Making Greek life more inclusive one step at a time

Over the past year, the University of Utah Greek life has been working on diversity and inclusion in all of its 18 chapters. 

Story by MADISON KULEDGE 

After the events that took place in the Spring of 2020 most people in the U.S. had their eyes open to the issues in our society concerning race and the foundation of many institutions. One of these institutions was fraternity and sorority Greek life.

Nationally, several social media posts went viral in the spring pointing out the racial issues with how fraternity and sororities were established. Members shared their own experiences and brought light to changes that needed to be made. 

Many called for the abolishment of Greek life. However, there is room for growth and change instead. The University of Utah Greek life chose a path of growth and has since implemented many new policies. 

The current social issues that have been highlighted are not to be taken lightly by academic institutions, and Greek life is no exception. Therefore, members who are a part of marginalized communities have had their voices amplified in order to learn what change can be implemented.

Conversations about implicit bias, microaggressions, and mechanisms through which marginalized voices can be uplifted have been prioritized. These conversations are crucial toward spreading awareness and making initial steps to achieve real, measurable change. 

This statement was posted on May 31, 2020, by Utah Panhellenic on its Instagram.

The Panhellenic Council oversees the six National Panhellenic Conference chapters and two affiliate chapters at the U. “The Panhellenic community consists of over 850 empowering women who value the excellence of scholarship, leadership, and service,” reads the Panhellenic website

At the U, diversity and inclusion are highly valued, and Panhellenic activities should reflect these values. So to do this the council began by adding a diversity and inclusion chair to the Panhellenic executive board.

It is a stronghold goal that marginalized members of this university feel comfortable to join Greek life, and that current members feel heard and valued in their Panhellenic activities. 

Along with other chapters at the U, including Alpha Chi Omega, Kappa Kappa Gamma and Delta Gamma, Pi Beta Phi followed Panhellenic’s decision. In the Fall of 2020, added a director of diversity and inclusion position to its executive council. 

Katia Vu is Pi Phi’s current diversity director. She said believes that within Greek life it is incredibly important to promote diversity and inclusion. “We need to make sure that everyone, no matter their race or if they have a disability, has an equal opportunity to participate within Greek life,” Vu said during a Zoom call. 

Through Vu’s position, she gets to help her peers grow and learn every week during Pi Phi’s chapter meetings. She also holds virtual workshops throughout the semester to promote learning and an open conversation about current topics in society. 

“I’ve held information sessions during chapter in which I will usually talk about current events, holidays, or topics like accountability and implicit bias. I think I can do so much with this position and we have much more planned for the future starting with this fall’s recruitment,” Vu explained. 

Pi Beta Phi sorority house at the University of Utah. Photo by Madison Kuledge.

Greek life has always placed importance on teaching its members how to be better members of society and the community at the U. The homepage of the Fraternity and Sorority Life website for the U reads, “to provide educational programming in the areas of program development, risk management, and the promotion of leadership development.”

“When I was a DG (Delta Gamma) I remember going to many educational presentations and teachings concerning the issues that happened in Greek life such as sex, drugs and alcohol, but I never once attended anything on racism which was also an issue within Greek life,” said Chloe Greep, a former member of Delta Gamma. 

“I’m really happy to see that the U has added additional educational efforts on this topic (racism) because I know during my time these talks and presentations were so helpful and informative, so hopefully this can create change,” Greep said. 

Not only is Greek life as an institution stepping up, but members within chapters are as well. 

During the summer Pi Phi member Emily Pelligrino held an open educational conversation for all to participate in. The discussion was focused around the George Floyd murder and the following Black Lives Matter movements across the nation. 

Taylor Madsen, who attended the discussion, said in an email interview, “It was nice to be able to talk to my peers about our feelings and frustrations with what was happening and it was also nice to know that you aren’t alone and to know that we all cared about the events that were taking place.”

The Interfraternity Council (IFC) is the governing body for the 12 inter/national fraternities at the U. It has implemented it own teachings and policies to promote the diversity and inclusion within fraternities on campus. 

In February, IFC teamed up with the U to celebrate Black History Month and held extra educational events for members on top of the programming that the university held for all students. 

Several chapters at the U have or are working toward adding a position focusing on diversity and inclusion to their respective executive council. 

“We may not have a designated diversity chair but Sigma Nu has held a handful of educational Zoom calls and meetings focused around diversity and eliminating stereotypes and microaggressions,” said Johnny Foster, a Sigma Nu member. 

So how do we continue to build on what has already been done? Katia Vu, Pi Phi’s diversity and inclusion director, said, “We can always do more research and educate ourselves. No matter how much we think we know, or how many workshops we attend we can always learn and improve. We can always be more welcoming by checking our implicit biases and making sure to engage with everyone so that they feel included within the community.”

How minority communities overcome barriers to outdoor spaces in Utah

Story by CATIE QUIGLEY

Most outdoor spaces are dominated by white people, in the United States and in Utah. That is beginning to change with organizations like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors, which encourage minority communities to participate in nature activities and overcome the systemic barriers that they face.

Until the 1950s, national parks and most outdoor recreational spaces were segregated, further alienating Black people.

Meanwhile, white culture experienced a surge of interest in the outdoors, especially with the Transcendentalist Movement in the 1800s. This cultural shift ultimately led to the barriers that people of color now face in experiencing the outdoors.

Perhaps the biggest barrier faced is the economic challenges. People of color and more diverse communities often have lower income rates, which poses a barrier to outdoor interactions in many ways.

Victoria Ramirez, 26, is a graduate student at Utah State University studying archaeology and working as an archaeologist at Capitol Reef this summer, as well as a member of Latino Outdoors. She talked about how her father worked two jobs and her mother worked a job and took care of the family while she was growing up. This is a common experience for minority families.

Many people of color work several jobs in order to just make ends meet and care for their families. When given the opportunity to spend hard-earned money for outdoorsy hobbies versus something that may be more comfortable, it makes sense to choose the comfortable option that is familiar.

