Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs works to expand outreach, influence

Students attend the Youth Leadership Day put on by the Division of Multicultural Affairs. The Leadership Day is put on each year with an average of 1,500 students in attendance. (Division of Multicultural Affairs)

The Division of Multicultural Affairs is expanding its influence in Utah by giving a voice to underrepresented communities across the state through outreach programs and student leadership trainings.

The division is focused on building connections, opportunities and access to support diverse populations in Utah’s educational system, workforce and economy, according to its website.

“We are trying to be more proactive — engaging with our communities, getting involved in rural areas and better connecting to all corners of the state,” Claudia Loayza, Planning Policy and Engagement Coordinator at the division, said.

The division has grown exponentially since it first began in 2012 with the office now having five full-time staff members and a variety of student fellows to help plan out the programs they run across the state, Loayza said.

The division, created through an executive order by Governor Gary Herbert in 2012, has three main objectives focused on youth leadership, training resources, professional development and community engagement.

The Youth Leadership Summit and Youth Leadership Day are important programs the division runs each year to help students from seventh grade through 12th grade learn to become leaders in their communities.

“There’s no one way to be a leader,” Loayza said.

According to Loayza, there is an average of nearly 1,500 students at these summits each year.

The division aims to help underrepresented communities through engagement and being involved in local politics.

Grant opportunities, outreach programs and being a voice for underrepresented communities are all important objectives of the division.

“When you design and build and create policies for those that are the most disenfranchised or most under-resourced and you address those gaps then everyone benefits,” Loayza said.

Empowering people to go to a legislative site, look up a bill, reach out to representatives and share stories are all ways that the division believes members of the community can help create a more inclusive environment in Utah according to Loayza.

Loayza believes that the perception of underrepresented communities needs to change to bring about actual change.

“We need to have a perception of what’s strong and not what’s wrong in these communities and once we do it allows us to see the resilience and strength of these communities,” Loayza said.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Commission (MLKJ) is another important aspect of the division highlighting the legacy and importance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of nonviolence and social justice.

The MLKJ commission, which started as an executive order in 1991 by Governor Norm Bangertor, was reissued by Governor Gary Herbert in 2013, before finally being codified in 2019.

“Providing town halls and conducting webinars have allowed us to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion in a lot of our organizations across the state,” said Bridget Shears, commissioner and chair of the MLKJ Commission.

Bridget Shears talks about the importance of education in promoting nonviolence and social justice in Utah. The Martin Luther King Jr. Commission helps to educate the public about these important principles. (Ethan Porter)

The MLKJ Commission coordinates its efforts by partnering with public education to assist schools in promoting appropriate events to honor human rights, according to the Commission’s website.

According to Shears, selecting a new commissioner is a very important task because of its impact on various communities in Utah and the new voice that can contribute to the MLKJ Commission.

Picture of Martin Luther King Jr. license plate. The plate is part of the many stories, one Utah program created by the MLKJ Commission. (Division of Multicultural Affairs)

“We are very intentional about how we select individuals who can represent a wide range of communities in Utah so that we have voices from as many communities as possible.” Shears said.

Shears believes that the most important aspect of the Commission is being a voice for the voiceless and educating youth about the importance of social justice in Utah today.

The MLKJ Commission has had many opportunities to educate the public including its Many Stories, One Utah license plate which promotes diversity, equity and human rights.

According to Shears, events like the Many Stories, One Utah license plate are important opportunities to help grow the MLKJ Commission to reach an even wider audience.

“We can continue to grow by becoming more visible in the community and participating in opportunities to educate the public about the principles of nonviolence and social justice,” Shears said. 

In 2020, the division was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic leading it to pause and consider how to best serve Utah’s underserved communities, according to Nubia Peña, director of the Division.

“During the height of the pandemic, the division created the Multicultural Needs Report to inform state leaders of the growing gaps that multicultural communities were experiencing and to find solutions,” Peña said.

The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted a lot of flaws in how government programs were treating public health, especially when it came to underserved communities, according to Loayza.

“Covid brought a lot of trials, but it showed that the one-size fits all strategy isn’t efficient and it is problematic at best,” Loayza said.

According to Peña, the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed the way the division operates going forward as it focuses on both short and long-term goals that will help address the issues surrounding public health in underserved communities.

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