Some businesses remain closed while others attempt to brave the COVID-19 storm in Salt Lake City’s west side

Some businesses remain closed while others attempt to brave the COVID-19 storm in Salt Lake City’s west side

Story and photos by MARTIN KUPRIANOWICZ

klub deen

Klub Deen in west Salt Lake City’s Poplar Grove neighborhood has been closed since early April when the coronavirus began shutting down the nation’s economy.

Business owners everywhere are getting hit hard by the financial impacts of COVID-19 as hundreds if not thousands are being forced to temporarily suspend physical operations.

One such owner is Newton Gborway, the owner of Klub Deen, a nightclub with a focus on African culture, music, and dance in Salt Lake City’s west-side Poplar Grove neighborhood. 

“Music and dancing are a huge part of life in Africa,” Gborway said in a phone interview. “It brings people together and it’s a great way for everyone to have fun, especially refugees who may be struggling after they move here.”

Gborway is from the West African nation of Liberia. Like most other Americans, he was taken by surprise when everything started shutting down because of social-distancing mandates. His business — which operates on the coming together of large groups of people — was hit especially hard.

“Every day that we’ve been closed we’ve been losing money,” Gborway said. “We had to shut down in the beginning of April because of what the public health order said, and now they’ve just pushed it back until the end of the month. We want to set a good example by following these health orders and doing what the government is telling everybody.”

As Utah’s stay-home directive gets extended until May 1, Gborway can only patiently wait to get the green light to re-open business doors. He hopes that the spread of COVID-19 is reduced and public health orders allow for some normalcy to return. Otherwise, his night club business will continue to suffer financially every day it remains closed. 

klub deen 2 

klub deen 1

A COVID-19 health notice posted on the outside of Klub Deen.

Some other west-side business owners are more fortunate than others. Those who own or operate what Utah decides are “essential businesses” are still able to keep their workplaces open for now. Christine Mason — the owner of Rise by Good Day, a Polish grocery located in the same Poplar Grove neighborhood as Gborway’s club — is still running her store at this time. However, she has had to make drastic changes to the way she does business and she, too, has suffered near-catastrophic financial loss.

“When the shutdown started, I had to close down my catering business,” Mason said. “I lost 98% of my revenue stream with that alone.”

Mason said in a phone interview that times have been tough for the Polish grocery store. As the coronavirus put its grip on the economy nationwide and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert urged his state’s citizens to “stay home, stay safe,” Mason had to make modifications to her shop.

“We’re hanging in there. We’ve had to adapt since this has happened, and a lot less people have been walking into the store,” Mason said. “But we’ve just ordered sneeze guards and a new hand sanitizer station and we’re going to continue to stay open as long as we can. We’re just going to have to take this one day at a time.” 

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Mason. She’s optimistic about the future. She just hired a new chef and plans to stay open as long as possible. “People still need food,” Mason said, and with that in mind she’s confident she can get through this crisis. 

For business owners like Gborway and Mason, there’s not much else they can do besides wait and remain positive and adapt their businesses where they can. They do not know what the future will bring. 

In the meantime, Salt Lake City’s nightclubs will stay closed hoping they can reopen soon, and food stores deemed “essential” will continue to strive to give their customers what they need. As Christine Mason put it, you can only take things now one day at a time. And as time goes by, sanguine west-side business owners along with an anxious nation are all doing just that. 

Rise by Good Day

A pre-pandemic photograph of Rise By Good Day in west Salt Lake City’s Poplar Grove neighborhood.

 

Marisa’s Fashion is a model for west-side Hispanic-owned businesses

Story and photos by JACOB RUEDA

Hispanic-owned businesses in Salt Lake City are becoming the staple in the local economic landscape. The rise of such businesses began in the early to mid-1980s and has become prevalent due to the influx of people migrating from other states and other countries. U.S. Census Bureau data from 2019 says Hispanics or Latinos are the largest non-white ethnic group in the city.

Despite their growing numbers in Salt Lake City, the presence of Hispanics is not as commonplace compared to places like Los Angeles or Houston. While Hispanic-owned businesses in those cities are typical in their local economies, their impact went unrecognized in Salt Lake City until recently.

Marisa’s Fashion was one of the first Hispanic-owned businesses in Salt Lake City. The store is located at 67 W. 1700 South.