Javier Campos, an avid cyclist and member of Latino Outdoors, discussed the expenses outdoor activities can hold, and why minority communities are often less inclined to buy things like tents or hiking boots or bicycles or climbing gear.

Too often, people have to worry about paying the bills or making a car payment or putting food on the table, Campos said in a Zoom interview. Buying a bike is often seen as a luxury.

Nkenna Onwuzuruoha is a Black woman from Georgia who moved to Utah with very little money. She relied on cycling to commute in Salt Lake City. Though she had little interest in nature when she moved, she gained a passion for biking as she relied on it to get around.

Now an avid cyclist, Onwuzuruoha said she recognizes the differences between biking on the more affluent east side of Salt Lake City, versus the more diverse west side of the Salt Lake Valley.

She talked about how the east side of the Salt Lake Valley has better bike infrastructure, such as bike lanes and ways that cyclists can be more visible on the streets. On the west side, money doesn’t go toward things like bike lanes.

She also said African Americans are encouraged to better themselves economically, but this pressure can lead to neglecting physical and emotional well-being.

“I think sometimes that exists in marginalized communities and communities of color that these [nature activities] are not things that we do, because these are leisurely activities,” Onwuzuruoha said in a Zoom interview. “These are things that help us kind of rise up in the world and kind of secure a certain type of socio-economic status, but you can’t have that really nice socio-economic status or middle-class kind of status unless you’re still healthy, happy and healthy.”

Although she began skiing this year, she said she had to overcome a cultural barrier. “For the longest time,” she said, “I was like, I don’t ski, people like me don’t ski, and that is a narrative I had in my mind.”

Victoria Ramirez, the archaeology student at Utah State University, said she faced the challenges of integrating into a new and predominantly white culture when she moved to Utah from Los Angeles.

“I felt like maybe I had to present myself differently, at least in the sense of like, I’m going to buy Chacos (a type of outdoor sandal) or something like that to fit in with everyone else and not wear my hoops (earrings) and make sure that I’m speaking correctly,” she said. She even started pronouncing her name to make it easier for English speakers to say.

The pressure to fit into white society is prevalent in outdoor culture, especially in Utah, whose population is 90% white and clearly reflected in natural spaces. Jonny Gonzalez, the coordinator of the Salt Lake City branch of Latino Outdoors, said it is common while enjoying the outdoors to encounter white people in groups.

To a person of color, looking different can bring unwanted attention and an awareness of the sense of being other. “It’s just one of those things that on a subconscious level just might give people the feeling of ‘well, do I belong here?’” Gonzalez said in a Zoom interview.

In order to create a sense of belonging for people of color who have an interest in the outdoors, groups like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro have been created. They look for ways to create a space that is welcoming for groups that face specific barriers because of the color of their skin.

These groups often work together to create an intersectional environment that promotes outdoor activity for all people.

Campos said, “I think that’s the biggest point of this group is making sure that people feel heard and seen and understood and given that opportunity. And basically … being told hey, this space is also yours, not just theirs. This space belongs to everyone. And you have and you should have equal and equitable access to it. Regardless of your socioeconomic standing, regardless of your social perception of the sport or the outdoors. This is your space and you can own it.”

How Black Lives Matter Utah is tackling police reform

Story and infographics by TAESHA GOODE

Lex Scott is no stranger to a challenge.

“The movement is about hard, backbreaking work, and pain, and trauma, and death, and injustice every day of your life. That’s what the movement is about, and now the crowds have dispersed, but the work is still here,” said Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, in a Zoom interview.

As she was talking, she was driving through downtown Salt Lake City in a caravan demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd.

For activists like Scott, Black Lives Matter didn’t end after last year’s nationwide protests. In fact, it began long before. As always, she’s facing the fight head on.

The death of George Floyd in May 2020 spurred a sudden national wave of support for Black victims of police brutality. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, injustice against African Americans took center stage, as people of every race, religion and gender gathered to speak the names of victims like Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain.

Hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #ACAB (All Cops Are Bad) gripped social media, dashcam videos of racial profiling and violence flooded the internet and protests rocked the streets of both conservative and liberal states. It seemed a turning point for activists who had been fighting for this sort of publicity for so long. Scott was thankful for the awareness it brought, but she knew the momentum would be short-lived.

“The thing about the movement is people come and go. When there’s a high-profile officer shooting, you get a big crowd of people and then that crowd goes away, and then when there’s another shooting, they come back, and then go away,” Scott said. “Last year, thousands upon thousands of people came out, and I didn’t get excited ‘cause I’ve been here for seven years. I was like, I don’t care about you!” she said, laughing, “I care about police reform.”

For Black Lives Matter Utah, the most important initiative right now is changing the way police operate on a systemic level. Since the chapter’s founding in 2017, independent of the national Black Lives Matter movement, volunteers have been speaking out against police violence in Utah and around the country. Their current plan to tackle police brutality: take it to the capitol.

“We picked up two senate seats, we have several police reform bills passed in Utah, and the Justice in Policing Act passed the house,” Scott said.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 is a national police reform bill directed to increase accountability and transparency in law enforcement, as well as implement specialized sensitivity training.

“The Justice in Policing Act gives us independent oversight of police, it gives us data collection, [a] police misconduct database, it gives us qualified immunity reform, it regulates dash cams in police cars,” Scott said. “[It] is the most important thing I’ve ever seen. It is on the same level as the civil rights act [and] it is just as powerful.”

To Rae Duckworth, vice president of Black Lives Matter Utah, that power does not go unnoticed. “I want the change more than anybody.”

According to Mapping Police Violence, in 2020, U.S. police killed 1,127 people.

Bobby Duckworth became one of those victims in 2019.

The loss of her cousin in an officer-involved shooting in Wellington, Utah, spurred Rae Duckworth’s involvement with Black Lives Matter Utah. “The pain of losing someone from a police officer — it’s a different type of pain,” she said in a Zoom interview. “Ever since then, I just dived into actively trying to make changes.”

