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Utahns commemorate the end of slavery, confront the present and look ahead

Published June 17, 2017 12:40 pm
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To understand the current state of black Utah, attendees at the fourth annual State of Black Utah town hall at Weber State University on Friday night looked to the past as a way to highlight opportunities to accomplish their future objectives.

The town hall discussion kicked off this year's Juneteenth Freedom and Heritage Festival, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Last year, the Utah Legislature became the 45th state to pass legislation commemorating Juneteenth Freedom Day as an observed holiday.

Jasmine Pittman, who is wrapping up her senior year at Weber State, said acknowledging that discrimination is essential to accomplishing equality.

"It's important to remember where we came from and how we started as a country," she said. "It's important to remember how we got to where we are now and understand that we still have problems and to understand where those problems stem from. We can't just block out our history. We still have to remember that the reason why some things still are the way they are now is because of how we started."

Looking to the past, the town hall emphasized the importance of reclaiming black history and of people in the community telling their experiences in their own words. The event started with a performance from Baba Jamal Koram, a storyteller accompanied by drummer Baba Kenyattaa, before an in-depth discussion on how to address some of those problems of the present.

The organizers presented the "Utah Black Agenda," which outlined throughout the evening strategic ways to address issues related to health, education, criminal and juvenile justice, economic development and more.

Some of the approximately 50 attendees at the event shared ideas ranging from how to address disparities between whites and blacks in the criminal justice system to strategies on improving graduation rates for people of color. Afterward, many of them signed up to assist with that work in their communities.

State Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, has done some of that work.

Hollins, the first black woman to serve in the Legislature, said she is working on legislation to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline for students of color. Last year, she pushed an initiative through the legislative session to "Ban the Box" that requires individuals to disclose their criminal backgrounds on job applications — an initiative that looks to help individuals with criminal backgrounds re-enter the workforce.

"Everyone should have a place at the table, and everyone's voice should be heard," Hollins said. "I'm glad to see this community coming together to come up with a plan on how to make sure that their vision for this state is heard also, and that we can all move forward together."

Census data from 2015 show that Utah is made up of 21 percent minority populations, with about 31,000 black people. With a population so small, Betty Sawyer, a community activist and the town hall's organizer, said it can be easy for people who don't experience racism to ignore the issues people of color face.

"The reality is that there's been systemic racism ever since we've been here. We've never been treated as equals," Sawyer said. "They can say, you know, 'We passed the Equal Rights Act in 1965, so that's it. Everything should be fine.' But how do you unravel and wipe out 200 years of discriminatory laws and practices?"

One of the important ways to achieve that goal, Sawyer said, is for people of all races to engage in conversations together to address bias and racism.

"It's all of us together," she said. "I think we do have a tendency to not want to say it, not to want to speak [about racism]. We think if we don't talk about it, it will go away or it doesn't exist."

Juneteenth events will continue those conversations with storytelling and drumming workshops, a family history and genealogy session, a youth art and activity pavilion and college and career information Saturday from noon to 9 p.m. at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. Sunday's events will take place at the Ogden Amphitheater from noon to 7 p.m. and will include jazz and gospel music, art, food and a Father's Day tribute.


Twitter: @tstevens95






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