“Marisa’s Fashion is one of the first Hispanic-owned stores in Salt Lake City,” says Refugio Perez, a local business owner and entrepreneur who started the clothing and general retail store 40 years ago. After arriving from California and receiving settlement money from a work-related injury, he started Perez Enterprises and created Marisa’s Fashion from it, naming the store after one of his children.

“It is the only one that is still in business out of an initial group of five stores that were established,” Perez says in Spanish.

The store located at 67 W. 1700 South has had the support of the Hispanic community from the beginning. Although at the time the Hispanic population in Salt Lake City was small, people around the Wasatch Front and other states knew of Marisa’s Fashion and came to shop there.

“We started to grow quickly because there weren’t that many places and people were limited as to where they could shop,” Perez says. “We had people from as far as Ogden, Park City and Wendover [Nevada] coming to our store so it worked out for us and we were able to grow our business.”

Refugio Perez is the founder of Perez Enterprises. He started Marisa’s Fashion in the early to mid-1980s.

Marisa’s Fashion grew as a result of demand but also from knowing the responsibilities of running a store. One of the challenges in today’s business world is lacking that knowledge. Perez says some Hispanic entrepreneurs today go in ambitiously without being aware of basic operational skills.

“Nowadays, someone starts a business and they do it without knowing the basics of how to start or run a business,” he says. Aside from the legal and financial responsibilities, staying on top of technological advancements in the digital age is essential in today’s market.

“There have been a lot of professional Hispanic businesses of late and that’s why they are important tools for success,” Perez says.

The longevity of Hispanic-owned businesses is determined by the ability to overcome obstacles. Perez says it has not always been easy staying on track, especially in times of a national crisis.

“9/11 really affected us,” Perez says. “I felt at that time that the State of Utah was the last to get hit economically because of what happened in New York.” An analysis from online small business website The Balance says the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, caused a recession at the time to worsen. Perez decided to hand over responsibility of Marisa’s Fashion to his brother as a result.

“I told him that if any of the businesses survived, I’d prefer it be his and that’s what happened,” Perez says. Since then, the business has carried on in Salt Lake City’s west side. Economic downturns and other setbacks aside, Hispanic-owned businesses like Marisa’s Fashion and Perez Enterprises continue to grow and establish themselves permanently in the area’s commercial landscape because of the economic and social influence they have.

Aaron Quarnberg, chairman of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says “understanding the Hispanic business community” is necessary “for any company looking to grow.”

In his welcome letter to the 2019 Hispanic Small Business Summit, Aaron Quarnberg, chairman of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says “understanding the Hispanic business community” is necessary “for any company looking to grow.” Statistics website Statista reports the buying power of the Hispanic community in the United States is expected to reach $1.7 trillion by the end of 2020. (That figure was calculated before the impact of COVID-19 in March 2020.)

“Latinos are contributing a lot not only with their businesses but with their taxes and it’s something that I think governments should really pay attention to,” says Moises Olivares, a Realtor and author based in Los Angeles, in a Facebook chat. He also says Salt Lake City can learn from cities like Los Angeles by expanding the perception of the Hispanic community as more than just what is propagated through stereotype.

A February 2019 study from the Peterson Institution for International Economics says “Hispanics, especially the foreign born, exhibit higher levels of entrepreneurship than other ethnic groups in the United States.” Despite these findings, Perez from Perez Enterprises says the Hispanic community in Salt Lake City still lacks recognition for its overall economic contribution. 

The Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce helps Hispanic-owned businesses thrive in the local economy while helping them comply with city regulations.

“People like to spend cash,” Perez says. “We know that helps business, even [non-Hispanic] businesses. If they did not have the economic support from the Hispanic community, they wouldn’t be in business.”

Regardless, Salt Lake City’s west-side Hispanic-owned businesses continue in spite of setbacks, crises or perceptions from others. Weathering the ups and downs of the market, cultural shifts, and technological changes helps businesses like Perez Enterprises and Marisa’s Fashion endure for as long as they have.

“When one is patient and is secure in the knowledge that they have to keep at it and keep going,” Perez says, “it becomes important so we can keep fighting and not give up to the last breath.”

Editor’s Note: Read more stories about local entrepreneurs, the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the impact of the Hispanic community in Utah.

 

Even in good times: the west side struggles

Story and photos by SPENCER BUCHANAN 

In February 2020, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., stirred up controversy when she said in part, “It’s a physical impossibility to lift yourself up by a bootstrap, by your shoelaces.”