In 2020, the Salt Lake Tribune reported, Utah Police fired at 30 people — 17 of those incidents being fatal.

The disproportionate policing of People of Color in Utah reaches much deeper, as highlighted by Amber McFee, a lawyer volunteering with the chapter. Although McFee got involved with Black Lives Matter Utah shortly after the nationwide protests in 2020, the discrepancies in charges shocked her.

“It depends on if you’re Black or white. If you’re white, you’re getting disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct,” McFee said in a Zoom interview. “If you’re Black, you’re getting inciting a riot, you’re getting charged with felonies.”

The Justice in Policing Act targets all this and more. And although the national movement has lost momentum since Summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter Utah makes it a point to showcase the power that comes from speaking up in your local government.

“The movement is losing its trendiness,” Duckworth said. “People can stay active by participating in their local committees and their local agendas with their representatives. Because speaking on behalf of your community members, those are protests in themselves, and people need to realize that.”

Although Black Lives Matter Utah knows the power in local government, creating a nationwide change is Scott’s biggest priority. “People don’t get it, we are this close,” she said. “You want to come out and protest all day, well how about you pick up the phone and call a senator.”

The end of the legislative session in Utah, however, means that, for now, the chapter can focus on other issues. Alongside gathering signatures for upcoming ballot initiatives, the chapter recently launched Utah’s first Black history museum.

Black Lives Matter Utah has also continued its work with the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Community Advocates Group (CAG), which holds biweekly public meetings on police transparency practices.

In addition, Duckworth said the chapter has become a great resource for stopping police abatements of unsheltered encampments during COVID-19.

“There are a lot of systemic issues that we can approach,” she said. “There is always growth or change to be implemented. I just think that, if people know what they want to change in their community, if they figure that out and they just go for it — that in itself is a protest.”

McFee, the lawyer volunteering with Black Lives Matter Utah, knows that dealing with systemic racism means first facing the facts. “You need to read and research things that you aren’t comfortable with,” McFee said. “Teach the truth, you’re not going to learn it in school so teach your kids the truth. I think that’s where we have to start to get to the big finish.”

For Lex Scott, who’s been active in the community for the past seven years, it’s about holding on and holding tight. At the start of this journey, “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said.

But it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy. By pushing forward, she found a solid community of people who want to make real change.

She reminds us to stick to our values. “Be intersectional in your activism — make sure it includes all marginalized groups.  … Don’t expect the world to change overnight. You just gotta stick to your activism and change the world.”

The Salt Lake Commission on Racial Equity in Policing outlines its latest diversity initiative

Story by ZOE GOTTLIEB

On March 2, 2021, the Salt Lake Commission on Racial Equity in Policing issued its recommendations for the city council in tackling prevalent racial disparities within the Salt Lake City Police Department.

In a memo submitted to the Salt Lake City Council, the commission proposed that the SLCPD hire more diverse officers specifically for its Field-Training Officer Program.

According to the commission, having a diverse program is essential because it sends a powerful, “unconscious message” to officer cadets that people of color are “important in the fabric of SLCPD.”

As it stands, six of 67 FTOs, or roughly 9%, identify as people of color, according to Fox 13 data.

Utah’s law enforcement body in general consists of very few Black officers. Of all the self-reported officers in Utah, the number of Black officers is around .5%, or 25 in 5,000.

Those numbers are likely to be even lower after five police officers, including two officers of color, reportedly left the SLCPD due to increased circumstantial stress, as reported by the Deseret News.

Darlene McDonald, a commission member, says part of the challenge of recruiting Black officers comes down to two things. The first is getting out-of-state recruits over the culture shock of relocating to a place with a large, predominantly white Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints population.

Darlene McDonald is a member of the Salt Lake Commission on Racial Equity in Policing. Photo courtesy of Darlene McDonald.

“A lot of people of color really struggle living here,” McDonald said, “because of that lack of diversity.”

The other reason McDonald cites for the lack of diversity in the police department is the tendency of officers to racially profile and arrest Black community members for what are considered lesser offenses, a phenomenon called overpolicing.

“Taking into account that many men of color especially are targeted and overpoliced and end up with criminal backgrounds because of that overpolicing, those are some of the things that disincentivize people of color from becoming law enforcement,” McDonald said in a Zoom interview.

McDonald said she believes that the hurdle of attracting people of color to the law enforcement profession can be overcome if departments are willing to introduce some kind of incentive, such as relocation packages or signing bonuses.

Fred Louis is a former sergeant and one of the few retired Black officers within the SLCPD. Louis dedicated 28 years of his life to law enforcement and even worked for a time as a lead trainer in the police academy. Since 2010 he has been running his own judo business, the Zenbei Martial Arts Academy.

Like McDonald, Louis is aware of Utah’s more homogenous culture and how it can affect diversity hiring initiatives. “We got so many cultures, for example like in New Orleans we can pull from — but here, it’s kind of tough,” he said, reflecting on the cultural differences between where he grew up and Salt Lake City.

Louis also said the SLCPD would benefit from drawing community policing concepts into its day-to-day practices.

Community policing, as defined by the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, “support[s] the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues.”

What does community policing mean to Louis, one of the few retired Black officers in the state of Utah? “[It means] you just have to get out there and have police officers become part of the community fabric — not just get in their cars and go from call to call without ever making contact with people in the neighborhood,” Louis said in a phone interview.

The Ogden City Police Department serves as perhaps one of the best examples of community police work. The department has divided its city into eight districts, with each of the eight Community Police officers belonging to their own district, according to its website. The police force also consists of 230 employees, including a homeless advocate and a victims’ advocate, according to Diana Lopez, community outreach coordinator of the department.

Lopez said that in her experience with the position, it is essential to have a listening ear within the department “whether there is an outcome or not.” For her, this means getting to know the neighborhood, and having someone on hand to “hear [citizens’] concerns.”

