(FinalCall.com) – As the world marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a group of administrators in a Seattle county named after him, was engaged in trying to secure many of the rights and benefits that he lived and died for, right in their own community. They hope their labor for health and social equity will become a national model.

The Martin Luther King Jr. County Equity and Social Justice Initiative, also known as the King County Equity and Social Justice Initiative, is designed to curb persistent local inequities and injustices. That includes addressing the higher rates of disease among low-income populations and the disproportionate rates of young Black men in jail.

The initiative grew out of a project sponsored by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. The project was designed to give people of color and poor people the right to a healthy life.


That project, Place Matters, stemmed from the center’s 2006 Dellums Commission, which found disparities in life options for young Black men with regard to factors such as health, education and employment. As a result, said Ngozi Oleru, a spokesperson for the King County Equity Initiative, and County Executive Ron Sims, decided to take a similar look at conditions in his county.

“Our premise is to begin to look at health from a social detriment, as opposed to health care because by the time you get to health care you’re talking about disease. We look at those things in our society that actually impact health–good education, housing, living wage jobs, transportation, safe neighborhoods, good food–all of those things that most of the time people don’t think about as health, and are more important than whether you have wealth,” Ms. Oleru said.

She recalled that King County’s decision to focus on the impact racism has on health shocked many people. But the results of looking at the problem proved more shocking:

– 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 $50,000 or more 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 his or her first birthday than a White baby.

In its Initiative report released this year, King County noted that although some have worked hard to address these issues, decades of misguided policies have also contributed to the problem. Some of those policies isolated the poorest neighborhoods from economic opportunities, provided inadequate schools and services, and disenfranchised communities trying to do better, the report said.

Many institutions also traditionally focused solely on treating the results of the problems by creating more prisons and providing more services for individuals in crisis, it added. But evidence suggests solving the problems means focusing on the underlying conditions of inequity, such as affordable housing, quality education and safe neighborhoods and other factors, the report indicated.

“We’re saying that we need to do things differently with this initiative and one concrete way that we are going to make a real effort is to have meaningful community involvement, engagement and actually bring community voices into county decision making and delivery of service,” Ms. Oleru insisted.

Since the report was released, the spokeswoman told The Final Call, there has been a good reception and good feedback, for instance, from public health organizations and utilizing interactions with local health departments.

Ms. Oleru said the difference between the King County Equity Initiative and other efforts is its comprehensive approach.

The Initiative will use policy development and decision-making to promote equity in programs and funding; deliver county services through community partners; and mobilize through community engagement and education.

“People of color need to really be aware of these issues and know they should have a voice in how policies are made. Part of the problem is that people are so overwhelmed by the problem, it’s all they can do to just get through the day, but we need to start doing something about it,” Ms. Oleru asserted.

More details about the King County Equity Initiative can be found at www.kingcounty.gov/equity.