Ocasio-Cortez and others explained further that the original meaning of the idiom “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was meant as a joke and that the narrative has driven out good policy in helping struggling people. The narrative the idiom formed is one that disregards the barriers that the working-class and marginalized have to deal with, despite the recent economic gains and the shrinking unemployment rate. 

It can be hard to break into the job market. It can be particularly difficult for immigrants and refugees to find stable, well-paying employment. Many struggle to apply for jobs and even more face structural challenges in acquiring the skills and training necessary to qualify for positions. These problems can be found nationwide but the impact can be seen on the west side of Salt Lake City.

The west side has long been a working-class neighborhood and in recent years has become increasingly diverse. With large immigrant and refugee populations, residents of the west side often have to make huge adjustments to enter the American job market.

Organizations like the University Neighborhood Partners (UNP) Hartland Partnership Center, the Rose Park Neighborhood Center, and the Utah Department of Workforce Services work to help west-side residents deal with barriers that are commonly overlooked.

“Individuals come in seeking support in finding jobs. So that can vary in need. Sometimes we’ll make resumes. We have a lot of templates and we’ll actually help make the resumes with individuals. And often we’ll just help apply for jobs,” said Amelia Cope, an intern at Hartland and social work student at the University of Utah.

Cope explained that those who come to Hartland need help with several issues. Many clients don’t have an email account or computer access, several don’t have transportation, and many speak English as a second language. 

The Rose Park Neighborhood Center at 754 N. 800 West.

Lenn Rodriguez, a site coordinator at Hartland, stated that beyond the technology gap and language difficulties, many recent immigrants and refugees have experienced or are experiencing trauma that can be debilitating. According to Rodriguez, this is why the Hartland Partnership Center also provides counseling and therapy for many new immigrants and refugees.

“A lot of the people that are coming here have trauma from wherever they came and haven’t processed that. That affects your ability to seek out employment and other services,” Rodriguez said. 

But a major problem that Rodriguez sees is the lack of “good jobs” and training for immigrants and refugees.

 “We work with a lot of professionals, also with people that hold degrees in other countries like engineers, doctors, teachers, from Iraq, from Syria, from El Salvador. They come here and they can’t work in that field that they studied. So they become cleaners, they work at the airport, and hotels,” Rodriguez said.

The University Neighborhood Partners Hartland Partnership Center, located at 1578 W. 1700 South.

Rodriguez stated that many professionals have to start again in education and training if they want to work in their original field. Unfortunately, many job seekers in the west side are suffering from a wider issue in the market.

“The problem is: it’s very difficult to do training,” said Cihan Bilginsoy, a professor in economics at the University of Utah who specializes in labor issues.

According to Bilginsoy, the nature of training and educating would-be job seekers is a costly and lengthy process. This process keeps many employers from implementing the necessary training or education that can lead to more stable, fulfilling, and well-paying jobs.

This cost and investment draws companies away from creating large training programs. He said many employers will instead invest in a few seasoned professionals and have other positions filled with very specifically trained but generally low-skilled employees. These “task-oriented” workers are put in vulnerable positions without marketable skills.

“These semi-skilled workers can be shed very easily, they receive low wages, they’re marginal and dispensable,” Bilgonsoy said.

The Associated General Contractors of Utah is one of the few organizations in the state that provides professional training.

In his research, Bilgonsoy has found that most western nations have a skills gap issue. Nations like Germany or Australia have created social and government structures that organize stakeholders like the government, the unions, and employers to cooperate and fund training in various fields. There have been pushes by the federal and some state governments to incentivize training programs mostly in the form of tax credits and work programs, but what’s being offered is often insufficient for companies to wholly invest into programs.

“We need to provide incentives for employers to provide training, we need to solve the problem of market failure in training. International evidence shows that states, or federal governments need to take a leading role in bringing together employers and trade unions, so these stakeholders share the risk,” Bilgonsoy said.

The challenges facing west-side residents go beyond Salt Lake City. The struggles that new immigrants, refugees, and the working-class have in finding gainful employment can be linked to a lack of skills necessary for an ever-advancing economy. Organizations like the Hartland Partnership Center do well to help west-side residents meet the basic needs for job seeking, but a large market and social change is necessary to meet the needs of the residents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food is as diverse as people in Salt Lake City’s west side 

Story and photos by MARTIN KUPRIANOWICZ

Rise by Good Day

Rise by Good Day is Salt Lake City’s only Polish market.

