Curly Me!’s #PURPOSE: to empower, educate, and encourage young girls of color

Story by TAESHA GOODE

Black children are walking around with matted hair, and that’s just not something Alyssha Dairsow can get behind. After moving to Utah in 2013, Dairsow noticed a startling lack of diversity compared to her hometown in southern New Jersey.

Though the little representation of Black voices surprised her, the number of young Black kids with matted curls shocked her. Mid-shopping spree at Old Navy in the Sugarhouse neighborhood of Salt Lake City, she strode up to a stranger and asked, “If there was an event for you to learn about you granddaughter’s hair, would you come to it?”

“I’m not saying Black people have it all together all the time,” Dairsow said in a Zoom interview, “but that wasn’t something I was used to seeing growing up — matted hair.”

Dairsow planned her first event to be a small seminar on hair care and maintenance at a local curly hair salon. Her second focused on hair styling. “I started to really understand that we’re not just hair,” she said. It quickly became obvious to her that what was missing wasn’t just hair salons, but a community for Black and blended families to identify with. So, she created one.

She founded her nonprofit, Curly Me!, in 2018, describing the organization as, “A resource for families with children of color, specifically Black girls between the ages of 5 and 14.” Since then, her mission has been to help Black girls find their #PURPOSE.

According to the 2019 U.S. Census, African Americans alone make up only 1.5% of Utah’s population. As for multiracial populations, about 2.6% of all Utah residents identify as being biracial, with the mixed-race Black population likely lower.

“We have TRA (transracial adoptive families), traditionally Black [two/single parent] families, biracial families.” Dairsow said. “We want to stand alongside them (parents) to make sure they understand, they don’t have to do it alone.” While Curly Me! is happy to be a resource for transracial families, the nonprofit works with diverse family makeups to be sure to establish confidence for all Black children.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, from 2017-2019, 477 of all adoptions in the state were considered transracial, meaning that the adopted child was a different race than the parents.

“My older brother was actually adopted by a white family,” said Latonya Howell, Curly Me! volunteer coordinator, in a Zoom interview. “I’ve noticed that Black children that are raised in Utah by white families, they find themselves kind of in a limbo position … because they don’t feel like they fit in with white people, but they don’t necessarily feel accepted by Black people because they don’t have that cultural connection.”

While many parents provide all they can for their children, Dairsow understands that sometimes that’s just not feasible. “I have had experiences with parents that were very combative, and I understand they love their child, but there are experiences that you won’t experience that your child may — based solely off of their skin color,” she said in a follow-up email.

Curly Me! holds four quarterly events, as well as smaller educational opportunities and programs for children and parents.

Change the World with Her is one of Curly Me!’s largest programs. The event is a speed-dating style “mini-career fair,” where kids spend six to seven minutes at a table learning about a professional and leave with information on that field to do further research.

Curly Me!’s 2020 Change the World with Her, a speed-dating event meant to connect girls with professionals of color. Curly Me! has been holding Change the World with Her once annually since 2017. Photo Courtesy of Curly Me!

Alongside Change the World with Her, Curly Me! hosts an annual back to school fashion show, parent-child slumber party, and tea party. “In a state where not a lot people drink tea, that’s always interesting,” Dairsow said. “So sometimes we just end up drinking lemonade.”

Due to the pandemic, however, they’ve had to move much of their programming online. “We did self-portraits,” Dairsow said. “We did self-care check-ins with social workers and clinicians … We were able have a parent educational event over last (2020) summer because of all the racial tension and police brutality that was going on in our country.”

For the Mitchells, a biracial family working with Curly Me!, the organization has become a great resource for helping their daughters celebrate their Blackness.

In response to the civil unrest amid last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, mother Amber Mitchell said in a phone interview, “When your kids are like, ‘Why don’t they like Black people’ or ‘Why would they do this,’ that’s a hard one to swallow because you’re like, ‘I don’t know.’ I can’t imagine that, that’s not how we were raised to think.”

Though these conversations have been hard, balancing honesty with self-love has been Mitchell’s key to making them a bit easier. Mitchell, who also works on the board at Curly Me!, has taken the time to teach her family the importance of empathy, even taking her daughters to several protests and Women’s Marches around the country.  

Mitchell’s daughter, 9-year-old Jasani, has already become an activist in her own right. Her favorite part of Curly Me! has been the ability to connect with other Black girls and share her experiences with them. “I get to see all different shades of Black little girls and learn about their unique life … and I get to compare what my is life to their life,” Jasani said in a phone interview.

Getting the opportunity to see kids like Jasani grow up has made this journey all the more special for Alyssha Dairsow. For her, a large part of Curly Me! has been supporting families in raising the next generation and making sure that the kids understand they are not alone in their experiences.

“Black girls, there’s all these obstacles stacked up against us that people don’t want to realize,” Dairsow said. “So, as a Black woman, who has experience as a Black girl, this is a resource that I can provide now to youth and their parents.”

Another part of the journey? Finding out who Alyssha is. Many of Dairsow’s post on the Curly Me! blog feature her hashtag #PURPOSE, which she uses to highlight her own struggle to find her place in the world.

“I genuinely feel that I had to come all the way across this country, fail at something I really, really wanted, stay in a place where I didn’t, and from time to time, don’t know if I really want to be, cause you’re far away from family and friends back home,” Dairsow said. “I had to come all the way out here just to find out who Alyssha was and what Alyssha could do, and then realizing we’re just touching the surface.”

As Curly Me! continues to grow in its mission to educate, empower, and encourage young girls of color, it’s important to look back at all its achieved so far. With its three-year anniversary in March 2021, the nonprofit has been able to help countless families.

Curly Me!’s impact is best viewed through the kids it has worked with, like Jasani.

She hopes that readers will remember, “Every Black girl or Black boy, comes in different colors, and they should love theirselves however they are. If they’re a little lighter than a person or darker than a person, that they should love their skin and that they all have something special inside of their skin.”

