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The City Journals

'Helping everyone, in every way’ message of State of Black Community Town Hall

Feb 20, 2019 11:07AM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Panelists and members of the Sigma Omicron Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority contributed to “The State of the Black Community Town Hall,” part of February’s Black History Month. (Jennifer J. Johnson/City Journals)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

A legislator received a standing ovation for her HJR8 bill to strike references to slavery in Utah’s constitution.

Utah's Black Chamber celebrated 10 years in operation and saw founder James Jackson III on the cover of Utah Business magazine.

And “Utah’s Original Jazzman Steve McQueen” celebrated his 100th birthday in multiple tributes along the Wasatch.

February 2019 was, indeed, a stunning month for Utah commemoration of Black History Month. The focus provided an excellent platform for the University of Utah’s “State of the Black Community Town Hall,” co-sponsored by the The Sigma Omicron Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office.

The panel discussion at the University featured five public servants, five prepared questions, and lively discussion, both during and after the event, guided by Jasmine Robinson, University of Utah senior and vice president of The Sigma Omicron Chapter.

Panelists included state legislators Joel Briscoe and Sandra Hollins, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, and Salt Lake City Board of Education member Nate Salazar.

Affordable housing, equal access to education, law enforcement cultural sensitivity, education funding, and leadership advocacy were all discussed as part of the town hall. Interestingly, although linked to Black History Month and billed as the State of the Black Community Town Hall, the phrases “black” or “African American” rarely were mentioned, with the themes discussed spanning under-served populations, be they persons of color or of disability.

Numerous dignitaries, including politicians, university representatives, and multiple media were in attendance at the event that Robinson indicated was for “anyone and everyone.” The diverse, multicultural, engaged audience responded numerous times throughout the evening with outbursts of applause and with questions, pushing the event past the scheduled time.

Doing the right thing

The point of the town hall event? The importance of recognizing, honoring, and advocating unique needs of unique populations. Throughout the evening, multiple panelists used the phrase “do the right thing.”

According to moderator Robinson, “Doing one thing and assuming that it works? That is not an answer.”

“Doing the right thing? The way that I like to think of it as supporting all members of the community, all members of the society, being open to listen and learn in all capacities,” she noted in an interview with the City Journals. “[It’s] not just helping yourself, or the group you are a part of, or a specific corner of society, but helping everyone. Helping everyone, in every way.”

Issue #1: Affordable, countywide housing

“There are cities in this county that don’t have affordable housing plans,” expressed Utah Congressman Joel Briscoe, representing District 25, covering Salt Lake and parts of South Salt Lake and Sugar House. Briscoe sees Salt Lake County as being short as many as 60,000 affordable housing units.

Salt Lake City alone acknowledges a current 7,500 gap in the availability of low-income housing units. Mayor Biskupski touted progress on her “Growing SLC” housing plan, unveiled in August, 2018. A key component of the plan is the city’s Community Land Trust program, where homeowners enjoy lower monthly payments and are able to see increased investment through home improvements. The city owns the land, but the homeowner and future homeowners would own just the home. Another key component? The city’s “Handyman” service to help seniors and other needy homeowners maintain their homes.

New Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson (See other story “SLCO Mayor”) noted the county does not have regulatory ability over cities, but does have a “toolbox” of ways to encourage “developers to do the right thing with housing.” Key is Tax Increment Financing (TIF) – ways of providing developers with dollar subsidies for building affordable housing or other programs in line with county needs.

Issue #2: Equal access to education

“The School-to-Prison Pipeline.”

It is a chilling phrase, a chilling concept, and an infinitely more chilling reality, wherein children of color, male children, and children with disabilities are shown to be over-disciplined, which statistically heightens school drop-out and where children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. It is a national trend, as well as a statewide and countywide concern.

The solution? School districts are seeking to maintain safe learning environments while reducing the use of school discipline. Rep. Sandra Hollins, who serves the west side of Salt Lake all the way to Bountiful in House District 23,  noted her 2016 HB460 legislation has helped redefine the role of police officers in schools, provided cultural training for police and others in schools dealing with children with disabilities.

