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Whatcom County Boosts Engagement Efforts to Build a More Equitable Advisory Board

A diverse group of happy adults and kids sitting in a garden

Over the last decade, Whatcom County government, local organizations, and community members have put increasing focus on the health and well-being of Whatcom’s youngest children and their families.

Recognizing the important role that county government has to play in realizing the community’s vision that all children thrive, the Whatcom County Council approved the Child and Family Action Plan (action plan) and passed Ordinance 2020-079 in 2020, which established the Child and Family Well-being Task Force (task force).

Formed in 2021, the task force was created to ensure that diverse community partners shape the implementation of the plan, including reviewing county governmental impacts on children and families and making recommendations for improvements for all departments. The ordinance called for embedding principles of equity, with specific attention to racial equity, family engagement, and results-based approaches in the development of the task force’s processes and procedures.

This blog highlights a few strategies the task force has used to demonstrate these principles and the value placed on diverse civic engagement.

Demonstrating the Value of Equitable and Diverse Civic Engagement

The 30-member task force represents a variety of stakeholders, identities, and perspectives in the county. Whatcom County Code chapter 2.106 requires that half of the positions be permanent seats representing agencies, coalitions, and government (both tribal and municipal) in Whatcom County.

The other 15 non-permanent seats are community members appointed by the county council for four-year terms. Whatcom County Code chapter 2.106 specifies that these seats should represent a range of experiences related to young children and families, recognizing that members with lived experience bring valued expertise, skills, and knowledge.

Outreach efforts to recruit members for these non-permanent seats have been intentionally deep and wide, activating community networks and communication channels that include public, private, and tribal schools and higher education; tribal and municipal governments; social service agencies and nonprofits; grassroots organizations and coalitions; faith communities; business and philanthropic entities; and health agencies.

Whatcom-Circle-Image-jpg_614w-1

Image provided courtesy of Whatcom County. It visualizes the community-identified results the task force hopes to achieve with project strategies and actions.

Piloting a Stipend Program

In February 2021, Whatcom County government granted approval to pilot a stipend program for the Child and Family Well-being Task Force in order to encourage diverse participation in governmental processes and to overcome barriers to participation, such as childcare or transportation.

Stipends are one way of incentivizing participation and demonstrating that value. Task force members are eligible for a $40 stipend for each meeting they attend if they are not being paid by an organization or agency to participate on the task force, up to a maximum of $599 per year. On average, nearly one-quarter of the members received stipends each year.

The stipend pilot was extended through 2022 and 2023, with task force members expressing strong support for continuing the program, feeling that it contributed to diverse perspectives. The task force’s 2022 Phase II Report and 2023 Phase III Report included a recommendation that the county council find a sustainable model of providing stipends to eligible members of all county task forces, boards, and commissions in order to support increased access to public policy discussions and government decision-making processes.

Another potential barrier to participation identified by the task force was Whatcom County Code chapter 2.03, which required any advisory group member to be a qualified registered voter and U.S. citizen. The 2022 Phase II Report and 2023 Phase III Report included priorities to increase family involvement in county government processes and decision-making with a specific recommendation to “eliminate voter registration and U.S. citizenship requirements for participation on county government volunteer committees, boards, commissions, or task forces.”

In December 2023, the county council passed Ordinance 2023-082 giving the council the right to waive citizenship and/or qualified registered voter requirements when appointing participants to county advisory boards. It also reaffirmed that Whatcom County values community engagement in civic spaces and community-driven policymaking and seeks to ensure equal access to opportunities for people to participate in county civic spaces.

Building Civic Muscle

The collaborative community processes that led to the development and approval of the action plan and formation of the task force laid the groundwork for leadership and decision-making structures focused on centering opportunities for members who are parents, who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), or whose perspectives have been marginalized. Two structures unique to this county advisory group are the co-chair roles and the use of a Fist to Five as a decision-making tool.

As a large task force, members expressed a desire to distribute leadership more widely than the traditional chair or chair/vice-chair structure. They adopted the selection of up to four co-chairs with a minimum of two required. The task force typically has three to four ad hoc work groups at any one time, which creates opportunities for members to try on a leadership role in a smaller or time-limited group. Co-chairs serve for two years, and a recent amendment staggered the selection process so that two co-chairs who have served for a year can mentor the two newer co-chairs.

Not only was this a large group to bring together initially, but it also happened in the middle of a global pandemic. Suddenly a group of 30 individuals meeting virtually had to come together as a working team. It was quickly acknowledged that building trusting relationships amongst taskforce members and government employees would be key to the group’s success by binding people to care for one another, encouraging them to share different perspectives and work on complex issues toward a common goal. Building good and trusting relationships takes commitment, time, practice and a willingness to have uncomfortable conversations. One of the task force’s first step was to create and commit to a set of agreements to build a supportive working environment.

The second step was developing a decision-making process that would foster trust-building and collaboration. There was interest in using a consensus-oriented decision-making process, so several members shared their positive experience using Fist to Five, a no-pressure consensus-building tool for quickly gaining insight about the level of agreement for a proposal and identifying areas of support and resistance. The task force applies these rules for using Fist to Five:

  • The display of two fingers, one finger, or a fist will result in further discussion.
  • All rounds of task force Fist to Five voting is public.
  • The third round will be a vote where a simple majority can approve the proposal.
  • If a simple majority doesn’t approve the proposal, the proposal will be removed and reworked.
  • Once consensus is built (all members display a vote of three fingers or above) or a simple majority votes to approve, all members present will be recorded as having approved the proposal.

Conclusion

The task force came together in a turbulent and challenging time, tasked with reviewing county government impact on young children and their families — one of the populations deeply impacted by the pandemic disruption of formal and informal support systems.

In retrospect, the crisis may have accelerated the opportunity to innovate and evaluate new ways of developing and investing in civic engagement. Now in its third year, this task force continues to be committed to community-driven processes and outcomes and open to exploring more equitable pathways to achieving them.



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About Allison Williams

Allison Williams has worked in the Children & Family Programs at Whatcom County Health & Community Services since 1992. She supports the Child and Family Well-being Task Force, an advisory board to the Whatcom County Council, and the Whatcom Perinatal Mental Health Task Force, a community-based coalition.

She works directly with community partners to build informed, quality support for families during each and every pregnancy and parenting experience. Allison is passionate about investing in upstream interventions that nurture a lifetime of well-being and resilience for a child, leading to healthier families who have the opportunities they need to build a healthier community.

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