While input from and police exchanges among community members is beneficial to citizen-police relations, the officers themselves can also receive intrinsic rewards from it.

Fred Louis’ podcast Judo Ya-Ya. Having opened up his own judo practice in 2010, Louis’ podcast is all about sharing the lessons of judo among youth. Courtesy of Fred Louis.

Louis said, reflecting on his time spent as a community resource officer at Highland High School, “I get a lot of gratification out of it, right? I mean a person, they grow up, they’re doing good in life — that makes me feel good.” In all 28 years, Louis recalls this as being the proudest accomplishment of his career.

Since retiring, Louis has spent his time re-engaging with the community in new and equally important ways: teaching young kids the art of judo. In Louis’ perspective, judo and police work are intertwined.

Concepts from judo came into play in his lessons at the academy, where he learned about a practice of something called verbal judo.

“We were taught in the class OK, go up to the person and try to lower their anxiety level,” Louis said of everyday practices police officers are expected to employ, using the classic traffic stop as an example. “Verbal judo is all about letting people have their dignity and respect.”

Steven L. Johnson, CEO of Luke, Johnson & Lewis and Utah Black Chamber Chair, speaks about activism for Utah’s Black community

Story by SUNWHEE MIKE PARK

Steven L. Johnson watched in awe, as the legendary California Congresswoman Maxine Waters commanded the attention of a crowd in Utah’s prestigious Alta Club – an institution that formerly did not allow memberships to women or Black people. He could not believe that he was seated at her table, much less that they had just discussed the growth of Utah’s Black economy together. A surreal sense of pride washed over Johnson in that moment, as it dawned on him that in this room, he stood among Congresswoman Waters’ ranks as a revered and respected activist.

But it would take nearly a decade of devotion to Utah’s Black community before such a moment could arrive.

In 2000, Johnson packed up everything he owned and moved to Utah from Denver, Colorado. A freshly divorced ex-sister-in-law who needed help getting settled was reason enough for him to make the arduous 500-mile move. This decision was the first of countless others in Johnson’s new life in Utah in which he would move mountains to help those he cared for.

Throughout his first year in the Beehive State, Johnson became increasingly aware of the stark contrast between his native Denver and Salt Lake City. Chiefly, he noticed that the Black community in Utah was not only small (comprising roughly 0.7% of the entire state’s population then), but seemed also to be stalling and struggling.

Steven L. Johnson is chair of the Utah Black Chamber, and CEO of Luke, Johnson & Lewis. He is a devoted activist who has served UT’s Black community for almost a decade. Photo courtesy of Steven L. Johnson.

At this time, Johnson was used to the thriving Black community in Denver, which he recalled was akin to those of Black meccas like Atlanta or Detroit. In Denver, Johnson reminisced, Black-owned businesses had longevity and were often core components of the city’s booming economy. In Salt Lake City, however, he had trouble finding Black businesses that branched out from the archetypal barbeques or barbershops.

After a decade of wondering who and where the state’s Black professionals were, Johnson finally found himself at the Utah Black Chamber’s annual community barbeque hosted in Sugarhouse Park.

At long last, there they were. Utah’s Black business owners, professionals and community leaders. Observing Utah’s Black community at large for the first time, Johnson finally felt at home in a land that had only been unfamiliar to him until then. “I met more Black people at that event than I had seen in the [years] that I had been here,” says Johnson over the phone in a surprisingly youthful voice. “It was really eye-opening. It made me feel comfortable.”

There he met James Jackson III, founder of the Utah Black Chamber, known then as African Americans Advancing in Commerce, Communication, Education and Leadership (ACCEL). The fateful meeting, spurred on by Johnson’s wife (then-girlfriend), sparked the flame that produced two of Utah’s most revered Black leaders today. “When I met James, it was like a new beginning,” Johnson says, “[like] I might have the chance to help make a difference or a change here in Utah.”

Inspired by Jackson’s passion and devotion to the growth of Utah’s Black community, Johnson found himself increasingly involved in activism as well. But his methods transcended attending community events or facilitating networking between Black Utahns.

In 2011, Paul Law Office – where Johnson worked as a collections manager – shut down indefinitely. Johnson, however, did not lament his new unemployment. Using his final paycheck, Johnson jumped headfirst into entrepreneurship. He founded Luke, Johnson & Lewis (with partner Preston Lewis), a debt arbitration business that specializes in third-party recovery and collecting receivables.

For Johnson, this new venture was more than a simple means to earn profit. As one of the state’s handful of Black CEOs, he wanted his business to serve as a “beta test” for other pioneering Black businesses in Utah. By watching and learning from Luke, Johnson & Lewis, he hoped, future generations of Black-owned Utah businesses would thrive like those he remembered from his years in Denver.

Meanwhile, James Jackson had plans of his own for Johnson. Seven years into the growth of the Utah Black Chamber, Jackson was eager to increase its influence on a statewide level. In order to achieve such a feat, he required the strategic expertise and interpersonal skills of a seasoned legal professional. He brought Johnson on as the Black Chamber’s board chair in 2015, and later made him the chair of its membership committee as well. “Based on [his] leadership, experience, and desires … I felt [these positions] fit him the best to help grow the [Black] Chamber,” Jackson says in an email.

James Jackson III (left) and Steven L. Johnson receive awards from the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. for their work in the Utah Black Chamber in 2018. Photo courtesy of Steven L. Johnson.

Nicknamed the Black Chamber’s “Swiss Army knife,” Johnson took on a range of responsibilities – from strategizing the expansion of the Black Chamber’s membership, making connections with sponsors and spotlighting member businesses on a monthly basis, to furthering plans to establish the long-awaited Black Success Center.

Johnson, in addition to running his own business, was now leading the state’s largest Black-based organization. Yet his activism was still only in its fledgling stage.

Johnson explains that his personal philosophy forbids him from feeling as though he has ever done enough. “If you feel satisfied, you’ve closed the book. The chapter’s over,” he says. That’s why, in 2017, Johnson began a partnership with state lobbyist Craig Hulinsky to start the Good Deed Law Project.

