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.”

Sheer Ambrosia: a businesswoman’s journey

Story by JUSTIN GALLETLY

Sherrita “Rita” Magalde is the owner of Sheer Ambrosia, a small business based in Salt Lake City dedicated to baking baklava to sell to customers.

Over the last year, Magalde’s business has reached new heights.

She’s seen a big spike in sales and has met arguably the greatest commercial success of her business’s lifetime.

However, it wasn’t always glitz and glamour for her brand, as she, like many up-and-coming small-business owners, ran into many roadblocks along the way.

Many of these roadblocks predate her business’s very foundation and go back several years before she even came up with the idea to sell homemade baklava.

During a phone interview, she explained that she’s been involved in independent, entrepreneurial endeavors stretching as far back as the mid-90s.

In 1996, she and her then-husband moved from Spain to Salt Lake City due to its reputation as a great place to go skiing.

She started a small mortgage brokerage and later ran a travel agency with her husband.

Despite her success with her independently run business, her relationship with her husband wouldn’t last in the long run.

“We were six years into running the travel agency when we got a divorce and neither one of us wanted to leave the business. So we tried to make it work, but I was very unhappy so I decided to quit. I still wanted to be a business owner, but I wanted something that was all my own, so he bought me out of the agency in 2008, which is when I also started the bakery,” she said.

Rita Magalde

Magalde always enjoyed cooking and baking, having grown up learning from her mother.

Baklava, the dessert Magalde’s business is built around, was primarily learned from hanging around a Greek family she worked with while growing up in North Carolina.

“The baklava has stuck with me through the years, so I decided I wanted to see if I could turn it into a business. So I decided to start slow from home and got a cottage food license from the Department of Agriculture and began my baklava business then,” Magalde said.

Despite her experience running independent businesses in the past, the transition was not a smooth endeavor.

“One of the big differences between running a travel agency and a bakery is now you have to deal with inventory,” Magalde said. “It also isn’t as lucrative a business as a travel agency, so I’m selling my baklava at $3 a piece and wasn’t able to hire people right away. Also, unlike when I began the travel industry, I now had two children and was without a partner.”

She also refused to take any bank loans and only used the funds she gathered from selling her share of the travel agency.

The barrier to entry felt much steeper than previous endeavors.

Over time, she was able to find a degree of success with her business.

In 2013, five years after beginning Sheer Ambrosia, she took a big step to legitimize her business.

She ventured out into a commercial space in hopes of getting more people to take her business seriously.

“I put $50,000 of my own money into the space to build it out and was able to legitimize my business and really bring Sheer Ambrosia to the forefront. People weren’t taking me seriously until I did that,” she said.

Although while her business continued to do well, it didn’t do as well as she had hoped.

After the death of her father, Magalde decided to cut back, as the long hours which required her to work upward of 16-hour days every day of the week took its toll on her.

“I decided to sell the space to another bakery and moved Sheer Ambrosia back into my home,” Magalde said. “I fell into some debt, and my son who was graduating high school wanted to go to an expensive college. So I said I’m going to sell my home so I could get out of debt and allow my son to go to the college he wanted to attend.”

Things got especially stressful when the pandemic hit.

 Magalde’s business, like many small businesses, was severely hit when it all began.

“No one wanted baklava, they all wanted toilet paper and hand sanitizer, so I had to get another job to make ends meet when the pandemic hit,” she said.

Rita Magalde

Then, in the midst of the pandemic, a tragedy occurred that shook the entire nation to its core.

“In horror, we got to see George Floyd murdered before our very faces by a Minneapolis police officer. Black people have been watching this kind of thing happen for years, and it seems as though the white community has been oblivious to it,” she said. “Right after that, there were so many white folks in the community who decided they wanted to support local Black-owned businesses.”

While Magalde was initially reluctant to embrace this swell of support because she didn’t want to feel she was capitalizing off a tragedy, she changed her mindset when she realized how it played into a good cause.

