Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
Editor's note: This story is part of KSL.com's "Black Voices" series where we share Black Utahns' stories about what life is like for them in the Beehive State.
SALT LAKE CITY — James Jackson III feels comfortable meeting celebrities at the Sundance Film Festival and doesn't feel intimidated taking a photo with a Utah Jazz player.
Jackson, a second-generation Utahn, founded the Utah Black Chamber and works as the supplier diversity programs manager for Zions Bancorporation.
So what leaves Jackson feeling starstruck? Walking into a room filled with over a hundred high-level Black executives.
"To me, it was a little intimidating. … We don't have that around here," he told KSL.com. "And I'm hoping that we can eventually change that."
When Jackson founded the chamber in 2009 in an effort to create a community of Black businesses and connect them to resources, he never expected to reach 100 members. Today, the chamber has about 250 active members and has expanded its footprint, with a northern Utah chapter recently launched and plans for a southern Utah chapter in the works.
The organization grew significantly in 2020, which is something Jackson said was in response to a nationwide conversation on racism. In May 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, died after being pinned down by a Minneapolis police officer. Derek Chauvin, the officer accused of killing Floyd, has since been arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
News of Floyd's death dominated headlines and inspired millions across the country to join the Black lives matter movement and engage with the Black community on how to do better.
"We saw a significant amount of support," Jackson said.
By the end of 2021, Jackson predicts membership will hit 500.
"I think this is an exciting time for people to get educated," Jackson said. "We have to get to a place where we listen to understand rather than listen to respond."
Over the summer, Jackson said he saw many people drop defenses in an attempt to keep an open perspective on learning more about Black communities and the issues they face living in Utah and the United States. He hopes the momentum will continue and that Black History Month, annually observed in February, will renew that passion and eagerness to learn what many over the summer had learned.
All individuals can take the time to learn about why Black History Month exists, he suggested. The month's designation began as a way to recognize the pivotal role African Americans played in the country's history. It became a nationally recognized month in the 1970s.
"Because people always wonder, 'Why is there a month for Black people?" Jackson said. "Well, quit complaining — it's the shortest month of the year."
Black Americans aren't the only group with a dedicated month: March is National Women's History Month, May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, September is National Hispanic Heritage Month and November is National American Indian Heritage Month, just to name a few.
"There's a month for all these different backgrounds and celebrations of cultures," he said.
Jackson's point? People shouldn't see the designated months aimed at education and celebration as exclusionary; they should view them as an opportunity to reach out.
"For Black History Month, I just encourage people to get familiar with your Black community. Period. Whether it's business, expand your influence with the people you work with and in your neighborhood," he said. "Just know about the Black community near you."
Attracting diversity is intentional
At least two to three times a month, the chamber gets the same email from a Black individual moving to Utah for work; they're worried they won't fit in with the culture. Oftentimes, Jackson said a lot of them intend to live here temporarily.
As Utah's economy continues to attract more businesses, Jackson said it's important these companies put in the work if they want to retain Black employees.
"It's important for companies that they engage with organizations like the Black chamber and other diverse chambers, and other professional organizations that serve the diverse community, because that's going to help build your retention for your diverse employees," he explained.
Plus, diversity doesn't just help one group — it can lead to the growth of an entire state, he said, noting that "when you have everybody that is aligned with the same thoughts, ideas and ideologies, you're going to stagnate your growth."
Plenty of diverse talent passes up the state altogether because they feel unable to connect in a place with too much uniformity, Jackson said. "Diversity is not going to grow on its own, just simply because we have a hot economy," he explained, while adding that it takes a concerted and intentional effort.
Utah's outdoor scene is one of the most common appeals used when pitching the state to bring people here. But what about someone from Atlanta or Houston? An active outdoorsy life might not be as appealing to someone in more of a city lifestyle.
"You have to know who you're talking to and try to find some common ground of where it is, because we have a lot more to offer than just the outdoors," Jackson said.
Achieving racial equity
As a Black man born and raised in a predominantly white state, Jackson knows firsthand institutionalized racial barriers exist; it's part of the chamber's mission to help break down those walls and build bridges between communities. But that doesn't mean all states lacking diversity are inherently racist, he said.
"It just means we're an ignorant state, or we just don't have the level of awareness of education of having a community of diverse people," he said.
Jackson's experienced cases of "tokenism" or "unconscious bias" that led to interactions where he didn't really feel comfortable. But, he said, for the most part, it was never intentional racism thrown in his face.
"It was just those, just the ignorance where the biases and tokenism existed just because of the lack of awareness and education," he said.
Finding common ground and making an effort to walk in someone else's shoes are a good place for Utahns to start if they want to actively weed out this ignorance, he said.
"We can't always be on the defensive side. We have to bring that fence down to be able to have a civil dialogue so we can actually understand where each other are coming from," he said.
Taking the time to engage in Black History Month is a good place to start and continue these conversations surrounding racial inequity to find common goals of bettering the state.
"Basically, learn about the Black community around you locally; don't focus so much what's going on nationally, just learn about what's going on in your neck of the woods, and that will help you just grow from there," Jackson said.