Johnson explains that the Good Deed Law Project was founded with the goal of helping people in debt find alternative ways to pay off or reduce their overdue payments. Acting as the project’s Debt Initiative director, Johnson discovered methods to persuade businesses to write off debts as charitable donations, while allowing debtors to work off their sum in community service or work hours.

So far, Johnson’s debt arbitration model at the Good Deed Law Project has resolved $385,000 of debt while producing 10,000 community work hours. Johnson explains excitedly that his model has put over 500 debtors back on track to financial stability.

“He sets an example … in the Black community. His lifestyle is to be copied,” writes Rev. France A. Davis in an email interview. Davis, pastor emeritus of the Calvary Baptist Church, is another one of Utah’s highly revered Black leaders and an individual that Johnson considers his personal mentor. As part of the latest addition to Johnson’s activism, he and the reverend have recently become members of the Racial Equity in Policing Commission for Salt Lake City. There, the pair are able to review and make recommendations to the city’s police department about its policies, specifically regarding racial biases.

Twenty-one years ago, Johnson arrived in Utah without a job, without a home, with only the feeling that he was needed, that he could help. Now, as one of the state’s most active and respected Black leaders, his foundational drive to help those in need remains the same. Despite his many titles and roles – CEO, board chair, director, commissioner – Johnson’s activism is only just beginning.

“Utah’s Black community is growing … and I want to be there to witness [its] development,” Johnson says humbly about the very community that could not exist today were it not for his tireless efforts.

Black-owned businesses’ positive contributions elevate Utah’s Black community

Story by SUNWHEE MIKE PARK

Salt Lake City’s NAACP Chapter vice president Shawn Newell joined an asynchronous interview with student journalists at the University of Utah in early February. There, he said that one of the biggest issues that any Black community in America faces is its misrepresentation in mainstream media. “[They] wait until there’s a murder or … a gang fight … before [they] go into these communities, and then [they] want to engage people,” he said.

For the most part, his words ring true for the Black community in Utah as well. An internet search of the words “Utah Black” or “Utah African American” brings up stories about Black culture’s rejection in Utah, or how difficult it is to be Black in such an overwhelmingly white state.

What these stories fail to show is that Utah’s Black community is actually full of supportive, successful and ambitious individuals who are devoted to its growth and development. Despite their sheer lack of coverage from mainstream news outlets, the state’s myriad professionals, business owners and community leaders contribute daily to the continued success of Black Utahns.

To observe the effects of their positive influences in the state’s Black community firsthand, Voices of Utah spoke with three of Salt Lake City’s Black leaders as they explained the ways they make a difference in their community, and why the work they do matters.

Makaya Caters

Chef Roody Salvator moved to Utah in 2008 from Florida, hoping to find a corporate job. The last thing on his mind then was to become a professional chef. However, on casual weekend gatherings with friends, he was drawn instinctively to the kitchen. He recreated dishes from his native Haiti that he remembered from his childhood – flavors that his American friends had never tasted before.

Saying that his food was, “too good not to share,” Salvator’s friends urged him for years to consider cooking professionally. Even though he had been training for an office job for nearly a decade, Salvator finally decided to take a leap of faith and open Makaya Caters in 2017, with the humble goal of bringing a taste of Haiti to Salt Lake City. Renting out a kitchen space on 300 W. Paxton Ave., Salvator started taking appointments to cater weddings, parties and corporate meetings.

Makaya quickly rose to fame in the Salt Lake City community. Along with his business’s success, Salvator soon amassed a social media following of 10,000 people and boasted exclusively five-star rated reviews. Despite his rapid success, however, Salvator did not lose sight of his foundational ideology in cooking. 

Chef Roody Salvator is the founder and owner of Makaya Caters. Makaya is the official catering service of Black Lives Matter Utah, and is well known for its food donations across the city. Photo courtesy of Makaya Caters.

“I came from a place where I knew what hunger feels like … [and] to not know where your next meal’s going to come from,” says Salvator about his upbringing in Haiti over a phone interview. “If someone is hungry … and I have the means to feed them, I will do that.”

Turning to the community that embraced him, Salvator began making food donations with any surplus ingredients he had. He delivered meals free of charge to the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, and to the Black Lives Matter Utah summer camps – the latter of which saw Makaya becoming BLM Utah’s official catering service.

When the pandemic arrived in 2020, however, Salvator was met with unprecedented challenges. He lost almost all of his catering clients who held in-person events, and was forced to switch his business model to a more affordable food trailer operation. He reluctantly set up a GoFundMe page, asking now for the help of the very community which he fondly cared for in the past.

Even so, Salvator’s commitment to the Salt Lake City community remained unhindered. Working odd hours out of a food trailer that is too small to be considered a kitchen space but too big to parallel park, Salvator still managed to cook and donate 50 meals to the city’s homeless population in November 2020.

Salvator says that his dream for Makaya Caters now is to establish a physical store location in the near future – to continue his work both in the kitchen and in the community. Two-thirds of his desired $10,000 goal has been reached on his GoFundMe page, which aims to keep Makaya in business in order to continue its important mission.

A ‘La Mode

In 2014, sisters Jasmine and Angelique Gordon founded an online shopping service with a mission to empower women of all shapes, sizes and social backgrounds. Their business, A ‘La Mode, caters to specific fashion needs on a budget.

Angelique (left) and Jasmine Gordon are founders and owners of A ‘La Mode. The sisters help their Salt Lake City clients network through their business, and donate frequently to various charities. Photo courtesy of A ‘La Mode.

The sisters’ successful business model – which promotes women of color who have realistic body types, and uses an accessible custom-styling system on their website – has garnered high praise from their clients over the past seven years. In fact, the sisters’ massive success inspired them in 2018 to open an offline boutique on 265 E. 900 South in downtown Salt Lake City.