The cuisine on the west side of Salt Lake City is as diverse as its people. In a portion of a city that’s nestled between the desert and the mountains, you can find restaurants with styles of food and owners from almost all continents. Because, no matter what corner of the world you find yourself in, you will realize that food is not only a necessity — it is a way of life.

The Horn of Africa is run by a friendly Somali family. When patrons walk into the restaurant in the Glendale neighborhood they encounter intoxicating aromas of east African spices. They might also see someone praying in the corner, depending on the time of day. 

“My mother is a good cook, so it is only natural for her to open a restaurant here. Food is a big part of life in Somalia,” Kabar Gedi said.

Gedi moved to Utah from Somalia with his family 12 years ago. They have owned and operated their restaurant for six years.

The restaurant is located in an industrial-looking part of town. Halimo Omar — the chef and Gedi’s mother — recommended a traditional Somali goat dish served with rice and a spicy, green sauce. Goat has a chewier, leaner consistency than other meats Americans typically eat. 

Gedi explained to a customer that a nomadic lifestyle is still practiced by much of the population in Somalia.

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The Horn of Africa had this painting inside the restaurant. Much of the population in Somali is still nomadic. 

“What a car is to you is like what a camel is to us over there,” he said. “And camel milk is very, very good.”

The diversity of food and people in this part of town is easy to see. Just a few blocks south from The Horn of Africa is Rise by Good Day — a Polish market and family-owned restaurant operated by Christine Mason. It is Salt Lake City’s only Polish market.

The shop is a small 600-square-foot unit on the ground floor of an office building in Poplar Grove on Salt Lake City’s west side. The market sells only authentic goods and freshly prepared dishes like pierogi, polish sausage with cabbage, and red beet soup. It recently celebrated its second anniversary in December 2019.

Mason was raised by Polish parents in the cultural hub of Chicago. She moved to Salt Lake City after marrying a Utah native. Mason worked for a catering business for seven years before fulfilling her dreams of owning a restaurant and market that sells what she said is the best kind of food.

“You can cook Polish food but if you’re using American products it turns out just slightly different,” Mason said.

That’s why Mason said all of her market’s food is shipped in weekly from Polish grocers in Chicago. This keeps the dishes she serves, the ingredients she sells, and the pastries she bakes authentically Polish.

During a recent visit, the week’s most popular item was pączki (pronounced pon-shki).

Pączki are the Polish versions of jelly-filled doughnuts, which are less greasy than traditional American doughnuts. The ones Mason makes are so popular that she sold over 2,000 that week alone.

“We had a line in here last Tuesday all day long. I was back in the kitchen frying [oączki] until about 6:00 at night until we finally had to close the doors,” Mason said.

Travel a few more blocks north to the corner of Redwood Road and North Temple and you’ll pass by an assortment of ethnic food restaurants ranging from South American-style cafes to Asian markets. One dining option is The Star of India — a colorful, family-owned Indian restaurant with a full bar, lunch buffet, and a menu of succulent tandoori and curry dishes.

The Kaur family has owned the restaurant since 1990. It was once located downtown, but due to heavy competition, the family decided to relocate their restaurant to the inside of the Ramada Inn four years ago.

Param Kaur manages the restaurant and her father — Avatar — is its chef.

“He’s back there, in the kitchen, all day, every day,” Param said. “He loves what he does, and because of that, the food here is really good. Especially the spinach — you can’t go wrong with that.”

One dish that is particularly popular is the naan bread. It’s a simple flatbread that is served as an appetizer or alongside other dishes, but the way it is made at The Star of India is unique when compared to other Indian restaurants in Salt Lake City. 

Param said their recipe calls for a softer flour and is cooked in a traditional clay oven. It’s a technique that her father has been refining since his youth in India.

So, if you venture to the west side of Salt Lake City with a hungry stomach and an open mind, you will find people who look different than you but have something that everybody has in common — we all love to eat.

 

 

Women from all walks of life: how the Glendale community came together to celebrate International Women’s Day

Glendale Middle School, at 1430 W. Andrew Ave. in Salt Lake City, hosted community members for a celebration of International Women’s Day on March 7, 2020.

Story and photo by IVANA MARTINEZ

Women from all nationalities dressed in their own traditional garments took to the Glendale Middle School cafeteria floor in Salt Lake City on March 7, 2020, to celebrate the annual International Women’s Day. 

