Mass incarceration, health disparities, the achievement gap: Is the Utah governor’s Multicultural Commission helping?

Story and photos by MEGAN CHRISTINE

“What is the concern, what is being done about it, and what can we do?”

Jacqueline Thompson, a member of the governor’s Multicultural Commission, said this was the commission’s approach to issues facing minorities in Utah.

The commission’s goals are to promote inclusiveness, cultivate trust between state government and ethnic communities, and improve educational resources regarding equity for the state.

The Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs and the commission was created in 2012 when Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed an executive order.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former member of the Utah State House of Representatives and current commissioner, said the commission “continues in some ways to be a little bit of a controversial existence because the development of it is grounded in some controversy.”

Before 2012, there was the Department of Community and Culture, which employed a director of ethnic affairs. This department had oversight of the African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander affair offices. Each office had employees who were responsible for listening and responding to the needs of its respective community.

When the commission was created, this department and its individual offices were disbanded. The Department of Heritage and Arts now oversees the Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Multicultural Commission.

Rio Grande

The Rio Grande building in Salt Lake City, home of the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts.

Chavez-Houck noted that the commission was developed in the middle of an economic recession when the executive branch was looking for places to cut. Some members of the community were against the elimination of the department and individual offices.

The commission is expected to listen to the needs of the community while also fulfilling the expectations of the governor. Chavez-Houck said that “sometimes it feels overwhelming that we’re trying to bring the voice of communities upward to the executive branch at the same time we’re trying to carry forward the executive branch’s priorities to the communities we represent.”

Thompson said the individual offices were able to work directly with communities one-on-one and could therefore have a more widespread impact.

Thompson also noted that though the staff at the office is small and consists of only three employees, they are “phenomenal.” She said that “if they (Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs) didn’t have the personnel they had, things wouldn’t get done because the staff is so outstanding and efficient.”

Jacqueline Thompson

Jacqueline Thompson, a current member of the governor’s Multicultural Commission.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox serves as co-chair of the commission as appointed in the executive order by the governor. Thompson said Cox is “always thinking outside of the box” and is conscious of being inclusive of all voices.

The 25 commissioners represent a wide variety of voices, and the large majority of them are community leaders in their respective industries, whether that be government, nonprofit, or business. Chavez-Houck is a former Utah legislator. Maria Garciaz is the CEO of Neighborworks, a nonprofit organization. Thompson is a state employee with years of experience in educational equity.

Chavez-Houck said, “I still sincerely believe that there is value in consolidating issues because communities of color share a lot of common concerns.” These are things like health disparities, mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, economic opportunity and development, and education and the achievement gap. “These things hit communities of color the same,” she said.

Garciaz said the commission structure is beneficial because “there’s good reciprocity. There are people on the commission who are community representatives and then you have the state department heads. There’s this exchange of information.”

Though the commission is able to have a wide impact because of the community leaders who serve on it, Garciaz noted that she would like to spread the work they do geographically. “When people hear commission, they assume they’re up on the hill (the Utah Capitol) and inaccessible,” she said. “I think we need to be able to visit other counties so that they’re aware that we’re here.”

The commission meets every two months, and the meetings are open the public. The agendas for previous meetings are available online. Recent topics of discussion include the hiring of an executive director for the Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs, the role of the commission in partnership with Intermountain Healthcare regarding work on the social determinants of health, and the Multicultural Youth Leadership Day.

Commissioners listen to the issues that are presented and then respond with feedback. They work collaboratively to come up with solutions to complex issues that face our community.

Those who want to join the commission must apply and be appointed by the governor. A term can be one, two, or three years long but commissioners serve at the pleasure of the governor and are subject to be removed at any time.

The commissioners assisted in the development of the Senior Leader Toolkit and Participant Course Journal, programs that are currently in their pilot phase among state agencies and community organizations. The goal of these trainings is to improve cross-cultural communication and to “sensitize people more than anything,” Garciaz said.

The Utah Office of Multicultural Affairs oversees the Multicultural Youth Leadership Day at the Capitol and the Multicultural Youth Leadership Summit. The commissioners offer input, consultation, guidance, and are invited to attend. About 1,000 kids of color come to listen to role models of color, but also to present on what they think is or is not working in their schools.

“When these students come to the conferences, they are already born leaders. They are acting in leadership capacities. We call them future leaders, but they really are present leaders, too,” Thompson said.

The commission is attempting to tackle problems communities of color face with help from community leaders and government officials. Its purpose is to ensure that these voices are heard and that minorities are being represented at a state level, because some believe that is not always done effectively through the Utah legislature.

Chavez-Houck said, “I’m looking at the legislature, and I’m looking at who’s up there, and I’m looking at my neighborhood, and I’m looking at the amazing people I know who are very diverse and I’m thinking, ‘If we’re truly a representative democracy, that does not look like our state. That body, the institution, they don’t look like the community.’”