Living the blues

Utah musician Harry Lee will do whatever it takes to perform the music he loves and provide for his family

Story by JONATHAN WISTRCILL

Everyone grows up dreaming of doing what they love, but life usually has a different plan. Something always seems to get in the way and trying to balance a full-time job while pursing one’s dream is even more challenging to uphold. But if a person is truly passionate about something, isn’t it worth a try?

This is the story of Harry Lee and over the course of his life he was able to not just try but also thrive in his work and doing what he loves.

Lee was born in Wyoming but grew up in Salt Lake City, where he was the youngest of seven children. His parents Beatrice and James Lee were both deacons at the Calvary Baptist Church. Growing up in a church not only inspired a strong sense of faith in Lee, but one in music as well. He began singing and listing to gospel music at a very young age, and it did not take long for him to fall in love with not just the gospel genre but all types of music.

Harry Lee doing what he loves: singing the blues. Photo courtesy of Excellence in the Community.

Lee went to his first concert when he was 10. He was not going to watch just a random musician, but the legendary James Brown himself. “He was the showman of all showman,” Lee said in a Zoom interview. “He danced, sang and his band was really tight. It was a performance I will never forget.”

Lee’s parents could not afford to send him to any music classes, but he was able to participate in his school band from the fourth to the ninth grade. He joined his first garage band in junior high and even though he never got paid the experience of being part of a band was one that Lee grew to love. He also fell in love with blues music and the emotional weight the songs carry.

He moved to California after high school, where he attended a small junior college and majored in music. This was the point in Lee’s life where things did not go to plan, so he decided to move back to Utah where he attended Salt Lake Community College. The location was not the only part of college that was changing for Lee though, as he decided to pursue a degree in criminal justice. While in California he had begun working in law-enforcement and found a new calling in the security industry.

Lee worked in security from his college days till his retirement in 2015. When he retired it was as the chief of security for the Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City.

For many, choosing this field would have meant the end of their passion, but not for Lee. He was determined to still do what he loved by working as a security guard by day and playing the blues at night. But for that to happen he would need to form a band.

Lee began attending some Monday night jam sessions at a Salt Lake City bar called the Dead Goat Saloon. Over time he was able to befriend different musicians and form his own band called, “Harry Lee and the Back Alley Blues Band.” The group was founded in 1982 and although a few of the members have changed over time the group dynamic has always been strong.

“Band chemistry is very important,” Lee said. “You got to check your ego at the door and be ready to play music. If you have fun with people that you’re working with then the music will be good.”

Lee is the lead singer and plays the harmonica for the group. One of the first musicians he recruited for his band was a bass player named Mike Ricks. Ricks is still in the band and he remembers what drew him to Lee in the first place was their shared passion for the blues.

“He loves playing the blues and so do I,” Ricks said in a Zoom interview. “I think our musical ideas seem to accentuate each other. We have this open idea about playing where we get a basic arrangement and add a verse here or solo there to try and make something different. It is kind of a free-flowing type of music which makes it fun to play.”

The bond that Ricks discussed is shared by Lee with his other bandmates as well. “These guys are phenomenal,” Lee said. “You can call them up and we’ll just play. They’re really professional and fun to be with.”

Lee is close with his bandmates, but he has an even deeper connection to his wife Wendi Lee. They first met at Wendi’s sister’s wedding back in 1996 and were married soon after. “She’s great, I don’t know how I landed her,” Harry said. “Once we got to know each other we decided that we couldn’t live without one another.”

Lee had been married before and raised seven kids. This time however felt different, and that feeling is shared by his wife. “He’s the most amazing man you’ll ever meet,” Wendi said in a Zoom interview. “He’s kind, supportive and a very spiritual person. I can’t name a bad quality about him.”

The first time Wendi watched her husband perform was an experience she will never forget. “I was just mesmerized by not just the man but the performer,” she said. “He sings with such heart and he loves what he does.”

Harry has helped her raise her two children and made sure to always be there for his wife.

Harry Lee and the Back Alley Blues perform live. Photo courtesy of Excellence in the Community.

With everything going on his world one may think it would have been difficult for Lee to balance it all, but he has his priorities well organized. “Family comes first,” Lee said. “I love music, but I got to make sure my family is fine and then I can go do the things that I need to do with my music, but they have to come first.”

Lee considers himself lucky to have worked with such great musicians and performed all over the country and the world. With COVID-19 closing all concert venues for the past year he has only been able to perform twice in that time span. The most recent of these performances being with Excellence in the Community concert series on Feb. 6, 2021.

“It’s been tough,” Lee said. “I’m hoping and praying that people have been starving for live entertainment and we can get out and fulfill that here soon.”

No matter what happens next for Lee, bandmate Mike Ricks knows he will persevere through it like he always has when adversity has struck in his life.

“He’s had some hard times and had to pay his dues,” Ricks said. “He did it, he got through it he played the blues, he lived the blues, he felt the blues.”

Breaking down a “foundation of racism” through film

Story by ZOE GOTTLIEB

In Oconee, Georgia, an old family farm is suspended in time. A ground mist blankets the fertile land. There is a graveyard here — a place where the commands of Confederate ghost soldiers are said to be volleyed across the green plain, beyond broken fence posts and aging headstones.

In Loki Mulholland’s approximations, a woman was supposed to be buried here. Her name was Aunt Mary, a name with placeholder-like quality: on the plantation, she was simply “Aunty,” on a deed, she was just a blotch of ink.

Aunt Mary, according to his family’s oral history, was one of a hundred slaves who once walked the plantation grounds.

But the number wasn’t close to 100. In fact, it was only six, and after the Civil War ended, five of them departed the plantation for good. All left, all but Aunt Mary.

Mulholland, gripped by his trepidation, returned to the grounds once owned by his fourth grandfather, Dudley Jones Chandler, hoping to find a trace of Aunt Mary.