The women dotting the dance floor swayed back and forth clapping to the music. They cheered on one another in vibrant headscarves and textiles embracing each other in the name of womanhood. 

“As you can see most of these women [are] dressed in their traditional clothing, they want to embrace their true identity and who they really are. And they want to be recognized and to have a voice,” said Fatima Dirie, the refugee community liaison from the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office. 

The official International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on March 8, which is meant to acknowledge the political, social and economic accomplishments of women all over the world. According to the New World Encyclopedia, the day commemorates women who took to the streets in 1911 to demand voting rights, better wages and shorter working hours. 

The event was sponsored by the United African Women of Hope (UAWH) and co-sponsored by the Utah Refugee Connection, Salt Lake City School District, Department of Workforce Services Refugee Services Office and the Mayor’s Office. 

United African Women of Hope is an organization that started in 2004 after a local woman died in Salt Lake City. 

 Antoinette Uwanyiugira, UAWH organizer, told Voices of Utah the group initially consisted of refugee women who came from the Congo. Now the group works with women from all nationalities.  

“We all manifest the same. It doesn’t matter where you come from, where your background [is], what your religion is. We have the same issues,” Uwanyiugira said.

The organization hosts workshops on topics including domestic violence and substance abuse. United African Women of Hope receives support from the Utah Refugee Connection.

Amy Dott Harmer of the Utah Refugee Connection said the organization helps local refugee communities come together and gather. She mentioned one of the reasons it gets involved is because most refugee groups are learning how to plan an event, especially events that involve the general community.

“Well, I think one of the important things is we’re a much better community,” Harmer said about the women who came together to celebrate International Women’s Day. “When we invite people of different faiths, different cultural backgrounds to come and be involved because then we have a much better understanding of each other.” 

According to the 2017 report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, approximately 60,000 refugees live in Utah. The vast majority of refugees reside in Salt Lake County and represent countries such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union and Burma.

A Celebration of Cultures

A handful of dance groups came to Glendale Middle School, located at 1430 Andrew Ave. in  Salt Lake City, to celebrate their country’s traditional dances as a part of the women’s day celebration. 

Evelyn Cruz, who is from Mexico and currently studies at Granger High School, arrived with her dance group to perform traditional Mexican dances such as the jarabe tapatío. 

Evelyn Cruz and her friend dancing the jarabe tapatío at Glendale Middle School on March 7, for International Women’s Day.

She said it feels good to see others who are celebrating their cultures through dance.

“I feel proud, especially seeing others dancing and moving,” Cruz said. 

Fatima Dirie, the refugee community liaison, said how unique these types of events are for women of color. She mentioned how it can be difficult to be the only woman of color in a space that is predominantly white. 

“In today’s event, you actually see women from all walks of life and so the more we’re able to insert ourselves in these different spaces, the more people are going to appreciate diversity and include diversity at the table,” Dirie said, “allow these women to actually be on boards of commission, take a leadership role and allow them to not really be limited to only being mothers because we can do more than that.”  

Dirie mentioned how women can multitask and occupy multiple positions. She said women are more than one identity marker. 

But barriers still exist. Gender pay gap and gender inequality in leadership positions affect women — and particularly higher for women of color. 

According to the Institute For Women Policy Research, women of all major racial and ethnic groups earn less than men of the same group, and also earn less than white men.  

This is why International Women’s Day is still celebrated today — to shed light on issues women continue to face and to celebrate women for how far they have come. 

Dirie said it is important to have allies in the community who can support women on issues such as health care. She said one way to do that is to allow women to talk and men to listen. 

“Once you listen you start understanding and you start realizing you’re not listening just to respond,” Dirie said, “but you’re listening to sort of understand why these women had to go through those challenges, and how they can overcome those challenges.”

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Mestizo Arts and Activism Collective — 13 years later

Story and photo by ALISON TANNER

What began as a safe space for youth to discuss different topics and concerns, has become an engaging and creative platform for young students to take action in their community. In over a decade, the continuously blossoming program is impacting many in the Salt Lake Valley.

Mestizo Arts & Activism Collective (MAA) was co-founded in 2007 by Caitlin Cahill, David Quijada and the late Matt Bradley, remembered as a powerful force in the community for change. These activist researchers were working on several different documentary projects relating to race in schools, immigration issues, and in-state tuition for undocumented citizens.

Along the way, they met with various youth who were passionate about social issues and wanted to get more involved. With a little bit of funding and a big commitment to addressing these topics in a safe space, the MAA was born.

