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Days of '47 to get diverse

Celebration to fete a wide variety of Utah pioneers

It's still a car, but "it's not your father's Oldsmobile," as the advertising jingle says.

That's the message the Days of '47 board members want to share with every Utahn about the state's most high-profile yearly celebration. And they're working to make sure Utah's wide variety of religious and ethnic groups know they mean it.

One of the largest community celebrations in the country, the Days of '47 has traditionally been tied so closely to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that other segments of the community have often felt excluded, some community leaders say. The church has long supported the parade in particular, with local wards and stakes assigned each year on a rotating basis to fund and build floats for the event. That isn't expected to change.

But chairman Alan Layton and his board want to recognize the pioneering efforts of all faith and ethnic groups and to celebrate them as part of the annual events.

They're looking for ways to encourage early planning and funding for every constituency and have even adopted a mission statement for the organization that says the celebration "will promote a spirit of love that includes people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, faiths and individual talents."

They're also looking for a wide variety of volunteers.

One new part of the "engine" for the celebration will include a culture fest to be held on Saturday, July 21, at This Is the Place Heritage Park. Dancing, music, food and activities that celebrate Utah's various religious and ethnic communities will be offered on the grounds outside the park, with free public access to the area.

Like the chassis of the old family sedan, the annual Days of '47 celebration will always be built on an undergirding of pioneer heritage, according to Layton, president of Layton Construction.

The body will center on traditional activities such as the July 24 parade, the rodeo, the marathon and the pops concert. But the engine that powers the car is being redesigned — "slowly, carefully and with great care" — to ensure the impetus for the celebration includes the entire community, rather than simply one large segment of it.

The move is a natural evolution as the state becomes increasingly diverse, Layton said. He lauded the efforts of previous Days of '47 leaders and said he recognizes that the new board "doesn't have the institutional memory some of them do. But we also don't have the institutional paradigm" of what the celebration has historically been. "We're still learning a lot about how the community wants us to conduct this celebration."

As community leaders have embraced Utah's diversity in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics, many believe a cultural sensitivity to the variety of beliefs and ethnic groups that make up the Beehive State has been fostered in an unprecedented way. The expanded focus of the Days of '47 can build on that momentum, according to advisory board members who were asked to critique last year's celebration.

"There are a lot of people who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ who didn't even bother to attend some of the events because they felt it was so focused on the LDS Church," said Pamela Atkinson, vice president for mission services with Intermountain Health Care.

Atkinson, a Presbyterian, agreed last year to serve on an advisory board for the Days of '47's executive committee as one of several community leaders designated to give feedback on how well the celebration reaches the community.

She and other advisory board members who represent various faith and ethnic groups met together once before they attended last year's events. After talking with participants — as well as those who didn't participate — they met with Layton and his board again for a frank discussion about how to make the events more inclusive.

"I'm really pleased with this effort they're making," she said. "We were quite critical, and it was very well-received."

To illustrate just how diverse the community has become, Atkinson pointed to one of IHC's neighborhood clinics on Salt Lake's west side. "We're seeing people in that one small clinic from 25 different countries. The diversity we now have in this state and in particular in Salt Lake County is incredible. I've been excited to learn so much about people's cultures from other countries. We want to see that celebrated in that week leading up to the 24th of July," Atkinson said.

Leticia Medina, director of the state office of Hispanic Affairs, agrees.

"We need to get rid of the stereotypes. Everyone thinks the Days of '47 is only an LDS event. It's not, but that's the perception, so we have to work on that." Medina was also asked to serve on the advisory board and believes that step alone is a turning point toward more inclusion.

"It has to start at ground level and work its way up to the top so education (about the desire for community participation) can get out there. A lot of work still remains to be done, but it's beginning."

Medina wants to see the emphasis and information get out early so people can talk about it and build excitement "all year long. It means putting information in all the media, not just the English media, but in the ethnic media that people read, listen to and talk about." You go into any business where Latinos are working, and they have a radio on listening to their stations. You can walk into my office and hear my radio on right now in Spanish. That's where I'm getting the information about what's happening in my community. That's one way of sharing the inclusiveness with other people to get them involved."

Moon Ji, director of the state office of Asian Affairs, said he's pleased with the willingness to look at the pioneering efforts of other cultures. "Of course the celebration is about pioneers, but those pioneers should give a hand to the new pioneers" who now call Utah home. Many are from Asian cultures and "they don't feel comfortable. To do that, all pioneers must understand where they're going, be humble and look at what is needed from bottom to top.

"After they recognize their need, they need to sit side by side and get together to work things out. I know the parade deadline (for entries) is coming very soon too. A lot of ethnic people don't know anything about that, but would like to get involved in a float. It's an expensive venture, and that's why they have to know early, so they have time to prepare. We all have to pay the price. Someone can't just hand it out and do it. Everyone should work together and we should give each other a hand up, not a hand out."

Ji said he's looking for "a strong commitment so people can feel they belong to it. We need to be holding hands and going together" to celebrate Utah's heritage. "That sense of belonging is very important for all of us."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com