“I knew in my heart that we weren’t going to find her,” Mulholland said in a phone interview. Scouring his family’s burial site, he turned up nothing. Her memory in death, much like her autonomy in life, had been cast into the void — that is, until Mulholland made it his mission to revive it.

“The Uncomfortable Truth,” a documentary film directed by Mulholland, remains relevant since its production in 2017 and is especially poignant now, given the widespread protests over the death of George Floyd which shaped our national discourse in Summer 2020. In his film, which has since received numerous accolades, Mulholland takes ownership of his distant relatives’ checkered pasts, reconciles them with that of his civil rights-activist mother, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, and seeks to root out a “foundation of racism” through cinematic storytelling.

“The Uncomfortable Truth” was released four years after Mulholland’s debut film, titled “An Ordinary Hero: The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland,” which highlights the accomplishments of his mother, a white woman who wielded her privilege to champion the rights of Black Americans.

Perhaps the biggest kicker of all, Mulholland said, was that after the film’s screening at the University of Mississippi, “college kids came up to us and said, ‘We haven’t learned any of this.’”

Sensing a gap in desperate need of filling, Mulholland went on to create the Joan Trumpauer Foundation, an organization dedicated to teaching students about the blemishes of our past, as well as triumphs through civil rights-activism.

“I don’t have to sit at the lunch counters ‘cause my mom already did — right? But I have to do what I can do … because doing nothing is not an option,” Mulholland said.

Now the recipient of an Emmy, Mulholland continues to educate young people through speaking tours about the Civil Rights Movement, our nation’s foundation of racism, and the importance of using privilege for good. Mulholland’s latest film projects are available to view on his website.

As more Black voices emerge in film, our “foundation of racism” appears to be breaking down. In 2021, Sundance reported that 57% of its directors were either Black, indigenous, or people of color.

The Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers West, a Los Angeles-based Black documentary film group, strives to continue this mission of increasing Black participation in the industry.

BADWest, through its film sharing and free screenings, allows people of color to distribute their work and receive feedback, with a mission of “advocat[ing] the recognition and advancement of Black documentary filmmakers.”

“The last four years have been an eye-opener to see where we are in this country,” Joyce Guy, a member and acting treasurer of BADWest, said in a phone interview.

Calling cinema the “foundation of this country going back to ‘Birth of a Nation,’” Guy said she believes that film has the potential to break down sociopolitical barriers and allow Black filmmakers to “chip away [at] untruths about who we are.”

Some of Guy’s work includes “Dancing Like Home,” a documentary she directed on the subject of tribal dance rituals in Casamance, Senegal, and appearances in many popular TV series such as “West Wing,” “Criminal Minds,” “Brooklyn 99,” “Bones,” and the critically acclaimed film “Moneyball.”

Despite her level of professional achievements, Guy said that Black actors, directors, and producers continue to face hurdles in the industry. “We’re still breaking ground to be just called a filmmaker — we haven’t passed that threshold yet.”

The organization will hold its 11th annual Day of Black Docs in May 2021. The event, held virtually this year, celebrates some of the year’s best Black documentary films.

Salt Lake City also has its share of Black production companies, including Inglewood Films founded by director and producer JD Allen.

Damarr Jones is an actor featured in several of JD Allen’s films, including “The Shoebox” and “Fear Level.” Photo Courtesy of Damarr Jones.

Damarr Jones is a friend of Allen’s and an actor affiliated with Inglewood Films. Jones, a self-described “military man,” hailing from Riverside, California, was in the midst of a search for professional gigs when he first became acquainted with Allen.

The men, having grown up in different parts of California, bonded right away, and Jones went on to participate in many of Allen’s films, including “Fear Level” and “The Shoebox.”

“Fear Level” follows the lives of six as they descend into their darkest depths, or “levels” of terror. “The Shoebox,” a film based on the real-life events of veteran Micah Reel, centers on four soldiers faced with the reality of PTSD before war.

Film has always been an important part of Jones’ life, but the death of George Floyd in 2020 changed his outlook on the industry.

“As tragic as George Floyd’s [death] was, one thing it did was open a lot of people’s eyes,” Jones said in a Zoom interview.

After Floyd’s death, Jones discovered a trend which he hopes will stick: more people, especially those of the younger generation, taking to video-sharing sites like TikTok, giving Black voices an unprecedented level of influence.

“I just hope the momentum can stay going, because when you got stuff that’s kinda trendy, it tends to fade out,” Jones said.

Jones, Guy, and Mulholland are all storytellers whose lives have been irrevocably shaped by their perception of racism in this country. They are storytellers who strive each day to use their narratives for good, to break down those racial barriers which will help America grapple with its racist past.

Back in Oconee, Georgia, Mulholland found himself wanting to retrace the paths walked by his activist mother. He might not have realized it at the time, but the act itself — an act of total, willful remembrance — encapsulates the meaning of “The Uncomfortable Truth.”

“I’m walking,” he said, “trying to figure out where this path was, and it turned out that I had been walking on it the entire time.”


Ignored statistics: acknowledging Black resources for domestic violence and sexual assault

Story by NINA TITA

National domestic violence cases have increased 8.1% since the coronavirus stay-at-home mandates began in March 2020. According to a new study by the National Commission of COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, there is a need “for additional resources for domestic abuse prevention and victim services.”

Utah nonprofit organizations like the YWCA, The Sojourner Group and We Will, are dedicated to helping all victims. They are focusing on acknowledging the historical trend of neglect in the Black community.

It is expected that more than 40% of Black women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research’s Status of Black Women in the United States. In comparison, 31.5% of all women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Liz Owens, Utah’s CEO for the YWCA, said Black women have always faced hardship with lack of resources.

“In the domestic violence community in marketing you often hear that all domestic violence doesn’t discriminate, it happens across socioeconomic lines and across cultures. And although that is true, access to resources by which to mitigate and escape violence looks different based off of our identities,” Owens said in a Zoom interview.