That’s when they began to feel that they could branch out of their client base to serve a wider community. “When we moved to Salt Lake after [being] online for a couple of years … our No. 1 focus was being more engaged in our city,” says co-founder and owner Jasmine Gordon in a phone interview about her and her sister’s decision to contribute to their newfound community.

The sisters began by partnering with other small businesses in the area (Utah Key Real EstateImage Studios and Olympus Health & Performance, to name a few) to host monthly networking events for their clients. Soon enough, they found themselves donating to notable charities like YWCA Utah, as well as to the Rose Park Elementary School and the city’s growing homeless population. The two were even on the board to plan a women’s music festival before the pandemic began.

Despite these numerous contributions to their community, the sisters were not exempt from the challenges of being Black entrepreneurs in Utah. Jasmine Gordon recalls that at first, she was fearful that A ‘La Mode’s use of Black models in their advertisements and on their website would be considered “too Black” for Utah’s majority white audience. The phrase, she says, is one that has been used to devalue the success of Black Utahns for generations.

That’s why Gordon says that her goal now is to keep on succeeding as a Black entrepreneur in order to serve as a positive example of Black leadership to the youth. “Seeing Black adults in day-to-day leadership roles … as teachers, as coaches, as local business owners … is something that sticks in their minds,” she says.

Utah Black Chamber

James Jackson III is regarded as one of the most ambitious and devoted leaders in Utah’s Black community today. Working as the supplier diversity program manager at the Zions Bancorporation and as the principal consultant at J3 Motivation (a company he owns and runs), Jackson is also the founder and executive director of the Utah Black Chamber.

But 12 years ago, Jackson was just a young section manager at Morgan Stanley who noticed that Utah’s Black population greatly lacked a sense of community. Even though Black Utahns made up only 0.9% of the entire state’s population, Jackson realized, they rarely had opportunities to connect with one another.

That’s why, in 2009, Jackson took it upon himself to create an organization that could lay the foundations for a tightly knit Black community in Utah. He named his new project ACCEL — short for African Americans Advancing in Commerce, Communication, Education and Leadership (which he now admits was a horrendously long name) – and began efforts to facilitate networking between the state’s Black professionals.

Jackson fondly recalls one First Friday event which he absent-mindedly planned for a July 6. While he worried that the event would be overshadowed by Independence Day festivities, over 60 people showed up keen to connect with fellow Black professionals. On that day, Jackson realized that his ambitious project had turned into a true catalyst for the creation of a thriving Black community in Utah.

Since starting ACCEL, Jackson has worked tirelessly for over a decade to grow his organization (now called the Utah Black Chamber after two name changes) to what he calls an “enterprise.” With nearly 300 members, two separate chapters across the state, and plans to create a Black Success Center to offer training to Black professionals, the Utah Black Chamber has grown into the state’s most formidable Black-run organization.

Transcending the realm of networking, the Utah Black Chamber now focuses on providing financial training to Black business owners, championing Black leaders for local government positions, and even plans to open a transitional housing complex for struggling homeowners. Its goal now, says Jackson in a Zoom interview, is to elevate Utah’s Black community to a level that will garner national renown and respect.

“It’s exhausting but we know that this is the role that we play,” Jackson reflects, “to be the voice for those that just don’t have one.”

Black Faculty and Staff Awards honored University of Utah employees for social justice

Story by EMALI MACKINNON 

It was a celebration of excellence, creativity and dedication. It also was a moment to acknowledge ingenuity and perseverance. 

The second annual Black Faculty and Staff Awards honored University of Utah employees for sustained work on- and off-campus in areas including social justice. 

The event, held over Zoom on Feb. 26, 2021, was hosted by the U’s Black Cultural Center. “Tonight, we will showcase, award and promote examples of excellence,” said Director Meligha Garfield. Organizers’ goal “was to bring awareness of Black faculty and staff at the university whose teachings, research, support and innovations may go unnoticed here at the university,” he said, “especially where Black faculty in higher ed across the nation is well below average — at just a little under 5% — and the retention of Black staff at predominantly white institutions are declining year after year.”

Nona Richardson won the James McCune Smith Award of Veneration, which recognizes individuals who are “awe-inspired by dignity, wisdom, dedication, and excellence” at the U. 

Nona Richardson has worked in athletics administration for more than 30 years. Photo courtesy of Nona Richardson.

Smith was an American physician, apothecary, abolitionist, and author, who led by example.  

Richardson is an executive senior associate athletics director who oversees all student-athlete support services at the University of Utah. She plays a key role in the Ute Academy and with the student-athlete U.T.A.H. Group, United Together Against Hate.

“The transformation of the U.T.A.H. Group has been very uplifting and inspiring,” Richardson said in an email interview. “The diversity within the group, the allies, the leadership, everyone is dialed in and moving along the same path. With the foundation that has been set, we hope to grow it over the years to come.” 

She provides knowledge and leadership through academic services, strength and conditioning, sports medicine, sports nutrition, psychology and wellness, sports science, student-athlete well-being, as well as her sport programs, groups and committees.

Richardson will continue to work for our student-athletes and staff, to create the best possible environment to achieve success. 

“Unless you are in the field of play, your success is not measured by the number of awards you win, but by the number of individuals you have impacted along the way,” she said. 

Similarly, another winner of a staff award was Asma Hassan. She is a program manager at the Bennion Center who leads the Utah Reads program.

Asma Hassan has a M.Ed. in Special Education and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Utah. Photo courtesy of Asma Hassan.

Hassan was awarded the Malcolm X Award for Social Justice, which recognizes individuals who have fought for justice in terms of distribution of equal access, opportunities, and privileges within our campus and greater community. 

Malcolm X was an African American Muslim minister and human rights activist who was a popular figure during the civil rights movement.

Hassan works with Title 1 schools in the Salt Lake City area where she provides resources and supplies for each student’s needs.

“Every year I’m working on making it better, better for tutors, better for the community and the students that we work with,” she said. 

Community engagement work and working with students individually is what Hassan is most passionate about. Being able to work closely with each student and understand their needs is what the Bennion Center is known for.

