County partner seeking input on development of Racial Equity Commission

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The Chuckanut Health Foundation is hosting a virtual summit Saturday, May 22 as it works to develop a proposal for Whatcom County’s Racial Equity Commission. The summit offers an opportunity for local government officials, commission founders and others to speak on and receive input from the community as they work to eradicate racial disparities in the county.

The foundation will use the summit to inform county residents of its goal to form a commission, which it will propose to local governing bodies for approval. It will host multiple meetings with a workgroup and county stakeholders discuss how a racial equity commission could eliminate race as a socioeconomic factor.

In its April 20 meeting, Whatcom County Council entered into a contract with the Chuckanut Health Foundation, along with the city of Bellingham, to conduct work sessions to establish a countywide Racial Equity Commission.

The Chuckanut Health Foundation is a nonprofit organization in Bellingham that awards grants and scholarships to community members. According to its website, the foundation’s goal is “to build a community where every child gets a healthy start and every person receives the care they need throughout their lifetime.”

The foundation was given $90,000, with the county and city of Bellingham splitting the cost, to develop recommendations on how to run the commission. Ideas from community driven work sessions – the May 22 summit being the first – will be presented to county government.

When discussed in council, some councilmembers expressed concern that such discussions might lack a diversity of opinion necessary to be productive.

Councilmember Ben Elenbaas, before voting for its approval, said he hoped that the discussions will challenge beliefs and create recommendations for racial equity issues the county faces.

“As long as this commission is going to be using these dollars to look deeper than the color of people’s skin, I’m willing to support it,” Elenbaas said. “But if it’s just going to continue to be politics as usual, driving narratives or stories that are preexisting, I don’t know if we’re going to be solving any problems.”

Councilmember Barry Buchanan said the foundation and commission leaders are working to prevent discussions from becoming an echo chamber.

“Everyone involved in this believes that we have to get out to the full community and not be politics as usual,” Buchanan said. “The leadership that is being provided for this project is aware of that concept and doesn’t want to go down that road.”

County executive Satpal Sidhu will speak at the summit along with city of Bellingham’s mayor Seth Fleetwood; Heather Flaherty, executive director of the Chuckanut Health Foundation; and commission co-founders Shu-Ling Zhao and Kristina Michele Martens. Guests from South Carolina, Oregon and Seattle with backgrounds in racial equity will also speak.

The contract between the county and foundation is set to expire at the end of 2021.

In that time, the health foundation will host five workgroup and stakeholder meetings to develop a presentation and commission proposal to relevant legislative bodies – Whatcom County Council, Bellingham City Council and any other city governments that join the funding and forming of the countywide commission.

For more information, visit chuckanuthealthfoundation.org/communityvision.

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