This is what Owens has been passionate about in her career, intersectionality, the analyzation of how our identities can determine privilege or discrimination.

“I was really moved in part by my own experience and understanding what it was like as a Black multiracial woman, young girl at the time, growing up in a white community,” Owens said. 

Her work at YWCA comes at an interesting time. There has been an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. Owens said the YWCA and other sister shelters are always at capacity or overflowing with people in need. The lack of resources means that not everyone who shows up for help can actually get it. She and her team work together with organizations trying to find places to send women when they are over capacity.

“Based off of the anticipated 2020 census numbers, we have an over-representation of communities of color and every color of community that is reported, except for in the Asian community, and that is in our domestic violence services,” Owens said.

The YWCA also offers a variety of other services, including an emergency shelter, the Salt Lake City Family Justice Center (which provides walk-in services), transitional and affordable housing, and children services.

One in particular has stood out to Owens this past year, the community-facing groups of women of color who come to heal together.

Carol J. Matthews-Shifflett, founder and CEO of the Sojourner Group, started her nonprofit with the same goal in mind — bringing together Black women. She created Sistah Circle, an open discussion group to help connect and create conversation for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Shifflett was struck years ago, when a woman approached her with deep gratitude for her work saying, “I have never had a group where Black women can come and talk, it feels comfortable. Because there’s so many white therapists they don’t understand our experience,” Shifflett said in a Zoom interview.

Shifflett’s passion for her work started decades ago when she worked as the volunteer and donation coordinator at the YWCA after completing her undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology. This is where she had an encounter that she calls her “turning point.” Shifflett recalls talking to a new woman at the shelter many years ago about her experience living there and the harassment she was facing.

“I reported it and three weeks later I saw that woman and I said, ‘So how did the conversation go?’ Because I knew that it was reported. And she said, ‘No one has talked to me.’ So, I reported it again and in reporting it again I got a message a couple of hours later that it’s been ‘handled.’ And I never saw that woman again. She was gone.”

Shifflett, deeply impacted by that experience, went on to get her master’s degree in community leadership. She gave various presentations about how Black women are historically dismissed from the conversation.

Then everything changed in May 2020 when George Floyd’s murder launched a nationwide movement. Shifflett opened up the conversation to men about healthy masculinity and the male experience, something completely new.

“Listening to Black men talk about America from their perspective, it was like re-educating America about the experiences of Black men,” Shifflett said.

Her work continues to impact the Black community in Utah particularly through education. Shifflett has various presentations, trainings and workshops online to help build relationships and open dialogue about critical race issues that impact the Black community. Her mission is to help push for change in the white community.

“What I have learned is there is a resistance, a resistance to us telling our truth. Because the story has been one way throughout history and so we always have to prove that this happened. It’s a lot of research, a lot of strain to constantly, constantly prove that what you’re saying is right. That’s exhausting,” Shifflett said.

Brittney Herman has invested hours in research. Herman is founder of We Will, a nonprofit dedicated to sexual assault prevention. She has spent hundreds of hours working on House Bill 177, aimed to amend health education in the state of Utah by providing required curriculum for sexual violence behavior prevention and sexual assault resource strategies. The bill failed in the house, but it did not deter Herman.

“Research shows that where there is sufficient sexual education, sexual assault is far less prevalent,” she wrote in an email.

Herman, although not part of the Black community, is passionate about sexual assault prevention and mitigation in Utah for all groups. She writes that Black women are more likely to experience assault for many reasons, the most prominent include the “hyper-sexualization of women of color and how that message subliminally indicates to perpetrators that they do not need consent from these women,” Herman wrote.

Shifflett echoes the same sentiments, saying young Black girls are looked at more sexually, in a way young white girls are not.

“We need to start protecting our young Black girls,” Shifflett said.

Herman’s nonprofit provides formal and informal education on sexual assault prevention, survivor support and community growth. Having started We Will from a personal experience of being sexually assaulted, Herman can empathize and relate to the aftermath of surviving an experience. Her goal is to provide all survivors the support they need following a crisis to help them heal.

“As we continue to support and empower survivors, perpetrators and would-be perpetrators will recognize that their actions will not go unnoticed, that their victims will not be silenced, and that they cannot harm others,” Herman said.

If you or someone you know have or are currently experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault contact:

Utah’s Sexual Violence 24 hour crisis line: 1-888-421-1100

Utah Domestic Violence LINKLine: 1-800-897-LINK (5465)

Resources:

Utah Domestic Violence Coalition

Utah Coalitions Against Sexual Assault

University of Utah Friday Forum tackles racial inequity

Story by MASON HARDY

A panel of leaders in community philanthropy met Feb. 26, 2020, for a virtual Friday Forum focused on efforts to achieve racial equity in the workplace and the impact of philanthropy on communities of color. University of Utah President Ruth Watkins acted as moderator to the forum.

On the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion website, Friday Forums are described as a way to bring in “national thought leaders to lead discussions and provide opportunities for participants to share ideas on actionable items towards a diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus.”

Clockwise from top left: University of Utah President Ruth Watkins with Kym Eisner (Craig H. Nielsen Foundation), Valerie Rockefeller (Rockefeller Brothers Fund), Corie Pauling (TIAA Financial Services). Caroline Altman Smith (Kresge Foundation).

Watkins began the forum by asking Corie Pauling, chief inclusion and diversity officer of the TIAA, to share her perspective of philanthropy and the kinds of interests in institutions that she has seen.

“Equity is the promise of what inclusion stands for. It is some of the gaps that we see in education, socioeconomics, health care and unemployment. We are going to tackle those,” Pauling said.

She said 2020 was an eye-opening year for many American citizens regarding the reality of modern-day racism. She talked about philanthropist organizations, and the intent to make racial inequity less of a moment and more of a movement, making investments accordingly.

