OLYMPIA, Wash. — Citing a lack of stability and budgetary concerns, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office fired Office of Equity Director Dr. Karen Johnson last week.
Inslee appointed Johnson as the first director of the newly formed state agency in March of 2021.
In an emailed statement, spokesperson Mike Faulk said Johnson contributed to starting the “important” work of the office.
“However, the office has experienced a lack of stability in agency operations and the work environment, including high vacancy rates, high employee turnover and budgetary concerns," Faulk said. "We remain committed to the work and the success of this office moving forward. We determined this will require new leadership."
Johnson said she was shocked to get the news. Johnson said she was given a choice: resign or be fired.
Johnson said she was not given any warning she might lose her job before meeting with the governor's staff last Monday.
She also said budgetary and office stability issues were never brought to her attention.
"I was not made aware of those concerns in the meeting as the reasons for the choice to resign or be fired," said Johnson.
Faulk confirmed Johnson was "provided the opportunity to resign and chose separation instead."
“Apparently it was perceived I had done enough,” said Johnson, who said she was fired for doing what she was hired to do: shaking up government and highlighting inequities in state agencies.
“There were quite a few people who thought I’d gone too far,” said Johnson.
Johnson said earlier last week the office announced a plan to hold state agencies publicly accountable when they fail to prioritize equity.
“Our office was saying, ‘You can do whatever you want. We’re just going to hold you accountable and tell the world…unapologetically,'” said Johnson.
The state created the Office of Equity in 2020.
Johnson, who is Black, said she almost didn’t take the job.
“No Black person in their right mind…wants to be leading this kind of work, convincing white people they want to do something they have no intention of doing,” said Johnson.
But looking back she calls her tenure as director as “the time of her life.”
“I received many emails from staff across the state who said, ‘Thanks to you Dr. J, I know who I am. I found my voice and I’m using it," Johnson said. "That’s what I’m most proud of.'”