“I started to think about it and saw that these were people who don’t necessarily want to protest in the street. They don’t want to get out there and hold a sign and yell, and walk the street protesting that way. This is their way of putting their money where their mouth is by supporting Black-owned businesses,” she said.

She also came to realize that while they may initially support her business because she’s Black, that didn’t mean they would continue their support if her products weren’t satisfying.

“It’s still my job as a business owner to make sure they want to come back by giving them a quality product and amazing service. So it’s not going to be free service, I still have to earn their repeat service, so this a challenge for me,” she said.

The success led to a busy holiday season, one where she would need some additional help if she was going to continue thriving.

Helene Simpson and her daughter, Desi Hayda, offered their services.

“She’s very dedicated. She’s very grateful for everything, and it’s hard that it was the death of somebody which created an influx of sales, her product is what continues her business and for people to come back to her,” Simpson said during a phone interview. “It’s not just because people think ‘Black Lives Matter’ and only supporting her for that reason. She sells quality products, has excellent customer service.”

Simpson said she appreciates Magalde’s positive guidance.

“I think she’s very thorough. Just how she explains things to you and wants things done, and that’s to be expected because everything she does is pretty perfectionist, so you just follow her instructions and help her out when you can. She’s awesome to work for,” Hayda said.

“Now I’ve got a following that I can parlay this into growth for my business, and I’m hoping for one day to quit my second job and go back to running my business full-time,” Magalde said.

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.”

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.”

Bri Ray: ‘Woman’

Utah musicians Bri Ray’s battle to return to the stage after she was violated

Story by JONATHAN WISTRCILL

“I was ready for the hold that it had put me in to be gone,” Bri Ray said in a Zoom interview.

Bri is a singer and entrepreneur who was born and raised in Salt Lake City. She fell in love with music at a very young age and began writing her own songs at just 8 years old, easily picking up on instruments such as the piano and violin.

Growing up Bri was shy but felt more comfortable expressing herself through music. She even wrote her first album in the fifth grade. This album though did more than just help Bri, it helped kids in Cambodia as well.

Bri Ray performed for the Excellence in the Community concert series on Feb. 13, 2021. Photo courtesy of Excellence in the Community.

When Bri was in fourth grade her father, Mike Ray, got a new job in Singapore so the whole family moved to the other side of the world. While over there Bri took a trip with her mom to Cambodia where she was touched by the other kids’ generosity. It was Bri’s birthday coming up and she decided she wanted to use the birthday money she was going to receive to help send three kids from Cambodia to school.

“It was such a cool experience and to get notes from the kids about how they were doing in school was an amazing feeling,” Bri said. When their tuition came due again a year later Bri decided to use the money she got from her first album to continue to support them.

When Ray’s parents realized that she was going to seriously pursue a career in music they had two very different reactions. Her father was excited, but her mother, Lynette Ray, was not. Lynette was worried that it would be a tough business to stay true to oneself in and that Bri would be negatively affected by it.

A few key events changed Lynette’s mind. “Seeing that look in her eye when she performed and watching her build other people up using her music made me realize it was what she was meant to do,” Lynette said in a Zoom interview.

While neither of Bri’s parents had a deep love of music her grandmother did. “She is a strong believer in music and had aspirations to be a singer when she was young,” Mike said about his mom’s passion for music over a Zoom interview.

Bri’s music career continued to rise especially after she appeared on the 15th season of “American Idol” in 2016. She was also invited out to Miami for a series of workshops that allowed her to learn from different professionals in the music industry. All this experience allowed Bri to begin touring and performing at different concerts and venues across the country. She also decided college was not for her and that she wanted to focus on her music and other business ventures.

For Bri music was a safe place where she felt more comfortable performing in front of thousands of people rather than talking to someone one on one. That comfort she felt in music was about to disappear.

While she was on tour in 2019 Bri was sexually assaulted.

“When I shared that space with the person that hurt me then it no longer felt safe,” Bri said. “It honestly took me out of the music world for a year and a half.”