“What was really groundbreaking about it was that it unearthed a desire to talk about anti-racism as a calling and obligation, and responsibility of everyone,” she said.

Pauling emphasized the importance of data when it comes to social and racial equity as it relates to inequality in America. She said making an investment in accurate data can form complete opinions of “what is my role in this?”

To put racial inequity and racial injustice into perspective and give some context to what the panelists discussed, a July 2020 Brookings survey of 5,500 nationally representative respondents from each of the 50 states, revealed the following:

  • 1 in 3 Black men born in 2001 will spend time in prison in their lifetime
  • 1 in 1,000 Black men and boys will die at the hands of police
  • 1 in 3 Black children live in poverty
  • 1 in 10 Black adults were not able to pay rent or mortgage in the past three months

The information listed above is only a small portion of the results from that survey.

“It’s hard to argue with data,” Pauling said.

Watkins asked panelist Caroline Smith, deputy director of the Kresge Foundation’s education program, to discuss the research the foundation is doing.

She said the organization surveyed people to see what it should focus on in the next three years. The response overwhelmingly called for racial justice.

“We did this survey at the end of 2020. I don’t think you would have seen that answer at the end of 2019 or the end of 2018. It’s certainly quite indicative of the racial reckoning that began in the last year,” Smith said.

Watkins acknowledged the work the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation is doing with the University of Utah to help advance diversity and inclusion.

Kym Eisner, executive director of that foundation, brought up its research, and the focus on researching data for policymakers.

“Being able to get good, solid, evidence-based information into their hands to inform decision making, is a very valuable contribution,” she said.

Smith emphasized the work of researchers to improve racial equity in the workplace, and called on them to make a difference in the community.

The Friday Forum series are free events for the community and students to attend. They offer a way for Salt Lake City residents to gain a better perspective of the community around them. Prior forums covered “A Call for Racial Healing,” “Confronting our Racism” and Establishing Anti-Racist Policy.”

For more information, or to sign up for future events, visit the website.

A video-on-demand version of the Racial Equity and Philanthropy Friday Forum is available here.

Basketball star-turned-coach; Vanessa McClendon is paving the way for girls basketball in the Pacific Northwest

Story by BRYNNA MAXWELL

Fighter. Go getter. Resilient. Difference maker. These are the words that come to mind when describing Vanessa McClendon. 

Former college athlete-turned-coach McClendon’s life is all about basketball. She was highly recruited in high school and earned a full ride basketball scholarship to the University of Oregon. Her talent would have taken her far professionally, but a career-ending knee injury forced her to retire early. 

Now, McClendon uses her basketball knowledge and love for the game by coaching her travel team organization, Northwest Magic. With teams scattered across Western Washington, McClendon and her husband have built a program that has become a household name in the Pacific Northwest basketball community. 

Vanessa McClendon has had a successful career from playing basketball in college, to now coaching the Northwest Magic. Photo courtesy of Vanessa McClendon.

In the youth basketball world, travel organizations like the Northwest Magic play a critical role. The travel teams not only help young players develop their basketball skills, but they also provide a platform for exposure of these players to college coaches as they chase their dreams of a basketball scholarship. These teams travel the United States to compete in tournaments in the AAU circuit, which is a travel team circuit that takes players and their teams all around the country to play basketball. 

Back in 2008, McClendon had just one scrappy team of teenage girls and an outsized vision for the future. She now has 22 teams — 14 for girls and eight for boys — that compete on a weekly basis around the nation.

University of Utah women’s basketball alumna Megan Huff was on that first AAU team McClendon assembled in 2008. 

“Since I started playing for Magic, Coach Vanessa was always someone I looked up to,” Huff said in an email interview. “When I walked into Magic tryouts, I was shy, uncomfortable in my own body, and insecure about my height and skills. I had no knowledge about basketball or about myself. But, through the whole thing I always knew that Coach Vanessa believed in me and was someone I could always count on.”

That first team McClendon coached produced four big name, Division I college athletes. This included Huff who, after graduating from the University of Utah, got drafted by the New York Liberty in the third round of the 2019 WNBA draft

“Magic was like family to me,” Huff said. “The lessons I learned helped me in college when I was deciding to transfer (from the University of Hawaii to the University of Utah). I knew how to handle the situation with open communication and honesty.”

When asked how McClendon separated her program from other teams in the state of Washington Huff said, “I knew the way things should be when a coach really cared about the individual and not just the organization.”

McClendon’s coaching has greatly impacted many young basketball players, and the teaching does not stop when she leaves the court. Her intentionality to connect with individuals has helped players learn life lessons away from basketball.

Huff said, “My journey was not an easy one but through the whole thing I always knew that Coach Vanessa believed in me and was someone I could always count on. For advice, knowledge, a ride, or a workout I knew I could always count on her and still can even to this day.”

Megan Huff shoots a jumper over a Washington State player in a collegiate basketball game. Photo courtesy of Megan Huff.

McClendon agrees that Northwest Magic is a special and empowering team to be a part of in order to help players get ready for the next level. 

“Our players go to college, and they are impact players right away,” McClendon said. “They can play in a system they’re used to. Some of the stuff that we’ve done, like the way we run practices, they’re used to it already, so I think that differentiates us.”

Current players in the Magic program have been working hard to improve and agree that McClendon has already helped them. 

Sixteen-year-old Tala Mitchell has been a part of the program since she was in the fifth grade. 

“Coach Vanessa brought me out of my comfort zone,” Mitchell said. “In the beginning I wasn’t really a talkative person and was a little shy. She taught me how to speak up and communicate with my team on the court.”

During her interview, she was surrounded and supported by her Northwest Magic teammates, showing how close the bond is that has been formed from her unique basketball experience.

“There are other teams in Washington, but I feel like the people who have been here are very welcoming,” Mitchell said. “When new people come (to join our team), they enjoy us, so they come back and that helps us create bonds that last.”

