Racial equity commission picks up speed toward March milestone - Salish Current
December 14, 2023
Racial equity commission picks up speed toward March milestone
Matt Benoit

Energizing activists at rallies and other events during the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement helped motivate local officials to form a commission in support of racial equity. A nominating committee is at work identifying who will serve on that body. (Salish Current photo © 2020)

December 14, 2023
Racial equity commission picks up speed toward March milestone
Matt Benoit

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Fourteen months after the Whatcom County Council voted to establish the Whatcom Racial Equity Commission(WREC), work has picked up speed to hire an executive director and convene a new 31-member advisory body by March 31. 

In August, Chuckanut Health Foundation (CHF) entered into a $235,000 contract with Whatcom County to pay for the commission’s creation and operation through the end of 2024. 

Funding for the contract is split equally between the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County. The contract budget includes $171,000 in personnel costs for the committee that will appoint the commission and initial WREC work and support-staff hiring, along with communication services and an end-of-year 2024 report for future budgeting and objectives. 

The rest of the funding is comprised of CHF administrative fees, travel and training registration fees, technology needs, advertising, refreshments, office supplies and professional services the WREC may require. 

With slightly more than three months remaining, a deadline nears to hire an executive director and fill the long-anticipated commission.

Absolutely needed

The impetus to form the WREC emerged out of the Black Lives Matter social justice movement following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Today, both locals and those involved with WREC formation say the commission is absolutely still needed nearly four years later. 

Pamela Wheeler is among community representatives on the WREC appointment committee. An African-American, she observed that the fact that racial inequity isn’t always dominating daily life doesn’t mean it’s not a persistent problem.   

“The various events that took place during and after the pandemic that brought about this racial equity commission only exposed the truth,” she said. “It was just like the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was a series of events that caused us to see the truth of the dynamics and demographics within Whatcom County, and the effects of those dynamics and demographics.”

Whatcom County Council Member Kaylee Galloway said having a diverse advisory group like the WREC is essential to ensuring that equal representation and input make their way into county government policies and processes.

“Equity is a lens which we must apply to every issue and crisis facing our county,” she said, whether the issue is public health, childcare, housing, homelessness, food security, public safety, criminal justice reform or climate change. With the county investing millions in these issues, she added, equity has to be centered in all decisions.

“We need the WREC to help ensure we are achieving our desired goals and outcomes,” Galloway said.

Some hope that increased equity will also extend to local governance and public education. 

Debbi Anderson-Frey, a board member for the local civic action group Riveters Collective, was an early stakeholder and advocate for WREC’s formation. As a county resident and former Nooksack Valley School District teacher, she noted that the district’s student body has become more diverse than is currently reflected among its administrators and teachers. 

“It’s changing, but there’s a huge gap,” she said. “In Everson and Nooksack, we have a large Hispanic population.”

She said that Nooksack Tribe members are present in the district but absent on the district’s five-person school board whose members are white. 

Recent elections also show a consistent lack of diversity among positions of local governance, Anderson-Frey said. 

“If we look at the positions at-large, except for our newly-elected sheriff, it’s pretty much monochromatic,” she said. “I think that the commission can be effective in educating the community in terms of sensitivity about some of the issues because of those gaps.”

Nomination time

The appointment committee — four community representatives confirmed by the county council, one county staff member appointed by the county executive, and one City of Bellingham official appointed by the mayor — convened this fall. The committee is responsible for establishing the hiring process and criteria for an executive director position, and nominating representatives to the WREC. Members include:

  • Vernon Damani Johnson, retired longtime political science professor at Western Washington University
  • Francisco Rios, retired WWU professor and former dean of WWU’s college of education
  • Eliana Steele, a Blaine resident with decades of healthcare leadership in various sectors
  • Pamela Wheeler, Chief People and Culture Officer at the Opportunity Council.
  • Deborah Bineza, the City of Bellingham’s accessibility, diversity, equity and inclusion human resources analyst
  • Kayla Schott-Bresler, the county’s strategic initiatives manager. 
Shu-Ling Zhao and Kristina Michele Martens
Shu-Ling Zhao (left) and Kristina Michele Martens are co-founders of the Whatcom Racial Equity Commission, supported by Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham. The commission already has had an impact, via a change in county code regarding who is eligible to serve on advisory boards. (Courtesy photo)

The committee’s three alternates —all fully engaged in the committee process — are Ferndale’s Matthew Durkee, an Army veteran who works as director of the Edmonds College Veteran Center; Bellingham’s Guava Jordan, a community college educator; and Bellingham’s Lee Langdon, who works in human resources and healthcare systems.

Shu-Ling Zhao, who co-founded the WREC initiative along with Bellingham City Council member Kristina Michele Martens, said the appointment committee since September has been defining the process for hiring the executive director and nominating members of the commission. The executive director application process will begin in January, she said.

CHF has a website portal where persons interested in applying for a commission position can join a mailing list and be notified when the application process opens. The criteria for commission membership and the nomination and appointment processes are described in detail in the county ordinance.

Noteworthy code change

The county’s efforts towards greater commission diversity were addressed Dec. 5, when the council voted to amend a provision that required anyone serving on a county-based advisory body to be a United States citizen, Whatcom County resident and registered voter in the county. 

The ordinance to amend section 2.03 of the county code, introduced by Galloway on Nov. 21 and co-sponsored by fellow council member Carol Frazey, removes the citizenship and registered voter requirements, and simply requires the appointee be a county resident. The measure passed 5-2.

The City of Bellingham and other local entities, Zhao noted, do not have the citizenship restriction that had been in the county code since 1991. This change is especially noteworthy for the appointment committee, since the ordinance for the WREC includes seating someone who is a migrant, immigrant or refugee and may lack citizenship. 

“When we have those barriers in place … as a requirement for anyone participating in an advisory body, or bringing their expertise to the table to support the decision-making of our elected officials and our county government, it removes a vital perspective of the people living in Whatcom County,” Zhao said. “To perpetuate that and use that as a reason to reduce someone’s voice in their own community … is just inequitable.”

“Because of the work of these council members bringing this ordinance forward, they’ve created a really great opportunity,” she said. “It will allow us to have an even more equitable process, and it allows us to move forward in being more hopeful about representation — not just in our space that we’re working on launching, but in all civic spaces.”

Feeling positive

Wheeler said she is optimistic about the WREC’s formation and what it may mean to the future of people of color living in Whatcom County. She wants them to receive fair access to healthcare and work, and acknowledgment of what they bring to the area. 

“This commission (will be) made up of the very individuals that live within this community,” she said. “It’s been incredible to meet and know so many BIPOC individuals in this area … those are the folks I want the rest of our community to meet and know and understand just how much they have to add to this community.”

Once seated next year, Zhao said she hopes the WREC will grow together in their work, understanding each other and the current Whatcom County landscape. She hopes the WREC can provide bridge-building opportunities and increased representation across the county, and that the commission can use qualitative data to decide which strategic priorities need to be addressed soonest.

She also realizes that advancing racial equity is generational work. 

“There have been disparities for a long time,” Zhao said. “Momentum isn’t necessarily what drives the advancement of equity, so much as the dedication, the purpose and the determination of the communities around us to heal and to change. It’s in that dedication and purpose and determination that the work is sustainable. There is so much work to be done.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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