideas and concerns has been a special experience. I am grateful to have the platform to have honest conversations about these difficult issues. It’s a luxury to be able to just go online, tap into my GARE network in order to pitch an idea, have a one-on-one conversation, or learn from other folks who have struggled with similar issues in their jurisdictions. It tends to be a small group of people who are advancing this work in their corner of the country, so it is important to be in relationship with each other. It has also just fostered some meaningful personal connections for me.
Q: What do you hope to see accomplished in the next 10 years?
The future is with local government and it is up to us to lead by improving outcomes for the folks most marginalized. I hope to see increases in people of color recruited and maintained in leadership positions in local governments across the nation. I hope to see inequities reduced locally for Native and African American people. If we are really focused on advancing racial equity on particular initiatives, then we can be successful.