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Originally published Sunday, February 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Equity and social justice

More than four decades have passed since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set forth this vision. Yet, today we remain a society burdened by vast disparities in wealth, health and opportunities.

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"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits."

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1964)

More than four decades have passed since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set forth this vision. Yet, today we remain a society burdened by vast disparities in wealth, health and opportunities. Not just in this country, but also in our county, named after Dr. King.

At this moment, here in communities as forward-thinking as Seattle and King County, the color of your skin or your home address are good predictors of whether you will have a low-birth-weight baby, die from diabetes, or your children will graduate from high school or end up in jail:

• A child in South King County is more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as one in East King County;

• A worker making between $15,000 and $25,000 a year is 10 times less likely to have health insurance than one making more than $50,000 per year;

• A youth of color is six times more likely than a white youth to spend time in a state or county correctional facility;

• A Southeast Seattle resident is four times more likely to die from diabetes than a resident of Mercer Island;

• A Native American baby is four times more likely to die before her first birthday than a white baby.

These statistics are both endless and maddening. The reality they represent for so many residents of King County is the reason we are today launching the King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative. Unfortunately, race, class, gender and immigration status are not just simple measures of the ways we differ, but rather insidious surrogates for the things that matter most — health, a living wage, opportunity, education, access to housing and safe neighborhoods.

And, in some instances, the problem is getting worse, not better. Despite the unprecedented growth and prosperity our region has experienced as a whole, some of us are losing ground. From 1970 to 2000, the gap between the median incomes for African-American families and the total population widened in King County. The rate of homeownership during this period declined for African-American families while it remained steady for white families.

The gulf between the rich and the poor is widening, a fact that can be seen in the great disparity in our neighborhoods around the county. While many of our communities are thriving, some neighborhoods increasingly foster the conditions that lead to poor health, underemployment, poor education, incarceration, loss of opportunity and unsafe living.

We also know that the stressors of racism and discrimination may be contributing to poor health. A highly educated, professional African-American woman is more than twice as likely to have a child with very low birth weight, compared with a white woman with a high-school diploma or less.

Achieving the most basic elements of the American dream has become a nearly insurmountable uphill climb for many of our neighbors. Far too many will find it an impossible dream.

I am especially worried about our children, too many of whom are born into poverty, in neighborhoods with high crime, poor education and little economic opportunity. All should have an equal opportunity for a living wage and a healthy, successful future. But, they do not. More than 40 years after Dr. King's vision, the flame of hope for the future is growing dimmer for too many.

A lucky one

I was one of the lucky ones. At 6 years old, in Spokane, I watched the demolition of my family home after a mere 30-days notice. I spent my first years of school falling behind in my reading skills because that is what my teachers expected. But, I also had a fifth-grade teacher who believed in me and made an enormous difference in my life by helping me see opportunities, not obstacles.

It is true that some of us do get through. Some of us may be lucky enough not to feel the direct, daily pain of these inequities. But, we all suffer. We all share in the lost productivity and the economic expense associated with criminal-justice and other crisis services. We all experience the economic results when our work force is not as productive as it might be in our increasingly competitive global environment. We all absorb the costs of high rates of disease and lack of access to health insurance by others.

When a majority of us are comfortable in a nice neighborhood, with a good job and access to good schools, it's easy to ignore the hopelessness and despair felt by children of color with the odds of getting an education and a good job stacked against them.

We all need to own the reality of inequity by tearing down the curtain that hides it, by naming it, by measuring it, by talking about it, and by tracking our progress and solving it. We need empowered community voices to partner with government and others in shaping policies and decisions. We need to look across traditional boundaries for solutions. We need to attack inequities at their sources.

I believe fervently that we can reverse this course. Not overnight, but over time. This is our commitment in launching the Equity and Social Justice Initiative.

Inequity, by its very nature, is a solvable problem. The reason inequity exists is that we have discovered solutions that work for some of us. We have just not applied these solutions to all of us.

We can see that thriving communities have the kind of conditions that make them a good place to be healthy, raise children, work, and pursue activities that uplift our spirit and mind. These conditions are not surprising: affordable housing, quality education, livable-wage jobs, safe neighborhoods, accessible support services and efficient transportation. Research is showing that these underlying community conditions, or social determinants, are powerful predictors of individual health and well-being, and changing them for the better can yield huge dividends.

Collective solutions

So, let's be clear: Our jarring statistics of inequity are neither natural nor inevitable. Human forces, both historical and current, have allowed some to prosper and thrive, but have failed many others, in particular, the poor and communities of color. We, collectively, have created this problem, and therefore we, collectively, must take on developing and implementing the solutions.

Within the public sector, federal, state and local governments have not made good progress in eliminating disparity. Instead, and in truth, decades of misguided policies have contributed to the problem — policies that have isolated the poorest neighborhoods from economic opportunities, provided inadequate schools and support services, and disenfranchised communities trying to do better.

But what we have created, we can change.

We just need to keep asking ourselves one question: "What if all people of King County had the same opportunities — regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation or disability — for quality education, basic health care, jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, and the same opportunity to enjoy the natural environment?"

The answer is clear and simple: A new, better and very different King County would emerge. If everyone had access to jobs paying a living wage, nearly 400,000 people currently struggling with very low incomes would enjoy healthier lives. If all of us had the same access to quality health care as the most-privileged, this would be one of the healthiest places in the world to live. If all of us had the same opportunity for education as our most-affluent citizens, the competitiveness of our work force would frighten every one of our competitors.

All residents of King County would reap the benefits — through greater economic vitality, a better-educated populace, a less-expensive health-care system, a lower-cost criminal-justice system, and better government through a more engaged and representative citizenry. Most of all, instead of lamenting young lives wasted, we would enjoy the contributions of healthy, educated and engaged young people, whether they are machinists at Boeing, software engineers at Microsoft or another Jacob Lawrence, whose art speaks to people of the world.

I believe this region is poised to make great strides toward achieving equity. But, I'm also realistic. Correcting societal inequities is a complex and multilayered undertaking. No one single approach will solve it. However, we can identify and implement the elements that will bring about positive change. And, we can trust that early small success will lead to later, longer-term, larger success.

King County government must be part of the solution that helps sow the long-term seeds of nurturing equity and social justice.

A call to action

This initiative begins with a call to action. As outlined in our report (www.kingcounty.gov/equity), each of the county's executive departments will take concrete steps to address inequities in 2008.

We will also work across departments and with partners to identify opportunities to correct inequities closer to their source. For example, we will implement a tool for systematically asking hard questions when making policy and funding decisions, leading to opportunities to improve conditions in marginalized communities. Similarly, through an innovative cross-departmental approach, we will work side-by-side with neighborhoods and local partners to be catalysts for healthier and more vibrant communities.

We will broadly engage our communities. We are looking forward to having real conversations with our local residents to raise awareness about these inequities, discuss root causes and mobilize around solutions.

And, we will work on particular regional priorities. I believe closing the education gap is where we should start, working with partners on identifying strategies to create school communities that improve literacy, reduce dropout rates and improve graduation rates.

This is only a beginning. Some might be reminded of the proverb that talks about the longest journey beginning with a single step. But we are more fortunate than that. We are not taking the first step and many have come before us. Nonetheless, I'm under no illusion that we are on anything but a long journey along a difficult, rocky path. But, there are few, if any, other paths with as important a destination.

"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable ... It comes only through the tireless efforts and passionate concern of dedicated individuals ... This is no time for apathy nor complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action."

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1958)

Ron Sims is King County executive.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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