Mitchell has built lasting memories from her time in the program and has made lifelong friends because of her experience with the Magic. The point guard has already had a strong couple years in high school and only hopes to keep improving. 

Sitting at a table next to a noisy gym for the interview, McClendon looked around at the organized chaos that surrounded her coming from several of her practicing Northwest Magic teams. 

She smiled.

“It is so great to see the full circle of Magic players come through. We have the girls just starting out, to the alumni coming back to show support and it is just so cool,” McClendon said. “I want Magic to continue to develop college-ready players, and then I’d love to see my players that have moved on, just come back and pay it forward.”

Vanessa McClendon established Northwest Magic from the ground up and continues to grow the program. However, there are challenges in this business.

Because McClendon believes every kid should have an opportunity to play, she routinely covers travel expenses for players who cannot afford it. These include hotel costs, plane tickets, food, and tournament fees.

“The biggest challenge right now is money,” McClendon said. “You know, a lot of families can’t afford to do what we do when we have to travel, and so the biggest challenge is trying to fundraise, or get sponsorships for the kids that need to get out there, because we know we have the kids but not everybody can afford to get to these exposure events.”

Setting up fundraisers and collecting donations are the most common ways to raise money, but McClendon is not fazed by the obstacles. 

“Basketball is my passion,” she said. “There is no place I would rather be than in a gym coaching these kids.”

Mindfulness and holistic wellness blossoms in Salt Lake City’s Latinx community

Story and photo by JASMINE BARLOW

Sacred Energy Empowerment Center (SEEC) and Latino Behavioral Health Services are creating dynamic, inclusive, and accessible spaces for Latinx individuals in the Salt Lake City area to explore holistic health options.

Jomar Hernandez, an accredited holistic coach from Venezuela, is leading Spanish-speaking group meditations and healing circles at SEEC. Additionally, Hernandez offers private coaching and organizes large-scale events. She says her events are amassing an impressive turnout, and she is excited for future projects.

Hernandez’s unwavering passion and commitment to holistic wellness stem from her bravery of battling an early phase of cancer, diagnosed in 2013. “I was very scared of what was going on and how it will affect my family,” Hernandez says. “I returned to my meditation practice and participated in healing circles for comfort, like I did back in Venezuela.”

Hernandez recalls an “empowering treatment experience” during her stay at the Sanoviv Holistic Institute in Mexico. A variety of holistic-based treatments were implemented, a type of medical experience unfamiliar to Western societies. “It was there I began to connect with health coaches, and I fell in love [with this path],” Hernandez says.

Jomar Hernandezsmall

When it comes to addressing individual client needs, she has a simple approach: “The biggest question I ask [my clients] is this: ‘How open are you?’ And that’s where the process of true healing begins.” In relation to her Latin American roots, she feels the overarching culture surrounding holistic healing in Latin America is an “ancient practice,” and says she is honored to bring this essence of sacredness to helping Latinx women, her target client demographic.

Her line of work is not exempt from challenges, with difficulties ranging from establishing a client network to tackling misconceptions surrounding coaching. “It has been a little bit complicated because the people really don’t know about how a coach can help,” Hernandez says. “They usually come to me if they want to lose weight. [However], when [the clients] start asking questions about their health problems and diet, they realize there is an emotional part that we need to go deeper into.”

Hernandez believes her “Before and After” photo approach is a highly-effective tool, where clients can see a physical manifestation of emotional progression and positive change in their demeanor following a session. “It brings me so much joy to see how much they are glowing and growing,” she says.

Healing takes many forms, and mental health therapy is a crucial aspect of the holistic equation. For Latinx communities, there is a dimension of unique importance. Latino Behavioral Health Services (LBHS) serves such a purpose in the heart of Salt Lake City. It is dedicated to helping vulnerable members of Utah’s Latinx community recover from mental illness and addiction.

Diana Aguilera, a Peer Programs coordinator at LBHS, describes the foundational incentive in creating the award-winning, nonprofit organization: “[LBHS] saw the need for mental health services in Spanish,” she says. “It is a peer-run organization, helping substance abuse and mental health issues for individuals and family members.” Deemed a “softer approach,” Aguilera finds that peer mentorship “makes it easier for people to open up, as if everyone in the room completely understands you.”

Aguilera says deep stigma and economic barriers are prominent factors that may discourage the local Latinx community from seeking help. “Mental health services are so unapproachable,” she says. “You are calling someone up, saying you need help. It’s hard for people to do. On top of that, it can be very expensive.”

Aguilera believes that Latinx cultures may view mental health as a “character weakness” or something that is chosen. “We have families come in, where parents feel they have failed as caretakers,” she says. Empathizing and addressing these commonly-held beliefs, LBHS offers a rich variety of mental health education and support classes to deconstruct stigma and strengthen connection with the self and others. Additionally, therapy services are offered by licensed professionals at a reduced cost to accommodate all economic levels.

Despite these challenges, Aguilera says she believes there is positive progress being made. “In the grand scheme, mental health is gradually becoming more accessible. At [LBHS], we are creating a wonderful community to heal. We don’t have the power to do it all, but we are creating a space where we are not ashamed to share our stories.”

Whether an individual’s healing journey aligns with mental health therapy, holistic health coaching, or both, Aguilera and Jomar Hernandez both emphasize the importance of spreading awareness and strengthening local outreach. These efforts cast a welcoming net to reach those who can benefit from their guidance and resources.

The Green Urban Lunch Box brings creative ways to solve hunger

Story by NINA YU

What started as a school bus converted into a mobile greenhouse, The Green Urban Lunch Box (GULB) quickly has become a local source that challenges communities to look at natural resources right in their backyard. The nonprofit is based in Salt Lake City and has multiple gardens across the Valley.

