SALT LAKE CITY — Even after a press conference that lasted more than an hour, Pastor Robert Merrills wasn’t sure how a new effort by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson would enhance the work he and others have been dedicated to as part of the Mayor’s Council on Diversity Affairs.
“The communication has not been there,” said Merrills, who leads Murray Baptist Church. “So I applaud them for (identifying) a direction and wanting to move toward it, but I think one of the missing pieces is, as you’re moving forward, what are you doing to tie that up and how does that come together? That’s not been communicated very clearly.”
Pastor France Davis, who recently retired after decades of leading Calvary Baptist Church, said he and many other community members attended the press conference in person hoping to gain clarity about what the changes mean to day-to-day operations for diverse communities.
Part of the confusion, even after Wilson spent more than an hour introducing a diverse group of employees who will lead subcommittees for the Council on Diversity Affairs, is how these subcommittees and the council will “serve as a bridge” between the community and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which is without a director after Emma Houston was moved to a new job in Human Resources on April 14.
In a letter to the Deseret News, a half dozen community leaders and organizations said they had issues with the way the decision was made, and also with the refusal of the mayor to meet with them to discuss it.
“We have reached out to the Mayor for a meeting to discuss these issues,” the letter said. “Unfortunately, her response is to invite us to a public meeting to unveil her new diversity plan for our community. A plan that removed an active, engaged, collaborative director from her post to a lesser position which engages half of her energies and talents. ... A lack of clarity with the director results in diminished trust with formal and informal community leaders who have been coordinated with the office and its director.”
Their unease wasn’t just with the way Houston was removed from her position as a department head — where she not only trained county employees but offered training to county businesses and community groups — to a newly created role in the county’s human resources department where she will only work with county employees.
“Without these continued interactions, there is a chilling effect on these communities — especially during this time of crisis — not only for Salt Lake County, but for the entire state of Utah,” the letter said. “These actions show a disregard, disrespect, and misunderstanding of how to value diversity, inclusion and equality.”
Salt Lake County employees and community members will work side-by-side in the restructured Mayor’s Council on Diversity Affairs to shape County policy. This work is critical and it’s imperative for the community to be a part of it.— Mayor Jenny Wilson (@SLCoMayor) June 5, 2020
But county leaders said they will eventually replace Houston, and that the position she was moved to is not a lesser post, but in fact, one that will bring diversity to every aspect of community government.
“Emma is a gifted, gifted trainer,” said Kerri Nakamura. Wilson’s chief of staff. “What we started to see is we have not quite hit the mark that every one of our services should be delivered through that (diverse) lens. ... She’ll be responsible for training all of the county’s 7,000 employees because if they’re not receiving the information and not hearing about what we’re doing, these communities can’t access (the programs). This can’t be the responsibility of one or two people. That has to be all 7,000 employees.”
After the press conference, which ended after a contentious exchange with an advocate upset that Wilson didn’t plan to take any questions, Wilson said the specifics will be determined after a series of “listening sessions” with county residents. Those are scheduled for June 18 at noon (via Zoom), June 27 at 10 a.m. at Taylorsville Recreation Center, and July 13 at 6 p.m. (vis Zoom).
When the Deseret News asked about this change a few weeks ago, Nakamura said the changes came after the COVID-19 outbreak exposed issues in the way county government serves diverse communities.
“The infrastructure itself wasn’t working,” said Nakamura. “What we really want to do is strengthen (the Council on Diversity Affairs’) role. We want the leaders of these diverse communities giving the mayor advice.”
The Council on Diversity Affairs, or CODA, is a policy body that advises the county on any number of issues, programs or problems. Nakamura said this will allow those members of the council — and its newly formed subcommittees, all of whom work for the county — a closer working relationship with Wilson.
“We want to make it more integral to what we do every day,” Nakamura said.
Carol Matthews-Shiflett was upset that Wilson didn’t take questions, and she said she “just dismissed that position” held by Houston.
“We need someone who is a director of diversity and inclusion,” she said to Wilson. “I’m not happy that you’re smiling. Your tears don’t mean anything. You throw around the word diversity and inclusion like it’s a frisbee, and I’m tired.”
Wilson apologized and said her smile was meant to acknowledge and respect Mathews-Shiflett and her question, not dismiss her.
“This journey is a journey where I am acknowledging strengths and weaknesses that I have and that my office has, and a commitment to this process,” she said. “And we’re not done as we reorganize both internally and with CODA.”
She said the press conference wasn’t set up for questions, but offered to talk with anyone afterward. Bridget Shears, a member of the council and one of those who signed the letter, along with the Utah Black Roundtable, Weber State Professor Adreinne Andrews, Irene M. Ota, and the Ogden Branch of the NAACP, took her up on that offer. Others said they’re waiting to see what the final structure looks like, but they’re confused as to why Houston wasn’t involved in the changes, and why the office was left without a director at such a critical moment and in the middle of significant restructuring.
For the time being, Ze Min Xiao, director of the Office for New Americans, will take on those responsibilities, along with Nakamura and Karen Hale.