Aligning Toward Justice, Co-governance, and Well-being in Washington State

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A community panel speaking about their communities' experiences and vision for co-governance.

This blog post was co-authored by Laura Nash of the People’s Economy Lab and Lori Pfingst of DSHS.

How can we achieve justice and well-being for all Washingtonians? Could sharing governing power with frontline communities move us toward that goal? These are just a couple of the questions we addressed at a convening earlier this month.

In early May 2023, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) Dismantle Poverty team, People’s Economy Lab (PEL), Front and Centered, and Statewide Poverty Action Network (SPAN) worked together to put on an event on co-governance with community leaders and organizations and folks at a variety of government agencies working on poverty, health disparities, and environmental justice. Together we broke bread, shared some of our ongoing efforts to advance justice, co-governance, and well-being, and engaged in vulnerable and passionate conversations about the just futures we want to create. This work is related to Strategy 2 of Washington’s 10-year Plan to dismantle poverty, especially recommendation 2b, “Establish a state entity to elevate the expertise and influence of people disproportionately affected by poverty and inequality in the implementation of the 10-year Plan.”

This was just one step in the Just Futures Project, which is funded by DSHS via a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, facilitated by PEL, SPAN, and Front and Centered. The Just Futures Project is guided by a Community Leadership Committee composed of eleven representatives from Indigenous, African American/diaspora, Latine/Hispanic, low-income, Asian American/diaspora, LGBTQ+, incarcerated, farmworker, youth, family, small business, and ministerial communities. (Read our blog about Just Futures Phase One.)

Here are some of our reflections from the convening:

Just Futures Coalition 

  • We enjoyed the opportunity to build relationships with government employees. It is clear to us that employees from DSHS, Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, Office of Equity, and other agencies care deeply about the well-being of all Washingtonians. They are, after all, Washingtonians themselves. We are all invested in advancing economic justice, racial justice, and climate justice.
  • We were energized by the frontline community and agency leaders who called us to action, including Rosalinda Guillen of Community to Community, Dr. Karen Johnson of the Washington State Office of Equity, Victoria Hilt of Kitsap Strong and the Poverty Reduction Work Group, Shereese Rhodes of South King County Discipline Coalition and the Poverty Reduction Work Group, and Julianne Gale of Mason County Climate Justice.
  • One poignant point raised by Juliann Gale during the community panel: Governments are already doing co-governance, but they’re not doing it with frontline communities. They’re co-governing with industry and corporations.
  • The Just Futures Community Leadership Committee has proposed that Washington state implement community assemblies to gather policy recommendations from frontline communities throughout the state. Community assemblies are organized and facilitated by organizations with deep ties in and well-established trust from frontline communities. They provide an opportunity for community members to come together to share their life experiences, discuss systemic challenges, collaborate on solutions, develop recommendations for policy change, and commit to taking concrete action steps together. During the community panel, Rosalinda Guillen said, “Every state agency needs to replace their community engagement plan with the community assembly model.” One major goal of our convening was to establish commitment for this model of co-governance, despite not receiving funding for community assemblies from the Washington Legislature this legislative session. At the May convening, we heard a commitment from government attendees to support co-governance and support implementing community assemblies. We will hold them accountable to this commitment.

Department of Social and Health Services

  • This convening was a meaningful milestone toward building a Washington state co-governed with its communities. Too often, laws and policies that deeply affect the lives of everyday Washingtonians are created and implemented without their input, and processes that are meant to solicit community input can be inequitable and harmful to the people the government intends to serve. We are grateful to every community member who shared how government processes for law and policy-making have impacted them, and to every government employee who listened openly and expressed a desire to share power with community.
  • Sharing space (and a meal!) is an important step toward sharing power. We recognize that when communicating across screens and podiums, it can be hard to remember that we all are first and foremost, Washingtonians. We all have a vested interest in achieving positive, equitable outcomes for the people and natural environment in our state. Being able to discuss how to achieve these outcomes in a more informal, human-centered environment removes barriers toward progress.
  • There is still work to do. The attendees of this event are now ambassadors of co-governance in their communities and agencies. We still have significant hurdles to overcome to achieve statewide buy-in for critical tools of co-governance, such as community assemblies and increased access to state grant-making processes. Achieving these outcomes will take deep, continued effort from government and communities, but events like these give us hope that this work is not only possible, it is happening.

We are hopeful that events like this will lead us down a path that encourages agencies to more deeply center community and lived experience in policy and lawmaking.

Thank you to everyone who joined us for the convening, for your time and energy and the hard work you put into caring for your communities. We’re excited to continue building our relationship and working toward justice, co-governance, and well-being for all.

Join us in our efforts by familiarizing yourself with the 10-year Plan and sharing your ideas and expertise on how we can get closer to a just and equitable Washington together.

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