Also key? “Parents need to be vigilant,” noted Rep. Hollins, who introduced the slavery-striking language bill.

Biskupski indicated Salt Lake City is “working in tandem” to implement Hollins’ bill.

“One of the reasons I ran [for mayor] was the Prison-to-Pipeline Study,” Biskupski recalled, sharing how shocked she was to learn of this problem in Salt Lake, “the most progressive area in the state.” The Mayor indicated trainings with law enforcement have eliminated a preponderance of “implicit bias” incidents, where assumptions of guilt are made by racial or other profiling, from more than 500 per year to fewer than 60.

The Mayor also stressed the importance on busting the Prison-to-Pipeline through after-school programs. The audience burst into applause when Biskupski spoke about Salt Lake City’s Youth City program.

“A lot of families have been pushed out of Salt Lake, because it is too expensive,” explained Nate Salazar, who became the newest member of the Salt Lake School Board in January, and serves his day job as Associate Director of Community Empowerment in the Salt Lake Mayor’s Office. He is currently the only minority on the board for a district where more than half of the students are minorities.

Salazar noted that west side Salt Lake City families in communities like Glendale and Poplar Grove seek education opportunities at Salt Lake’s East High School, but do not have transportation to afford them the same flexible schedule other students have to attend after-school activities. The audience again applauded when Biskupski indicated the city’s amping up the 900 South bus route to offer more evening east-to-west routes.

Issue #3: Law enforcement cultural sensitivity

“Listening, learning, leading” is how Biskupski depicted the Salt Lake police department. Healing communities and improving dialogue are Biskupski’s priorities. Creating a better law-enforcement team and its better interfacing with the Human Rights Commission has happened under the leadership of Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, she said. 

“Chief Brown has taken a communicative policing model to heart.” The results have been nothing short of astounding, with crime results at a five-year low. A big part of the process includes having police focus on getting to really know the neighborhoods they serve.”

“What I vow to do is a best-practices process,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Wilson. Wilson is banking on seeing improved results through implementation of a new data analysis program to be able to make better decisions in law enforcement and the justice system across 18 different jurisdictions in the County. 

Issue #4: K-12 education funding

This past fall, Utah voters resoundingly voted down — with just 35 percent in support and 65 percent voting no —  raising motor fuel tax and use the revenue to offset money being taken from the General Fund — from education and to transportation.

“Where do we find $63 million?” was Briscoe’s question, in terms of how to significantly improve education in the state. 

Briscoe critiqued Utah’s relying on Utah’s K-12 education funding formula. He believes the “Weighted Pupil Unit” (WPU), which forms the foundation of Utah’s public education spending, only covers inflation costs, not growth. WPU covers “vertical” aspects of education, versus more granular considerations, such as costs for English as a Second Language (ESL) and other culturally-relevant programs.

Issue #5: Stewardship for community impact

Perhaps the most provocative question to the panel was how each panelist chooses to leverage their position of political power to make a difference.

“I try to bring a voice to those who don’t have a voice,” said Hollins.

Hollins challenged the audience to make sure their voices are spoken and heard, even amid disappointment and frustration with political processes or a seeming lack of impact. 

“Don’t walk away from a battlefield because you lost one fight. We cannot give up. I need you on the battlefield to push the state forward.”

“Together, we are creating a city for everyone,” Biskupski observed. Key to doing so, she said, is vigorously going after barriers to equity and opportunity.

Salazar shared his pride in being a role model as a person of color. 

“Folks who are marginalized can be left out,” he noted. “I use my voice, my experience, my position on the school board and in the Mayor’s office.” 

Salazar said he has “taken heat” for what some consider to be nothing more than “window dressing” — a minority being placed in a position to assuage concerns of political correctness, but not have any real power. “[I am] not just window dressing. I have an opportunity to change stereotypes,” he said.

“I will do whatever I can to bend the arc of justice,” Briscoe shared, acknowledging that he is a privileged, white male, but one who feels compelled to seek justice for all populations, particularly those “who don’t look like me.”