Over a decade later, Caitlin Cahill reflects on the collective’s progress. “It’s so beautiful to see the way it’s developed. I feel humbled and inspired.” Although Cahill has since moved from Utah, she often comes back to visit. “It’s a space of activism, which is a key part of healing in this crazy world we live in.”

So how does it work? Each year, a diverse and intergenerational collective of young activists, artists and researchers work together to address urgent issues in the community. Nearing the end of the school year they work on a final project, created by a specific student or students, showcasing what they’ve learned throughout the year. Students have created everything from documentaries to murals.

MAA is a community partner with University of Utah Neighborhood Partners. UNP’s mission brings the community together by connecting the university and people in west-side neighborhoods with resources in reciprocal learning, action and benefit. As UNP proactively helps historically unheard voices, it acts as a convener, contributing to the decrease of barriers to higher education.

Various MAA mentors mentioned that the collective also provides the opportunity to connect with others and discuss topics that aren’t necessarily taught at school or in their homes.

Artwork serves as a key focus of the collective. Painting. Filming. Drawing. Speaking. Dancing. These young people are allowing others to see that activism is powerful and necessary, displaying it through words, colors and sounds.

Over the last decade there have been significant losses in art education, due to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. UNP Director Jennifer Mayer-Glenn mentioned that when the focus shifted to helping students achieve higher skills at math and science, arts education fell to the wayside.

“Many communities relate so much to music, visual art and dance. It is hugely important,” Mayer-Glenn said. “Art is a way to express oppression and repression.”

Although it begins with high school-aged students, the MAA has created an impact with far-reaching effects. With an initiative to help youth find opportunities and remove barriers to higher education, many who began in MAA are giving back, sustaining a successful cycle of change.

MAA members pose for a photo at the Marmalade Branch of the Salt Lake City Library. Pictured from left to right is Caitlin Cahill, Yair Marin, Elizabeth Estrada-Murrillo, Jarred Martínez, Sharay Juarez, Itzél Nava, and Leticia Alvarez Guitérrez.

“MAA is a space where it’s developed and centered around high school-aged youth, but it’s where our leadership has come from. They have a different role, like myself, but we’re all still involved,” said Jarred Martínez, who serves as the MAA advisor with UNP in conjunction with the U. Martínez said that much of where he is today is due to his connection with MAA.

Itzél Nava is a student at the U and a former member of MAA. At a young age, she thought she’d never attend college. She now serves as an MAA mentor, regularly meeting with the students and providing her leadership to the collective.

“Whenever someone asks me to tell them about MAA, I tell them it’s a program that caters to west-side students.” Nava added, “You always hear about the east-side schools and their resources, but now we’re showing everybody what’s happening and what amazing things our students are doing here.”

Amazing things is right. In 2008 to 2010, an ethnically diverse group of student researchers began the “We Live Here” project. Calling attention to the complexity of multi-ethnic/cultural neighborhoods that are often overlooked, students engaged in oral history and research to document the value and contributions of their community. They wanted to challenge assumptions about the west side, creating a multi-layered interactive community history map.

Another student mentor, Yair Marin, has been involved with the program since his sophomore year of high school in Salt Lake City. Of MAA, he said, “It’s especially rewarding because it’s intergenerational. You could call it a second family.”

Marin also said that there have been various instances where students came to the leaders for personal help. Being a mentor allows them to create meaningful bonds that continue long after students have graduated from the program.

Leticia Alvarez Gutiérrez, MAA faculty advisor, said students who participate in MAA while in high school receive university credit for attending 85% of the program. This serves as yet another way that Mestizo Arts & Activism removes barriers for students of minority backgrounds to receive higher education.

“I think for me the most important thing is getting to know who these young people are. It’s a sacred space. We all hold very strong relationships,” Gutiérrez said.

The collective meets every Monday and Wednesday at Mary W. Jackson Elementary school. A full archive of its projects is included on the website. Though MAA is a small organization, the colorful tapestry of its impact is larger than life, as it reaches many in Salt Lake City and beyond.

“Activism is more than protesting. We all want to live in a better world,” said Cahill, MAA co-founder. “This space is creating the world that we all want to live in.”