“I’m passionate about community engagement and will continue to live through my actions,” Hassan said in a Zoom interview. She will continue to always be aware of the community and contribute positive initiatives to it. “However small or large, I hope I can leave something that others can benefit from.” 

Lastly, Valerie Flattes, who is an assistant professor and nurse practitioner for the U, won the Madam C.J. Walker Resource Award. That prize is for individuals who have strengthened the community-engaged learning experiences and opportunities tied to civic engagement and fostered stronger partnerships between local and community at the University of Utah. 

Valerie Flattes has been a faculty member at the University of Utah College of Nursing since 2001. Photo courtesy of Valerie Flattes.

Walker was an entrepreneur, philanthropist and political/social-activist. She was a self-made millionaire after she created African American hair care products.

Valerie Flattes is dedicated to her work and her students. She considered herself a mentor and cheerleader for her students. She said in a Zoom interview, “It’s so important to get to know the community you are in because they are the people we are going to be asking to participate in your research. It’s a two-way street, you want them to do something for you but you also need to do something for them.” 

She started volunteer work at a young age. She quickly realized that she loved to be involved in  the community. It and community-based research is what inspires her most.

After receiving this award, Flattes told the audience, “I am very appreciative of receiving the award and looking forward to even spending more time especially at the BCC (Black Cultural Center) and being a mentor and a cheerleader again for students. I love it and I love teaching,” 

The Black Faculty and Staff Awards bring awareness to the Black Cultural Center, established in 2019, as well as entities including the Black Faculty and Staff Association, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and the Division of Equity, and Diversity Inclusion. 

Meligha Garfield closed the awards ceremony by acknowledging all the people who helped put on the program, including the Black Faculty and Staff Association

Stigma of mental health creates challenges for Black community

Story by HARRISON FAUTH

Racism entails seeing people as the problem, not the practices that have created the circumstance. Facing racism, discrimination, and fear as a result of being Black in America can impact an individual’s mental health. Add the stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community and it becomes more difficult to seek help. 

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black adults are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, sadness and hopelessness. Those living below the poverty line are twice as likely to have psychological distress due to financial insecurity. 

The Black community also views mental health differently. One study by the National Alliance of Mental Illness reports that 63% of Black people feel it is a personal weakness and feel shame to admit they have a mental health issue. They feel additional discrimination may come from members of their own community. 

“There is absolutely a stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community,” said Kelli Washington, a licensed clinical therapist. In an email interview she said, “This stigma hinders people from access to resources.” She discussed that changing the narrative needs to happen. Black communities need to see that struggling with mental health is not a weakness. 

Washington lives in Los Angeles, but treats patients in Utah and California. She sees a need in both places and values the opportunity to support those who otherwise may not feel supported. “I’m passionate about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and there are not a ton of Black therapists, especially in Utah, and I think that is partly attributed to the stigma surrounding mental health and lack of diversity in Utah as a whole.”

Melanie Davis, a licensed therapist and owner of Empath Healing and Wellness in Salt Lake City, is working to help change the narrative around mental health. She is also one of the founders of Black Clinicians, which was created to serve the mental health needs not being addressed in the Black community. Its purpose is to help bring Black providers to the Black community. “I see it as critical that people of color have access to therapists of color,” Davis said in an email interview.

The Black Clinicians group addresses the feelings of pain, fear, and trauma felt by those who have been victims of racism. Events on television such as the May 2020 murder of George Floyd  and Black Lives Matter protests have only made better access to mental health therapy more important.  The Black Clinicians group provides a safe space to address mental health issues and they can provide “a mirrored space to clients of color,” Davis said. 

Members of the Black community often reach out to spiritual leaders rather than licensed therapists. Washington and Davis said they believe there is value in partnering with Black church leaders. Trusted church leaders who encourage the use of licensed mental health providers could go a long way in reducing the stigma of mental health. Providing support and decreasing the feeling of isolation can change the narrative around mental health.

Today the need for mental health therapy is on the rise. Being Black and finding a Black therapist who understands your cultural experience is a challenge. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 race diversity was 59.7% white and 13.4% Black. In Utah the diversity is far less with 77.8% of the population white, and only 1.5% Black.

Compare the 2020 census on population diversity to the number of licensed Black therapists in America and diversity decreases. According to the American Psychological Association, 83.6% of licensed therapists are white and only 5.3% are Black. These numbers highlight the underrepresentation of professional  Black therapists in America. The limited number of Black therapists creates limited access to a trained professional who shares one’s cultural experience.   

Cost of therapy is another obstacle. The APA reports that only 11.5% of Black adults have health insurance, and mental health therapy is expensive.

Dr. Dio Turner II said in an email interview, “While cost is an issue it is more complicated, cost is a massive issue that is much deeper than therapy. There are too many people who must decide between food, housing, tuition, and their health. People are committing suicide and dying because they can’t afford psychotherapy.” He added, “I’m not sure what the precise solution is but it needs to be addressed immediately.”

Washington, the Los Angeles-based therapist, said she believes mental health is a community problem. Mental health therapy should be accessible through schools, workplaces, and community programs. Lowering cost is not the only solution and insurance companies bear some of the responsibility to make it more accessible. 

Davis, a founder of Black Clinicians, has created an innovative way of addressing the cost obstacle. Davis has offered counseling scholarships in her private practice Empath Healing and Wellness since it was founded. She has several families who have utilized this service. Black community members who know these options are available are more likely to reach out for mental health treatment. 

There are many issues facing the mental health of the Black community with no easy solution. Having conversations, breaking down barriers is happening slowly. The bigger issue may be what is at the core of the problem. As Dr. Dio Turner II said, the biggest health issue facing Black communities is “the insidious way that racism affects mental and physical health.”

Caribbean Nightingale: Utah’s first poetry salon connecting the community through the arts

Story by KENZIE WALDON

Poetry is a language that speaks to all different kinds of souls, connecting those who are in tune with the rhythm. A space to express this creative outlet can expand one’s own view to the variety of cultures that surround them in a community. 

