HSD Staffers, Community Seek Racial Equity In Human Services Department Director Appointment

by Aaron Burkhalter

City staffers from the Human Services Department, community members, and activists say that Mayor Jenny Durkan sidestepped the city’s own procedures and race-equity process in the appointment of Jason Johnson as the director of the Human Services Department (HSD).

People gathered Jan. 24 at a special meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Human Services, Equitable Development & Renters Rights Committee to challenge the appointment and call for a full search and selection process that includes input from community members and social service providers. Among the crowd were a range of people, including anti-racist activists, residents of self-managed tent encampments and participants, and participants of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance.

Sawant, who represents District 3 and is up for re-election this year, held the meeting at the Miller Community Center in the Central District to get feedback on Johnson’s appointment.

Mayor Jenny Durkan nominated Johnson Dec. 19 to take the permanent post pending a confirmation process held by the Seattle City Council; the confirmation process starts in Sawant’s committee.

Sawant said she would oppose his appointment if those in attendance at her committee hearing Jan. 24 desired it. Almost all did, arguing that his appointment sidestepped the spirit of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, which they said calls for an open, public, and competitive process of recruiting and selecting leaders in the city.

Even outside of Sawant’s meeting, others have lined up to question how Durkan selected Johnson, which was done apparently without an open application process or formal search as have been done with other recent searches for department heads.

Many argued that the mayor’s office made the decision independently and without input from community members, particularly those who would be most affected by the work of the Human Services Department. Without an open process, some said this appointment was anything but racially equitable.

“This appointment enforces white supremacy no matter the race of the person you appoint,” said Erin Bryant-Thomas, who works in the Human Services Department. “It is critical to engage in a process and center an engaged community and not the people you deem as community. Allow us to partner with you. We’re here.”

Community members at the Jan. 24 meeting argued that Seattle is jokingly known as a “process city” but said that this appointment did not follow any process.

“If I have to follow the rules, y’all should follow the rules too,” said Karen Taylor. “If there’s a process, y’all should follow the process too.”

The Human Services Department is a critical department as Seattle works to support those struggling at the margins amid growing housing costs, gentrification and a growing population of people experiencing homelessness. The department has a budget of just over $200 million, $80 million of which is dedicated to homelessness services and operations.

Activist and emcee Jerrell Davis described coming from the South End to the Central District and seeing the range of people and life experiences in Seattle, noting the critical role the Human Services Department should play in supporting people.

“As businesses develop, as more enterprise develops, as more white folk come into Black neighborhoods, the human development has dwindled and depreciated,” Davis said. “So as much as we are investing in these enterprises, we need to be investing that into people. And to my belief, my understanding, Human Services Department is one of those places that manufactures that.”

Very few at Sawant’s meeting openly supported the appointment of Jason Johnson, and only one spoke during the public comment period. HSD staffer Jane Klein described Johnson as the best boss that she ever had and praised his work as interim director over the past year. She said he was frequently the first one in the office in the morning and the last one to leave and listed his administrative accomplishments.

“He’s made HSD better, which means we can do a better job,” she said.

Mayor Jenny Durkan sent a letter to the Seattle City Council on the same day as the meeting to highlight why she appointed him to the position, noting that he has had a year on the job as interim director to show his ability to do the job.

Durkan and her staff sent letters to the city council in late January urging them to accept Johnson’s appointment, highlighting his accomplishments, including overseeing the largest expansion of shelter in the city’s history and expanded shelter services for LGBTQ households. The letters also highlighted Durkan’s stated commitment to race equity.

“Mayor Durkan is of course using a race and social justice lens when hiring her staff and members of her cabinet,” Kamaria Hightower, spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said in an email, but did not say whether the Race and Social Justice Initiative played a specific role in this hiring process, despite the Emerald asking multiple times.

In one letter sent to Sawant’s office, Durkan’s Director of Legislative Affairs Anthony Auriemma noted that the mayor’s office has the power to nominate directors and that each search process is unique. Durkan echoed that in a letter she sent to the city council, noting that she has sometimes done a national search for directors with robust search committees, but she sometimes confirms “uniquely qualified individuals after stakeholder meetings.”

While the mayor’s office has maintained that Johnson has garnered support from key stakeholders — including African Community Housing & Development and the Chief Seattle Club, among others — some people and groups have argued that they have not been invited to the table.

The Race and Social Justice Initiative has been in place at the city for many years and in 2014 the city started exporting the process to outside organizations. The process is not designed specifically for hiring processes but offers guidance and a pathway to apply a racial equity lens to a variety of city work, including setting new policies.

Some HSD staffers and anti-racist activists wanted to see it applied in this hiring process as well by including community members and people most affected by the work of the Human Services Department in the process.

The Seattle Human Services Coalition urged the Seattle City Council to return the nomination to the mayor’s office and request a fuller search process with input and participation from “human service providers, program participants, HSD employees, and other public partners.”

Coalition Director Julia Sterkovsky noted that the Coalition, which includes a range of human service providers from across the region, previously would meet with city leadership quarterly but has not had access to the mayor’s office since Durkan was elected.

Councilmembers Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda cited the Coalition’s concerns in their own letter to the mayor’s office, requesting more information about the process that was used to hire Johnson. They noted that other recent searches for department heads — for the police chief and the director of Seattle City Light — included panels of more than 20 people each and community outreach.

Sawant invited community members to attend a Seattle City Council Monday at 1:30 p.m. voice their concerns about Johnson’s appointment. Community members are calling for the mayor to slow down, welcome in the community and live up to Seattle’s reputation as a “process city,” a reputation that the Rev. Harriett Walden, founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, questioned at the Jan. 26 meeting.

“Seattle is a process city, and then when they don’t want to have process they do what they want to,” she said.

*This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Julia Sterkovsky’s name and the name of the Seattle Human Services Coalition.

Featured Image: HSD staffer Erin Bryant-Thomas speaks at a Jan. 24 meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Human Services, Equitable Development & Renters Rights Committee questioning the process in appointing Jason Johnson to head the Seattle Human Services Department. (Screengrab from Seattle Channel footage of the Jan. 24 meeting).