Hindsight gives you remarkable clarity, especially when you can view it over a 20-year period or more. What I am talking about is the legacy of the Norm Rice-as-mayor and Ron Sims-as-county-executive tenor.
When people are elected, you naturally look for the big things they can do to make change, and oftentimes, that takes the shape of major appointments to head large departments. What we don’t think about is how brief a time those kinds of appointees will be on the job. Their tenure is linked directly to the person who appoints them, so they have a four- to eight-year period, as well.
Now where am I going? I am asking those of you who can to remember how the standard city employees look before and after these two men’s time in office. The real change is in the people who take your tickets, read your meters and meet you at the various counters in the various departments.
They were predominantly white before, and now, they reflect the true racial makeup of the city. It’s not just racial because they also opened the doors for gay, lesbian, handicapped and elderly people also to have a place in the city and a seat at the department staff meetings.
Their contribution to the city and county was to quietly usher in a policy of equality in hiring and promotions, which opened the door for some very talented people to serve the city at various levels of government.
Is there still some institutionalized racism? You bet there is, but it no longer embedded in the policy or obviously advocated by department heads.
Integrating into the fabric
Now, the next step is for all of these same groups to take their role seriously and involve their communities more directly into the process.
If you are a city planner and you know that your community is not involved in the process the way it should be, you should be responsible for putting together outreach meetings or directly calling individuals you know should be there. The process doesn’t work very well when outsiders are fighting for a seat at the table, but it works very well when those on the outside are invited in.
No city or county in America has done a good job of integrating all of the various racial, religious or social groups into the fabric of the system. But when you live in a city with the face and name of a Native American and a county with the face and name of an African American, you would expect that we are doing something here differently than the rest of the nation.
Every time I see the Martin Luther King Jr. County sheriff or police vehicles with King’s face on them, I marvel at having lived long enough to have seen that. A black man’s face on police cars should not be taken lightly, especially if the police officers driving the cars have the same attitude as they did before we changed the county’s name. So it’s important to note that Martin Luther King Jr. County still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, per capita, for African-American men, in spite of the impact of the Sims administration. We still have plenty of work to do.
Making it happen
The point I am making is that we now have people inside the system, but the inside-out change we need to have happen involves a better community planning process that directly targets these different groups, rather than expecting that they will naturally take part in the general community planning process.
If you have a Central Area or a Rainier Valley plan, it should have clearly included all of these groups in the process and state it directly. I have been involved in too many processes where the various groups in that community are not well represented. The result is a plan that represents the people in the room but runs into a ton of opposition at implementation, when those same groups realize that a policy is being put in place that they had very little input in.
The same effort that was used to exclude these groups and discourage participation must be put into encouraging it. The reason they are not participating is that they have been so discouraged that they have given up or convinced it’s not worth even trying.
The difference is that now there are people on the inside to make that happen, and we need to put together the people and organizations to plug into it.
The elections of Norm Rice and Ron Sims have changed the complexion of the city, but now we must take this opportunity to create the first fully integrated governmental process in the nation. That should be our vision — because anything less would not be worthy of Martin Luther King Jr. or the county that bears his name.
CHARLIE JAMES has been an African-American-community activist/writer for more than 35 years.