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Commentary Article June 30th, 2022
Justice • Legitimacy

Earning legitimacy: a journey of a thousand steps

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In this @CPI_foundation article, Kaletta Lynch from @SLCOEI discusses her experience growing up with racism, and now working towards celebrating #diversity and intentional #equity for all.

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"While I grew up experiencing very different worlds, I learned that it didn’t matter whether you were in the big city or small rural area of town, the threat and trauma of racism were real and inescapable." Kelatta Lynch from @SLCOEI

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.@SLCOEI participated in @CPI_foundation's Earned Legitimacy Cohort, to understand how to build trust and be more inclusive in decision-making and collaborative community efforts.

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In 2021, CPI launched the Earned Legitimacy Learning Cohort, a 10-week program during which participating governments worked to dismantle inequitable power dynamics and enable community-driven change. During the cohort, Salt Lake City's team was committed to rebuilding trust between their local government and the residents, particularly aiming to improve policing and to increase affordable housing. Ultimately, through "embracing values such as equity, open-mindedness, humility, accountability, and curiosity," they were able to develop solutions alongside historically marginalized communities.

A lot of people may have fond memories of middle school. The thing that I remember the most is a white boy spit in my face because of the color of my skin. Prior to that day, I had been called the N word on the way to school and in town so I was not surprised. But, the feeling that I had while I rubbed saliva off of my glasses and face sparked a passion within to ensure that no one else felt as humiliated, degraded, and disrespected as I did. As a kid, I didn’t know how I would make this change but I was certain that it was necessary.

I was raised in the deep south of Georgia. I grew up around many hometown heroes who blazed trails and taught me the true meaning of humility, integrity, perseverance, inclusion, strength, and service. My parents didn’t want me to be a latch key kid, so I had my own room at their house and at my Grandma’s house. At my parents' home on the weekends, I went to large sporting events, visited museums and amusement parks, shopped at crowded stores, and experienced a much quicker pace of life with lots of traffic. At my grandma’s home during the week, I learned how to feed pigs and cows, saw confederate flags flying high when we travelled into town, played kickball and rode bikes with my friends on dirt roads, and had Sunday dinners after church with loved ones. While I grew up experiencing very different worlds, I learned that it didn’t matter whether you were in the big city or small rural area of town, the threat and trauma of racism were real and inescapable.

In the late 90s, I rode the still very much segregated school bus to a high school that my mother and her friend integrated in the 60s. My father served as the first African American Chief of Police in our County. My grandmother had an elementary school education and cleaned homes of white families on the affluent side of town. I recall stories of my grandmother picking cotton in Georgia while holding her baby (my mom) and my grandmother’s neighbors organizing to prevent the KKK from riding through and burning down their neighborhood. As a child, I thought that if I moved out of Georgia I could escape racism. I was in for a very rude awakening.

While I grew up experiencing very different worlds, I learned that it didn’t matter whether you were in the big city or small rural area of town, the threat and trauma of racism were real and inescapable.

As a student at Dillard University, I survived Hurricane Katrina. The inequities that I witnessed in the response to historically underrepresented communities reignited the passion inside to do this work. I transferred to the University of Maryland (College Park) and spent the majority of my time there explaining to students why it was problematic for the media to categorize Black New Orleanians as refugees. Fast forward 17 years, and I am a Southern girl living in a Utah world. Our “welcome” to Utah was a white man screaming across the parking lot to me, my husband, and our baby, “N, go back to your side of town!” At this moment, the feeling from middle school resurfaced. Again, I wondered how I would use my life experiences and professional/academic background to help eliminate barriers for others. The answers became apparently clear to me, as the world watched in horror on May 25, 2020.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts in Salt Lake City