According to the GULB website, the mission is to “empower people to connect to their food and community by revitalizing urban spaces and building a resilient food culture. We envision a strong network of communities centered on the cultivation of food.” The farm is located on 3188 S. 1100 West.

The nonprofit focuses on allowing people to engage in local food production, urban agriculture, or fruit gleaning by using resources that are available in their community. The GULB tries to connect neighborhoods to the resources and opportunities. At the same time, the organization revitalizes urban spaces that have been neglected by growing food and sharing the crops with the broader community.

The Back-Farms program connects seniors to volunteers, who help with gardening. Photo Courtesy of GULB.

The GULB promotes three programs on the website. One of those programs is Back-Farms, which connects senior citizens with volunteers who help build and maintain gardens in the seniors’ backyards.

“The Back-Farms program is a free gardening program that we do with senior citizens,” said Katie Nelson, the executive director at GULB, in a phone interview. “We partner with seniors who are generally lower or fixed income, who are unable to take care of their yards. We come in with our staff and volunteers and teach people how to garden while gardening those seniors’ yards.”

The GULB shares the gardened produce with the seniors and volunteers. The Green Urban Lunch Box also offers markets at senior centers where the produce is free.

“We have 40 gardens in the Back-Farms program. They’re all over the community,” Nelson said. “We have several in Rose Park, a few in Fair Park, and some in Glendale. With our community partners, the GULB is able to go to senior centers all over Salt Lake County.”

Senior citizens are given a consistent amount of produce throughout the summer so they can rely on fresh vegetables and fruit. Any seniors who have a neglected garden they want to utilize can contact the GULB.

The FruitShare program is a partnership between fruit tree owners and volunteers who help harvest and distribute fresh fruit that would otherwise go to waste. An individual wanting to participate would have to register their fruit trees, request a scout when the tree is ready, and harvest the fruit. The fruit is distributed in three ways: the homeowner, volunteers, and toward hunger relief.

The last program that the GULB runs is the Small Farm Initiative. According to the site, it is “an urban training program that teaches people how to farm in urban spaces using sustainable growing practices and make money doing so.” The initiative is for those who want to learn more about farming and gardening. Prospective students can apply to the 8.5-month Farm Apprenticeship and School that focuses on space-intensive vegetable production. Students are taught organic gardening methods, business aspects of running a farm and hands-on activities from farm instructors.

People who are looking for a less intensive schedule can pick the On-Farm Internship, which teaches participants how to grow a lot of produce in a small amount of space. Successful participants have the opportunity to continue their studies with their farmer training program.

The GULB also recruits volunteers every season. In 2019, Nelson saw hundreds of volunteers coming in to help.

“Volunteers are the foundation of our organization,” she said. “Everyone usually contributes three to five hours a season. They are the reason for how much food we can produce and get into the community. They’re building gardens. They’re harvesting gardens. They’re also learning something in the process.”

This engagement aligns with the nonprofit’s mission statement. The GULB wants volunteers to immerse themselves in connecting with their food and being able to share the knowledge with family and friends. They also hope volunteers are able to teach others how to garden or explain the types of produce to spark interest.

Photo courtesy of GULB.

The farm has a team of staff members who direct volunteers. The team includes garden leaders who have an extensive grasp on gardening and being able to grow food. They also help facilitate events and maintain a good relationship with the senior citizens in the Back-Farms program. They see the seniors twice a week and bring the community to them. This way, senior citizens feel connected even if they are homebound.

In 2011, when Shawn Peterson founded the GULB, he wanted to challenge the way people thought food was grown. He purchased a bus, took the ceiling off and converted it into a greenhouse. The bus went to community events to show people that food can be grown in anything. It was also taken to classrooms to teach children about growing food. Now that the bus is not driven around anymore, it is used to grow seedlings for the farm.

The GULB works with different organizations throughout the county, like International Rescue Committee, Intermountain Medical Center, food banks, and multiple food pantries to help bring fresh produce to them every week.

“We’re trying to help the Latina population right now,” Nelson said. “We’re getting them engaged on our farm and providing them fruits and vegetables.”

The farm starts preparing for the season in spring. In early June, the organization starts producing food so that markets are ready to be opened in mid-July. The growing season usually ends in October, when the GULB members regroup and prepare for next season.

Local pantries struggle to meet the demand of COVID-19 virus in Utah

Story by ELLIE COOK

The hoarding situation that arose upon the arrival of the COVID-19 virus has only increased following the 5.7 earthquake that rattled the Salt Lake Valley on March 18, 2020. While the public hunts across the state for items such as toilet paper and paper towels, pantries in the community struggle to keep their shelves stocked to ensure those in need get the supplies not only needed for quarantine but also everyday survival. The organizations in the western area of Salt Lake City are scrambling to focus on inventory, while also having to serve many more people and adjust their protocols to meet safety needs implemented by the state of Utah. 

The community consists of many working-class and/or impoverished families, many of whom have a yearly income of less than $80,000 a year, said David Wright, director and educator of the Earth Community Garden & Food Pantry, in an email interview. Organizations that provide food security already serve a great population within the area, but the need only seems to be growing. The pantries have seen a significant increase in clientele since The Road Home, the main homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, closed downtown. Now as the virus forces more businesses to close, making the unemployment rates skyrocket and the earthquake damaging some homes, these organizations are struggling to find enough supplies and volunteers to tend to the large crowds pursuing their services. 

When asked about plans regarding situations such as natural disasters or other national emergencies, Captain Rob Lawler of The Salvation Army said in an email, “The Salvation Army has always been ready to respond to disasters and crisis since 1906 in Galveston, Texas, when we first responded as a response agency. You might say it is in our DNA!” 

However, it seems with the cards stacked against the state of Utah, just being prepared isn’t enough for anybody. While toiletries and other health/cleaning items are always in demand, the panic and hoarding issue the pandemic has caused has only made them even scarcer. “We do have an increased demand at this time,” said Kate Corr, the communications coordinator at Utah Community Action, in an email. “Right now, many clients are in greatest need of emergency services, primarily food, housing, and utility assistance. … At this time we will continue to do everything we can to keep providing essential emergency services to our children, families, and clients.”

