Salt Lake City organizations take wide approach to solving community challenges

Story and photo by RYAN McDONALD

Nearing the end of a stay in Palermo, Italy, while completing her doctoral dissertation, Sarah Munro was asked by some townspeople what knowledge she had to offer them after researching their way of living.

Members of the community wait to hear from Communidades Unidas Development Director Rose Maizner at The Pink Dress, an annual event held by the organization that took place on Oct. 14, 2011, at Pierpont Place in Salt Lake City.

She realized she had focused so much time and attention on her studies that she had missed a great opportunity to use her knowledge to help others.

Vowing to change that, Munro joined University Neighborhood Partners (UNP), which works as a sort of “bridge” between different groups of people and organizations that are in existence to promote positive changes. UNP focuses its efforts in  the neighborhoods of Rose Park, Glendale, Westpointe, Jordan Meadows, Poplar Grove, State Fairpark and People’s Freeway on the west side of Salt Lake City. One of UNP’s goals is that more students from these neighborhoods will one day attend the University of Utah.

“People don’t know how to talk to each other,” said Munro, UNP’s associate director, about why it exists.

One of the main premises behind UNP is that in order to help solve one problem, other issues need resolution, too. For example, in order to help kids have an opportunity for advanced education, not only do they need to be educated, but their parents also need to be taught how to help their children succeed.

UNP is not the only organization that uses multiple areas of focus to help solve one problem. Created in Midvale about 12 years ago by the city mayor, Comunidades Unidas (Communities United) was originally a neighborhood initiative to help reduce the high infant mortality rate and other prenatal problems in the Latino community. CU quickly realized, however, that more issues needed to be addressed to help curb these problems than a “Band-Aid solution,” said Rose Maizner, CU’s interim director.

“Women put their health very last,” Maizner said in describing how Latinas prioritize responsibilities over themselves.

Because so many things are affected when women get sick, such as their ability to work and the well-being of their children, CU not only helps people with the prevention of health problems, but also with the management of good health. For example, CU holds weekly Zumba classes at Salt Lake Community College.

CU, located at 1341 S. State St. in Salt Lake City, also serves immigrants and refugees from around the world.

Depending on which country immigrants or refugees are from, many are aware of the importance of staying healthy. But many women say, “We know what the risks (causes of illness) are, we just don’t know how to find help.”

Helping to provide access to women’s health care — such as offering mammography clinics and prenatal education — is still a mainstay of what the nonprofit organization does. Maizner said CU also involves itself in other facets of the lives of immigrants and refugees. CU strives to prevent a minor problem, such as an illness, from becoming a colossal list of challenges for a family.

“The ideal story is someone who comes to prenatal clinic, then we can show them other things,” said Maizner, who majored in multicultural psychology and Hispanic studies.

She likened “other things” such as community involvement to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She said one of the biggest challenges the organization faces is helping people move beyond survival mode and “getting to that next level of society,” such as being involved in school PTAs.

While CU is not in place to force immigrants and refugees to “become American,” Maizner said the organization feels it is crucial for the people with whom they work to gain the skills they’ll need to function from day to day, such as learning English.

“We stress the importance of being part of the larger society,” she said.

In addition, Maizner said it is just as important that those already here assimilate to these new members of their communities. In that vein, Maizner said CU is always looking for community volunteers to help with things like giving people rides to medical appointments.