March 25, 2021

Advancing Equity through Targeted Universalism: A Q&A with Liz Tennant (MPA ’85)

Liz Tennant Headshot

You’ve dedicated your career to serve the greater good. What contributed to your decision to do so? Was there a defining moment in particular?

For as long as I can remember I have had a strong drive to serve the greater good. I explored a couple of different paths before deciding to work on protecting public health and the environment.

Before retiring from an extensive career with the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County, you were involved in creating the program’s racial equity strategic plan and program. Can you share how you addressed this critical work, what strategies were developed, and any key learnings you’d like the Evans School community to know?

The Hazardous Waste Management Program (Haz Waste) is a regional program in King County that works to prevent human and environmental exposure to hazardous materials and products. Program partners include Public Health, Seattle & King County, King County Water and Land Resources Division, King County Solid Waste Division, Seattle Public Utilities, 37 cities and towns and two tribes. Haz Waste has been working since 1990 to provide relevant and effective services to King County’s 2.1 million residents and 60,000 businesses. I served as Strategic Advisor to the Program Director.

The planning process:

For over 20 years, Haz Waste partnered with the City of Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) to integrate environmental justice and service equity in Haz Waste programs and services.  It became increasingly clear that we needed to approach this work more holistically, thoughtfully, and strategically. In 2017, Haz Waste and SPU’s Environmental Justice and Service Equity Team launched a joint planning effort to improve Haz Waste’s operations, policies, practices, and services. The Director and I were on the planning team.

  • During Phase 1 we worked with our multi-jurisdictional Management Coordination Committee (MCC) to develop a racial equity vision for the Haz Waste Program and for each function and service. We gathered feedback from Haz Waste staff and other stakeholders and refined the vision. During this same period, we gathered information, reports and data on racial equity initiatives and performance and gathered the perspectives of staff on multi-agency program teams, project managers, agency managers and Haz Waste managers. We also gathered information about best management practices in each area.
  • During Phase 2 we conducted a gaps analysis, and identified gaps, needs, challenges and opportunities in each project area. We developed initial recommendations. We expanded the Racial Equity Planning Team in 2018 to help refine the recommendations and develop SMART goals for their topic areas. High level observations were shared with staff, the Leadership Team and MCC.
  • During Phase 3 recommendations were refined and finalized in two separate but related documents: 1) a Racial Equity Strategic Plan, which sets the strategic direction and provides a high-level summary of key steps that Haz Waste will take to advance racial equity and 2) A Racial Equity Implementation plan which describes key actions that Haz Waste will take over the next three years to promote racial equity in our services and operations. It is an internal guidance document. These documents were shared with staff and iterated with them. The final documents were adopted by the MCC on October 16, 2018.

Key strategies:

The Plan commits Haz Waste to lead with racial equity by implementing a racial justice framework to address root causes and eliminate inequities in how the program operates and in the services it delivers. Key strategies for doing this included:

  • Adopting a Targeted Universalism approach that recognizes that different populations in King County face different barriers in accessing and benefiting from Haz Waste services, and by working with communities to identify and implement targeted programmatic efforts.
  • Defining racial equity commitments, performance goals and performance measures in each program area and function; building those into annual work plans for each area; and reporting on quarterly progress.
  • Involving community-based organizations and community members at every step of the process to update the Program’s State-Adopted Management Plan. This community centered planning process that centers voices of underserved and overburdened communities including Black, Indigenous and other people of color, refugees, immigrants and other marginalized residents and workers.
  • Committing to the development of a performance measurement system that uses Results Based Accountability using a racial equity lens.
  • Hiring a full-time Racial Equity Manager to ensure accountability.

Key learnings:

  • Be flexible. Plans give you a place to start and a framework for being accountable. It is important to establish your goal and work plan as clearly as you can.  That said, you probably will need to accept that things move more slowly than you want, and that you will need to adapt and modify as you go along.  For example, almost immediately after adopting the plan, we realized that we needed to establish cross-program work teams to advance work in four important areas. Getting these off the ground took longer than we anticipated.
  • Look for where your program can help to address root causes of disparities. Look for opportunities to partner with others to leverage resources to have greater impact.
  • Approach racial equity work with an open mind, curiosity, humility, and kindness. We are all in this together and need to work together to undo unjust procedures, laws, and systems. Try things out, learn from them and allow for imperfection
  • Look for opportunities to keep growing and learning in your individual understanding of racial equities and through the Evans School, your work and in the community.

What is the biggest challenge you have had in your career and how did you address it?

Probably the biggest challenge was being appropriately classified and compensated for the work I was doing. I loved the work I was doing and it took me a number of years—and a supportive boss—to finally be paid at the level I should have been. I am glad that women are more vocal about getting fair pay these days.

What are your favorite podcasts? What is a great book you have read recently?

I have several favorite podcasts that I listen to.  Among my favorites are:

  • On Being with Krista Tippett, who interviews widely ranging thinkers, theologians, community activists, scientists, civil rights leaders, poets and others to think through how we best navigate these times we live in.
  • The Daily with Michael Barbaro of the New York Times, who interviews knowledgeable New York Times reporters on key issues in the news.
  • Throughline, which I have come to recently. It traces how issues we are facing today have roots in the past, with significant focus on racial disparities.

I enjoy reading a variety of books.  One great book I read recently is Native Seattle:  Histories of the Crossing-Over Place by Coll Thrush. It is about Seattle area tribes, settlement and the ongoing interaction of settler and tribal lives economies and stories.

You have been a tremendous supporter of the Evans School over the past 30 years and we are grateful for your steadfast support. Can you share what inspires you to support your alma mater and our incredible students?

I think the Evans School does a wonderful job of training people in public administration and public policy.  We need smart, thoughtful people with good analytical skills to help address the problems in the world.  I am particularly excited to be able to support students of color. I think it is hugely important to continue to diversify the workforce.

If you could give Evans School students one piece of advice, what would it be?

Focus your assignments in required courses on questions/issues that will help you to grow in your particular area(s) of interest. Also, look for courses throughout the UW that will enrich your understanding of your area of interest.  Have a wonderful education!


We’d love to learn more about you and your tremendous contributions to the public good, so we can share your story as we connect, learn, and reflect. Share your story!