Caribbean Nightingale is one such place. This Provo-based poetry café and boutique creates a space for artistic diversity in Utah. Michaëlle Martial, a Haitian-born poet and the creative force behind Caribbean Nightingale, is breaking barriers by spotlighting the mixture of talent that Utah has to offer. 

“Nightingale is a bird I always liked to read about as a teen, you know, from poetry,” Martial said during a Zoom interview. “Then I found out several years ago that the Nightingale was the only bird that sang both day and night.” 

The nightingale’s significance resonates deeply with Martial, both as a working mother and as a survivor of trauma and domestic violence. She decided to name her new business Caribbean Nightingale, the same moniker Martial uses for performing. “When it was time to register the business, I just thought it was a great idea to keep my stage name as the name of the business just because it has a lot of meaning,” Martial said. 

Michaëlle Marital performing her poetry as Caribbean Nightingale during a Relaxation Through Verse event. Courtesy of the Caribbean Nightingale website. Photographed by Tania Luiza Linson.

The business of Caribbean Nightingale began in 2018 with Relaxation Through Verse. This is the poetry salon’s main event that is held in various locations around Utah offering a safe space for multicultural artists to express themselves freely. “The poetry salon is there to uplift the community as a whole but also to help promote local and emerging artists,” Martial said. “We wanted to have an uplifting experience between the community and the artists.”

These intimate events have been stationed in art galleries to coffee shops and attract developing artists from all kinds of backgrounds. Gianfranco Fernandez-Ruiz, a Dominican Republic-born artist, is one of many to connect with Martial at one of the Relaxation Through Verse poetry readings. 

Gianfranco Fernandez-Ruiz performing his boom bap-inspired poetry at a Relaxation Through Verse event. Courtesy of the Caribbean Nightingale website. Photographed by Nicole Tyana Photography.

“Ever since, we’ve been homies,” Fernandez-Ruiz said in a Zoom interview. “I’m just on the other side of that island, she’s from Haiti and I’m from the Dominican Republic. So that Caribbean business, it goes a long way.”

Fernandez-Ruiz is both a poet and a multi-disciplined creative. “I mean, I graduated in English,” he said. “So, I’m all things in the arts, I do nonfiction, I do fiction. I’m a filmmaker. I’m a screenwriter, director, and I do poetry.” With the help of an ongoing Kickstarter, he is currently in the process of creating a tongue-and-cheek horror comedy movie called, “Saborrrr!”

Another performer at the Relaxation Through Verse is local musician Mel Soul. Soul attended one of Caribbean Nightingale’s events and was so touched by Martial’s poetry that she felt inspired to share her own writing and music.

“Michaëlle has kindly had myself and my drummer band mate Everett Spencer connect through her business as one of her featured musician artists for her live stream events,” Soul said in an email interview.

“Caribbean Nightingale offers poets, artists and businesswomen a safe haven for anyone (especially any person of color) to feel safe and connected through the expression of art in all forms,” Soul said.

Mel Soul (left) and Everett Spencer performing as Mel Soul & The Messenger at a Relaxation Through Verse event. Courtesy of the Caribbean Nightingale website. Photographed by Tania Luiza Linson.

Another addition to Caribbean Nightingale’s poetry salon is the TiGla Boutique, a shop and alternative outlet of highlighting the diverse talents that reside in Utah. It’s also a way to honor Martial’s mother, who was a fashion designer and seamstress. “That’s my way of amplifying Black voices, as I was trying to create some sort of legacy for my mother’s memory who passed less than a year and a half ago,” Martial said.

TiGla Boutique retails merchandise from the artists who perform at Relaxation Through Verse along with Martial’s own poetry books and other authors of African descent. Whether it be fashion, music or literature, TiGla Boutique markets the products created by these local artists, a concept Martial absorbed from her mother who was always trying to help women in her own community. 

“I thought I would do something similar to help me not only feel closer to her, but to also help other artists in my community and in the Black community, specifically,” Martial said. 

The most recent addition to Caribbean Nightingale’s business is the blog titled, “Black Joy Is…” This blog enlightens readers on Martial’s individual perceptions throughout her life. “It’s my personal insight as a woman, a Black woman, immigrant woman, and a poet,” Martial said. “And how travel and healing are intersected when it comes to self-care and self-love.”

While Caribbean Nightingale is connecting Utah’s diversity through art, being a one-of-a-kind business in this state still has its challenges. “Well, it’s been a journey,” Martial said, chuckling.

“There are a lot of obstacles that Black artists get into, you know, that is preventing them from succeeding within a business such as Caribbean Nightingale,” Martial said. “And sometimes Black artists don’t know that there’s so many opportunities available.”

But Caribbean Nightingale’s recent spark of exposure came in 2020 when Martial, along with five other Black-owned businesses in Utah, were selected to receive the Comcast RISE Prize. Caribbean Nightingale is the first of its kind to receive this award from Comcast, which generally supplies a business with the materials and technology it needs in order to succeed. 

Since Caribbean Nightingale is a business operated from home and restructured to hosting events virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, Comcast needed to think outside of the box for how this award would be beneficial. The prize ultimately paid for a professionally produced commercial that will air from March to June on various Utah networks and be available on the Caribbean Nightingale website.

Martial is currently in the process of releasing a downloadable poetry album as well as organizing Relaxation Through Verse events through spring and summer 2021, both virtual and in person. Martial said donations collected at these events will be distributed among the performers and be given to local shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness. 

Martial’s dream of Caribbean Nightingale is almost 10 years in the making and has cracked open the artistic diversity that bubbles under Utah’s surface. Her advice to any aspirating entrepreneur who is wanting to invest in their passion is to always be mindful of the process. Or in Martial’s words, “You know, life is short, like our slogan with the coffee station, diverse life is short. Take it one sip, one rhyme and one note at a 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