We Need to Be More Vigilant About Addressing Our County’s Crises

By Gordon McHenry, Jr., on June 24, 2024 | In Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, Fighting Homelessness, Food Insecurity, News, Racial Equity

Consider this popular quote, with one word omitted: “If you’re not ___________, you’re not paying attention.”

What word would you fill in the blank?

As for me, I’d fill it with “frustrated!

Journalist Donald Kaul, in 1989, is credited with being one of the first to utter the sentence, filling the blank with “outraged.” Mother Jones magazine, in 1992, filled it with “angry.” Others have used “cynical” or “confused.” But all versions of the sentence speak to our need to be not only aware of problems and injustices in our society but, at the very least, uncomfortable with them and frustrated by them. We need to turn that discomfort and frustration into action.

We must never become anesthetized to the frequency of injustice. We must always hold our elected officials accountable for addressing societal problems because that’s why we elected them to office. 

If you live in King County, you should have no problem filling in the blank. I pondered many words recently when the Seattle City Council considered a proviso to legislation called the Equitable Development Initiative, or EDI.

EDI helps combat gentrification by funding organizations to launch programs and projects in communities of color. Those programs include affordable housing, childcare, and cultural centers. And many EDI advocates contended that the city council’s proviso may have jeopardized the funding.

Several organizations that benefit from its funding (including some United Way of King County grantees) were incensed. They emailed council members and came out en masse for the council’s following public hearing.

The city council responded to the folks’ furor by insisting the matter was misconstrued and needlessly blown out of proportion. Folks didn’t understand, the council said.

No, we understood.

A recent City of Seattle proviso to legislation designed to combat gentrification drew the ire of advocacy groups.

I reflect on the resistance and dithering in Burien regarding whether to accept funds to provide shelter for persons enduring homelessness and housing instability within the city’s geographic boundaries.

Last week, I read with alarm that an elected leader in the City of Newcastle opposed raising a Pride Flag (during Pride month), minimized the horror of enslavement of Africans and African Americans in the United States, and diminished the continuing socio-economic harm to Blacks in the U.S. and here in King County.

 I think about the growing number of people on our waiting list for rental assistance, which grows by as much as 1,600 a month. I consider how the end of eviction moratoriums and pandemic funding have helped usher in an increase in evictions served.

Due to decreases in funding, about 1,000 fewer people are receiving our home grocery delivery. Our county is the wealthiest in our state but has the fourth-highest income inequality gap. I think about the growing wealth gap that is most prevalent among Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

How can we not be frustrated, uncomfortable, angry, or outraged?

We all need to pay attention to humanity; that is the core of all the issues we face every single day when we deal with housing and food instability. At United Way, we are going to hold ourselves to a high standard. We are calling on the private, public, and philanthropic sectors to understand how dire things have become and to get serious about making sure that basic needs are met and undoing the income and wealth disparities that exist.

We all need to pay attention to humanity; that is the core of all the issues we face every single day when we deal with housing and food instability.

Gordon McHenry, Jr., United Way of King County president and CEO

We’ve put our concern into action with our newly launched Our Neighbor Fund, which aims to raise $12.5 million to invest in strategies that will feed kids and families and keep them in their homes. The fund will enable us to provide students with free meals when school is out, leverage millions of dollars in rental assistance funding, and provide students with emergency grants and housing assistance. Given our times, we believe it is the least we can do.

But more needs to be done. Every day, we see behavior that makes us wonder whether folks in positions of power have lost sight of humanity for folks who are struggling with housing, poverty, and hunger.

We need our elected leaders to courageously and authentically embrace the progressive values of the community they represent and do so with incredible humility because of their positional power so that we don’t find ourselves questioning whether they are cutting back on efforts to address inequality or stepping away from the reality that race and ethnicity matter in King County.

We must understand that those experiencing food and housing insecurity are also paying attention. They hear us when we say we aspire to address their concerns and advocate on their behalf. We owe them to stay focused and connected to our humanity and the progressive values and aspirations that make us proud to be a part of King County and the Pacific Northwest. 

We just celebrated Juneteenth and freedom from enslavement.  We need liberation from societal systems that continue to oppress and diminish—so that one day, we will be a region of justice and belonging, with leaders who understand how critical it is to represent all who reside in our region.


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