Around the same time of this event the #MeToo movement had begun picking up steam with thousands of women speaking out against domestic abuse. One of Bri’s family members was one of these women who told their story. Bri was proud of her for speaking up, but another older member of their family opposed her actions, saying that she would only hurt her chances of getting a job by speaking out. Bri said she’s always believed in speaking out against what was wrong and strongly disagreed with her family member.

Earlier, when Bri was in middle school, she spearheaded a campaign to end bullying and promote acceptance. She wanted to reach her classmates by using stories of her own experiences with bullying and songs she had written to do so.

Bri said she believes “there are people who need those voices that are willing to speak on their behalf and to fight that battle with them.” She believes that every person copes differently and if she can be an advocate for those voices that is exactly what she is going to do.

The decision to be that voice, however, was a difficult one for Bri to reach. Only when she hit rock bottom was she able to bounce back.

“One day I just broke down crying and for the first time in over a year I went over to the piano,” Bri said, finally ready to release the hold the assault had on her.

During the next few hours she sat alone at the piano and wrote a new song called “Woman.”

“It was the first time I had written out and expressed my feelings about the situation and that I was ready for a turning point,” an emotional Bri said. “It really became a source of power and strength for me to pull myself out of this dark place I was in.”

Bri wants to continue to use her platform for change and in 2020 she did so by advocating for social change. She has also started a company called Social Antidote that creates opportunities for people in Salt Lake City to support local musicians and artists.

Bri Ray’s latest song “Tough Love” was released in 2021. Photo courtesy of Excellence in the Community.

Watching her go through such a painful ordeal was extremely difficult for Bri’s parents but they knew she would continue to be strong and fight. “I was proud of her for not letting that stop her. She had a pause, but she got back up,” Lynette said.

The Rays said they believe their daughter is destined for greatness and Mike knows it will come sooner rather than later. “She is going to be a great musician because she works so hard and is a very strong person,” he said.

As for how Bri’s career was in 2020, she was booked out this past year more than any other year prior doing virtual concert after virtual concert. Bri said she’s excited for what is to come and has already released a new song this year tilted “Tough Love.”

While Bri said she is optimistic for her music career, she believes that her impact off the stage will be even bigger by using her voice and platform to advocate for changes in society.

She thinks the most important thing a musician can do is a lyric from her empowering song “Woman”: “Invest in your voice and know your choice.”

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.”

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.”

Out of state student-athletes of color at the University of Utah speak out

Story by BRIANNA PEARSON

A high school student athlete’s ambitious dream is to attend a Pac-12 university, compete at one of the highest levels in the nation, all while accomplishing their academic goals. 

Yet, for student athletes who pack up their life from out of state this can be a challenge. This can especially be challenging for those athletes who are of color at the University of Utah. 

According to a fact sheet released by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, African Americans/Blacks only make up 1.2% of Utah’s population. Black student athletes often experience an immense culture shock when their feet step on the grounds of the U for the first time. 

Branden Wilson, from Orange County, California, and a junior on the Utah Lacrosse team, talks about some of his experiences when “fitting in” in Utah. 

Wilson is one of only three players on a roster of 44 who is not white. Wilson said he grew up around a predominantly white neighborhood and went to a primarily white high school. He was not surprised with the Utah demographics being predominantly white.

Fitting in at Utah, however, has been something he has struggled with. “I definitely feel like I didn’t fit in freshman year. I still feel like I don’t fit in,” Wilson said in a FaceTime interview. “I feel like I can’t really relate to people as much here, people don’t really understand me.” He said he tends to go away from the crowd, which is how he has always been since he can remember.

Wilson said his coaches have been very “welcoming,” which has helped his experience tremendously. In a follow up email, Wilson said they would always check up on him when he first arrived at the U. This has made him feel very welcome. 

Wilson said he has a very strong support system from his coaches but not as much from his teammates. He said his support system mainly comes from himself as well as his family members. 

Niyah Becker, a junior on the women’s basketball team, had a different experience. She moved to Salt Lake City from Winnipeg, Canada. Becker said during her freshman year she quickly became friends with players of color on both the women’s and men’s basketball teams. She said she loved her freshman year and how she got brought into the college lifestyle.