After the murder of George Floyd, there seemed to be a racial equity and social justice awakening across the globe. Much of the racial trauma, pain, and scrutiny that Black people know all too personally and experience in their daily lives was on every television and on the front page of every newspaper. In 2020, organizations and companies responded to this tragedy with a wave of public diversity, equity, and inclusion statements and pledges. Our elected officials wanted to connect with the community in a more authentic, compassionate, and collaborative way.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the Salt City Council convened the Racial Equity in Policing (REP) Commission. This commission, which is still in existence and working to this day, examines Salt Lake City Police Department’s policies, culture, and budget and any City policies that influence SLCPD’s culture or policies. It is composed of individuals who represent a broad and diverse range of communities of color, expertise, and viewpoints in Salt Lake City. From 2020 to 2021, I served as the manager for phase one of the commission’s work. The commission’s phase one report includes recommendations that have been implemented throughout Salt Lake City. 

On May 18, 2021, Mayor Mendenhall appointed me as the inaugural Chief Equity Officer of the Mayor’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. In support of the Mayor’s vision, City Council approved funding for the hiring of a Language Access Coordinator, an ADA Coordinator, an Equity Coordinator for Special Projects (who currently manages the Government Alliance on Race and Equity Ambassadors Program), an Equity Manager (who currently manages the Human Rights & Racial Equity In Policing Commissions), and a Policy Advisor for Refugees and New Americans.

Over the last year, our team collaborated with departments to access their current DEI efforts, identify gaps, and to propose policy recommendations for how to eliminate barriers so that all persons in Salt Lake City have equitable access to resources and services. As part of these efforts, we participated in the 2021 Center for Public Impact Earned Legitimacy Cohort. Throughout all of our work, we understand that our efforts are hampered if we are not actively listening and getting to know those who we serve in order to better understand their needs and background. CPI taught us about the layers of building trust and introduced the tool of asset mapping in order to be more inclusive in decision making and collaborative community efforts.

Throughout all of our work, we understand that our efforts are hampered if we are not actively listening and getting to know those who we serve in order to better understand their needs and background.

In addition to these resources, my team relies partly on the research and work of Dr. Robert Livingston in our approach to starting “The Conversation” throughout Salt Lake City. We strive to move the needle of progress by educating, providing toolkits, facilitating trainings, and making policy recommendations that bring about racial equity, language access, gender equity, pay equity, and accessibility for all. More specifically, we help those around us identify why we all should care about diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a prestigious professor, Kilo Zamora, from the University of Utah taught me, when doing this work “we must always honor the intent but address the impact.” Therefore, we established meeting norms and practice the principles of step up and step back, active listening, accountability and respect, and yielding space for others in order to create and normalize safe and courageous spaces. This is a space where people not only feel physically, mentally, and emotionally safe but also feel empowered to share their beliefs, opinions, ideas, and true identity without judgement from others in the space.

We also help departments identify persons and groups who are missing from the planning phases of their work so that they do not make decisions for communities without consideration of the communities who are most affected perspectives, feedback, and insights. We are changing the language that we use throughout the city to remove outdated and offensive language and to identify and incorporate use of more inclusive terms that are welcoming and meaningful. Furthermore, we have established GARE Ambassadors, Language Access Liaisons, ADA Liaisons programs in each department and are collaborating with city employees to start Employee Resources Groups.

As I read the recent news about the 10 Black persons who were targeted and murdered in Buffalo, I cried in horror and anger. This racist and terrorist attack bought back childhood trauma of being called the N word repeatedly, being spit on for the color of my skin, and trying to understand why a symbol of hate (such as the confederate flag) is still accepted as a norm. As I watch the American and Salt Lake City flags blow alongside one another outside of my office window, I sit in reflection fully understanding why my role and the work that I do, along with so many others around the globe, is necessary. A part of me is determinedly hopeful that because of this work and accomplishments of our ancestors, future generations won’t need a Chief Equity Officer as their norm becomes celebration of diversity, intentional equity for all, and actions that promote inclusion and belonging worldwide. But until then, back to reality and the continued work on the citywide equity plan for Salt Lake City.

Written by:

Kaletta Lynch
Kaletta Lynch Chief Equity Officer, Salt Lake City Mayor's Office
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