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Utah education leaders denounce racism, but statements aren’t enough, board member says

Former University of Utah and Chicago Bears football player Shawn Newell, vice president of business development at Industrial Supply Company, flashes his bock U at the 13th Utah Economic Summit at the Grand America Hote in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 17, 2019.
Former University of Utah and Chicago Bears football player Shawn Newell, vice president of business development at Industrial Supply Co., flashes a block U at the 13th Utah Economic Summit at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 17, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been nearly seven months since George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, resulting in a murder charge being filed against the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for some eight minutes.

Floyd’s death ignited protests across the globe about racial equality, social justice and discrimination, including multiple demonstrations in Utah.

As many public bodies in Utah have pondered the best path forward, Shawn Newell says addressing issues of racial inequality, discrimination and social justice in the public square requires difficult and honest conversations.

Newell, who is Black, was bused to school as part of California’s school desegregation efforts in the late 1960s. He is a graduate of the University of Utah, where he played football. He was later under contract with the Chicago Bears but didn’t play due to injuries.

After football, Newell returned to Utah where he raised a family and has worked 35 years at Industrial Supply Co. where he is vice president of business development. He serves on both the Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Board of Higher Education

Newell offered to privately talk to members of both Utah education boards to help them form a greater understanding about issues of social justice and discrimination and talk about meaningful steps the two boards could take during the racial reckoning that is taking place nationwide.

He had few takers.

“In the few conversations I’ve had, they’re a little hesitant because they know I’m kind of honest,” Newell said.

“Also, the tough thing is that we don’t have the ability to do this in person. You know, being stuck with Zoom, emails and phone calls takes away that opportunity to really develop relationships. I think that right now, that’s a huge barrier.”

There has been some movement, however.

The Utah Board of Higher Education recently adopted an “equity framework lens.” It’s essentially a reminder to leaders that they need to consider how any future new policies or decisions could impact students or employees who are underrepresented or marginalized on campus.

The board voted unanimously to adopt the framework, which was developed by Utah System of Higher Education officials and diversity officers from Utah’s public colleges and universities.

The State School Board has been working on its own resolution to denounce racism and support education equity since the fall. That’s when an advisory committee urged the board to “intentionally engage in anti-racist practices to ensure that underrepresented, historically marginalized and underserved students feel safe and welcome at school.”

Some on the board argued against accepting the recommendations of the racially and ethnically diverse committee — even though those recommendations were not binding. Finally, the board accepted the recommendations but sent the resolution back to a committee for more work.

At a recent meeting, that committee considered three different resolutions proposed by board members:

Earl’s approach was endorsed by Nicholeen Peck, president of the Worldwide Organization for Women, an organization that advocates for and educates families and women about the importance of faith, family and national sovereignty, according to its website.

Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, spoke in support of Graviet’s resolution, as did John Robison, president of the Davis School District Board of Education.

Robinson said the school district had, within the past year, surveyed minority students whether they feel safe and comfortable in its schools.

“What we found in Davis District is a majority of our minority students do not feel safe and comfortable, particularly our African American students. The results of our survey told us that as a district we have some work to do to correct the problems we were made aware of,” he said.

  • Board member Scott Hansen, meanwhile, advanced a resolution he said was more succinct and was offered in an attempt to “strike a balance” and “avoid politically charged buzz words.”

The committee OK’d Hansen’s version, titled “Resolution Denouncing Racism and Embracing Equity in Utah Schools,” amending it to say the starting point of the board’s work of racial equity “must be a reflection and internal examination, whereby the board will look for ways to engage members in open and courageous conversations on racism and inequity.”

The state board will consider the resolution at an upcoming meeting.

Newell’s term on the State School Board ends this month, as does Graviet’s, which means neither will vote on the resolution when it is considered by the board.

Newell told the committee it did a lot of wordsmithing to arrive at a proposed resolution “so people aren’t feeling put on the spot. But that doesn’t move us forward.”

There are times leaders must stand under bright lights and “be honest with one another” about the nation’s history, systemic racism and inequality, he said.

“If you don’t know where you’ve come from, how are you going to get to where you want to go? It just doesn’t happen,” Newell said.

It is important to make a bold statement, understanding it’s just one step in a journey, he said.

“With statements, basically you’re just putting up a position. What is most important is initiatives and actions,” he said.

During the social unrest, many companies and individuals made statements.

“But what are they doing after they make that statement, is my question to them. Where are you putting yourself that we’re in a different place?” Newell asked.

“Where are you differentiating yourself as an individual to help bring about this change, to bring about awareness, to do the work to shift the narratives that exist? That’s where people get uncomfortable.”