But then, everything changed. 

“It was more towards the end of my sophomore year that I had realized everything that was going on, especially since all of my Black friends on the teams had transferred and left the U,” Becker said in a phone interview. “I soon asked myself, what the heck, where did all the Black people go?” 

This year, there are a total of three Black student athletes on the women’s team. “I’m not Black, but I’m not white,” Becker said. She said that being the only biracial player is a little weird, and sometimes she doesn’t know where she fits in. 

When the Black Lives Matter protest occurred in summer 2020 and there was a spotlight on the Black community, the coaches and staff of the women’s basketball team made sure all their athletes were mentally and physically supported. They took their feelings into consideration as team-related decisions were made. At that moment, Becker realized, “Oh wait, I am the only light skin on the entire team.”

Becker said she has felt very welcomed by her teammates and coaches. She said the leadership of one teammate in particular, a senior named Megan Huff, helped lead the way for Becker and made her transition easier. 

She said her team is really well educated and respectful. The team knows what is right versus what is wrong, and would never treat someone differently because of the color of their skin. 

Maya Lebar, a junior track star at the U who came from Spokane, Washington, has a similar “team culture” experience as Becker. 

The track team, unlike the basketball team, had only one Black student athlete in the program prior to Lebar’s class. 

“When my class came in, it was a big shift for our team culturally and socially, and I think we’ve adapted pretty well,” Lebar said in a FaceTime interview. “We have all blended and created a space where everyone can feel welcome and included, and that is so valued.”

On the contrary, Lebar’s transition from high school in Spokane to college in Salt Lake City, was very “unfortunate” as no one specifically helped her acclimate to the state of Utah’s culture. She talks about how being a person of color, there wasn’t anyone who took the time to help her adjust to the culture of Utah. 

“When I came in, there wasn’t really a support system for Black student athletes here,” Lebar said. She said she felt welcome here just as any student athlete would. But, being a Black student athlete, she said, “There was not that focus on being a Black student athlete in a predominantly white state within a predominantly white institution.” She said this was disappointing but the Department of Athletic has begun to change its policies. Lebar is hopeful this will contine to improve.

Lebar later said, “I don’t think it was a bad welcome, I felt like I was made to fit in within athletics.” She said if she had the opportunity to change it for others, she would.  

These student athletes have lives outside of their sport and for all three, their experiences in public are similar.

University of Utah athletes, Maya Lebar, Branden Wilson, and Niyah Becker in action during their competition. Photo illustration by Brianna Pearson.

Lebar said she has seen people stare at her when she is at a mall or eating at a restaurant. “I almost expect for people to look at me when I go out,” she said. “It used to make me feel angry, but I’ve had to adapt to where now, I know they aren’t staring at me in a negative way, it is more just curiosity.” 

Becker said, “I’m surprised when I see someone of color out in public, which is very disappointing, but with Utah being how it is, it’s not shocking.”

And Wilson, the lacrosse player, said, “Going out in public, I definitely get looks, I find myself having eyes on me.”

Being an athlete from out of state as well as being a person of color can be challenging. The experiences these three athletes have been through while being at the U so far has only made them stronger and has given them a voice for future student athletes.

A group called UTAH (United Together Against Hate) has now been formed within Utah athletics, which allows student-athletes to have open discussions and educate others.

More than a Black female athlete

Story by EMALI MACKINNON

For student athletes, being recruited by a top university is a goal. They spend years practicing and traveling to events, often missing out on school activities such as dances and free time with friends and family.

The stress of being a top athlete is even more difficult as a Black female competitor, who may experience racism, sexism or isolation. 

Maya Lebar, a sprinter with the University of Utah Track and Field team, became interested in sports as a child growing up in Spokane, Washington. 

Her adoptive mother allowed Lebar to pursue anything she was interested in. At the age of 4 she developed an interest in competitive skiing. 

