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The City Journals

Salt Lake County’s Welcoming City tackles racism, encourages healing through stories

Jun 10, 2019 02:01PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Director of the Mayor’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion Emma E. Houston ensured the “Stand against Racism” community dialogue was a “safe space” for questions ranging from white nationalism to perceived church bigotry. (Jennifer J. Johnson/City Journals)


By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]


In presenting the State of the County speech at the end of March, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson praised the County’s becoming a certified Welcoming City for incoming refugees and existing minority populations. This honor credits the County’s providing rich resources for refugees and a host of other factors.

The County ratcheted up its welcoming status April 26, by joining in the YWCA’s pledge against racism in a public way. 

The Salt Lake County Office of Diversity and Inclusion sponsored a Stand against Racism community luncheon, in concert with YWCA/Utah, anchored by written educational materials and a panel discussion about racism with a question and answer session.

“Racism is a form of discrimination, based on … generalized differences between groups … and that those differences … make one group, or groups, inherently superior over others … making us inherently different and unequal,” reads the definition of racism, per County materials.

Panelists comprised young people of color, ranging from millennial-aged professionals and college students, to a member of Generation Z, a Kearns High School sophomore (millennials are defined as those born between the years of 1982-1996. Generation Z or Gen Z are born 1997 and later.)

Panelists shared experiences with the pain and confusion of racism as well as the restorative, strengthening healing of positive role models, all here in Salt Lake County. 

The 90-minute session explored issues ranging from racism to role models, from stereotypes to starting over, from institutional change to personal responsibility. The program included encouraging participants to stand and read aloud the anti-racism pledge. Attendees were also treated to hearing the pledge recited in both Spanish and Japanese, by local residents. 

Provocative audience questions — and statements masquerading as questions — ranged from requesting an apology from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for its previous discriminatory policies regarding black members to a Sugar House man questioning why he is branded a white nationalist, amid his professed cultural awareness, to a refugee mother wondering how to answer her children’s asking, “Why are we black?”

From racism to role models 

Abandoning wearing the hijab headdress, customary as an expression of her Muslim religion and culture, became a protection strategy and coping mechanism for South Salt Lake-based Muslim licensed clinical social worker and therapist Faeiza Javed who works in Murray.

Javed, however, leverages this as a strength in her counseling practice. “I learned how to navigate my multiple identities,” she noted in her Psychology Today bio, “which helps me be present with my clients and understand their issues.”

“Racism? I don’t think it will ever disappear, that’s just how it is,” said Michael F. Iwasaki, a Japanese-American attorney practicing in Salt Lake City for the State of Utah.

Latina high school student Susana Lemus, a sophomore at Kearns High School, indicated “feeling really welcomed” here in Salt Lake County.

Local role models

In terms of the Salt Lake experience for the young panelists, Emerald Greene, an African-American graduate student at the University of Utah, observed, “Having people who look like us in positions of power” as “representation” is helpful.

Greene cited the County’s own Emma E. Houston, director of the Mayor’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, as a local role model. Greene, who resides in Salt Lake City, works as an intern for Houston’s office. 

What about role models who are not employers?

Lemus and Michael F. Iwasaki both credited their parents.

Iwasaki, a fourth-generation Asian-American, also included his grandparents among his role models.

Javed indicated finding role models on social media as a source of solace. With regards to the Salt Lake environment in specific, like co-panelist Greene, Javed pointed to someone right there in the room: “Luna Banuri, now there is a powerhouse,” she said, crediting the local activist participating on the Utah Muslim Civic League and Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy.

The temperature of racism – Anecdotal insights with an eye toward data

The best way to help fight racism, is to “give up a seat at the table,” according to Kwamane O. Harris, an African-American man who works for Planned Parenthood in Salt Lake and has a bachelor’s in criminal justice. For Harris, giving up a seat at the table translates to businesses and organizations proactively seeking to ensure diversity in decision-making, “giving a voice and listening … then they can talk about things they need.”

Iwasaki indicated that media attention to racism is helping combat the problem as is proactive action such as the passage of hate-crimes legislation this past legislative session, here in Utah.

Having already been complimented as a mentor for people of color, audience member and Avenues resident Luna Banuri challenged the panel and the audience to question racism through data.

“There has been an increase in hate crimes across the country,” she stated. “We need to rally as a community and create institutional ways to address issues.” Banuri followed up with City Journals, providing information about anti-Muslim hate crimes. According to FBI data, such crimes targeted against Muslims are continuing to rise, approaching the highest incidence of crimes, just after the 9-11 tragedy. 

Another mentor credited by panelists, Salt Lake County’s Emma E. Houston, a Sugar House resident, whose office sponsored the event, recommended a personal engagement approach to help thwart racism and offered the services of her own office.

Responding to a refugee woman’s angst at hearing her children feel their teachers do not value them, she said, “Go to the school. Have a conversation. Take the temperature.” Houston indicated her office’s CODA – Council of Diversity Affairs – can be a support for those in need of knowing where to even begin the conversation with the school, or even with their own children.

See diversity, as opposed to color

All five members of the panel disagreed with the idea of bringing races together within a human race, by ignoring color.

“My ethnicity makes me unique and proud about who I am,” emphasized Harris.

“The problem is, [that] we are fearful of difference(s) – that’s the mindset and the ideology that needs to change,” asserted Javed.

“I am proud to be Japanese-American,” shared Iwasaki. “In a perfect world, you wouldn’t see color, you would see diversity.”

And again, from the youngest panelist, Lemus: “When the box comes, I’m going to check ‘Hispanic,’ proudly.”

Moving forward, together

A lasting a ha moment of the panel question and answer session came when Kearns sophomore Lemus, started to make a comment about older people, then stopped, recognizing what she self-branded as ageist assumptions, apologized and moved on.

“When it comes to diversity, we need to love it,” said event moderator Lance Paul Keen Brady-Sayer, who, himself, said he, a person supposedly attenuated to concerns of minority populations, realized what he considered his own lack of racial sensitivity in asking a Native American friend about their plans to celebrate the Fourth of July.

“I do not think you can un-learn racism,” said African American University of Utah graduate student Greene, “but you can definitely learn how to be an advocate for your own information.”

Stand against racism – no hate, no fear

The YWCA Pledge against racism is available at standagainstracism.org/.

For more information about standing against racism and being part of Salt Lake’s certified Welcoming County, contact the Salt Lake County Office of Diversity and Inclusion by reaching out to Emma Houston at [email protected] Join CODA, the Council on Diversity Affairs, to make a difference in the community at www.SLCO.Org/Diversity.