Washington’s new equity director on where her office goes from here
Office of Equity director Megan Matthews talks about the office’s mission and what she plans to do differently from her predecessor, who left amid controversy.
Megan Matthews, director of Washington state’s Office of Equity. (Gov. Jay Inslee’s Office)
Washington’s new Office of Equity director, Megan Matthews, wants you to know she’s ready to get to work.
“This is real to me,” Matthews said. “This isn’t about a position. I don’t come to this with ego. I come to this humbly and with a lot of respect for what we are mandated to do.”
Gov. Jay Inslee hired Matthews in August after firing the Office of Equity’s first director, Karen A. Johnson, over “instabilities in the work environment.” A state investigation into Johnson found she engaged in “biased and insensitive conduct,” including commenting on people’s weight and making a biased statement against Mexican people. (A spokesperson for Inslee’s office told The Seattle Times Johnson was not fired because of the investigation.)
Matthews, who was previously an assistant director at the Office of Equity and later its acting director, has worked with the office since April 2021, about a year after it was created through legislation signed by Inslee. The office’s mission is to “promote access to equitable opportunities and resources that reduce disparities and improve outcomes statewide across government.”
The Standard spoke with Matthews to learn more about her approach to leading the Office of Equity in the wake of her predecessor’s dismissal, what exactly the office does and how she plans to hold its work accountable to Washingtonians.
I think people hear “Office of Equity” and aren’t necessarily sure what you do day-to-day. What’s an example of work you’re proud of?
We’re going to provide workshops to state agencies who want to seek out help. We want to show people how to do the work. A lot of trainings and material about [diversity, equity and inclusion] is theoretical. It’s big picture and broad. We want to provide the technical support.
There’s three to four different things: the first thing is the pro-equity, anti-racism plan and playbook, where they have to establish a team, complete an equity impact assessment, create a strategic action plan and report out on that
The second thing is relational partnerships: how do we connect with people? How do we make sure when community members join state work groups, they’re not dismissed, they’re not talked over? They don’t feel like because they use certain terms, their perspectives aren’t valued? Those are all comments we hear back from community members who interact with state government.
The third thing is performance: how do we measure if we’re making an impact? Not just the activities we’re doing, but if the activities we’re doing are making a difference.
The last thing is communications: what are communication strategies we can do to reach and connect with people? Sometimes the language we use and the documents we produce are inaccessible to people because they’re not in plain language. The pathways we use for communication doesn’t reach certain demographics and they’re left out. So how do folks develop a communication strategy to reach Washingtonians where they are?
A common criticism of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives is that it’s all talk, no action. How do you plan to avoid that pitfall?
We are working on staffing up, so we can have the capacity to be impactful. Utilizing our budget strategy in an effective way to be impactful with the resources we’ve been allocated. And building accountability into the work we’re doing and publishing that.
It really requires a committed leadership to drive forward progress. And I believe that we have that. So it’s just not taking our foot off the gas.
You mentioned budgeting and staff — these are all issues your predecessor was fired over. There was also an investigation into her biased and insensitive comments. What challenges has your predecessor left behind and what are you planning to do differently?
We are now up to 18 people in our office. We’ve worked with our state human resources to focus intently on hiring, with plans to be fully staffed by the end of this year. It takes a lot of hands to do this work and create the culture internally where people can thrive and do their best work.
We’re also working to create a budget strategy so we’re being intentional with the funds that we spend.
We’ve talked a lot about how you’re hoping to change the way the state functions through the Office of Equity. How would you respond to people who say institutional racism can’t be fixed by creating another institution?
I don’t believe one strategy, one group, one organization is going to do it all. Our systems are so complicated and complex. I think there’s a role for everyone to play. The message we say: what is your role? Everything you do either maintains the status quo or advances equity. Because if you do nothing, the system will keep on functioning as it is already doing.
The Office of Equity is going to be meeting our mandate. That’s how we’re going to try to move the system.
Is there anything else you want people to know about the Office of Equity?
We’re not perfect, but we are passionate about this work. Many of us are connected through our communities and our own experience in some way to this work.
I just know there are hard-working people all throughout Washington state: there are people who are trying to find a way through and, because of the decisions [state government has] made, aren’t able to succeed. In our system, sometimes we value people because of what they can produce. And I say your value isn’t tied to what you do, how much money you make, how much money you generate. It’s tied to you being a human being.
I think our state leaders are on board. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to business. We’re not just talking. It’s not going to be a perfect journey. I’ll apologize when I’m wrong, and then we’re going to get back to work and keep it pushing.
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