Story and photos by CHRIS SAMUELS
Kyle Reyes, chief diversity officer for Utah Valley University, said he wished that members of the Utah State Legislature — standing on the steps behind him — could be as diverse as the collection of several hundred middle school and junior high students gathered in front of him.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have our legislature reflect the diversity here,” Reyes said. “Our teachers that are in our schools reflect the diversity here in the state, so I think there is always work to be done. I think we can do a lot more, frankly.”
Reyes and other state and education leaders met Feb. 16, 2016, at the Utah State Capitol to speak to about 300 students for Multicultural Youth Leadership Day. In addition to Reyes, other speakers included Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and state legislators. A local spoken word group, Truth Cypher, gave a performance, as did a youth step troupe from the True Vine Baptist Church.
Speaking to the gathered youth, Gov. Herbert supported his state for having a long history of diversity and inclusion.
“Our early settlers came from western Europe whether they were Scandinavians, or English people, or Germans, others from Western Europe,” Herbert said. “That diversity is making us even stronger and more successful, particularly in the world’s economy of today, because we have so many different cultures and speak so many different languages in Utah. … We really speak the world’s languages, and that gives us some opportunity for economic growth as we go forward.”
Claudia Nakano, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, shared Gov. Herbert’s statement, and added that the state continues to be diverse.
“The U.S. Census is predicting by the year 2043, this nation will be a majority-minority nation, and in Ogden and in West Valley, they are already majority-minority cities here in Utah,” Nakano said. “One out of four preschoolers is ethnic and comes from an ethnic background. We’re hoping to inspire leadership, getting involved in your community, civic engagement, and take those seats up here on the hill and pass legislation.”
Youth came from as far as Ogden and Payson to attend the summit. Students listened to the program for about an hour and 20 minutes, which was followed by lunch and tours of the Capitol.
The day at the Capitol is part of a greater initiative by the Office of Multicultural Affairs to involve diverse youth from around the state to become more involved civically. The office also organizes and holds a Multicultural Youth Summit every October, which hosted 2,000 students in October of 2015. The aim of the state-run department is to aid the state in making better outreach efforts to promote civic engagement and cultural diversity in government across the state. The summit is part of these efforts.
The summit, Nakano said, was designed in part by Gov. Herbert’s “66 by 2020” initiative. The project, according to the governor’s website, sets the bar of having 66 percent of Utah’s working-age population with a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020.
“We want to help raise that graduation rate, and now with our changing demographic, we are becoming more diverse, not only in Utah but across the nation,” Nakano said.
Not all sentiments are positive on Utah’s outlook. Nakano conceded that the current makeup of state legislators needs to be more ethnically diverse, which would help support more diversity initiatives and better legislation on equality. Although no statistics are available on the ethnic makeup of the current legislative body, the vast majority are white male.
Kyle Reyes, UVU’s chief diversity officer, echoed these feelings, adding that higher education administrators from around the state are collaborating on diversity reform. But, he said state legislation still needs to be impacted.
“When I talk to people about multiculturalism, I like to say it’s not just another thing we do. It’s how we do business, it’s a lens that we wear,” Reyes said. “And if we can get more people, especially more people in powerful positions to wear those lenses and be a little more sensitive and be more culturally responsible, I think that will go a long way.”
In the coming years, the Office of Multicultural Affairs will plan additional youth leadership summits and events across the state. Nakano said a smaller summit in addition to the large one in October 2015 was held in Ogden, which hosted 300 children. Smaller summits are anticipated in other cities in Utah, such as St. George, Cedar City and Vernal. The 2016 legislative session added an additional $30,000 in funding for the summit.