“Skiing was always something that my family has loved to do,” Lebar said in a text interview, “so it’s really just a family tradition. My mom had skied since she was little and was happy to find out that we had a really good ski program up on Mount Spokane for me to learn how to ski.”  She graduated from the program and became a completive skier. 

A few years later, Lebar knew she wanted to do more than skiing.

Cecil Jackson, a competitive track and field coach, noticed Lebar when she was in eighth grade and competing in local middle school meets. “He was the person who really helped me learn about track and field and feel confident enough in my abilities to pursue it seriously throughout high school,” she said. She began to train with Jackson with an eye toward running at a collegiate level. 

Shortly after training with Jackson, she began to get recruited from local and out of state colleges. 

The University of Utah was one of those schools that stood out to her the most during the recruitment process. 

Lebar caught Coach Chad Colwell’s attention during her senior year of high school.

She set a personal record in the 400M. The sprinting coach quickly noticed her potential. 

Lebar, who is Black, said she was initially hesitant about attending school in Utah. There is little diversity at the university and even less among the Utah athletics.

“My family was concerned for me and questioned my decisions for coming to Utah. I was nervous that there weren’t a lot of Black people and were less in the athletic community,” Lebar said in a FaceTime interview.

But, once she began to talk to her potential coaches and take a tour of the campus, she said she immediately fell in love. 

Colwell said in an email interview, “After speaking with Maya over the phone, I knew she was someone who we would be interested in not only as an athlete, but as a student, teammate and person. I remember after our phone call thinking how articulate, confident and smart Maya was. And this was reinforced after speaking with her High School coach who raved about Maya both as an athlete and a teammate/leader.” 

Lebar committed to the University of Utah and adjusted quickly. 

Maya Lebar was recruited to run the 400M, 200M and relays. Now she runs short sprints focusing on the 100M and 200M. Photo courtesy of Maya Lebar.

She said her teammates became her best friends. She appreciates how they push her into becoming the athlete she wanted to be. They had the same goals in mind and were just as committed as she was.

One of her teammates at the time was Kat Lakaye. Lebar and Lakaye instantly become best friends and roomed together their freshman year. “Maya was someone who is so strong, determined, intelligent, and would have your back no matter what, she was the type of person you always wanted around,” Lakaye said in a FaceTime interview. 

Despite becoming friends with teammates, she faced challenges as a Black female athlete. 

There wasn’t a space or environment created for her and Black teammates. Over the years, Lebar has been one of the main student athletes on her team to advocate for the rest of the Black athletes and talk about the problems they were facing among their teams.

 After speaking out and creating an environment to be heard, Lebar said she feels more supported now than ever. 

“The school has done a really good job at listening and responding to our needs. People need to see us and create an environment where we feel supported and welcomed also,” Lebar said. “It has become easier to be a Black female athlete now with all the resources and communities Utah has created for us.”

Lebar decided to major in political science with an emphasis in law and politics. She has a dream of one day becoming a lawyer or a civil rights attorney. Her passions include speaking out for social justice and being an advocate for those who have been wronged by the justice system. “ It is so important to know what is going on in the world. Educating yourself and having the ability to speak out on important topics is so empowering,” she said. 

She is a part of a group called “UTAH Group,” which stands for United Together Against Hate. Within this group she plans events and puts together meetings that cover important topics about social injustice within the community and Utah. 

Some events she has organized are Say Their Names Memorial, United Walk, Indigenous Peoples Day Art Walk and Black Reflections Exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. This type of work is what Lebar is most passionate about. 

The reason this became her passion was due to the event that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2018. “I have always been so passionate about social justice stuff. But it all started after the Charlottesville rally in 2018,” Lebar said. “I then realized systemic injustice is really real. This was such a huge moment for me. Yes, I grew up in a white family but I am Black and I am extremely affected by it. I knew I had to become more educated about everything. I began to read about everything like people in history and people that no one knows about. I researched everything until I understood.” 

A fire was lit inside her and she knew something must change and she was going to be that change.