Ski programs molding better lives for those living in Salt Lake City’s west-side communities

Story by MARTIN KUPRIANOWICZ

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Children living on the west side of Salt Lake City enjoying the snow and cross-country skiing. Photo by Peter Vordenberg

It’s Saturday. The sun is shining and snow is on the ground. Parents are dropping their children off at Mountainview Elementary in Salt Lake City and the kids are already exploding with excitement — they are going on a field trip. Juan Gilberto Rejón — or “Coach Juan,” as those in west-side communities refer to him — is patiently waiting outside of the school to take roughly 50 elementary students to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to view a population of wild eagles on this day.

Coach Juan is the founder, executive director, and coach for the Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families, which is a program that aims to create pathways to college for the underserved by getting students involved in the outdoors. Coach Juan started this program because he believes the experiences earned in the outdoors are valuable ones that can set children up to better handle adversity throughout their lives.

On weekends throughout the school year, Coach Juan often takes students on excursions to participate in a wide variety of outdoor activities, from bird watching to skiing. Recently, cross-country skiing has been a big emphasis of the program.

“It’s a blessing for our underserved and our underprivileged because they wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. It’s too expensive,” Coach Juan said. “For a family of five or six to go skiing at $200 a pop, that’s already over $1,000 being spent for just a day of skiing. There’s just no way these families living in poverty could afford that.”

His ski program is partnered with the Utah Nordic Alliance that takes students cross-country skiing on weekends in the winter. Another partner is She Jumps, an organization that motivates women and girls of all backgrounds to step out of their comfort zone in a fun, non-threatening, inclusive environment to learn outdoor skills.

Coach Juan’s program has been operating for three years, but his inspiration to get students involved with the outdoors goes back almost two decades to the birth of his son.

Voices of Utah 2

Coach Juan pictured outside of Mountainview Elementary, the meeting place for students going to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Photo by Martin Kuprianowicz

“When I first moved into a 300-bedroom apartment complex here (on the west side) there were a lot of things happening that were not safe for kids. We had a lot of robberies, carjackings, prostitution, drugs, alcohol, so as a community advocate I had to do something for my child,” Coach Juan said.

What began as a mission to improve the quality of life for his child then translated as improving the lives of everyone in his community, especially vulnerable children on the west side of Salt Lake City. Coach Juan started a community soccer program that would eventually grow into a multifaceted, multi-partnered community outdoor program for youth.

The program focuses on helping students to pursue higher education. Coach Juan’s son went through it. Now, his grandchildren are enrolled. Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families has since grown and is now partnered with the Utah Nordic Alliance, headed by former two-time Olympic ski racer Peter Vordenberg.

Vordenberg coaches ski racers who have won gold medals in the Winter Olympics and World Cup championships. In addition, he helps Coach Juan organize the single-day cross-country ski trips by providing students with everything they need to go skiing.

But he didn’t always plan to be a community advocate. It all started by chance one day when he was invited by a friend to tag along with the kids on one of these ski programs.

“I was out there hanging out with all the kids and with Coach Juan and I was like, ‘Oh man, I got to be more involved, not just take pictures but I got to see what I can do to help out.’ So, I joined the board,” Vordenberg said.

Vordenberg has been on the Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families board for three years. He says that his favorite thing about being involved with the program is watching the kids develop a love for skiing and the outdoors. “It really builds their confidence and helps them dream bigger,” Vordenberg said.

Another opportunity for the west-side youth is the Parks and Recreation program that is affiliated with world-class ski areas Brighton and Snowbird. The Northwest Recreation Center is one of many centers throughout the Salt Lake Valley  that shuttle elementary and middle school students to those ski areas and provide them with gear, lift passes, and instructor training.

Snowbird Mountain School Director Maggie Loring has run this program on Fridays in the winter for 18 seasons. She said programmatic goals include developing new skiers and riders who may be interested in one day working as staff at the resorts, and providing a community service to children who may not otherwise get the opportunity to enjoy winter sports.

“One anecdote I can share is that the current manager of our programs was initially in our 4th-grade program, became a junior instructor, and kept going. It’s really an opportunity for resorts to capture both new guests and new staff,” Loring said in an email interview.

However, the impact of these programs is also a lot simpler than getting kids involved with the outdoors and setting them up for potential life paths in the ski industry.

“One of my favorite things about this program is the opportunity to see the kids pour out of the buses so excited to get onto the mountain,” Loring said. “Many of them may not be able to sleep the night before because of how excited they are for this new adventure. I remember from my own childhood how excited I was to get out of school to go skiing!”

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It’s nothing but smiles when the kids get off the bus and go skiing. Photo by Peter Vordenberg