While the inventory remains an issue, the ability to serve the community promptly has become hard as well, due to safety measures being taken to protect volunteers and the public. This becomes tough as everyone is short-staffed and in need of volunteers. It’s also time-consuming to take on new help because they must be screened to be sure they do not put people’s health at risk. 

Some organizations are no longer accepting new volunteers to protect current staff from exposure. “Our protocol is much more controlled and strict,” said David Wright. “We no longer have lines and instead are having clients with cars stay in their vehicles. Those without cars stay 10 feet away from each other.” The Earth Community Garden & Food Pantry, The Salvation Army and other organizations have also taken on drive-by pickup services. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic having an unknown end, and still in recovery from the earthquake, how can the public get help? Is there any assurance that people can get necessities, and also ensure that nonprofits can attend to the growing amount of clients? “As we see the fallout from businesses closing and people either losing jobs or having reduced work hours, our organization recommends that people consider applying for SNAP (otherwise known as food stamps),” said Gina Cornia, the executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, in an email. Utahns Against Hunger also provides lists of places where people can obtain essential items if they are not receiving an income. 

For the rest of us, any donations from food, cleaning supplies, and perhaps the most coveted item of all, some good old toilet paper, will be gladly received by any local pantry (please see list below). If you require assistance concerning food or other home essentials, reach out to Utahns Against Hunger or any of the listed sources. 

Earth Community Garden & Food Pantry

“We are looking for gardeners for this season. Growing your own, locally sourced food is proving to be more and more vital. Do not harm those around you. As an organization, we extend our services with no regards to; class, race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, gender identity, immigration status, or social/political ideology, and we encourage others to extend themselves and their services (groups or individually) in the same way.”

Utahns Against Hunger 

“The benefits people get to purchase food have an immediate positive impact on the economy and that money circulates throughout every community.”

The Salvation Army

“We are making about 400 meals a day to take home, we are operating 7 days a week.”

 

Mestizo Coffeehouse provides spaces for community projects

Story and gallery by MEG CLASPER

Sometimes the best places are hard to find. Mestizo Coffeehouse, tucked in the Citifront Apartments at 641 W. North Temple, is one such hidden gem. It offers more than just coffee and pastries. It also supports causes.

Established 12 years ago, Mestizo filled a community need for a public meeting space. Since then over 50 organizations have met at the coffeehouse. “Someone said, ‘You do so much.’ We don’t do anything, we just provide the space for it,” said owner David Galván. 

Not everything that goes on at Mestizo is based around an issue or a cause. Many activities happen just for fun. Single people from the local congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold frequent comedy nights there. Clubs and groups meet at Mestizo. Many check-ins on its Facebook page come from bible study groups. Other events such as concerts and art walks are scheduled there too.

Gallery

The gallery is the largest meeting space in the coffeehouse. Two moveable wall sections allow for the room to be opened up to the main area. A small sitting area in the center of the gallery features a couch, coffee table and two large chairs. A piano and bass sit across from the couch allowing the room to be used for meetings or music. 

The walls of the gallery are home to pieces of art by local artists. Three month-long exhibits are scheduled to start in April. Each follows an overarching theme of displacement and gentrification: “March for Our Lives,” “Youth Custody,” “Tower of Stories.” They tell the story of how the west side of Salt Lake City is impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Events such as yoga, tango, musical performances, and larger gatherings are able to use the gallery. With the advantage of moveable walls, the gallery can be used along with the other spaces at Mestizo.

Secondary Space

The secondary meeting space is filled with tall tables. Bar chairs surround the tables leaving room for an additional standing crowd. A floor to ceiling window connects to the emergency exit. The window allows natural light into the space highlighting the blue, orange and red walls.

A stage area is reserved in the front left corner of the room. Two speakers are set up to allow those conducting events or meetings to be heard over the crowd. Events such as karaoke and comedy nights are held in this room, Galván said.

A doorway to Mestizo

The outside seating area is the first thing all visitors see when approaching the business. Hand-painted metal tables and chairs surround the rust-colored awning above the door. Each chair has its own color and designs that add character. The front door is framed by two windows, one of which is decaled with the poem “Mestizo” by Francisco X. Alarcon.

This space in addition to the main seating are more casual areas. Customers can sit, chat, relax, or even work in any area that isn’t reserved at the time.  

Atmosphere of Mestizo Coffeehouse

A large chalkboard calendar sits above the condiment bar. The calendar shows upcoming and weekly meetings. For example, tango happens every Sunday, an open mic night every Wednesday and a meeting of Furries (a group that enjoys animal cosplay) every Friday. This is able to show visitors to the coffeehouse what events are coming up that they might find interesting.

In the main sitting area of the coffeehouse, next to the ordering counter, is a mural depicting several people of all types in the same space. One man is playing a guitar, a woman is painting on a canvas, a few other people are conversing over a cup of coffee. The top of the mural reads MESTIZO (MIXED). In Spanish, mestizo means “mixed” in reference to cultures and families.

“A huge number of people end up here because of diversity,” Galván said.

Mestizo is known by many different groups around Salt Lake City. Students and staff at the University of Utah know the place well.

“Mestizo is an invaluable community space. They are always willing to host activity events, and they have great art and coffee too!” said Bryn Dayton, a senior at the U who works with social justice organizations on campus.

With the coffeehouse’s support and ability to provide space for them, organizations can connect and move forward. Its location is just on the border between west and east Salt Lake City, making it a convenient spot for groups from both sides to interact, work together, or enjoy a cup of coffee or a chai latte. The idea of mestizo in the surrounding community is supported by the coffeeshop. Mestizo Coffeehouse is an inspiration and invaluable space to the community of Salt Lake City.

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